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The 1999 GE Food Debates: The Turning Point
by Roberto Verzola, Philippine Greens
The year 1999 marks what might be the turning point in the global fight against genetically-engineered (GE) food, as the issue began to grip media and public attention. Renewed debate flared in the British media in February 1999, when some 20 scientists from 13 countries issued a statement deploring the harsh treatment by Scotland's Rowett Research Institute of world-renowned British researcher and lectin expert Dr. Arpad Pusztai and demanding his reinstatement.
Pusztai had earlier begun a £1.6-million study which indicated that a GE potato diet weakened rats' immune systems and adversely affected the animals' internal organs. When he shared with the media (with his superior's permission) some of his concerns, Pusztai was promptly sacked from his research post. His papers were confiscated, he was prohibited from talking to the media, and his research team was closed down.
Pusztai Case Prods Anti-GE Backlash
The strong statement by the 20 scientists calling for a review of Pusztai's case launched a wave of investigative reports, bringing into the open many of the little-known unresolved questions about GE food safety. Surveys revealed increasing consumer aversion to GE food. Market response was swift. Reacting to clearly-expressed consumer preferences, one food processor and distributor after another announced that they were keeping their products and shelves GE-free.
...one food processor and distributor after another announced that they were keeping their products and shelves GE-free.
In May 1999, the British Medical Association (BMA), which counts some 80% or nearly 115,000 of Britain's medical doctors, issued an official statement expressing concern over the safety of GE foods. The BMA recommended a moratorium on planting commercial GE crops in the UK "until there is scientific consensus (or as close agreement as reasonably achievable) about the potential long-term environmental effects." The BMA also called for
- segregation at source, "to enable identification and traceability" of GE foods;
- labeling GE imports and banning unlabelled ones if the industry refuses to segregate; and
- more robust systems of disease surveillance, to deal with "potential emergence of new diseases associated with GM material which will be obscure and difficult to diagnose."
Also in May, Cornell University assistant professor John Losey and his colleagues announced a study, which showed that Bt corn pollen was deadly to monarch butterflies. Within days, the bad news made the headlines, bringing into the US public's attention the unresolved issues about GE food safety.
The monarch study launched another anti-GE wave. Europe banned the importation of Bt corn, and major US grain traders like Archer Daniels Midland announced they were only buying corn that Europe would accept. Baby food manufacturer Gerber promised not only to keep their products GE-free, but also to shift to organic ingredients. That says a lot, considering that Gerber is owned by Swiss giant and GE seed producer Novartis. Aside from the US and a handful of others, most countries have adopted or are now contemplating mandatory labeling for GE food. And an increasing number of firms are committing GE-free food products.
Problems with GE Food
In the past, the most common examples cited against GE food safety had been: (1) the L-tryphtophan case (where a toxic contaminant that was likely due to the GE bacteria used in producing the food supplement L-tryphtophan killed 37 and hospitalized 1,500); (2) the Brazil nut case (where soya inserted with a Brazil nut gene to raise its protein content also showed increased allergenic effects); and (3) the rBGH case (where the use of a GE growth hormone to stimulate milk production in cows resulted in udder inflammations, infections and other problems affecting milk quality).
The year 1999 presented a rich set of new data justifying health and safety concerns.
The year 1999 presented a rich set of new data justifying health and safety concerns. Some examples:
- Allergenicity: researchers of the York Nutritional Laboratory (UK) reported that health complaints in the UK involving soya—the leading GE food—have increased 50% (from 10 to 15 per 100 patients) in 1998. For the first time in 17 years of testing, soya joined the lab's top 10 allergy-causing foods.
- Toxicity: Dr. Arpad Pusztai found that a diet of potatoes engineered to express the snowdrop lectin weakened rats' immune systems and adversely affected the kidney, thymus, spleen, gut and brain of the animals. If confirmed, Pusztai's conclusions will reinforce concerns that gene insertion itself may create new toxins; it will also implicate the toxin commonly used in other GE crops—the Bt toxin which, Pusztai says, is also a lectin.
- The emergence of new pathogens: Mae Wan-Ho and Angela Ryan of the UK Open University warned last July 1999 that "no transgenic plant containing the CaMV promoter should be released," because the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV) promoter is "very likely to recombine with other DNA in the host genome, including dormant viral DNA, as well as with other viruses in the host cell." The problem covers practically all GE plants released so far. These GE plants, according to Ryan, "have the potential to create new viruses or other invasive genetic elements." Earlier, the British Medical Association had also called for a "ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st Century." Norway has already banned the use of these marker genes; Europe is also considering a ban.
No feeding studies had been done on swine or cattle or human volunteers.
- The risk of cancers: US food campaigner Robert Cohen warns about the hormone Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), identical versions of which occur in cows and humans. In 1994, Cohen says, the US FDA approved the use of a GE hormone (rBGH) in cows to stimulate milk production. Using rBGH raises IGF-1 levels in cows' milk by 80%. IGF-1, Cohen warns, is a key factor in prostate cancer (Science, 1/98), breast cancer (Lancet, 5/98), and lung cancer (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1/99). Most recently, Cohen cites a report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (10/99, p. 1231), which found IGF-1 levels in the blood of milk drinkers 10% higher than in non-drinkers. The implication: GE milk exposes its drinkers to higher cancer risks.
- Higher herbicide exposures: Since herbicide-resistant GE crops lead to greater herbicide use, cancer risk can also come from exposure to higher levels of herbicides like bromoxynil (Rhone-Poulenc's Buctril) and glyphosate (Monsanto's Roundup). Authors Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey (Against the Grain, 1998) warn that bromoxynil bioaccumulates, because it is fat-soluble. Rat and rabbit studies have shown birth defects, other developmental disorders in fetuses, tumors, and carcinomas at levels ranging from 20 to 300 parts per million. Glyphosate exposure, on the other hand, can triple the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, say cancer specialists Dr. Lennart Hardell and Dr. Mikael Eriksson of Sweden's Orebro Hospital, in a study published in the American Cancer Society's journal (Cancer, 3/15/99).
- Higher risks for fetuses and babies: Lappe and Bailey also noted the "remarkably high estrogenic activity of soy isoflavones," elevated levels of which have been found in herbicide-treated GE soya. "If ingested by nursing infants, these isoflavones can produce circulating levels equivalent to 13,000 to 22,000 times the normal plasma estradiol concentrations found in babies, with unknown and potentially dangerous secondary effects," they warned. Early exposure to estrogens, they wrote, is associated with sex organ dysfunctions and higher risks of vaginal adenocarcinoma and other tumors. The concern of pediatric neurologist Dr. Martha Herbert of the Council for Responsible Genetics is "the immature gut and immature body of infants." If introduced too early, even proteins that are normally part of our diet can lead to auto-immune and allergic reactions later on, she said. "If a substance harms adults, it will harm babies, the sick and the elderly more severely, and after smaller exposures," Dr. Herbert warned in her June 1999 statement.
- Inadequate safety studies: When Pusztai began his GE potato research in 1996, only one feeding test had been published—done by Monsanto (no harmful effects observed). A second feeding study on broiler chickens by a Novartis researcher was published 1998 (no harmful effects observed). Pusztai's rat study published October 1999—the only independent study so far—observed some harmful effects. No feeding studies had been done on swine or cattle (major consumers of GE corn and -soya) or human volunteers. No study on the long-term effects of GE food had been done either. And if research on these novel toxins is just beginning, studies of their effects in combination with other toxins are nearly non-existent.
If safety studies are lacking and scientific consensus is absent, how did GE foods get approved so quickly? Industry used a tricky argument, which goes this way: Genetic engineering is basically the same as conventional breeding. Thus, GE foods are "substantially equivalent" to their conventional counterparts, and no special tests should be required. By testing to show "substantial equivalence," biotech firms convinced a sympathetic US FDA to approve commercialization, and avoided actual feeding tests.
Monsanto announced in October 1999 that it was dropping its Terminator seed program, confirming the effectiveness of the global campaign against the technology...
In September 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) convened an "expert" consultation on GE food safety in Rome, which adopted the same industry line that: (1) safety issues in GE foods were "basically of the same nature" as in foods from conventional breeding; (2) the substantial equivalence concept can be used to show GE food safety; and (3) once substantial equivalence is shown, "no further safety consideration is needed."
While the meeting's report included a disclaimer that the participants were invited "in their individual capacities and not as representative of any organization, affiliation or government," biotech firms keep referring to this 1996 report to falsely claim that the "WHO/FAO have declared that Bt corn [or some other GE product] is as safe as its conventional equivalent for animal and human consumption." Yet the WHO and the FAO themselves have no such official position.
Today, scientists themselves question substantial equivalence as "a commercial and political judgment masquerading as if it were scientific...primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests." (Letter to Nature by Erik Millstone, Eric Brunner & Sue Mayer, 10/7/99). The Codex Alimentarius, to which WHO and FAO defer on food safety issues, has not adopted the concept for its food safety assessments.
Turning Points in the GE Industry, Too?
A final indication that marks 1999 as the turning point was supplied not by activists or biotech critics but by the industry itself:
- "Ag Biotech: Thanks, But No Thanks?" —That was the title of a July 1999 report of investment analysts Frank Mitsch and Jennifer Mitchell of the Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, the largest investment firm in the world. The two said they were "willing to believe that GMO crops are safe," but they warned that the "no thanks" attitude "appears to be in the lead in Europe and could easily become the thought process in the United States as well." Earlier, three analysts from the same company had sent investors a report entitled "GMOs Are Dead," advising them to sell their Pioneer Hi-Bred stock.
- Terminator seeds: Monsanto announced in October 1999 that it was dropping its Terminator seed program, confirming the effectiveness of the global campaign against the technology of developing sterile GE seeds.
The monster is hurt; the challenge to GE food critics in the year 2000 and after is to find the jugular and go for it.
Roberto Verzola is the secretary-general of the Philippine Greens, a group of political activists building a Philippine mass movement based on the principles of ecology, social justice and self-determination.