SF Chronicle on Mounting Concern Over Gene-Foods in the USA
FRONT PAGE of the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle/Examiner July 11, 1999
You say potato, they say pesticide
You're probably already eating in the brave new world of biotech foods
The popcorn at your movie house could be made from plants
designed to fight off a voracious pest called the corn borer. Your baby's
formula could come from soybean plants biologically transformed to
withstand the herbicide Roundup. The bags of potato chips on your grocer's
shelves could be sliced from spuds containing a gene that poisons Colorado
potato beetles.
A dramatic increase in reliance on genetic engineering may
be helping produce bumper crops, but it also is raising concern that
labeling laws are weak and that too little is known about potential
effects on humans and the environment.
As of last year, growers in the United States, Argentina,
Canada, Australia, Mexico, Spain, France and South Africa dedicated 69.5
million acres to genetically modified crops, a 16-fold increase over just
two years, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-biotech Applications, an industry institute to promote new
In the United States, which represents three-fourths of
the world's agricultural acreage, altered corn accounted for 40 percent of
the total crop planted this year, up from 26.5 percent the year before.
This year, for the first time, canola farmers planted 300,000 acres of
engineered plants. Acreage
devoted to a wide range of engineered crops from papaya to radicchio to
squash is expanding.
In opposition, consumer groups are citing a startling
Cornell University lab experiment last May in which pollen from a corn
plant altered to eradicate corn borers killed Monarch butterfly larvae.
If the butterfly might succumb, they reason, what might happen to humans
who consume a lifelong diet of such crops? And what might happen to
beneficial insects and wildlife in the environment?
The questions are pitting consumers against the
agricultural industry and the U.S. government, which insist that food from
genetically modified crops primarily corn, soy beans, cotton and potatoes
is no
different and requires no special tests or labels.
Opposition is swelling in Europe, where the term
"Frankenfood" has entered the lexicon; some major supermarket and
fast-food chains have promised to rid themselves of the products; and
Italy, Greece, France, Luxembourg and Denmark are blocking authorization
of new genetic crops in fields and markets
of European Union nations.
The resistance may be spreading.
"U.S. consumers, too, are demanding mandatory labeling and
mandatory testing for environmental and human health effects," said
biologist Michael Hansen, research associate at Consumers Union's Consumer
Policy Institute.
The biotechnology industry, led by Monsanto, Novartis,
Dow, DuPont, AgrEvo and Zeneca, calls rising criticism in Europe "hysteria
and hype" from the food scare over "mad cow" disease in England and
dioxin in feed, poultry, beef and butter in Belgium.
The corporations and some universities say the U.S.
government is watching over our food supply, the safest in the world.
There's no reason to do special tests on food or label genetically
engineered ingredients because the crops are virtually unchanged from
conventionally bred crops, they argue. "A tomato is a tomato is a tomato,"
said Brian Sansoni, senior manager of public policy communications for
the Grocery Manufacturers of America, some of whose largest corporate
members are biotech companies.
"A tomato that is produced conventionally or a tomato that is developed
through biotechnology,the product is the same. Both products are safe."
Genetic engineering has come into practice over the last
20 years. Most commonly, bacteria, viruses, and genes from tobacco or
petunia plants are inserted into soy, corn, cotton and canola so that
can survive field applications of weed killers. Or a gene from Bacillus
thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacteria found in soil, is inserted into corn,
cotton andpotatoes to produce a protein toxic to pests that feed on them.
A need for labeling?
Numerous polls over the past four years have revealed
consumer demand for labeling of genetically modified foods, a step the
industry is fighting. The last survey by the U.S. Department of
conducted on 604 New Jersey residents in 1995, found that 84 percent of those
polled wanted mandatory labeling of engineered fruits and vegetables.
In interviews, major food companies Frito-Lay, General
Mills, Gerber, Heinz, Kraft, Nabisco, Pillsbury, Procter & Gamble, Quaker
and Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories said they accepted
genetically engineered ingredients for their food products. But consumers
can't go into stores or call
industry trade groups to secure a list of engineered brands, complains
GeneWatch, a bulletin of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a
Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit organization.
"People have a right to know what they're buying in a
transaction," said Philip Bereano, a professor of technical communication
at the University of Washington who writes for GeneWatch. "They have a
right to spend their dollars in accordance with their preferences, even
if their preferences were irrational," Bereano said.
The companies have lobbied successfully against labels
before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food
additives, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates
Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at
the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said, "We've worked for a long
time to come up with a labeling policy that we know will convey useful
information about nutrition and health. "For the government to require
labeling (of genetically
engineered products) would be to suggest a safety or health difference
where there isn't one. There's
no good reason to do it."
Gathering and providing a list of altered foods would be
impractical, said Sansoni of the Grocery Manufacturers. "The list would
be too long," Sansoni said. "About 25
percent of corn, 38 percent of soybeans, 35 percent of canola and 45
percent of cotton crops are
derived from biotechnology."
"In the U.S., companies aren't really set up for
segregation," Sansoni said. "It would be enormously expensive. The
products are mixed in with products that contain ingredients that are not
genetically enhanced."
In May 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle announced a
long-awaited U.S. policy: Genetically engineered crops, judged by
government scientists to be no different from plants bred traditionally,
would need no extra government scrutiny. The processed food made from the
crops wouldn't require labeling or
special testing before going to market.
The FDA doesn't test bio-engineered foods before they go
to the public, deeming them not "materially" different from other foods.
If the foods later pose a risk to public health, the FDA has the
authority to remove them from the marketplace. FDA representatives say
they would require labeling only if genes from plants that could cause
allergies were engineered into a crop.
"The only way to be assured of not consuming genetically
engineered food is to only buy food that is certified with an organic
labeling," Bereano said.
Potato listed as a pesticide
Some foods, such as Monsanto's New Leaf potato, are
actually registered with the EPA as a pesticide every part of it can kill
a Colorado potato beetle. As a result, it comes under the regulatory
jurisdiction of the
EPA, not the Food and Drug Administration.
Kathleen Knox, deputy director of EPA's Biopesticides and
Pollution Prevention Division, said the agency "regulates biopesticides as
we regulate other pesticides. We do the equivalent that we do for any
other pesticides."
In the case of the bacterium Bt, she said, "We believe
it's safe in the food supply. We certainly have looked at many factors,
and we make sure things are adequately tested, particularly the things
we've registered so far. We've collected data, done risk assessments. We
continue to monitor what's going on
in the field."
Hansen, of the Consumer Policy Institute, said neither the
EPA, the FDA nor the USDA required adequate testing. "If you look at the
FDA requirements carefully, you'll see that the industry is on the honor
system," Hansen said. "There is no mandatory safety testing of food
before it's put on the market. Bt crops aren't even regulated by the FDA.
Legally, those crops aren't considered food but pesticides, which are
regulated by the EPA."
But the EPA doesn't test the safety of the engineered
plant itself the potato with Bt in it, Hansen said. The EPA tests Bt in
isolation. Further, the studies are flawed because they don't use Bt
toxin produced by the
plant but use the Bt toxin produced by engineered bacteria, which is
different, he said.
While proponents of genetic crop engineering say the
selection of genes is precise, critics say inserting a gene into a living
cell is highly imprecise, with no control over where in the DNA the new
gene is implanted. This can disrupt the natural genetic information
encoded in the DNA of a new plant, leading to
unexpected and unwanted effects, including potentially
increasing toxin levels, changing nutritional values or introducing
allergy-causing properties.
"When you insert a gene into a DNA by using genetic
modification, you have no idea where the gene goes it's absolutely a
shot in the dark," said molecular biologist John Fagan, founder of
Genetic ID Inc., a
Fairfield, Iowa, laboratory. The lab tests foods for the presence of
genetically engineered materials. His
clients include many large food retailers in Europe that have promised to
start weeding out modified foods.
"These random mutagenic events can cause plants or crops
to produce new toxins, new allergens or they can reduce the nutritional
value of the food," Fagan said. Because the toxins or other properties
may be new, he said, there's no way to predict their effects. "The only
way to detect them will be actual feeding studies with paid human
volunteers," he said. "They do this for drugs and new food additives, and
these tests are not required of the agricultural biotechnology industry.
The FDA's own scientists have expressed serious concerns about this." New
studies are raising questions, said Fagan, who for nearly 20 years,
including seven years at the National Institutes of Health, has used
genetic engineering techniques in basic research.
A preliminary study by the Center for Ethics and Toxics in
the North Coast town of Gualala, published July 1 in the Journal of
Medicinal Food, found that soybeans altered to withstand Roundup might be
nutritionally inferior to conventional soybeans. The altered soybeans
contain reduced
levels of phytoestrogens, substances in plants that are credited with
guarding against heart disease and cancer, among other health benefits.
In a 1998 preliminary study at Rowett Research Institute
in Aberdeen, Scotland, rats fed genetically modified potatoes suffered
damaged organs and stunted growth compared with rats eating normal
A review panel formed by the Royal Society, a scientific
body, challenged the research. Researcher Arpad Pusztai has said the panel
hadn't looked at his recent data.
Are there environmental effects?
Critics complain there is little study on the
environmental effects of genetically altered plants. The Cornell
University experiment was an exception.
"That tiny little Monarch butterfly experiment, one that
any high school student could have done? Well, those studies weren't being
done," said Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor in the Department of
Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC-Berkeley.
Researchers report that two beneficial insects that attack
pests ladybugs and green lacewings also might be victims of the crops
designed to kill the corn borer and the Colorado potato beetle.
The Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and
Agriculture found in 1998 that green lacewings suffered a two-thirds
increase in death rate when they fed on army worms eating corn engineered
to contain a bacteria toxic to crop pests.
The Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee concluded
the same year that female ladybugs that ate aphids that had fed on
genetically modified potatoes laid fewer eggs and lived only half as long
as the average ladybugs.
In May, the British Medical Association warned that it was
far too early to know whether genetically modified foods were safe. It
opposed rapid introduction of the crops into Great Britain and advised a
ban on imported foods if they weren't clearly labeled.
"We should follow the old public health tradition now
being used in Europe, called the precautionary principle, which embodies
the age-old wisdom of 'look before you leap,' " said Bereano, of
GeneWatch. "If
there's a lot of uncertainty, the prudent course of action is to assess
the product before sending it out for mass consumption.
"The burden of proof should rest on the proponent of the
new technology."