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Organic Point/Counterpoint
Should Genetically Engineered Foods Be Labeled (Are there health implications with GE Foods?)
Note to reader: The two news articles on this page represent differing viewpoints in regards to organics and are a part of OCA's new "Point/Counterpoint" series, providing readers with an opportunity to view arguments from both proponents and opponents of the organic industry.

Point (article #1): "Genetically Engineered Foods Should Not be Labeled"

Counterpoint (article #2): "Genetically Engineered Foods Have Health Risks"

More Articles on this Topic

Genetically Engineered Foods Should Not Be Labeled

Dennis T. Avery

Labels Are Good Enough For Processed Food. Why Not Labels For Organic Produce As Well?

CHURCHVILLE, Va.-All over the modern world, food packages carry important information so consumers can make wiser buying choices.

Why shouldn't foods made from genetically modified crops be labeled so consumers can be fully informed? Well, knowing that a food contains something from a genetically modified crop may not tell the consumer anything useful.

Genetic modification is a tool, like a hammer or a wrench. If you were looking at a new car and saw an official label reading, "This car was built with the aid of wrenches," you'd laugh about another useless government warning.

You're actually more interested in whether the car has air bags and gets good gas mileage. The real biotech question is the content of the food, not how it's produced.

Maybe the modified genes add more Vitamin A, or eliminate an allergen. Maybe the grain or fruit from a gene-modified plant is no different at all.

The current approach of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is consistent with the idea that biotech is a tool. The FDA looks at the gene-modified product and how it differs from non-biotech foods.

If the biotech food contains a new chemical, an allergen new to that food, or a different level of certain nutrients, it must be tested for consumer safety and then labeled.

If the biotech food is the same, from the food consumer's standpoint, no special label is required. FDA Commissioner Jane Henney says adding some new bit of DNA to a plant does not necessarily raise the same sort of intense food safety issues as a new chemical.

She notes that plants already contain DNA. She says the Bt toxin used to pest-proof current biotech varieties of corn, cotton and potatoes has no effect on humans. That's why organic farmers have used it on their crops for decades.

All of the proteins so far approved in biotech plants are nontoxic, rapidly digestible and lack the characteristics of allergenic plant proteins. "Fortunately," says Henney, "we know a lot about the foods that do trigger allergenic reactions."

There's no question that the anti-biotech activists want labeling so that gene-modified foods can be stigmatized and boycotted. The advocates hope mandatory labeling will send a negative signal to consumers, just because of the government regulators' involvement.

When Great Britain required biotech food labeling, the food stores rushed to get biotech foods off their shelves. A popular brand of canned tomatoes was trundled out Sainsbury's back door. There's no certainty that American or Australian consumers would react in the same way, but the activists are hoping.

Remember that 60 years ago people worried pasteurization would "kill" their milk, rather than just killing dangerous bacteria in the milk. It took the fear of milk-borne tuberculosis to overcome the fear of the "unknown" pasteurization.

At the eco-demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year, I attended a seminar organized by the opponents of biotech foods. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Democrat from Ohio, warned the activists that Congress was not yet willing to ban biotech foods. He recommended they settle for mandatory labeling as a step toward an eventual ban.

Activists also want to push the public as far away from biotech foods as they can before the industry presents any more-attractive food options that might change consumers' minds in favor of biotechnology.

The old Flavr Savr tomato, introduced in the mid-1990s, was a failure- -it just didn't taste very good-but if biotech suddenly comes up with a truly good off-season tomato or allergen-free peanut, consumer attitudes toward biotech foods may become much more positive.

In fact, activists could well object if companies tried to put a label on modified food explaining the reduced need for pesticide sprays.

Anti-biotech forces are pushing their own organic foods. U.S. organic sales dropped a sharp 38 percent worldwide in 1998, but rebounded in 1999 when the biotech food scare campaign reached the United States.

At the U.S. Organic Foods Conference last year, one organic marketer said, "The potential to develop the organic market would be limited if consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down."

Yet while the organic movement is demanding labeling of biotech foods, it has fought labeling mandates on organic food. In Europe, the organic- food lobby has opposed government safety standards and more restrictive labels for organic foods.

A British organic advocate condemned them as "perpetuating the conflict of interests in the industry by giving too much weight to consumers." In America, the organic industry in 1996 opposed stricter labeling and testing requirements for U.S. organic food exports.

Consumer Alert, a Washington-based consumer group, recently warned the FDA that "Mandatory labeling that may be perceived as unnecessarily alarming can stand in the way of consumer acceptance of this process that could be invaluable in improving the world's food supply."

Besides, consumers in our free market already have an option if they want to avoid genetically modified foods. They can buy organic foods.


GE Foods have Health Implications and Should be Labeled

Subject: GM Food & Feed Not Fit for "Man or Beast" - Health effects & Citations

Date: Mon, 10 May 2004
The Institute of Science in Society
Science Society Sustainability
General Enquiries Website/Mailing List ISIS Director

GM Food & Feed Not Fit for "Man or Beast"

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins review some of the scientific
evidence behind a series of recent scandals involving the safety of GM
food and feed. They demand a full enquiry into the abuse of science that has allowed GM crops not fit for human or animal consumption to enter our food chain.

Based on a paper presented at an ISP Briefing to Parliament, House of
Commons, 29 April 2004.

Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins
Institute of Science in Society and
Independent Science Panel

Latest incidents to cast doubt on the safety of GM food
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has given Monsanto's GM maize
Mon863, containing the biopesticide Cry3Bb1 against the corn rootworm, a
positive assessment. However, French newspaper Le Monde [1] has seen
secret documents revealing health impacts of the GM maize, described as
"very disturbing" by scientists of the French commission for genetic
engineering (CBG), including kidney malformations and increases in white
blood cells in male rats and high blood sugar and reduced immature red
blood cells in female rats.

Last year, up to 100 villagers in the south of the Philippines living
near GM maize plots suffered debilitating illnesses when the GM maize
came into flower [2]. Prof. Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute of
Gene Ecology in Tromsø found antibodies to Cry1Ab produced by the GM
maize against the corn borer in the blood of 39 villagers [3]. The maize
variety was Dekalb 818 YG, a hybrid between Monsanto's Mon 810 and a
locally adapted variety (Dekalb 818). Report has come in of the same
illnesses recurring this year [4].

Bt toxins known to be harmful
The Cry proteins, dozens of them, are also called Bt toxins because they
are produced by different strains of the soil bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis [5, 6]. Reports in the scientific literature have
documented that bacterial spores of B. thuringiensis, containing a
mixture of different toxins, can cause allergic reactions in farm
workers; that some toxins are immunogenic in animals, Cry1Ac in
particular, has been identified as a potent immunogen, as potent as
cholera toxin; that cells in the lining of the small intestine in rats
have proteins that bind to the toxins [7], and further, Cry1Ab protein
is 92% indigestible in pigs [8].

Regulatory sham over Bt crops
The findings on Bt toxins have been completely ignored in a regulatory
process that can only be described as a sham [5].

Worse still, Bt genes in crops are synthetic or hybrid constructions,
with important changes from the naturally occurring bacterial genes.
Yet, toxicity tests are routinely done using the natural toxins, and not
the toxin produced in the GM crop plants, with the result that the Bt
toxins in GM crops are almost completely unknown and untested for
toxicity [5, 6].

There’s evidence that the natural toxin is not the same as, or
“substantially equivalent” to, the GM toxin. Green lacewings suffer
significantly reduced survival and delayed development when fed an
insect pest (lepidopteran) that has eaten GM maize containing the Bt
toxin Cry1Ab, but not when fed the same pest treated with much higher
levels of the natural toxin [9, 10]. This is an extremely important
effect passed on through the food chain; and has been documented in
several laboratories. Unfortunately, the researchers misrepresented the
results to mean that Cry1Ab does not harm beneficial insect predators [11].

All GM genes differ from natural genes
All foreign genes inserted into GM organisms are different from their
natural counterparts. The minimum construct consists of a promoter, a
gene-switch that says to the cell, "copy the following message (the gene
or coding sequence) for making a protein", and another signal, the
terminator, to say, "stop here, end of message". All three parts are
often from different sources. The gene itself could also be a composite
of different DNA, often made artificially in the laboratory [12].

It is generally not easy to get the foreign gene to work, so a very
aggressive promoter is needed, literally to force the cell to make the
protein. The cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter is the most
popular one used, and is often accompanied by other 'boosters' from a
variety of sources.

For example, Mon 863 maize is described on the AGBIOS Database as
follows [13]:

"The introduced DNA contained the modified cry3Bb1 gene from B.
thuringiensis subsp. kumamotoensis under the control of the 4-AS1
promoter (CaMV 35S promoter with 4 repeats of an activating sequence),
plus the 5' untranslated leader sequence of the wheat chlorophyll a/b
binding protein (wt CAB leader) and the rice actin intron. The
transcription termination sequence was provided from the 3' untranslated
region of the wheat 17.3 kD heat shock protein (tahsp17). The modified
cry3Bb1 gene encodes a protein of 653 amino acids whose amino acid
sequence differs from that of the wild-type protein by the addition of
an alanine residue at position 2 and by seven amino acid changes."

There are thus 9 bits of DNA from different sources including the coding
sequence, which has been quite substantially altered from the natural gene.

The GM process is unreliable and uncontrollable
That's not all. The artificial constructs are further spliced into gene
carriers or vectors, and introduced into cells by invasive methods that
result in random integration into the genome, giving rise to
unpredictable, random effects, including gross abnormalities in animals
and further unexpected toxins and allergens in food crops [14].

A transgenic line is essentially regenerated from a single cell in which
specific GM DNA integration occurred. Each event will give rise to a
different line. In other words, there is no possibility for quality
control. This problem is compounded by the overwhelming instability of
transgenic lines, because the artificial constructs cobbled together
from DNA of different sources tend to have weak joints, especially if
they include elements like the CaMV 35S promoter, which is known to have
a fragmentation or recombination hotspot (see later).

Transgenic lines are overwhelmingly unstable
We have referred to the instability of transgenic lines as the "best
kept open secret", because everybody has known about it for years, but
agree to say nothing, while regulators turned a blind eye [15].

(Claims of genetic stability based on the failure to depart from
Mendelian ratios have been widely accepted as evidence of Mendelian
inheritance, i.e., a sign of genetic stability. But such claims are
bogus for a number of reasons. First, a 'Mendelian ratio' refers to the
proportion of different classes of offspring predicted from a cross
involving different lines. It depends on assuming that Mendelian
inheritance is true; so in order to depart from a particular ratio, a
sufficiently large number of offspring are needed to obtain the required
level of significance (at 5%). Consequently, a failure to depart from
the predicted Mendelian ratio does not prove Mendelian inheritance. On
the contrary, the real inheritance may be non-Mendelian (a sign of
genetic instability), but an insufficient number of offspring has been
produced for the statistical test to reach the required level of

More importantly, the precise Mendelian ratio to use in each case
depends on the genotype of the parents, and this needs to be
independently ascertained, but is almost never done. This makes nonsense
of the predicted ratio. Indeed, the Mendelian ratio used is always the
one that most closely matches the result obtained!

One of us had argued this very point at a public hearing on T25 maize in
the UK, and got the representative from the company Aventis to concede
that Mendelian ratios are not evidence of stability [16].)

Instead, we have been pressing, both in international biosafety
conferences and in print, for "event specific" molecular
characterisation of the structure of the insert(s) and their position(s)
in the genome in successive generations, as the only legitimate proof
that the transgenic line is stable [14, 15]. This requirement was
finally written into the 2001 European Directive (2001/18/EC) on the
deliberate release of GMOs into the environment.

But it was not until last year that French government scientists checked
the transgenic inserts of five transgenic lines: Monsanto's Mon810
maize, Roundup Ready soya, GA21 maize, Bayer's T25 maize and Syngenta's
Bt 176 maize; and in every case, the transgenic insert(s) had
rearranged, not just from the construct used, but since characterised by
the company [17].

The results revealed that,

* All GM inserts had rearranged from the structure provided by the company
* Many of the breakpoints for rearrangement involve the CaMV 35S
promoter, as can be predicted from its known recombination hotspot
* Scrambling of the genome occurred at the site of insertion
* GM inserts appear to show a preference for mobile genetic elements

The last feature is particularly important, as retrotransposons contain
strong promoters that could alter gene expression, and also increase the
chances that the inserts will move again, resulting in further genome
scrambling and horizontal gene transfer.

The French scientists presented their results in a poster at a
conference with the title: “Characterisation of commercial GMO inserts:
a source of useful material to study genome fluidity”. Genome fluidity
underlies the paradigm shift in genetics that makes genetic modification
both futile and hazardous [18].

Belgian government scientists carried out another study, confirming the
instability of the transgenic lines analysed by the French, and found
that at least one other transgenic line, Syngenta’s Bt 11 maize, had
also rearranged, and that it was contaminated with Bt176 [19].

In the case of other transgenic lines studied, it was unclear whether
the company has been allowed to submit new data since its first
application for approval, which would be irregular, to say the least.

For Roundup Ready soya GTS 40-3-2, for example, the French study found
clear evidence that the GM insert was unstable and had undergone
rearrangement. The Belgian study merely referred to the UK’s Advisory
Committee for Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) website, where it
appears that the ACNFP had allowed Monsanto to submit new data in 2000,
and again in 2002, presumably to ‘correct’ its ‘error’ in the original

Transgenic instability is a key safety issue
There were small and large discrepancies between the French and Belgian
studies, which suggest that the transgenic lines were not only unstable
but also non-uniform. Either one of those should make the transgenic
lines illegal for Europe. There is every sign, however, that the
European Commission will fudge this to lift the de facto moratorium,
which will be a criminal offence in our opinion, as it will subject all
European citizens to serious health risks.

Transgenic instability is a key safety issue. A GM variety that has
changed its identity since characterised by the company, invalidates any
safety tests or assessments that may have been done. It also makes it
impossible to identify the GM variety for post-release monitoring, for
implementing remedial action in case of harm and for assigning liability

Event specific characterisation of the GM inserts has only just begun.
It is not clear how many of the GM varieties currently pending approval
in Europe have been analysed (see Box 1).

It is also not legitimate to draw conclusions about the hybrids from
data on parental GM lines. We have pointed out [20], for example, in the
case of NK603xMon810, that both parental lines have rearranged, but no
analyses were carried out on the hybrid and seeds set by the hybrid,
where further recombinations are expected between the constructs, as
they possess similar sequences that are recombination hotspots (see
later): CaMV 35S promoter with enhancer (e35S) and the hsp70 intron.

There can be no approval of any GM variety or hybrid for import, either
for growing or for food and processing unless and until event-specific
analysis has been carried out and the GM variety/hybrid proven to be stable.

Some GMOs pending approval in Europe*
Identifier Crop Trait(s) Status
Bt11 sweet corn insect resistance Draft decision to authorise**
NK603 maize glyphosate tolerance EFSA favourable opinion***
GT73 oilseed rape glyphosate tolerance EFSA favourable opinion
Mon863 maize insect resistance EFSA favourable opinion
Mon863xMon810 hybrid maize insect & glyph. res. No decision from EFSA
Ms8xRf3 oilseed rape glufosinate res. Belgian approval (but denied
for cultivation)
LLRice62 rice glufosinate tolerance Positive assess. UK ACRE
Bt Cry1F(1507) maize insect & glufo. res. Positive assess. Netherlands
NK603xMon810 maize glyphosate tolerance Consent from UK

* For import and/or use as food and/or feed and/or processing, not for
**Ministers of European countries failed to reach agreement on Bt11 for
food use, which is closest to final approval; the European Commission
will now have to decide.
***NK603 was rejected for animal feed and food use by EU member states;
the dossier now goes to the European Council of Ministers.

Major uncertainties over the safety of the GM process
Let us look at the rest of the evidence in brief; apart from the two
incidents mentioned.

* Between 2001 and 2002, twelve dairy cows died on a farm in Hesse,
Germany, after eating Syngenta’s Bt176 GM maize, and others in the herd
had to be slaughtered on account of mysterious illnesses [21]. To-date,
there has been no detailed autopsy reports available, even though the
company claims the deaths and illnesses were unrelated to Bt176.
Nevertheless the Spanish Food Safety Authority has just withdrawn
authorisation for Bt176 cultivation in Spain [22] after it had occupied
almost all of the 20 000 hectares of GM maize grown in Spain since 1998
[23]. The decision was taken following an EFSA recommendation that GMOs
containing antibiotic resistance marker genes such as that found in Bt
176, be restricted to field trials.
* Arpad Pusztai and colleagues found that GM potatoes with snowdrop
lectin adversely affected every organ system of young rats, and the
stomach and small intestine lining grew up to twice the thickness of
controls [24].
* Scientists in Egypt found similar results in the gastrointestinal
tract of mice fed GM potato with Bt toxin [25].
* US Food and Drug Administration had data since the early 1990s showing
that rats fed GM tomatoes with antisense gene to delay ripening
developed small holes in their stomach [24].
* Aventis (now Bayer) found 100% increase in deaths of broiler chickens
fed glufosinate- tolerant GM maize T25 compared to controls [26].
* Numerous anecdotes from farmers and others indicating that livestock,
wildlife and lab animals avoid GM feed, and fail to thrive or die when
forced to eat it [26, 27].

Different species of GM food or feed with different GM genes have caused
problems in many species of animals. You don't have to be a scientific
genius to suspect that there is something wrong with the GM process
itself or the GM insert.
All of the GM inserts involved contain the CaMV35S promoter that we have
warned against since 1999 [28-31]. This promoter not only has a
fragmentation hotspot making transgenic lines extra unstable, it
substitutes for the promoter of a wide range of plant and animal
viruses, and is also active in animal cells including human cells.

It is high time we ban all environmental releases of GM crops to make
way for non-GM sustainable agriculture [32].

The greatest obstacle to a safe and sustainable future is a corrupt and
corrupted science that operates on what can only be described as the
anti-precautionary principle. There must now be a thorough enquiry into
the safety of GM food and feed, and the systematic abuse of science that
has allowed GM food and feed to be approved, which had all the signs of
being unsafe.

1. "French experts very disturbed by health effects of Monsanto GM corn"
GMWatch 23 April 2004

2. "Filipino islanders blame GM crop for mystery sickness. Monsanto
denies scientist's claim that maize may have caused 100 villagers to
fall ill" John Aglionby in Kalyong, southern Philippines, The Guardian,
Wednesday 3 March 3, 2004
gmdebate/Story/0,2763,1 160789,00.html

3. Traavik, T. Lecture to Special Biosafety Genok and TWN Seminar, 22
February, Kuala Lumpur, and personal communication.

4. "Despite ban, agriculturists can't stop farmers from planting Bt
corn", Allen Estabillo, Minda News 23 April 2004 btcorn.html

5. Cummins J. Regulatory sham over Bt-crops. ISIS report 1 December
2003; also Science in Society 2004, 21, 30.

6. Cummins J. Bt toxins in genetically modified crops: regulation by
deceit. Science in Society 2004, 22 (in press).

7. Vázquez-Padrón RI, Gonzáles-Cabrera J, Garcia-Tovar C, Neri-Bazan L,
Lopéz-Revilla R, Hernández M, Moreno-Fierro L and de la Riva GA. CrylAc
protoxin from Bacillus thringiensis sp. kurstaki HD73 binds to surface
proteins in the mouse small intestine. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 2000,
271, 54-8; Ho MW. Bt toxin binds to mouse intestine. Science in Society
2004, 21, 7.

8. Ho MW. Transgenic DNA & Bt toxin survive digestion. Science in
Society 2004, 21, 11; Chowdhury EH, Kuribara H, Hino A, Sultana P,
Mikami O, Shimada N, Guruge KS, Saito M, Nakajima Y. Detection of corn
intrinsic and recombinant DNA fragments and CrylAb protein in the
gastrointestinal contents of pigs fed genetically modified corn Bt11. J
Anim Sci 2003, 81, 2546- 51.

9. Dutton A, Klein H, Romeis J and Bigler F. "Uptake of Bt-toxin by
herbivores feeding on transgenic maize and consequences for the predator
Chrysoperia carnea", Ecological Entomology 2002, 27, 441- 7.

10. Romeis J, Dutton A and Bigler F. "Bacillus thuringiensis toxin
(Cry1Ab) has no direct effect on larvae of the green lacewing
Chrysoperla carnea (Stephens) (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae)", Journal of
Insect Physiology 2004, in press.

11. Dutton A, Romeis J and Bigler F. "Assessing the risks of insect
resistant transgenic plants on entomophagous arthropods: Bt-maize
expressing Cry1Ab as a case study", BioControl 2003, 48, 611"36.

12. Ho MW. FAQs on genetic engineering. ISIS tutorial


14. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? TWN, Gateway, Gill &
Macmillan, Continuum, 1998, 2nd ed. 1999, re-issued 2003 in cd

15. Ho MW. The best kept secret of GM crops. Science in Society 2002, 15, 9.

16. Ho MW. GM maize approve on bad science in the UK. Science in Society
2002, 15. 10-25.

17. Collonier C, Berthier G, Boyer F, Duplan M-N, Fernandez S, Kebdani
N, Kobilinsky A, Romanuk M, Bertheau Y. Characterization of commercial
GMO inserts: a source of useful material to study genome fluidity.
Poster presented at ICPMB: International Congress for Plant Molecular
Biology (n°VII), Barcelona, 23-28th June 2003. Poster courtesy of Dr.
Gilles-Eric Seralini, Président du Conseil Scientifique du CRII-GEN,; also "Transgenic lines proven unstable" by Mae-Wan Ho,
ISIS Report, 23 October 2003

18. Ho MW. Living with the Fluid Genome. TWN & ISIS, 2003.

19. Ho MW. Unstable transgenic lines illegal. ISIS Report 3 December
2003; also Science in Society 2004, 21, 23.

20. Ho MW and Cummins J. Comment on Assessment Report C, submitted to UK
ACRE and European Food Safety Authority 6 April 2004 on behalf of ISIS
and ISP www.i-

21. Ho MW and Burcher S. Cows ate GM maize and died. Science in Society
2004, 21, 4-6.

22. El Estado espanol retirara un OGM a instancias de la UE. El maiz Bt
176 podria provoca resistencias a los antibioticos, GARA, Spain

htt p://
23. Ho MW. Syngenta's Spanish Trojan horse. Science in Society 2004, 21, 8.

24. Pusztai A, Bardocz S and Ewen SWB. Genetically modified foods:
Potential human health effects. In Food Safety: Contaminants and Toxins,
(J P F D'Mello ed.),
Scottish Agricultural College, Edinburgh, CAB International, 2003.
25. Fares NH and El-Sayed AK. Fine structural changes in the ileum of
mice fed on dendotoxin-treated potatotes and transgenic potatoes.
Natural Toxins, 1998, 6, 219-33; also "Bt is toxic" by Joe Cummins and
Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 7/8, February 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print), ISSN:
1474-1814 (online) www.i-

26. Novotny E. Animals avoid GM food, for good reasons. Science in
Society 2004, 21, 9-11.

27. Ho MW. Mice prefer non-GM. Science in Society 2002, 13/14, 24.

28. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. Cauliflower mosaic viral promoter - a
recipe for Disaster? Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 1999 11, 194-7.

29. Cummins J, Ho MW and Ryan A. Hazardous CaMV promoter? Nature
Biotechnology 2000, 18, 363.

30. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. Hazards of transgenic plants with the
cauliflower mosaic viral promoter. Microbial Ecology in Health and
Disease 2000, 12, 6-11.

31. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. CaMV35S promoter fragmentation hotspot
confirmed and it is active in animals. Microbial Ecology in Health and
Disease 2000, 12, 189.

32. Ho MW, Lim LC et al. The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World.
Independent Science Panel Report, ISIS & TWN, 2003

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