Frankenfoods & Crops--A Biological Time Bomb?

Frankenfoods & Crops--A Biological Time Bomb?

Earth Island Journal
December 2001

By John Robbins

A Biological Apocalypse Averted

These [genetically engineered] products are absolutely safe. For the most part you wouldn't know [if you were
eating them] but the point being that you wouldn't need to know.

-- Bryan Hurley, Monsanto spokesperson

There is a great deal of controversy about the safety of genetically engineered foods. Advocates of
biotechnology often say that the risks are overblown. "There have been 25,000 trials of genetically modified crops
in the world, now, and not a single incident, or anything dangerous in these releases," said a spokesman for
Adventa Holdings, a UK biotech firm. During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate George W Bush said
that "study after study has shown no evidence of danger." And Clinton Administration Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman said that "test after rigorous scientific test" had proven the safety of genetically engineered products.

Is this the case? Unfortunately not, according to a senior researcher from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr.
Jane Rissler. With a Ph.D. in plant pathology, four years of shaping biotechnology regulations at the EPA, she is
one of the nation's leading authorities on the environmental risks of genetically engineered foods. Dr. Rissler has
been closely monitoring the trials and studies.

"The observations that 'nothing happened' in these ... tests do not say much," she and her colleague Dr. Margaret
Mellon (a member of the USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology) write. "The field tests do not
provide a track record of safety, but a case of 'don't look, don't find.'"

When scientists actually look, what they see can be terrifying. A few years ago, a German biotech company
engineered a common soil bacterium, Klebsiella planticola, to help break down wood chips, corn stalks, wastes
from lumber businesses and agriculture, and to produce ethanol in the process. It seemed like a great
achievement. The genetically engineered Klebsiella bacterium could help break down rotting organic material and
in the process produce a fuel that could be used instead of gasoline, thus lessening the production of greenhouse

It was assumed that the post-process waste could be added to soil as an amendment, like compost. Everybody
would win. With the approval of the EPA, the company field tested the bacterium at Oregon State University.

As far as the intended goals were concerned -- eliminating rotting organic waste and producing ethanol -- the
genetically engineered bacterium was a success. But when a doctoral student named Michael Holmes decided to
add the post-processed waste to actual living soil, something happened that no one expected. The seeds that
were planted in soil mixed with the engineered Klebsiella sprouted, but then every single one of them died.

What killed them? The genetically engineered Klebsiella turned out to be highly competitive with native soil
micro-organisms. Plants are only able to take nitrogen and other nourishment from the soil with the help of fungi
called mycorrhizae. These fungi live in the soil and help make nutrients available to plant roots. But when the
genetically engineered Klebsiella was introduced into living soils, it greatly reduced the population of mycorrhizal
fungi in the soil. And without healthy mycorrhizal fungi in soils, no plants can survive.

It is testimony to the amazing powers of science that researchers were able to track the mechanism by which the
genetically engineered Klebsiella prevented plants from growing. There are thousands of different species of
microorganisms in every teaspoon of fertile soil, and they interact in trillions of ways.

But the scientists discovered something else in these experiments, something that sent chills down their spines.
They found that the genetically modified bacteria were able to persist in the soil, raising the possibility that, had
it been released, the genetically engineered Klebsiella could have become established -- and virtually impossible to

"When the data first started coming in," says Elaine Ingham, the soil pathologist at Oregon State University who
directed Michael Holmes' research on Klebsiella, "the EPA charged d'fat we couldn't have performed the research
correctly. They went through everything with a fine tooth comb, and they couldn't find anything wrong with the
experimental design -- but they tried as hard as they could ... If we hadn't done this research, the Klebsiella
would have passed the approval process for commercial release."

Geneticist David Suzuki understands that what took place was truly ominous. "The genetically engineered
Klebsiella," he says, "could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are
nothing short of terrifying."

Meanwhile Monsanto and the other biotech companies are eagerly developing all kinds of genetically modified
organisms, hoping to bring them to market. How do we know if they're safe? According to Suzuki: "We don't, and
won't for years after they are being widely used."

It's not a prospect that helps calm the nerves and restore confidence in our collective future. Surely, I've wanted
to believe, when the chips are down, scientists and researchers would never do anything that would jeopardize
life on Earth. Surely, the people who run these companies -- and the government officials who oversee them --
would never allow something that dangerous to occur.

But then again, this wouldn't be the first time that corporations like Monsanto have brought us new products they
promised would make life better for everybody and that turned out to do something very different. This is the
same company, after all, that brought us PCBs and Agent Orange. Even the product the company was originally
formed to produce, the artificial sweetener saccharin, was later found to be carcinogenic.

Of course, Monsanto tells us that this time we don't have to worry.

GE Crops Can't Be Contained

A test conducted by the Wall Street Sourhal found that 16 of 20 vegetarian foods labeled as being "free" of
geneticalty engineered products actually contained GE soybeans. As Arran Stephens, president of Nature's Path
Foods, noted: "You cannot build a wall high enough" to prevent genetic pollution of wild and organic crops.

In August, a team of Belgian researchers were surprised to discover that Monsanto's GE soybeans contained "a
DNA segment ... for which no sequence homology could be detected." "No one knows what this extra gene
sequence is lot] ... what its effects will be," said Greenpeace-UK's Doug Parr. "If Monsanto did not even get this
most basic information right, what should we think about the validity of all their safety tests?"

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