Jeremy Rifkin on Dangers of GE Food
Boston Globe June 7, 1999

Unknown risks of genetically engineered crops

By Jeremy Rifkin, 06/07/99

On May 20, the term ''genetic pollution''
officially entered the public lexicon.
Scientists at Cornell University reported in
the journal Nature that the pollen from
genetically engineered corn containing a
toxin gene called Bt killed 44 percent of
the monarch butterfly caterpillars who fed on
milkweed leaves dusted with it. By contrast,
caterpillars fed with conventional pollen all
survived. The results are all the more shocking
given the fact that nearly 25 percent of the US corn
crop now contains the Bt transgene and
the Corn Belt states of the Midwest are where half
of the monarch butterflies are produced
each year.

In the wake of the monarch butterfly study, a
growing number of scientists now say they
wonder about the potential environmental effects of
scores of other genetically engineered
crops being introduced into the agricultural fields.
Indeed, some critics are asking why
these and other studies weren't done before
introducing genetically engineered corn, soy,
cotton and other crops over millions of acres of
farm land.

The fact is, genetically engineered crops are
radically different from conventional crops
because they contain genes in their biological
makeup from completely unrelated species.
For example, scientists have introduced an
antifreeze gene from flounder fish into the
genetic code of a tomato plant to protect the plant
from cold spells. While scientists have
long been able to cross close relatives in the plant
kingdom, the new genetic tools allow
them to cross all of the biological boundaries,
adding genes from viruses, bacteria, other
animals and plants into the genetic code of
traditional food crops.

Ecologists are unsure of the impacts of bypassing
natural species boundaries. Consider,
for example, the ambitious plans to engineer
transgenic plants to serve as pharmaceutical
factories for the production of chemicals and drugs.
Foraging animals, seed-eating birds,
and soil insects will be exposed to a range of
genetically engineered drugs, vaccines,
industrial enzymes, plastics, and hundreds of other
foreign substances for the first time,
with untold consequences.

Over the next 10 years, life science companies plan
on introducing thousands of
laboratory-conceived transgenic plants over millions
of acres of farmland around the world.
Ecologists tell us that the risks in releasing these
novel crops into the biosphere are similar
to those we've encountered in introducing exotic
organisms into North America. While
many of these nonnative creatures have adapted to
the North American ecosystems without
severe dislocations, a small percentage of them have
wreaked havoc on the flora and fauna
of the continent.

Whenever a genetically engineered organism is
released, there is always a small chance that
it too will run amok because, like nonindigenous
species, it has been artificially introduced
into a complex environment that has developed a web
of highly integrated relationships
over long periods of evolutionary history.

Much of the current effort in agricultural
biotechnology is centered on the creation of
herbicide-tolerant plants. To increase their share
of the growing global market for
herbicides, life-science companies like Monsanto and
Novartis have created transgenic
crops that tolerate their own herbicides. Monsanto's
new herbicide-resistant patented seeds,
for example, are resistant to its best-selling
chemical herbicide, Roundup.

The companies hope to convince farmers that the new
herbicide-tolerant crops will allow
for a more efficient eradication of weeds. Farmers
will be able to spray at any time during
the growing season, killing weeds without killing
their crops. Critics warn that with new
herbicide-tolerant crops planted in the fields,
farmers are likely to use even greater
quantities of herbicides to control weeds, as there
will be less fear of damaging their crops
in the process of spraying. The increased use of
herbicides, in turn, raises the possibility of
weeds developing resistance, forcing an even greater
use of herbicides to control the more
resistant strains.

New pest-resistant transgenic crops, such as Bt
corn, are also being introduced for the first
time. Monsanto and Novartis are marketing transgenic
crops that produce insecticide in
every cell of each plant. A growing body of
scientific evidence points to the likelihood of
creating ''super bugs'' resistant to the effects of
the new pesticide-producing genetic crops.

Some ecologists warn of the danger of what they call
''gene flow'' - the transfer of
transgenic genes from crops to weedy relatives by
way of cross-pollination. New studies
have shown that transgenic genes for herbicide
tolerance and pest and viral resistance can
spread by way of pollen and insert themselves into
the genomes of relatives, creating weeds
that are resistant to herbicides, pests, and viruses.

The insurance industry has quietly let it be known
that while it will provide coverage for
negligence and short-term damage resulting from the
introduction of genetically engineered
crops into the environment, it will not offer
liability coverage for long-term catastrophic
environmental damage because the industry lacks a
risk assessment science - a predictive
ecology - with which to judge the risks.

The industry understands the Kafkaesque implications
of a government regime claiming to
regulate the new field of biotechnology in the
absence of clear scientific knowledge of how
genetically modified organisms interact once
introduced into the environment. Who, then,
will be held liable for losses if a transgenic plant
introduction were to trigger genetic
pollution over an extended terrain for an indefinite
period of time? The life science
companies? The government?

The introduction of novel genetically engineered
organisms also raises a number of serious
human health issues that have yet to be resolved.
Most of these new crops contain genes
from nonfood-source organisms. With 2 percent of
adults and 8 percent of children having
allergic responses to commonly eaten foods, consumer
advocates argue that all novel
gene-spliced foods need to be properly labeled so
that consumers can avoid health risks.

The British Medical Association has become so
concerned about the potential health
effects of consuming genetically modified foods that
it has just called for an open-ended
moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically
engineered food crops until a
scientific consensus emerges on their safety. And
the European Commission recently
announced a freeze on licenses for genetically
engineered plants after learning about the
monarch butterfly study.

A worldwide moratorium should be declared now on
releasing genetically engineered food
crops and other gene-spliced organisms into the
environment pending further study of the
potential environmental and health risks and
liability issues at stake. It would be
irresponsible and foolish to continue seeding
farmland with genetically engineered food
crops when we have yet to develop even a rudimentary
risk assessment science by which to
regulate these new agricultural products.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of ''The Biotech
Century: Harnessing the G ene and
Remaking the World.''

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 06/07/99.