Biotechnology – A Genetic Pandora’s Box


The biotech industry has experienced explosive growth, dwarfing that of the high tech industry. It’s driven by two factors – the curiosity of its scientists and the payoff. The profits to be made are enormous, and it’s these profits that are blinding its proponents and driving the debate.

It all started back in 1995 with the modification of the humble tomato. But what a Pandora’s Box it opened. Today we see many varieties of genetically altered produce which, though it looks the same on the outside, is very unique in its genetic make-up. This practice of creating designer foods through gene manipulation is seen as the exiting future in agricultural farming. Geneticists tell us breathlessly that this new technology will revolutionize our lives and lead to electrifying advances in the food industry. Some of the supposed benefits of this gene-manipulation are:

o Foods more tolerant to chemicals & better resistance to pests & diseases

o More nutritional content and improved food processing traits

o Resistance to unfavorable soils and weather circumstances

o Improved ripening, texture and flavor in foods

But Is It Safe?

Although the technology is impressive, the question of food safety remains skeptical and claims illusory. Genetic engineering is only in its infancy and scientists have no idea what they’re messing with. By inserting genes to alter design and content, they intervene in DNA which is a self-organizing, self-replicating macromolecule, with the ability to perform error correction. Introduction of an alien gene introduces instability. The stress will cause the molecule to try and expel, or mutate the alien gene, with the result being a new structure, and the possibility of gross malfunction. This instability or undesired characteristic may not become apparent for several generations.

At this point in time, Agriculture Canada and the USDA have not identified long term health risks. All testing done to date, despite reassurances to the contrary by the biotech industry and regulatory authorities, are construed to safeguard the industry not guarantee public safety. Standard toxicology tests are conducted by the industry that benefits, no testing is done by regulatory authorities (they rely on industry data), no independent scientific tests, no long term studies, no sixth, seventh, eighth and later generation studies, and no monitoring of releases to the environment. In other words, testing is grossly one-sided. The only meaningful trials taking place are those that use the human population as involuntary guinea-pigs and the environment as an outside laboratory.

The biotech industry specializes in half-truths, downright deceptions, and extravagant claims. It comes as no surprise to learn that companies big in the manufacture and distributions of biocides (e.g. Monsanto) are also major biotech players. Nor should it come as a surprise that intense lobbying by the same companies has led to a massive increase in the permitted herbicide residues on crops. GM crops can tolerate increased herbicide applications, thus leading to a substantial increase in usage.

So we can easily see that biotechnology, rather than being used to solve agricultural problems, is more profit driven than need driven. It intensifies the farmers’ dependence upon industrial inputs to legally inhibit the right of farmers to reproduce, share and store seeds. By controlling the germplasm from seed to sale and by forcing farmers to pay inflated prices for seed-chemical packages, companies are determined to extract the most profit from their investment.

Opinion polls show the world public to be overwhelmingly against genetically modified foods. In France, Britain, Denmark, USA and countries of Europe, between 68-90% of all surveyed were dogmatically against the use of GM products. The giant chemical companies are well aware of this dilemma.

(There is substantial opposition from the public, from the media, and not least, from retailers) – Leaked internal Monsanto report.

Yet we’ll likely continue to dine on DNA altered cuisine without ever knowing it. Peddlers of genetically modified foods continue to slip their adulterated products onto the world market in the hope that no one will notice. Producers deliberately mix GM and non-GM products in their foods, which amounts to force-feeding an unsuspecting public. How many people in Canada know they’re eating an estimated diet of 60% genetically processed foods? How many know that the US, Canada and Argentina account for more than 90% of the world’s GM food crops? Absence of food labeling helps tremendously in this growing market (as it does with irradiated food).

[Labeling is the key issue … If you put a label on genetically engineered food; you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it. – head of Asgrow, Monsanto seed subsidiary].

More genetic danger

What about ecological balance? Modified crop genes could cross-pollinate into the countryside, destroying wild habitats and creating a genetically polluted environment. Once released, genetic material can never be retrieved again. These organisms are a new life form that can mutate and breed for generations with other living things. It is a non-indigenous species that has absolutely no natural habitat outside the laboratory. Their introductions will most certainly set off elements of the environment that have a domino effect of cascading changes throughout the entire eco-system.

“If something does go badly wrong we will be faced with the problem of clearing up a kind of pollution which is self-perpetuating. I am not convinced that anyone has the first idea of how this could be done, or indeed who would have to pay.” – Prince Charles, Seeds of Disaster, The Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1998

Here are a few examples of agricultural genetic failures illustrating some of the problems that have been encountered:

o The Flavr Savr tomato was a commercial disaster

o Bt-cotton suffered extensive damage from Bt-resistance pests

o Roundup Cotton shed its cotton balls when sprayed with Roundup

o A soybean with a Brazil nut gene contains a protein fatal to those with nut allergy

o Genetically modified potatoes damaged the immune system in rats

o Transgenic canola can harm bees by destroying their ability to recognize flower perfumes

These are but a few samples taken from known examples. There may be many more that we don’t know about because latent genetic abnormalities have not yet surfaced. It takes only one rogue gene to cause a disaster. Biotechnology offers no benefits to the public or to the environment, only to the biotech companies which hope to make a killing. It may be a bigger killing than they anticipated. Using genetically modified crops is the same as conducting a gigantic experiment on the world’s ecosystem. But with this experimentation, the ultimate price could be life itself.

“My worry is that other advances in science may result in other means of mass destruction, maybe more readily available even than nuclear weapons. Genetic engineering is quite a possible area, because of these dreadful developments that are taking place there.” – Joseph Rotblat, Nobel Prize Laureate.

Sources:

1) Allen, Scott – Tinkering with DNA on Your Dinner Plate – New York Times Syndicate, 1999

2) Alison Abbot, German Physicians Warn of Genetics Risks, Nature, Vol 384 No 9, 1997

3) Andy Coghlan, The Devil We Don’t Know – Virus Resistance Is What Keeps Genetic Engineers Awake At Night, New Scientist, 12 September 1996

4) Anon, Gene Food Row, News in Brief, the Sunday Times, 16 August 1998

5) Anon, Battle Lines Drawn Over Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods, Campaigns & News, the Ecologist, July/August 1998

6) Ambassador College Agricultural Department – Genetic Engineering, Complex Path To Failure – Your Living Environment, May 1970/73,Vol.1,No.5.

7) Asda, Labeling of Genetically Modified Ingredients, Asda, 28 January 1998

8) BBC, News Item On Genetically Modified Food, The World at One, Radio 4, BBC, 10 August 1998

9) BBC, Report on Virulent and Cross-Species Viruses, Frontiers, Radio 4, BBC, 24 February 1999

10) BBC, Report on GM Crops, One Planet, BBC World Service, BBC, 16 December 1998 11) Clive Cookson, Field of Genes, Financial Times, 11 August 1998

12) Cummins, E.Joseph – More On Tinkered Genes – Alive, Canadian Journal of Health & Nutrition,Issue 3,p.135,1993.

13) FDA, Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition-Emerging Technologies – Biotechnology, 1995

14) FDA/CFSAN, Fed.Register – Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties – Vol.57, No.104, p.22984-22989, May 29, 1992.

15) Food Labeling; Foods Derived from New Varieties, Federal Register, April 28, 1993, Vol. 58 pages 25837-25841

Hsu, Karen – The Future Of Food Is Now – New York Times Syndicate, 1999.

16) Kendall, Patricia-Food Biotech.: Boon or Threat-Journal of Nutr. Education, 1997 – Society for Nutrit.Education.

17) McCullum,Christine – The New Biotechnology Era: Issues for Education and Policy – Journal of Nutrition Education and Policy, May/June 1997-Society for Nutritional Education.

18) P. Hatchwell, Opening Pandora’s Box – The Risks of Releasing Genetically Engineered Organisms, the Ecologist, July/August 1989

19) Reuters – Fooling With Mother Nature – Copyright 1998 ABC News

20) Reuters – Suit Warns of Food Risks – Copyright 1998 ABC News.

21) Staunton, Dennis & Others – GM Food Threatens The Planet – Guardian Newspapers Ltd., 1999.

22) Steve Gorelick, Hiding Damaging Information From The Public, The Ecologist, Sept./Oct. 1998

23) Wales, Prince Of – Genetically Modified Food: Is It An Innovation We Can Do Without? – Online Forum, Copyright St. James Place and the Press Association Ltd. 1999


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