GE Foods and Crops Fact Sheet
Fact Sheet on Genetically Engineered Foods & Crops
by Brian Tokar
What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology involves the simulation in a laboratory or industrial setting
of basic life processes at the cellular and molecular level.1 It is also a
growing industry, through which a small number of agrochemical and
pharmaceutical companies are seeking to reshape agriculture, medicine,
animal husbandry, and perhaps the future of life on earth. Biotechnology
encompasses such emerging technologies as genetic engineering, cloning of
animals, enzyme engineering and test-tube breeding of animals and humans.2
Effects on the environment
Over 3000 varieties of genetically engineered plants, animals and bacteria
have been developed and field tested in the U.S.3 Genetically engineered
plants resist high doses of herbicides, manufacture insecticidal toxins,
resist viruses, ripen more slowly or more uniformly, and display altered
These plants can become invasive weeds, or pass on to native plants
combinations of genetic traits not previously found in nature.4 Virus
genes added to plant cells can create new strains of plant viruses.5
Pesticide-secreting crops, such as Monsanto's "New Leaf" potatoes are
likely to impair beneficial insects as well as common crop "pests."6 The
most common type of genetically engineered crops are those designed to
resist toxic herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate) and Rhone
Poulenc's Buctril (bromoxynil). Biotech companies claim to have grown some
30 million acres of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. in 1997, with
unknown environmental consequences.7 Researchers in Germany have shown
that genetically altered bacteria and viruses can persist in water, soil
and even clothing.8
Fish have also become frequent subjects of genetic engineering research,
with efforts in the U.S., China and elsewhere to make commercially
important fish species grow larger and resist environmental changes.9
Human growth hormone genes have been added to goldfish, trout genes to
carp, and cold-resistance genes from flounder have been added to Atlantic
Salmon on an experimental basis. Ecologists are already concerned about
"genetic drift" from farm-raised fish populations into the wild;
biotechnology only heightens this concern. In a further assault on
wildlife, European officials have been loading bait for wild foxes with a
genetically engineered rabies protein that stimulates their immunity, but
is also closely related to smallpox and a number of other animal poxes.10
The environmental consequences of increasingly frequent releases of
genetically engineered bacteria, mites and other organisms have barely
begun to be studied.11
Effects on health
There is serious cause for alarm about the effects of biotech products on
both humans and animals:
* Monsanto's "Posilac" brand of bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is associated
with high incidence of udder infections, internal bleeding, stress-related
wieght loss and severe reproductive disorders in cows.12 Cows injected
with rBGH secrete high levels of IGF-1, a hormone that is tied to increased
growth of cancer cells.13 Pigs altered to produce human growth hormone for
leaner meat have underdeveloped muscles and often cannot even stand up.
* Plants containing genes from other species are likely to transmit
allergens or toxic alkaloids, and can have altered nutritional
compositions.14 Herbicide-tolerant crops will likely lead to increased use
of toxic herbicides in agriculture, contrary to industry claims.
* Nearly all genetically engineered cells contain antibiotic resistance
genes, incorporated as a "genetic marker" to make it easier to pick out
these cells in the laboratory.15 These antibiotic resistance genes can be
passed on to numerous strains of bacteria, including disease-causing
* The cloning of sheep and other animals is being advanced by companies in
Europe and the U.S. that seek to turn animals into "bioreactors" for the
production of drugs and other useful proteins.16
Biotechnology in forestry
Biotechnology research in trees generally lags behind other areas, but
multinational corporations and university and government laboratories are
seeking to develop genetically altered nursery stock that grows faster,
resists insects, viruses, frost or drought, and produces wood that is
easier to process into lumber or pulp. As with agricultural products,
research on the possible environmental consequences of genetically
engineered tree plantations lags far behind the development of the
The Canadian Forest Service (CFS), which is actively field testing
genetically altered varieties of poplar, spruce and larch (including the
introduction of various corn and wheat genes) acknowledges that such
varieties should be made sterile to minimize the effect on native forests,
but has not committed to this in practice. The CFS is also actively
pursuing biotechnology research on several insect viruses, and on
herbicides derived from fungi.17
Trees raised for the timber industry's "reforestation" projects are
increasingly produced from laboratory cell cultures rather than from seeds.
This results in large plantations of trees that are genetically uniform,
and thus are more susceptible to various genetic manipulations. However,
they are also more susceptible to widespread outbreaks of disease.
Researchers at Oregon State University have demonstrated that genetically
engineered bacteria developed to digest crop wastes can severely alter the
properties of soils. They encourage the spread of root-feeding nematodes
and suppress populations of beneficial soil fungi, which impart disease
resistance and aid metabolism in many native species, including old-growth
The Department of the Interior reached a secret deal with a San Diego-based
biotech firm called Diversa, to allow them to study and patent
heat-resistant bacteria from deep within the geysers of Yellowstone
National Park. A recent lawsuit by two public interest groups seeks the
withdrawal of this "bioprospecting" contract, as it violates the integrity
of the National Parks as a public trust.19
For more information, contact:
Native Forest Network, P.O. Box 57, Burlington, VT 05402, 802-863-0571,
ISE Biotechnology Project, P.O. Box 89, Plainfield, VT 05667, email@example.com
Food & Water, RR1, Box 68D, Walden, VT 05873, 1-800-EAT-SAFE
Edmonds Institute, 20319-92nd Avenue West, Edmonds, WA 98020, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pure Food Campaign, 860 Hwy. 61E, Little Marais, MN 55614, email@example.com
1 Brian Tokar, "Engineering the Future of Life," Z Magazine, July 1989;
Edward Wyatt, "Corporate America is Courting Agricultural Biotech," New
York Times, March 3, 1996; Edward Yoxen, The Gene Business, London: Free
Association Books, 1986; Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, Harper San
2 Zoe Erwin, MA Thesis, Goddard College/Institute for Social Ecology, 1996
3 The Gene Exchange, Washington, D.C.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 1996
4 Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, Perils Amidst the Promise: Ecological
Risks of Transgenic Crops in a Global Market, Washington, D.C.: Union of
Concerned Scientists, 1993; P.J. Regal, "Scientific principles for
ecologically based risk assessment of transgenic organisms," Molecular
Ecology, Vol. 3, 1994.
5 James Kling, "Could Transgenic Supercrops One Day Breed Superweeds?"
Science Vol. 274, October 1996.
6 Brian Tokar, "Biotechnology vs. Biodiversity," Wild Earth, Spring 1996;
Ricarda A. Steinbrecher, "From Green to Gene Revolution: The Environmental
Risks of Genetically Engineered Crops," The Ecologist, Vol. 26, No. 6, 1996.
7 "Monsanto sets swift pace for biotech," United Press International, Feb.
8 Manuela J. Jager and Beatrix Tappeser, "Risk Assessment and Scientific
Knowledge: Current data relating to the survival of GMOs and the
persistence of their nucleic acids," Freiburg, Germany: Institute of
Applied Ecology, 1995.
9 "New Prospects for Gene Altered Fish Raise Hope and Alarm," New York
Times, Nov. 27, 1990.
10 Ruth McNally, "Genetic Madness: The European Rabies Eradication
Programme, The Ecologist, Vol. 24, No. 6, 1994.
11 "Genetic Genie: The Premature Commercial Release of Genetically
Engineered Bacteria," Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,
12 Mark Kastel, "Down on the Farm: The Real BGH Story," Montpelier, VT:
Rural Vermont, 1995; D.S. Kronfeld, "Health Management of Dairy Herds
Treated with Bovine Somatotropin, Journal of the American Veterinary
Medical Association, Vol. 204, No. 1, 1994.
13 Samuel Epstein, "Unlabeled Milk from Cows Treated with Biosynthetic
Growth Hormones: A Case of Regulatory Abdication," International Journal
of Health Services, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1996; Mariana Resnicoff, et. al., "The
Insulin-like Growth Factor I Receptor Protein Protects Tumor Cells from
Apoptosis in Vivo," Cancer Research, Vol. 55, June 1995.
14 Jack Doyle, "Food Safety Implications of Genetically Engineered
Organisms," Environmental Policy Institute, 1990.
15 See reference 4 above.
16 Brian Tokar, "Send in the Clones?" Food & Water Journal, Spring 1997;
Harvey Bialy, "Barnyard Biotechnology: Transgenic Pharming Comes of Age,"
Biotechnology Vol. 9, September 1991.
17 Craig Echt, Report on the Second International Symposium on the
Applications of Biotechnology to Tree Culture, Protection and Utilization,
Rheinlander, WI: North Central Forest Experiment Station Forestry Sciences
Laboratory, 1994; Canadian Forest Service, Tree Biotechnology and Advanced
Genetics Network Web Site.
18 Elaine Ingham and Michael Holmes, "Recent Findings on Genetic
Engineering and Soil Organisms, Oregon State University, 1995; Chris Maser,
The Redesigned Forest, San Pedro, CA: R. and E. Miles, 1989.
19 Christopher Smith, "Park Deal: Some Call it Biopiracy," Salt Lake
Tribune, Nov. 9, 1997; Jim Robbins, "Yellowstone's Microbial Riches Lure
Eager Bioprospectors," New York Times, October 14, 1997.
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