A new book by Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, AGAINST THE GRAIN, makes it clear that genetic engineering is revolutionizing U.S. agriculture almost overnight.
In 1997, 15% of the U.S. soybean crop was grown from genetically engineered seed. By next year, if Monsanto Corporation's timetable unfolds on schedule, 100% of the U.S. soybean crop (60 million acres) will be genetically engineered.[1,pg.5] The same revolution is occurring, at the same pace, in cotton. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other food crops are lagging slightly behind but, compared to traditional rates of change in farming, they are being deployed into the global ecosystem at blinding speed.
The mass media have largely maintained silence about the genetic engineering revolution in agriculture, and government regulators have imposed no labeling requirements, so the public has little or no knowledge that genetically altered foods are already being sold in grocery stores everywhere, and that soon few traditional forms of food may remain on the shelves.
Genetic engineering is the process whereby genes of one species are implanted in another species, to give new traits to the recipient. Traditionally the movement of genes has only been possible between closely-related species. Under the natural order established by the Creator, there was no way dog genes could get into cats. Now, however, genetic engineering allows scientists to play God, removing genes from a trout or a mosquito and implanting them in a tomato, for better or for worse.
Three federal agencies regulate genetically-engineered crops and foods -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The heads of all three agencies are on record with speeches that make them sound remarkably like cheerleaders for genetic engineering, rather than impartial judges of a novel and powerful new technology, and all three agencies have set policies that:
** No public records need be kept of which farms are using genetically-engineered seeds;
** Companies that buy from farmers and sell to food manufacturers and grocery chains do not need to keep genetically-engineered crops separate from traditional crops, so purchasers have no way to avoid purchasing genetically engineered foods;
** No one needs to label any crops, or any food products, with information about their genetically engineered origins, so consumers have no way to exercise informed choice in the grocery store. In the U.S., every food carries a label listing its important ingredients, with the remarkable exception of genetically engineered foods.
These policies have two main effects:
By next year, if Monsanto's plans develop on schedule -- and there is no reason to think they won't -- 100% of the U.S. soybean crop will be genetically engineered. Eighty percent of all the vegetable oils in American foods are derived from soy beans, so most foods that contain vegetable oils will contain genetically engineered components by next year or the year after.[1,pg.52]
It is safe to say that never before in the history of the world has such a rapid and large-scale revolution occurred in a nation's food supply. And not just the U.S. is targeted for change. The genetic engineering companies (all of whom used to be chemical companies) -- Dow, DuPont, Novartis, and preeminently, Monsanto -- are aggressively promoting their genetically engineered seeds in Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, India, China and elsewhere. Huge opposition has developed to Monsanto's technology everywhere it has been introduced outside the United States. Only in the U.S. has the "agbiotech" revolution been greeted with a dazed silence.
Monsanto -- the clear leader in genetically engineered crops -- argues that genetic engineering is necessary (nay, ESSENTIAL) if the world's food supply is to keep up with human population growth. Without genetic engineering, billions will starve, Monsanto says. However, neither Monsanto nor any of the other genetic engineering companies appears to be developing genetically engineered crops that might solve global food shortages. Quite the opposite.
If genetically engineered crops were aimed at feeding the hungry, then Monsanto and the others would be developing seeds with certain predictable characteristics: (a) ability to grow on substandard or marginal soils; (b) plants able to produce more high-quality protein, with increased per-acre yield, without increasing the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers, or water; (c) they would aim to favor small farms over larger farms; (d) the seeds would be cheap and freely available without restrictive licensing; and (e) they would be for crops that feed people, not meat animals.
None of the genetically engineered crops now available, or in development (to the extent that these have been announced) has any of these desirable characteristics. Quite the opposite. The new genetically engineered seeds require high-quality soils, enormous investment in machinery, and increased use of chemicals. There is evidence that their per-acre yields are about 10% lower than traditional varieties (at least in the case of soybeans),[1,pg.84] and they produce crops largely intended as feed for meat animals, not to provide protein for people. The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world's hungry.
The plain fact is that fully two-thirds of the genetically engineered crops now available, or in development, are designed specifically to increase the sale of pesticides produced by the companies that are selling the genetically engineered seeds.[1,pg.55] For example, Monsanto is selling a line of "Roundup Ready" products that has been genetically engineered to withstand heavy doses of Monsanto's all-time top money-making herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate). A Roundup Ready crop of soybeans can withstand a torrent of Roundup that kills any weeds competing with the crop. The farmer gains a $20 per acre cost-saving (compared to older techniques that relied on lesser quantities of more expensive chemicals), but the ecosystem receives much more Roundup than formerly. To make Roundup Ready technology legal, EPA had to accommodate Monsanto by tripling the allowable residues of Roundup that can remain on the crop.[1,pg.75] Monsanto's patent on Roundup runs out in the year 2000, but any farmer who adopts Roundup Ready seeds must agree to buy only Monsanto's brand of Roundup herbicide. Thus Monsanto's patent monopoly on Roundup is effectively extended into the foreseeable future -- a shrewd business maneuver if there ever was one. However, this should not be confused with feeding the world's hungry. It is selling more of Monsanto's chemicals and filling the corporate coffers, which is what it was intended to do. "Feeding the hungry" is a sales gimmick, not a reality.
Monsanto's other major line of genetically engineered crops contains the gene from a natural pesticide called Bt. Bt is a naturally-occurring soil organism that kills many kinds of caterpillars that like to eat the leaves of crops. Bt is the pesticide of choice in low-chemical-use farming, IPM [integrated pest management] and organic farming. Farmers who try to minimize their use of synthetic chemical pesticides rely on an occasional dusting with Bt to prevent a crop from being overrun with leaf-eating caterpillars. To them, Bt is a God-send, a miracle of nature.
Monsanto has taken the Bt gene and engineered it into cotton, corn and potatoes. Every cell of every plant contains the Bt gene and thus produces the Bt toxin. It is like dusting the crop heavily with Bt, day after day after day. The result is entirely predictable, and not in dispute. When insect pests eat any part of these crops, the only insects that will survive are those that are (a) resistant to the Bt toxin, or (b) change their diet to prefer other plants to eat, thus disrupting the local ecosystem and perhaps harming a neighboring farmer's crops.
According to Dow Chemical scientists who are marketing their own line of Bt-containing crops, within 10 years Bt will have lost its usefulness because so many insects will have developed resistance to its toxin.[1,pg.70] Thus Monsanto and Dow are profiting bountifully in the short term, while destroying the usefulness of the one natural pesticide that undergirds the low-pesticide approach of IPM and organic farming. It is another brilliant -- if utterly ruthless and antisocial -- Monsanto business plan.
Ultimately, for sustainability and long-term maximum yield, agricultural ecosystems must become diversified once again. This is the key idea underlying organic farming. Monoculture cropping -- growing acre upon acre of the same crop -- is the antithesis of sustainability because monocultures are fragile and unstable, subject to insect swarms, drought, and blight. Monocultures can only be sustained by intensive, expensive inputs of water, energy, chemicals, and machinery. Slowly over the past two decades, the movement toward IPM and organic farming has begun to take hold in this country -- despite opposition from the federal government, from the chemical companies, from the banks that make farm loans, and from the corporations that sell insurance. Now comes the genetic engineering revolution, which is dragging U.S. agriculture back down the old path toward vast monocultures, heavy reliance on machinery, energy, water, and chemicals, all of which favors the huge farm over the small family operation. It is precisely the wrong direction to be taking agricultural technology in the late 20th century, if the goals are long-term maximum yield, food security, and sustainability.
It is a wrong direction for another reason as well.
When 100% of the soybeans in the U.S. are grown from Roundup Ready seed -- next year -- then 100% of America's soybean farmers will be dependent upon a single supplier for all their seed and the chemicals needed to allow those seeds to thrive. In sum, Monsanto will have achieved a monopoly on a fundamental food crop. It is clear that Monsanto's goal is a similar monopoly on every major food crop here and abroad. If something doesn't change soon, it is safe to predict that a small number of "life science" corporations (as they like to call themselves) -- the majority of them American and the remainder European -- will have a monopoly on the seed needed to raise all of the world's major food crops. Then the hungry, like the well-fed, will have to pay the corporate owners of this new technology for permission to eat.
The corporations that are introducing genetically modified crops into the global ecosystem want you to think of genetic engineering as a well-understood science similar to laparascopic surgery. Indeed, the phrase "genetic engineering" gives the impression that moving genes from one organism to another is as straightforward as designing a rocket or a TV set. This is not the case.
Basically, a plant's genome (all of its genes, taken together) is a black box. Genetic engineering takes a gene from one black box and forces it into a second black box (the recipient plant), hoping that the new gene will "take." Most of the time, the experiment fails. Once in a few thousand tries, the foreign gene embeds itself in the recipient plant's genome and the newly-modified plant gains the desired trait. But that is all the technicians know. They have no idea where in the receiving plant's genome the new gene has found a home. This fundamental ignorance, combined with the speed and scale at which modified organisms are being released into the global ecosystem, raises a host of questions of safety for the future of agriculture, for the environment, and for human health.
** To begin with, genes don't necessarily control a single trait. A gene may control several different traits in a plant. Without careful study, plants with undesirable characteristics may be released into the global ecosystem. And biotechnology is not like a chemical spill that can be mopped up -- once you release a new gene sequence into nature, your grandchildren are going to be living with it because there's no taking it back.
** How a gene affects a plant depends upon the environment. The same gene can have different effects, depending on the environment in which the new plant is growing. What appears predictable and safe after a few years of observation of a small test plot may turn out to have quite different consequences when introduced into millions of acres of croplands in the U.S. and elsewhere, where conditions vary widely.
** Does the new gene destabilize the entire plant genome in some unforeseen way, leading one day to problems in that crop? Only time will tell.
** Genes can travel to nearby, related plants on their own. This is called gene flow. In 1996 gene flow was discovered to be much more common that previously thought.
According to SCIENCE magazine, many ecologists say it is only a matter of time before an engineered gene makes the leap to a weedy species, this creating a new weed or invigorating an old one. "It will probably happen in far less than 1% of the products," warns ecological geneticist Norm Ellstrand of the University of California at Riverside, "but within 10 years we will have a moderate-to-large scale ecological or economic catastrophe, because there will be so many [genetically modified] products being released," Ellstrand predicts. It is worth noting that U.S. farmers already spend $4.3 billion purchasing 628 million pounds of herbicides (active ingredients only) to control weeds.[4,pg.32]
The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) recommended that all genetically modified plants should be considered non-indigenous exotic species, with the power to disrupt ecosystems.[4,pg.29] Non-indigenous, introduced species have provided great benefits to humanity (most of U.S. agriculture relies on introduced species), but we also should learn from kudzu, purple loosestrife, the gypsy moth, the fire ant, and the boll weevil that exotic species can be extremely disruptive and very expensive to control (if indeed they can be controlled at all).
** A public health disaster was narrowly averted in 1996 when a group of researchers tried to improve soybeans by giving them a gene from the Brazil nut. The goal was to improve the nutritional value of soybeans by forcing them to produce more methionine, an essential amino acid. The gene from the Brazil nut was successfully transferred to soybeans. After this had been accomplished, but before the soybeans were sold commercially, independent researchers tested the soybeans to see if it would cause allergic reactions in people. Many people are allergic to nuts, particularly Brazil nuts. In some people, allergic reaction to Brazil nuts is swift and fatal.
A series of laboratory tests on humans confirmed that the genetically modified soybeans did provoke Brazil-nut allergy in humans. They could not feed the genetically modified soybeans to people for fear of killing them, but through scratch tests on skin, they confirmed unequivocally that people allergic to Brazil nuts were allergic to the modified soybeans. In discussing their findings in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE, the researchers pointed out that tests on laboratory animals will not necessarily discover allergic reactions to genetically modified organisms. Only tests on humans will suffice.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires testing for allergic reactions if a gene is being taken from a source that is already known to cause allergic reactions in humans. Many genes are being taken now from bacteria and other life-forms whose allergenicity is entirely unknown, so federal regulations require no allergy testing in these cases. This reduces regulatory costs for the corporations, but leaves the public unprotected.
** Crops are being genetically modified chiefly as a way to sell more pesticides. [See REHW #637.] In some cases, the modified crops change the pesticides themselves, giving them new toxicity. The herbicide bromoxynil falls into this category.[1,pg.41] Bromoxynil is already recognized by U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] as a possible carcinogen and as a teratogen (i.e., it causes birth defects). Calgene (now owned by Monsanto) developed a strain of cotton plants (called BXN Cotton) that can withstand direct spraying with bromoxynil. Unfortunately, the bromoxynil-resistant gene in cotton modifies the bromoxynil, turning it into a chemical byproduct called DBHA, which is at least as toxic as bromoxynil itself.
Although humans do not eat cotton, traditional silage for cattle contains up to 50% cotton slash, gin mill leavings, and cotton debris. Both bromoxynil and DBHA are fat-soluble, so they can accumulate in the fat of animals. Therefore, it is likely that DBHA will make its way into the human food chain through meat. Furthermore, cotton seed oil is widely used as a direct human food and as a cooking additive. In licensing bromoxynil for use on Monsanto's genetically modified BXN Cotton, EPA conducted a risk assessment that assumed bromoxynil and DBHA had no way to enter the human food chain. Lastly, cotton dust -- the cause of brown lung disease -- will now carry the added hazard of bromoxynil and DBHA, another danger that EPA has disregarded. Thus genetic engineering -- which is being promoted as a technology that will reduce the perils of pesticides -- will in some instances increase them.
In rats and in rabbits, bromoxynil causes serious birth defects, including changes in the bones of the spine and skull, and hydrocephaly ("water on the brain"). These birth defects appear in offspring at doses of bromoxynil that are not toxic to the mother. Despite these findings, and despite a law (the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996) that explicity gives EPA the power to reduce exposure standards to protect infants, EPA in 1997 declined to require a special safety factor to protect children from bromoxynil.
Lastly, when EPA added up the cancer-causing potential of bromoxynil, they found it to be 2.7 per million, and they promptly declared this to be "well within" the one-in-a-million regulatory limit.[1,pg.46] Is 2.7 less than one?
By all appearances, EPA is more interested in protecting Monsanto's investment in this new technology than in protecting public health.
** Because genetically-engineered soybeans will be doused with increased quantities of herbicides, such as Roundup (glyphosate), soybeans and soy products will carry increased chemical residues. Infants who must be reared on soy milk, because they cannot tolerate lactose in regular milk, will be at special hazard.
** Crops that are genetically modified to resist herbicides detoxify the herbicides by producing proteins, which will be incorporated into our food with unknown results.[1,pg.143]
** When crops are genetically modified to incorporate the naturally-occurring Bt toxin into their cells (see REHW #636), those Bt toxins will be incorporated into foods made from those crops. What will be the effect of these toxins and gene products on the bacteria and other organisms (the so-called microflora) that live in the human digestive tract? Time will tell.
** The "life sciences" companies have big plans for turning agricultural crops into "factories" for producing pharmaceuticals and specialty chemicals in open fields. They plan to manufacture vaccines, drugs, detergents, enzymes and other chemicals by putting the right genes into the right plants.
The net effect of all this will be to expose soil insects and microorganisms, foraging and burrowing animals, seed-eating birds, and a myriad of other non-target organisms to these chemicals and to the gene products that make them. The Union of Concerned Scientists says, "Herbivores will consume the chemicals as they feed on plants. Soil microbes, insects, and worms will be exposed as they degrade plant debris. Aquatic organisms will confront the drugs and chemicals washed into streams, lakes, and rivers from fields."[4,pg.6]
** Most fundamentally, genetically-engineered crops substitute human wisdom for the wisdom of nature. As genetically-engineered crops are planted on tens of millions of acres, the diversity of our agricultural systems is being further diminished. Do we know enough to select the "right" combination of genes to assure the stable, long-term yield of our agricultural systems? Our recent experiences with PCBs, CFCs, DDT, Agent Orange, and global warming should give us pause. Genetic engineering is by far the most powerful technology humans have ever discovered, and it is being deployed by the same corporations that, historically, have produced one large-scale calamity after another. Is there any good reason to think things will be different this time?
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Last Updated on 5/21/99
By Karen Lutz