Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#696 - Biotech In Trouble--Part 2, 10-May-2000

We saw last week that the genetically-engineered-food industry
may be spiraling downward. Last July, U.S. Secretary of
Agriculture Dan Glickman -- a big supporter of genetically
engineered foods -- began comparing agricultural biotechnology
to nuclear power, a severely-wounded industry.[1] (Medical
biotechnology is a different industry and a different story
because it is intentionally contained whereas agricultural
biotech products are intentionally released into the natural
environment.)

In Europe, genetically engineered food has to be labeled and few
are buying it. As the NEW YORK TIMES reported two months ago,
"In Europe, the public sentiment against genetically engineered
[GE] food reached a ground swell so great that the cultivation
and sale of such food there has all but stopped."[2] The
Japanese government also requires GE foods to be labeled.
Americans in overwhelming numbers (80% to 90% or more) have
indicated they want GE foods labeled but the GE firms consider a
label tantamount to a skull and crossbones and the Clinton/Gore
administration has sided with the biotech corporations against
the people. To be fair, there are no indications that a
Republican president would take a different approach. The
biotech firms have invested heavily in U.S. elections and the
resulting government represents their interests at home just as
it does abroad. On this issue, to an astonishing degree, the
biotech firms ARE the government.

Since the early 1980s, biotech corporations have been planting
their own people inside government agencies, which then created
a regulatory structure so lax and permissive that biotech firms
have been able to introduce new genetically modified foods into
the nation's grocery stores at will. Then these same
"regulators" have left government and taken highly-paid jobs
with the biotech firms. It represents an extreme case of the
"revolving door" syndrome.

The U.S. regulatory system for GE foods, which was created in
1986, is voluntary.[3,pg.143] The U.S. Department of Agriculture
regulates genetically engineered plants and the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods made from those
plants. If any of the plants are, themselves, pesticidal then
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gets involved. But in no
case has any long-term safety testing been done. As the NEW YORK
TIMES reported last July, "Mr. Glickman [U.S. Secretary of
Agriculture] acknowledged that none of the agencies responsible
for the safety of genetically modified foods -- the Agriculture
Department, the F.D.A., and the Environmental Protection Agency
-- had enough staff or resources to conduct such testing."[1] At
the time Mr. Glickman made his statement, 70 million acres in
the U.S. had already been planted with genetically modified
crops and 2/3rds of the food in U.S. grocery stores contained
genetically modified plant materials.[3,pg.33]

The importance of safety testing was emphasized by the National
Academy of Sciences (NAS) in its latest (April 2000) report on
biotech foods. The NAS [pg. 63] said safety problems might
include these:

** New allergens may be introduced into foods.

** New toxins may be introduced into foods. The NAS said,
"...there is reason to expect that organisms in US
agroecosystems and humans could be exposed to new toxins when
they associate with or eat these plants." [pg. 129]

** Existing toxins in foods may reach new levels, or may be
moved into edible portions of plants. ("Overall increases in the
concentrations of secondary plant chemicals in the total plant
might cause toxic chemicals that are normally present only in
trace amounts in edible parts to be increased to the point where
they pose a toxic hazard," NAS said on pg. 72.)

** New allergens may be introduced into pollen, then spread into
the environment. [The NAS remains silent on the human-health
implications of new allergens spread via pollen. If the biotech
firms have their way, we will learn about this by trial and
error. Unfortunately, trial and error has a serious drawback in
this instance: once new genetic materials are released into the
environment, they cannot be retrieved. Unlike chemical
contamination, biotech contamination is irreversible.]

** Previously unknown protein combinations now being produced in
plants might have unforseen effects when new genes are
introduced into the plants;

** Nutritional content of a plant may be diminished. [pg. 140]

The mechanism for creating unexpected proteins or unexpected
toxins or allergens would be pleiotropy, the NAS explained [pg.
134]. Pleiotropy is the creation of multiple effects within an
organism by adding a single new gene. In other words, putting a
new gene into a tomato, intending to make the tomato more
resistant to cold weather, might by chance, and quite
unexpectedly, make some people allergic to the new tomato. "Such
pleiotropic effects are sometimes difficult to predict," the NAS
said. [pg. 134] The NAS said that FDA, USDA and EPA all need to
pay attention to such "unintended compositional changes" of
genetically modified foods.

Unfortunately, as the NAS pointed out, current tests are not
adequate for determining all the problems that might occur
because of pleiotropic effects. For example if a new protein is
created that has not previously been found in the food supply,
then there is no reliable basis for predicting whether it may
cause allergic reactions. Allergic reactions are not a trivial
matter, the NAS pointed out: "...food allergy is relatively
common and can have numerous clinical manifestations, some of
which are serious and life-threatening." [pg. 67]

New tests should be developed to test for allergenicity of
genetically modified foods, the NAS said several times (see, for
example, pg. 8, where the NAS called such new tests "highly
desirable"). Specifically, the NAS recommended that tests be
developed that actually measure reactions of the human immune
system, which is the human system in which allergic reactions
develop. The genetically modified foods on the market today have
not undergone controlled experiments on real human immune
systems. (Putting such foods into grocery stores is an
uncontrolled experiment of sorts, but with no one collecting the
data.)

In addition to human health problems, the NAS report discussed
some of the agricultural and environmental problems that might
occur from genetically modified (GM) plants:

** New chemicals in GM plants might kill predators and parasites
of insect pests, thus leading to the loss of nature's own
biological controls on certain pests. [pg. 74]

** Plants themselves might become toxic to animals. [pg. 75]

** Fallen leaves from GM plants might change the biological
composition of the soil, leading to changes in nutrient uptake
into plants or even toxicity to creatures living in the soil.
[pg. 75]

** Genes from genetically-engineered plants will escape and
enter into wild species. This is called gene flow and the NAS
says, "[T]otal containment of crop genes is not considered to be
feasible when seeds are distributed and grown on a commercial
scale." [pg. 92] In other words, gene flow is going to occur.
Wild plants are going to receive genes from genetically modified
organisms. The biotech firms are re-engineering nature without
understanding the means or the ends.

** When a plant is genetically engineered so that the plant
itself becomes pesticidal (for example, Bt-containing corn,
potatoes and other crops now planted on tens of millions of
acres in the U.S.), there may be effects on non-target
organisms. In other words, pesticidal crops may affect creatures
besides the specific pest they were intended to kill. The NAS
says, "Nontarget effects are often unknown or difficult to
predict." [pg. 136]

In sum, agricultural biotechnology has raced ahead at lightning
speed (going from zero acres planted with GE crops in 1994 to 70
million acres planted in 1999) without any long-term testing,
and with minimal understanding of the consequences. The NAS
refers to these politely as "uncertainties" and it acknowledges
that these uncertainties "often force agencies to base their
decisions on minimal data sets." [pg. 139]

So 2/3rds of the food in U.S. grocery stores contains plant
materials that were genetically engineered. If they were
subjected to government approval at all, it was on a strictly
voluntary basis, and the government "often" approved new plants
and new foods based on "minimal data sets," according to the
National Academy of Sciences. Some of the most important aspects
of these new foods had to be ignored because there is no way at
present to test for them.

In sum, the biotech industry and its acolytes in government are
flying blind and we are all unwitting passengers in their
rickety plane. This is not a historical record that inspires
confidence. No wonder the Clinton/Gore administration and the
biotech corporations do not want anyone to know which foods have
been genetically engineered. None of the biotech firms are even
CLAIMING that there are taste or nutritional benefits in the
biotech foods being sold today, so, to put it bluntly, consumers
would have to be out of their minds to eat this stuff or serve
it to their children.

Given the serious problems that the NAS said may occur as
thousands of new genetically modified foods are introduced into
the U.S. food supply without labels, naturally one wonders about
liability insurance for the biotech industry. You will not find
liability insurance discussed on the biotech industry's web
site, www.whybiotech.com, so it is probably one of the
industry's most serious problems.

Recently the Swiss company, Swiss Re, issued a report on GE
foods.[4] Swiss Re is a re-insurance company -- it insures
insurance companies against catastrophic loss. Swiss Re said
genetic engineering "represents a particularly exposed long-term
risk" and "genetic engineering losses are the kind which have
not yet, or only rarely, occurred and whose consequences are
extremely difficult to predict."

Swiss Re then asked (and answered) the question, "...so how can
genetic engineering risks be insured?" Here is Swiss Re's
answer:

"It is currently not possible to give a direct answer to this
question. A lot depends on whether consensus can be reached on
the relevant loss scenarios in a dialogue involving the genetic
engineering industry, society, and the insurance industry. This
will make genetic engineering risks more calculable and more
interesting to traditional insurance models. From the point of
view of the insurance industry, WE ARE AT PRESENT A LONG WAY
OFF. [Emphasis added.]

"Today we must assume that the one-sided acceptance of
incalculable risks means that any participants in this insurance
market run the risk not only of suffering heavy losses, but also
of losing control over their exposure."

Without intending to do so, the Swiss Re report brings to mind
an agenda for citizens who oppose the expansion of ag biotech:

(a) On the principle that the polluter shall pay, biotech firms
should be held strictly liable for any harms they may cause, not
requiring proof of negligence;

(b) Ag biotech corporations should not be allowed to
self-insure; as we know from the asbestos industry,
self-insurance can lead to bankruptcy and hundreds of thousands
of legitimate claims never being paid;

(c) Law suits should seek damages for gene flow, pollen drift,
inadequate testing for allergenicity, crop failures, and so on.
A series of lawsuits against private firms or government
agencies would get the insurance industry's attention.

(d) Stockholders in ag biotech firms should express concern (to
the board of directors, and to the Securities and Exchange
Commission) about the failure to disclose incalculable risks.
Stockholders in insurance companies should express concern about
the potential for "heavy losses" and "losing control over their
exposure" if coverage is extended to ag biotech firms.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Marian Burros, "U.S. Plans Long-Term Studies on Safety of
Genetically Altered Foods," NEW YORK TIMES July 14, 1999, pg.
A18.

[2] Carey Goldberg, "1,500 March in Boston to Protest Biotech
Food," NEW YORK TIMES March 27, 2000, pg. A14.

[3] National Research Council, GENETICALLY MODIFIED
PEST-PROTECTED PLANTS: SCIENCE AND REGULATION (Washington, D.C.:
National Academy Press, 2000). ISBN 0309069300. Pre-publication
copy available at http://www.nap.edu/html/gmpp/.

[4] Swiss Re, GENETIC ENGINEERING AND LIABILITY
INSURANCE; THE POWER OF PUBLIC PERCEPTION (UNDATED). Available
from http://www.swissre.com/e/publications/publications/flyers1/-
genetic.html (omit the hyphen).