GM Food: A Guide for the Confused
Our thanks to UK campaigner and lecturer Luke Anderson, geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou, and Prof Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, for helping us through the maze.
Q: What are genes?
A: Genes are the inherited blueprints for the thousands of proteins that form the building blocks of all life, from bacteria to humans. Proteins make enzymes, which carry out all the bodily processes, like digestion of food, that keep us alive.
Q: What is genetic engineering?
A: Genetic engineering involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. For example, genes from an arctic flounder which has "antifreeze" properties may be spliced into a tomato to prevent frost damage.
Q: Is genetic engineering precise?
A: No. It is impossible to guide the insertion of the new gene. This can lead to unpredictable effects. Also, genes do not work in isolation but in highly complex relationships which are not understood. Any change to the DNA at any point will affect it throughout its length in ways scientists cannot predict. The claim by some that they can is both arrogant and untrue.
Q: Isn't GM just an extension of traditional breeding practices?
A: No - GM bears no resemblance to traditional breeding techniques. The government's own Genetic Modification (Contained Use) Regulations admit this when it defines GM as "the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both".
Traditional breeding techniques operate within established natural boundaries which allow reproduction to take place only between closely related forms. Thus tomatoes can cross-pollinate with other tomatoes but not soya beans; cows can mate only with cows and not sheep. These genes in their natural groupings have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution. Genetic engineering crosses genes between unrelated species which would never cross-breed in nature.
Q: Could this be dangerous?
A: Potentially, yes. In one case, soya bean engineered with a gene from a brazil nut gave rise to allergic reactions in people sensitive to the nuts. Most genes being introduced into GM plants have never been part of the food supply so we can't know if they are likely to be allergenic.
More seriously, in 1989 there was an outbreak of a new disease in the US, contracted by over 5,000 people and traced back to a batch of L-tryptophan food supplement produced with GM bacteria. Even though it contained less than 0.1 per cent of a highly toxic compound, 37 people died and 1,500 were left with permanent disabilities. More may have died, but the American Centre for Disease Control stopped counting in 1991.
The US government declared that it was not GM that was at fault but a failure in the purification process. However, the company concerned, Showa Denko, admitted that the low-level purification process had been used without ill effect in non-GM batches. Scientists at Showa Denko blame the GM process for producing traces of a potent new toxin. This new toxin had never been found in non-GM versions of the product.
Q: Former UK government Cabinet Enforcer Jack Cunningham said, "Those GM foods on the market are as safe as the equivalent [non-GM] foods." Is he right?
A: Dr Cunningham is talking about the concept of "substantial equivalence". Substantial equivalence is a legal concept invented by the biotech industry. The industry claims that a GM food or food supplement is "substantially equivalent" to, or the same as, the non-GM version and therefore does not require labels or extensive testing.
Regulators have blindly accepted the substantial equivalence doctrine without backing up their belief with independent scientific research.
Showa Denko was not required to test the GM version of L-tryptophan because of the assumption that it would be the same as the non-GM version.
The doctrine of substantial equivalence means that there is nothing in the regulations to prevent another tragedy like the L-tryptophan case from happening again with new GM foods.
Naturally, when it comes to patenting, the rules change. The "substantially equivalent" GM food magically becomes completely different from its non-GM equivalent. It transforms into a unique product which remains the sole property of the patent holder, and woe betide anyone who infringes the patent.
Q: Are GE foods more dangerous to allergy-prone people?
A: The problem with GM foods is their unpredictability. A person may prove unexpectedly allergic to a food he has previously eaten safely. For this reason, people who are hyperallergenic or environmentally sensitive may want to avoid GM foods.
Q: UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "There is no GM food that can be sold in this country without going through a very long regulatory process." Does that mean there's nothing to worry about?
A: Health-risk assessment of GM foods compares only a few known components (e.g., certain nutrients, known toxins and allergens) between GM and non-GM equivalent varieties. If things match up then all is assumed to be well. Short-term animal feeding trials are conducted in some cases. All the research is done by the biotech companies themselves. Then government approval committees judge whether they believe that the evidence of safety is convincing.
No evidence from human trials for either toxicity or allergy testing is required. No independent checks of the company's claims are required. The fact that the L-tryptophan tragedy would repeat itself by these criteria highlights the inadequacy of the system.
Geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou says, "At the very least, long-term animal feeding trials followed by tests with human volunteers of the type required for GM drugs should be mandatory."
Prof Joe Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario, believes there is a cynical agenda behind the lack of proper testing: "The failure to test may provide some protection in the courts against lawsuits by those maimed or crippled by the foods. Most ill effects from food and allergies are not easily quantified until after the disaster. At best, there may be a small but marked increase in autoimmune disease and allergy associated with the foods. At worst, major outbreaks of illness could be observed and will be difficult to trace to the unlabelled foods."
Q: What will the impact of GM crops be on the environment?
A: Last year, 71 percent of all GM crops grown were genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant. A field can now be sprayed with chemicals and everything will die except for the resistant crop. The sales of one of the herbicides being used are predicted to rise by $200 million as a result.
Graham Wynne, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says: "The ability to clear fields of all weeds using powerful herbicides which can be sprayed onto GM herbicide-resistant crops will result in farmlands devoid of wildlife and will spell disaster for millions of already declining birds and plants."
There are also GM virus-resistant crops. Prof Joe Cummins says: "Probably the greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops - genetic recombination will create virulent new viruses from such constructions. The widely used cauliflower mosaic virus (present in the GM soy and maize currently on supermarket shelves in the UK) is a potentially dangerous gene. It is very similar to the Hepatitis B virus and related to HIV. Modified viruses could cause famine by destroying crops or cause human and animal diseases of tremendous power."
Q: What is genetic pollution?
A: Genes engineered into plants and animals can be transferred to other species. For example, genes from GM oilseed rape, salmon or micro-organisms may move into the gene pools of wild relatives. The introduction of GM organisms into complex ecosystems may bring knock-on effects that we are unable to control.
Q: Which foods are not GM?
A: Presently certified organic foods are the best bet for the anti-GM consumer. However, even with the best intentions, companies attempting to exclude GM ingredients from their products have found contamination from GM crops. De Rit recently had to recall a batch of organic tortilla chips after tests showed that they contained GM maize. The company believes that cross-pollination of crops was to blame. Iceland, the only supermarket chain to try to ban GM ingredients from its own-brand products, recently wrote to its suppliers acknowledging that some GM contamination is unavoidable, because of cross-pollination of crops. The Linda McCartney range of vegetarian meals has also been discovered to be contaminated with GM soya.
Meanwhile, organic farming is under threat from the biotech companies. In the U.S., lawyers from the biotech companies are trying to force the government to require that GM crops can be declared organic. Some U.S. states have succumbed to Monsanto's pressure and banned GM-free labels on food. Monsanto has successfully sued dairy farmers who labelled dairy products as free or Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.
Due to so-called free trade agreements established by the World Trade Organisation, it may become illegal for individual countries to maintain higher organic standards than the U.S. So what happens in the U.S. has a direct knock-on effect on Europe.
Q: Why are genes being patented?
A: Patents give a huge incentive to the biotechnology industry to create new GM organisms. Since most patents last for 17-20 years, the companies are keen to recoup any investment quickly, often at the expense of safety and ethics. There are currently patents approved or pending for over 190 GM animals, including fish, cows, mice and pigs. There are also patents on varieties of seeds and plants, as well as unusual genes and cell lines from indigenous peoples. Scouts are sent around the world to discover genes that may have commercial applications. Over half the world's plant and animal species live in the rainforests of the south and the industry has been quick to draw upon these resources.
The Neem tree, for instance, has been used for thousands of years in India for its antiseptic and insecticidal properties. Following in the well-trodden footsteps of Christopher Columbus, western corporations have filed a number of patents on these attributes.
Q: Are GM crops grown in the UK?
A: There are several hundred "deliberate release sites" in the UK where GM crops are being grown experimentally. In addition, this spring, a number of large-scale GM crop trials will be planted in order to assess their effect on wildlife. The first commercial crops could be planted within a year.
If commercial planting goes ahead, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for organic farming to stay free from contamination due to cross-pollination from GM crops.
Q: Are we eating GM food?
A: GM soya is in about 60 percent of all processed food as vegetable oil, soya flour, lecithin and soya protein. GM maize is in about 50 percent of processed foods as corn, corn starch, cornflour and corn syrup. GM tomato puree is sold in some supermarkets and GM enzymes are used throughout the food processing industry. Government regulations on labelling exclude 95-98 percent of the products containing GM ingredients because they ignore derivatives.
Q: Who is regulating the industry?
A: The lack of political will to scrutinise the industry is clear in this statement from Douglas Hogg: "Some estimates have predicted a £9 billion market by the year 2000. We cannot jeopardise this by over-regulating initiative and enterprise."
US trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, told EU leaders to expect punitive action through the World Trade Organisation if they allow domestic concerns over biotechnology to interfere with US trade.
Most of the people sitting on supposedly independent government advisory bodies have direct links to biotech companies. Should people whose careers are tied to the development of the technology be trusted to carry out impartial risk assessments?
When she was asked whether she felt that people should be given the choice of whether they eat GM food or not, Janet Bainbridge, chair of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, replied that we should not because "most people don't even know what a gene is." She added: "Sometimes my young son wants to cross the road when it's dangerous. Sometimes you just have to tell people what's best for them."
The European Commission has set up the "European Federation of Biotechnology Task Group on Public Perceptions on Biotechnology" to promote the "public understanding of biotechnology".
EuropaBio, a consortium of all the biotechnology companies with interests in Europe, was taken by surprise at the resistance in Europe and sought the advice of Burson Marsteller, past masters in crisis management. (Previous clients included Exxon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Union Carbide after the explosion of their chemical plant in Bhopal.) EuropaBio was advised that "Public issues of environmental and human health risk are communications killing fields for bioindustries in Europe - all the research evidence confirms that the perception of the profit motive fatally undermines industry's credibility on these questions . . ." Marsteller told them to refrain from participating in any public debate and leave it to "those charged with public trust, politicians and regulators, to assure the public that biotech products are safe."
Once released, genetically engineered organisms become part of our ecosystem. Unlike some other forms of pollution which can be contained or which may decrease over time, any mistakes we make now will be passed on to all future generations of life. With governments capitulating to commercial interests, it is up to citizens to respond.