Or do the potential dangers involved in the new technology pose too great a risk? * Supporters of GM foods say: GM crops are the logical next step in agriculture, and they have never been proven to be harmful to human beings. The next generation of GM crops could produce health benefits–such as vegetables with extra vitamins or fruit containing important vaccines and antibiotics–that would be immensely helpful to developing countries. * Critics of GM foods say: Interfering with the genes of plants could disturb entire ecosystems and result in unintended environmental and health consequences.
Also, because the plight of developing nations is the result of far broader issues of social injustice, no amount of GM food could truly fix the problems there. Genetically modified (GM) food has become so common in the U. S. that most people do not even know when they are consuming it. But it is widely estimated that up to 70% of all processed food in U. S. supermarkets contain ingredients that have been altered at the genetic level. GM ingredients can be found in certain brands of peanut butter, potato chips and margarine, among many other types of food.
GM foods–also referred to as genetically engineered foods–are created when an organism’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is the molecular basis for heredity in most living things, is altered in some way. Agricultural biologists can modify existing genes, transplant genes from one organism’s DNA into another’s or even synthesize entirely new structures and insert them into a plant’s DNA. Although the alteration of genes is a fairly new technology, scientists have already invented a variety of new organisms, such as coffee beans that do not contain caffeine and onions that can be chopped without inducing tears.
See 1999 Genetically Engineered Food] Nearly all GM foods on the market, however, come from just four types of crops: corn, cotton, canola and soybeans. Those plants are altered so that they produce their own insecticide, for example, or become immune to particular brands of pesticides. Since 1996, when the first GM soybean was introduced, the use of GM crops in the U. S. has increased at an incredible rate. But because the technology behind GM foods is relatively new, many fear that there has not been enough testing to prove that it is completely risk-free.
Europeans, for example, have been highly skeptical of any benefits they might gain from GM foods. Many nations in the European Union (EU) have effectively banned imports of what they refer to as “Frankenfoods,” a reference to the famous story of the fictional monster assembled by Dr. Frankenstein from miscellaneous spare parts. The U. S claims that the EU’s anti-GM food policy violates free trade laws. Many questions remain regarding the future of GM foods. Should they continue to be sold in the U. S. , even though they may have unforeseen negative consequences?
Or should the U. S. take a cue from the EU and limit the selling of GM foods until they are unequivocally proven to be risk-free? Do the possible future health benefits of GM foods–such as fruits and vegetables with extra vitamins and vaccines built into their DNA–cancel out any potential risks that the new technology brings? Supporters of GM foods say that since there has been no evidence of GM foods harming humans, it is reasonable to assume that they are safe for consumption. GM food backers denounce criticism of genetic engineering as fear-mongering.
Besides, they argue, no new technology is without a certain degree of risk. GM food supporters believe that the possible health benefits of GM foods overwhelm any possible dangers. Supporters of biotech crops also maintain that if GM food technology is allowed to develop, it may prove to be instrumental in eliminating world hunger. Future GM foods could be fortified with increased nutrients, which would make it easier for people in impoverished nations to enjoy a healthy diet, supporters say. Opponents of GM foods, however, argue that the idea that global hunger could be eliminated by biotech crops is deceptive.
They maintain that since hunger is caused mostly by poverty, GM foods would not be an adequate long-term solution to the problem. GM food critics say that the notion that biotech crops can end hunger is merely a public-relations stunt crafted to rally public support for the new technology. Critics of GM foods also point to several studies indicating that rats, when fed a diet of GM vegetables, develop serious health problems. Because the technology behind GM foods is so new, opponents argue, there is no way of knowing how it will affect the health of consumers.
Critics further contend that introducing genetically altered plant life into stable ecosystems could alter the fragile biosphere in ways no one can accurately predict. The Development of Agricultural Biotechnology In February 1953, Francis Crick, a British biophysicist, entered a pub in Cambridge, England, and announced, “We have discovered the secret of life! ” Crick and his partner, the Chicago-born geneticist James Watson, were celebrating because they had just established that the physical structure of DNA follows a “double helix” pattern, which is a geometric shape resembling a twisted ladder.
The genetic information of any given organism is coded within its DNA as a sequence of nucleotides, which form the “rungs” of the double helix. Building upon that discovery, another pair of scientists, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer, created the first-ever transgenic organism in 1973. Cohen and Boyer used a special “restriction enzyme” to cut out a specific gene sequence from a toad’s DNA. They then pasted the genes into the DNA of an Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacterium. As the bacterium reproduced, Cohen and Boyer observed that each successive generation contained the same toad gene that they had originally spliced into the E. oliDNA.
The success of Cohen and Boyer’s experiment helped to lay the groundwork for all future developments in the field of genetic engineering. In 1977, scientists discovered that the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which ordinarily causes a type of cancer in plants, could be manipulated to carry beneficial types of genes into plant cells. Biologists, who at this point were learning how to create new gene sequences from scratch, replaced the tumor-causing genes in Agrobacterium tumefaciens with synthetic genes that protect plants from drought or pestilence.
When scientists exposed plants to those modified bacteria, some of those plants began to exhibit the desirable characteristics without developing any of the cancerous tumors. The field of agricultural biotechnology expanded rapidly after that breakthrough. In the early 1980s, researchers developed new methods of transferring genes into plant cells. One such method involves a piece of machinery called the Biolistic Particle Delivery System, also known as the “gene gun. ” The gene gun fires minuscule gold pellets, coated in genetic material, through plant tissue.
In theory, as the “bullets” pass through the tissue, they leave behind their foreign genes, which eventually work their way into the plant’s DNA. Like the Agrobacterium tumefaciens method, however, the gene gun technique has a relatively low success rate. Scientists say that does not matter; because of the rapid rate at which cells multiply, one successful gene transfer could create entire fields of modified plants. The first genetically altered plant was developed in 1983. Luis Herrera-Estrella, a Mexican scientist, used the Agrobacterium tumefaciens method to insert antibiotics into a tobacco plant’s genetic structure.
However, it would take more than 10 years until a GM food was commercially available in the U. S. Throughout the 1980s, scientists working for large biotechnology companies such as Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. continued developing new GM crops, but none of those crops reached U. S. consumers because they lacked approval from any regulatory bodies. In May 1992, that all changed. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that GM foods did not differ fundamentally from non-GM foods, and could therefore be sold without government regulation.
The FDA’s policy statement also assigned responsibility to the biotechnology companies for any potential health hazards resulting from their GM foods. Yet despite that landmark statement, biotechnology companies, seeking to allay public concern, submitted their foods for FDA approval anyway. In 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato, developed by Calgene Inc. to maintain a longer shelf life, became the first GM crop to receive FDA approval. The tomato sold well initially, but due in part to high development costs and dwindling sales, it was discontinued in 1997.
During that same year, Monsanto absorbed cash-poor Calgene into its ever-expanding biotech empire. The Rapid Expansion of GM Crops Monsanto, based in St. Louis, Mo. , was formed in 1901 as a manufacturer of saccharine, an artificial sweetener. Over the course of the 20th century, it evolved into an agricultural chemical company, creating and marketing popular weed-killing herbicides such as Lasso, Ramrod and Roundup. Monsanto shifted its focus from chemicals to biotechnology in 1981.
In 1996, the company introduced a genetically modified soybean that was immune to glyphosate, the primary active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. Farmers who planted that soybean could spray their entire fields with Roundup, killing all the weeds but leaving the crop unharmed. The Roundup Ready soybean, as Monsanto calls it, was later joined by similarly modified strains of corn and canola. The introduction of Roundup Ready crops helped to spark a global explosion in the GM food market. Today, nearly 200 million acres of GM crops have been planted worldwide, up from 4. million acres in 1996, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
Roughly 120 million acres of GM crops are found in the U. S. alone, with Monsanto representing a significant percentage of that acreage. Nearly 90% of the GM soy, canola and cotton grown in the U. S. , for example, originates from Monsanto’s labs. Most GM crops have been modified to be either herbicide- or insect-resistant. Herbicide-resistant plants–such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready line–are immune to the weed-killing chemicals found in commercial herbicides.
Insect-resistant crops are modified to create a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that is naturally toxic to several harmful species of insects, such as the pink bollworm and the tobacco budworm. Because the plants themselves are poisonous to insects, farmers do not need to spray their crops with pesticides, which harm the environment. Biotechnicians also say modifications like those lead to more efficient farming and, in turn, result in higher crop yields. In the future, scientists say, crops will be modified to perform a host of beneficial biological duties.
Second-generation GM crops will be more nutritious and more flavorful, stay ripe longer, and resist drought conditions, they say. Some involved in the marketing of GM crops predict that in the near future, vaccines for diseases such as polio and typhoid will be delivered to developing nations in vegetables such as tomatoes and corn. One GM crop with enormous medical potential is so-called golden rice. That GM rice contains increased levels of beta-carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A. Golden rice was first developed by scientists in Switzerland in 2000 and was perfected by British scientists in March 2005.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as many as 500,000 children go blind yearly due to a lack of vitamin A. Some biotechnicians believe that golden rice, which has not yet been made available to consumers, could eliminate such cases of blindness. Many consumers remain skeptical about GM crops, however, and several regulatory miscues have done little to reassure them. In 2000, for example, a batch of StarLink corn, a type of GM corn that had not been approved for human consumption, appeared in processed food products such as taco shells.
Several people who ate the taco shells sustained allergic reactions, which some experts said were directly related to the StarLink corn. Many products were recalled, and consumer confidence in GM corn was drastically reduced. GM corn was back in the headlines in 2005. The Swiss biotech company Syngenta AG alerted the U. S. in December 2004 that it had been accidentally distributing an experimental, unapproved strain of insect-resistant GM corn since 2001. Representatives from Syngenta told regulators that this particular strain, known as Bt 10, was very similar to an approved and widely distributed strain of corn, Bt 11.
Still, Syngenta issued a statement in March 2005 saying that all Bt 10 corn and unused Bt 10 seeds had been destroyed or isolated. Then, in May 2005, the British newspaper the Independent reported that a secret study carried out by Monsanto showed that rats developed blood and kidney abnormalities after eating a diet of MON 863, a strain of GM corn created by Monsanto. Those abnormalities indicated to doctors that either the rats’ immune systems were weakening or their bodies were making certain biological adjustments necessary to fight tumors.
In a statement, Monsanto defended its product, saying that the rat study had been submitted to regulatory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority, which went on to approve the sale of the corn. MON 863 is also planted and sold in both the U. S. and Canada. In some cases, Monsanto has discontinued certain kinds of its GM crops. For example, Monsanto halted production of its insect-resistant GM potato in 2001 and its Roundup Ready GM wheat in 2004. In both instances, Monsanto issued a statement saying it was simply trying to concentrate on other crops, and that GM wheat and GM potato production would eventually be resumed.
But some people involved in the anti-GM movement say lack of confidence in GM technology–by both consumers and farmers–weighed heavily on Monsanto’s decision to discontinue each product. GM Food Policy in the U. S. and Europe GM foods have become a fact of life in the U. S. Although the only GM whole food widely available in the U. S. is a strain of virus-resistant papaya, roughly 70% of all processed foods purchased in U. S. supermarkets contain GM ingredients. That is mostly due to the prevalence of GM corn and soy, which are used to make common additives such as lecithin and corn syrup.
Although most Americans consume GM foods on a regular basis, a significant portion have expressed skepticism about them. For example, an ABC News poll conducted in 2003 found that 55% of respondents would be less likely to buy a food if they knew it had been genetically modified. Still, U. S. consumers have proven to be less outspokenly anti-GM than their counterparts in the EU, and it is far easier to find food containing GM ingredients in U. S. stores than it is in Europe. Some experts believe that one of the reasons the GM food industry has made such headway in the U. S. s because Monsanto, the country’s leading agriculture-chemical company, has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the White House.
In 1997, at the dawn of the GM revolution, Monsanto spent $4 million persuading President Bill Clinton (D, 1993-2001) and his administration to pressure the EU into accepting Monsanto’s GM grain. That same year, Monsanto welcomed Mickey Kantor, a former Clinton aide, onto its board of directors. Some opponents of GM foods believe that this political influence has reaped many benefits for Monsanto, including the ongoing lack of labeling laws for GM foods sold in the U. S. See 2005 Labeling Genetically Modified Foods (sidebar)] In the EU, on the other hand, 54% of European citizens surveyed said they would never accept GM foods, and 31% would accept them only if they were highly regulated.
Experts say that European skepticism about GM foods can be traced to several sensational food crises that erupted in the late 1990s, such as a “mad cow” disease scare in England and the discovery of chickens tainted with the toxic chemical dioxin in Belgium. Although neither of those incidents was related to genetic engineering, many believe they made Europeans nervous about the idea of GM foods.
In 1999, the influential British medical journal the Lancet published a controversial study by the biochemist Arpad Pustzai. The study concluded that rats who were fed GM potatoes developed stomach ailments and weakened immune systems. The study touched off an immense controversy in Europe; some claimed that Pustzai’s research was scientifically unsound, while others accused Pustzai’s detractors of engaging in smear tactics. As a result of Pustzai’s study, the mad cow scare, and other incidents, public opinion of GM foods in the EU is extremely low.
Consequently, the EU’s bureaucratic process for approving GM foods “is arguably the strictest in the world,” says Simon Barber of the European Association for Bioindustries. The EU’s GM food labeling laws are widely seen as the world’s toughest, and in five EU member countries–France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece and Austria–it is illegal to plant certain GM crops. That hard-line stance has angered leading GM food exporters. In April 2004, the U. S. , Canada and Argentina–the world’s three leading producers of biotech crops–asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to review the EU’s anti-GM food policy.
The three countries say that the EU’s stance violates free trade laws, because many European nations will not accept food imports unless they are specifically labeled as non-GM. The WTO is scheduled to present a preliminary decision on the GM food case in August 2005. There have been some signs that the EU is succumbing to that pressure. In May 2004, the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, lifted an unofficial six-year moratorium on the sale of GM foods when it voted to approve the sale of Syngenta’s Bt 11 corn to consumers.
The move was criticized by environmental advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, a nonprofit international coalition of environmentalists. By overturning the unofficial ban, the European Commission chose “to defend U. S. farmers and narrow agro-business interests,” says Eric Gall of Greenpeace. Still, most EU member countries will not accept imports of GM foods. GM Food Supporters Embrace New Technology Supporters of GM foods point to a plethora of health benefits that could develop if the technology is allowed to advance.
In the near future, supporters say, GM foods could be capable of delivering crucial vaccines and vitamins to massive amounts of people. Furthermore, they say, crops could also be modified to withstand harsh climate conditions, thereby ensuring that every growing season is a productive one. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a corporately financed nonprofit think tank, points out that current insect-resistant GM crops help the environment by eliminating the need for spraying dangerous pesticides, which can pollute waterways.
Advocates of biotech food also maintain that there have been no reported instances of humans suffering any ill effects from eating GM crops. If GM foods were bad for you, supporters ask, why have no widespread health crises been reported in the U. S. , where GM corn, soy, cotton and canola are ubiquitous? Supporters also note that the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Institute of Food Technologists and the United Nations have all determined that GM foods are not fundamentally different from non-GM foods.
Responding to critics’ charges that biotech foods should not be sold until they have been proven, unequivocally, to be completely free from risk, GM food supporters maintain that there is no such thing as a risk-free new technology. Such thinking is “unrealistic and unwise,” writes Norman Borlaugh, a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Indeed,” he writes, “‘zero biological risk’ is not even attainable. ” The nonpartisan Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has also accepted GM foods as a viable technology with huge potential benefits.
Gregory Jaffe, the director of CSPI’s biotechnology project, says that there is a risk involved in GM foods, but, if scrutinized, nearly anything could be said to have a risk factor. “If you did a risk assessment for a peanut today,” he says, “it would not necessarily be approved. ” Another common argument made by GM food backers is that biotechnology is simply a refinement of a process–the introduction of genes into preexisting organisms–that occurs in nature on a daily basis.
A “Brief Biotech Timeline” found on Monsanto’s British Web site, for example, starts from “thousands of years ago,” when people first began using bacteria to make beer and bread, and includes Gregor Mendel’s mid-19th-century studies of plant genetics, which proved that plants passed down physical characteristics to successive generations through their genes. Scientists have used Mendel’s discoveries to crossbreed plants, creating a variety of plant hybrids with desirable traits.
GM food supporters say that new technologies–like the gene gun and the use of Agrobacterium tumefaciens–are simply an extension of hybridization. Many supporters also point out that GM crops could prove to be a boon to developing nations that cannot adequately provide their people with food. In its report to the international community on GM crops, which was released in May 2004, the U. N. said that GM foods, with their possibility for greater crop yields and added vitamins, represent one of the best chances the world has of eliminating global hunger.
Some supporters of GM food technology have expressed frustration that activists are protesting something that could become a major weapon in the worldwide fight against malnourishment and poverty. Proponents of GM foods say that those who protest biotechnology companies like Monsanto should look at the potential health benefits that GM crops could provide, particularly to poverty-stricken developing countries.
Opposition to GM foods amounts to nothing more than “horror at the thought of change [and] romantic rhapsodizing about the virtues of traditional life,” writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Too bad that the wretched of the earth will, as usual, pay for the fantasies of the affluent. ” Critics Warn of Potential Health Consequences Opponents of GM crops say that the technology is still too new and untested to be so prevalent in the marketplace. They contend that altering an organism’s genes is in no way an update of nature. “In nature, when would… a pesticide-producing bacterium [interbreed] with a potato? ” writes Liane Casten, president of Chicago Media Watch, a nonprofit organization. Critics point to instances where unmodified plants have become “contaminated” by nearby GM crops.
In 2004, for instance, experiments concluded that a strain of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready grass spread its genetically altered pollen into fields as far as 13 miles away. Many environmentalists say they fear that once GM crops are planted, the modified genes they carry will be irretrievably integrated into the ecosystem. Any unintended negative side effects that may develop as a result of those modified genes would become part of the agricultural landscape for good, they warn. Some organic farmers, who pride themselves on their nonuse of pesticides and insecticides, warn that GM foods could make organic farming impossible.
Organic farmers who grow fruit and vegetables near fields of GM crops fear that their own crops could become “contaminated” by altered genes, effectively ruining their plants’ organic status. “This is a situation where if you adopt a technology, it could ruin my livelihood,” says Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, an organic farming group. GM food opponents also maintain that the relatively new field of biotechnology has not been properly tested for potential health hazards.
The FDA’s process for approving GM foods is far too lenient, critics say. The FDA “approves GM foods for public consumption simply by comparing the nutritional content of GM and non-GM foods, and checking a database of known allergens,” write Kirsten Schwind and Hollace Poole-Kavana of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, an anti-hunger think tank. “According to the logic of the FDA, we are the guinea pigs. ” Another concern critics have with the proliferation of GM foods is that it will lead to an increasingly centralized agricultural industry.
Large multinational corporations like Monsanto stand to profit most from GM technology, while small farmers–particularly those trying to grow organic food–face nearly insurmountable odds just to keep their farms afloat, opponents say. Critics also express distaste at the idea of a small handful of major companies controlling what the nation eats. “We can’t let the multinational corporations hand everything to us,” says Sam Cantrell, president of Maysie’s Farm Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ecologically sustainable agriculture methods.
Such critics argue that the profit-at-all-costs attitude of huge corporations is diametrically opposed to what the goal of the agriculture industry should be: to produce healthy, safe food using environmentally responsible growing techniques. Furthermore, the claim that GM foods could help to end world hunger is unfounded, critics say. They point out that world hunger is caused by deep-rooted social injustices.
“Hunger is caused by a lack of access to basic human rights, including good education, health care, housing and living wages–in the United States and throughout the world,” Schwind and Poole-Kavana write. Hunger is also caused by racism and inequality. GM crops fundamentally cannot end hunger because hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food. ” Some opponents of GM foods question biotechnology companies’ commitment to ending world hunger. Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology and geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, argues that if GM food corporations truly cared about aiding the developing world, they would create GM foods more suitable to warmer climates, such as cassava, millet and sorghum.
Other critics have suggested that GM food companies are cynically cultivating the idea that genetically altered food can end world hunger in order to rally support for their cause. “There are plenty of other safe, more economical ways to bring food to the starving,” Casten writes. “But those ways don’t make fortunes for biotech CEOs or result in big campaign contributions for politicians. ” Will GM Foods Prove to Be Safe? In June 2005, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade organization of biotechnology companies that includes Monsanto, held its annual convention in Philadelphia, Pa.
Nearly 19,000 members of the biotech industry attended the convention, while a “counterconvention” of GM food protesters called “BioDemocracy,” at a nearby park attracted just 1,200 people. The relative paucity of protesters speaks to the lack of public outcry over GM foods in the U. S. as compared with Europe, where a lack of popular support for genetically engineered crops has effectively shut them out of supermarkets in the EU. “A GM-organism label in Paris or Berlin might as well be a skull-and-crossbones,” writes John Feffer in the American Prospect.
The U. S. ontinues to lock horns with the EU in a bitter trade dispute over GM food imports. Meanwhile, in the U. S. , the average consumer eats GM foods several times a day in products such as breakfast cereal, salad dressing and cookies. Although many polls suggest that a majority of Americans would like to see labels affixed to food that has been genetically engineered, food companies are not required to do so in the U. S. Supporters of GM foods say that such labels would be pointless; after all, like the FDA, supporters do not consider GM foods to be different from non-GM foods in any fundamental way.