The Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods

Charles Margulis, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 114, Number 3

 Click here to download a PDF of this article.

"Genetically Modified Foods: Breeding Uncertainty" (Schmidt
2005) overlooked many serious concerns about the environmental and health risks
of this new technology. Potential problems from antibiotic-resistant genes used
in gene-altered crops, risks from unintended effects of the genetic engineering
process, the increases in pesticide use stemming from widespread planting of
genespliced varieties-these and several other concerns were ignored or hardly
mentioned in the lengthy article. Additional information on this topic is
available from the Center for Food Safety (CFS 2000, 2004).

Instead, Schmidt's
article states that "GM agriculture is here to stay" (Schmidt 2005) and gives
readers the false impression that safety and regulatory issues have been
adequately addressed by industry and government. Nothing could be further from
the truth. For example, regarding the risk of allergies from gene-altered
foods, Schmidt stated that biotech companies avoid allergy problems by avoiding
genes from the most common allergens. However, in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Nestle (1996) pointed out that this approach leaves many
uncertainties:

Most biotechnology companies
use microorganisms rather than food plants as gene donors, even though the allergenic
potential of these newly introduced microbial proteins is uncertain, unpredictable, and untestable …. Because
FDA requirements do not apply to foods that are rarely allergenic or to donor
organisms of unknown allergenicity, the policy would appear to favor industry over consumer
protection.

Schmidt (2005) went on
to assert that after a 1993 study alerted them to the possibility of
introducing allergens, biotech companies developed better screens and learned
to abandon varieties that could not be deemed allergen- free. Far from
abandoning a risky new variety 5 years after this study, industry marketed a
new genetically engineered corn variety, despite warning signs that it might
trigger allergies in people. Although it was registered only for nonfood uses,
the altered corn, called StarLink, contaminated hundreds of food products sold
in supermarkets nationwide and cost industry and farmers hundreds of millions
of dollars to clean up. Aventis paid $110 million to compensate farmers for
lost markets due to StarLink contamination, and analysts estimated that the
company spent an additional $500 million to pay for losses to farmers, food
processors, and grain handlers (Harl 2003; Jacobs 2003). Despite this and other
troubling contamination episodes, such as those described by Gillis (2002),
Nichols (2002), and Greenpeace (2005), the biotech industry continues to grow
open fields of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops (crops altered to
produce experimental drugs or industrial proteins) that have never been assessed
for their allergenic potential or other food safety issues.

Schmidt also
ignored scientific concerns about the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA)
approach to gene-altered foods. Millstone et al. (1999) criticized the idea of "substantial
equivalence" that the FDA uses to evaluate genetically engineered foods,
calling the concept "inherently anti-scientific because it was created to provide
an excuse for not requiring biochemical and toxicological tests." In a letter
published in Nature Biotechnology, Schenkelaars (2002) also derided the concept and noted that
more appropriate testing methods would "systematically detect unintended changes
in the composition of GM crops…as such changes may be of toxicological,
immunological, or nutritional concern." A lawsuit the CFS brought against the
FDA exposed documents from top level scientists throughout the agency, who
warned that the FDA's equivalence based policy was inadequate to protect
against these kinds of unintended changes in gene-altered food (Alliance for Biointegrity
2004).

The purported benefits of gene-modified varieties should be examined
against other agricultural approaches that have shown documented gains for food
production and the environment. Schmidt (2005) cited a study of recent field
trials of gene-altered rice in China
that looked at a few dozen farms (Huang 2005). However, in one of the largest-ever
studies of commercial rice growing, researchers found that thousands of Chinese
farmers using agroecologic techniques saw yield increases of 89% while completely
eliminating some of their most common pesticides (Zhu 2000). Other large-scale
projects have shown that thousands of Chinese farmers using ecologic techniques
significantly reduced pesticide use without expensive, patented gene-modified seeds
(Yanqing 2002).

Finally, Schmidt (2005) claimed he could get no answer to his
questions about industry's plans for protecting their patented seeds in the
developing world. However, that answer came in 1998, when family farm advocates
exposed the biotech industry's "terminator genes" that instill seed sterility
in gene-altered varieties (Rural Advancement Foundation International 1998).
This terminator technology was developed to ensure that farmers in the
developing world could not reuse genetically engineered seed (ETC Group 2002).
Advocates have uncovered over two dozen similar industry patents for seed sterility
engineering (Rural Advancement Foundation International 1999). This technology threatens
the lives of over 1.4 billion people who rely on saved seed for their daily nutritional
needs, yet it is being brought to market by a genetic engineering industry that
perversely promises to "feed the world."

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