So why all the fuss over GE Foods?
- - Jill Davies - - March 16, 1999

Why are foreign countries ready to start trade wars with the
U.S. over the import of genetically engineered (GE) foods? First, it
is because of what goes in to the creation of a GE variety. Plants
have elaborate defense mechanisms for dealing with foreign
compounds, including foreign DNA. To overcome these defense
mechanisms in order to insert a gene into the germ cell of a host
plant, which will then grow into a plant with the desired trait,
biologists have to construct what are called "vectors" which will carry
the chosen gene into the host cell. The vectors are constructed
using pieces of DNA taken from virulent pathological organisms
(virus, bacteria) because these organisms have the ability to
overcome a cell's defense mechanisms. Generally, there are three
parts to a vector: genes which carry the package into the cell and
invade the DNA, genes called promoters which assure that the
package is 'turned on', and genes for antibiotic resistance that are
used as markers to help the biologist find the plant cells in which the
insertion has been successful (a small percentage). The concern is
that these sections of DNA from pathological organisms will
recombine to form active pathogens once again, either new ones, or
old ones with renewed virulence, or with new (broader) host
specificity; and that antibiotic resistance will continue to spread
throughout the microbial world. This process, called "horizontal
gene transfer" is already known to be the cause of the widespread
antibiotic resistance in disease organisms that has emerged in the
past decade, facilitated by the over-use of antibiotics.

Second, it is because the insertion of this gene package - a
complex vector with the trait gene attached - into the DNA of the
host plant can disrupt the functioning of the host's DNA. This can
and does lead to 'freak' plants which supposedly are weeded out by
the biotech company, but subtle chemical changes would be very
difficult to detect, and the testing that is currently required is
inadequate. What ignited the controversy last month in Britain, was
the disclosure of a study (after it had been suppressed for 6 months)
which tested GE potatoes that were engineered to express an insect
toxin. This study was the first to carefully examine the chemical
composition of the GE potatoes as compared to the regular potatoes.
They found significant differences in levels of protein (20% less),
starch, sugar, other enzymes. Then they fed the potatoes to young
rats for a time and examined the development of organs. They
found impaired development in the intestine, pancreas, kidneys, liver,
lungs and brain; an enlarged thymus, and a depressed immune
response with evidence of intestinal infection.

Third, it is because people don't want to eat a plant that
expresses an insecticide in every cell, or a plant that can resist an
herbicide so that more of the herbicide is sprayed on the field while
the plant is growing, and these are what are now being widely
grown. Corn, cotton and potatoes are engineered to express the Bt
insecticide (and they express it in a more toxic form than the Bt
spray) and soy is resistant to Monsanto's Roundup.

*Genetic Engineering - Dreams or Nightmares, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
1997 Research Fndn for Science, Technology & Ecology, India
*Report of Project Coordinator (Project RO818), Rowett Research
Institute 1998
*The Gene Exchange, Union of Concerned Scientists,
Fall/Winter 1998

~~~~~ Jill Davies ~~~ River Care ~~~~
"You can do whatever you don't know you can't do."