In an ideal world, genetically engineered (GE) foods would be considered a scientific and social panacea, one that could possibly end world hunger. They would be safe and free of toxins and dangerous mutations, would not pose a serious threat to the environment and best of all -- they would just be free.
But unfortunately for all the promise and hype surrounding their introduction into the global landscape, GE foods are none of the above.
To understand the potential dangers of genetically engineered food, you must first have a clear understanding of just what genetic engineering entails. It is a relatively new technology that combines genes from totally unrelated species to produce a supposedly superior product. Gene combinations that one would never expect -- such as those from an animal combined with those from a plant -- are being spliced together as we speak. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Sierra Club, a fish gene was spliced into a strawberry plant in order to improve its resiliency: the fish gene helps the strawberries endure cold temperatures, because the fish produces a natural version of anti-freeze to survive in ocean waters.
Such strange combinations have earned GE crops the apropos term of Frankenfood by the Sierra Club and other outfits concerned about its unforeseen and obvious effects on the natural environment.
And the Frankenfood monster has already run rampant across the global food landscape. While you may think that you can just avoid genetically engineered foods, thereby solving the problems it may create, you would be wrong. Consider this: over 60 percent of all processed foods purchased in the United States are manufactured with GE ingredients. The prime suspects are corn, potatoes, soybeans, and tomatoes. In fact, you are likely to find at least one member of that produce list on almost any processed food you eat.
But the part consumers should be chiefly concerned with is that the products containing genetically engineered organisms (GEO) are not clearly labeled as such. Why? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have deemed that GE crops and foods are "substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts."
Yet, according to an August 1990 report published in The New England Journal of Medicine, a genetically engineered form of the food supplement tryptophan produced toxic contaminants that resulted in 37 deaths, permanently disabled 1500 others, and caused 5000 more to become very ill in 1989. GE food has also been suspected to cause severe allergic reactions in some individuals. For example, if a GE food is designed to carry a peanut protein but is not labeled with such information, many people allergic to peanuts would suffer potentially fatal reactions.
So why do the FDA and AMA agree with GE's implementation? Some have accused both organizations of adopting the "substantially equivalent" claim to avoid further testing that may slow down production of more GE foods. With an estimated 150 new genetically engineered foods slated for approval in the next few years, additional testing is not something the government or the private sector seem to want to invest in.
Supporters for GE foods argue that genetic engineering is a newer technology that has improved upon conventional plant and animal breeding, but such an argument fails to point out GE's radical methods: there has never been a time when conventional breeding could cross species - like plant and animal, for example -- in such a drastic manner. In GE, there are no limits to what can be spliced together. What is most alarming, according the Sierra Club report, is that there have even been attempts to splice human genes into plants and animals eventually used for human consumption.
Further, genetic engineering not only affects the food we eat but it may also dangerously affect entire ecosystems. Trees are now being genetically engineered to, interestingly enough, not produce seeds, in order to divert that energy to faster growth. Indeed, it has been proposed that whole forests be filled with these non-reproductive trees, but the danger is that these trees could cross with native varieties and damage whole forests. The same goes for GE fish and other GE products if they are released into the natural environment - they are designed to grow stronger and faster but if Darwinism holds true, survival of the fittest could mean the destruction of native species.
It gets worse. It is entirely possible that the soil in which GEO's grow may be contaminated for months on end. For example, GE corn, which is modified to produce a pesticide called Bacilllus thuringiensis, or Bt, contains that pesticide in every cell, including its roots. Such toxins have been found in the soil and persist for months. And make sure to keep in mind that GEO's released into the environment cannot be recalled or contained and that its negative effects are irretrievable and irreversible.
So right about now, you are probably thinking that there must be an upside to GE crops, that at least it can provide more food for third world countries, thereby hopefully alleviating world hunger. Wrong again. Right now, there is plenty of food for everyone - it is the distribution that is uneven. In fact, in poorer countries GE food may even contribute to further hunger, if they rely on monoculture GE crops that may be vulnerable to pests and disease rather than growing a variety of natural crops. According to Vandana Shiva, an Indian writer and activist, "numerous crops are pushed to extinction" as corporations capitalize on a dependency for seeds, fertilizers and pesticides necessary to maintain GE crops.
Biotechnology corporations have taken further steps to capitalize on GE profits with the creation of Terminator seed technology, which renders the GE crop plant sterile. Such technology would make it impossible for farmers to save seeds from previous crops in order to plant new ones, a profit mechanism that would especially impact poorer farmers forced to repurchase seeds every season to keep their crops coming.
Sadly, U.S. tax dollars were used to fund the aptly named Terminator project -- the United States Department of Agriculture played a major role in its development and is actually part owner of its patent.
If you want to take a look at GE's big picture, then think of genetically engineered foods as the largest food experiment in the world -- unprecedented in the 3.8 billion year history of life on this planet -- with humans as its test subjects. At the very least, consumers should be aware when they are taking part in an experiment, which would dictate that there should be labels indicating any and all use of GEOs. That's a first step that has yet to be completely taken.
And there are many others before GE can exploit its utopian promise to end world hunger, save food crops from natural destruction, and guarantee a healthier body.
-- If you want to add your name to a petition requiring mandatory labeling of products containing genetically engineered components go to: http//www.safe-food.org/-campaign/petition.html.
© Melt Magazine 2002