New Genetically Engineered Corn Contains Proteins from Mysterious Sea Creatures

Experts say the engineered corn product will likely contaminate the food supply if authorized.
From the Union of Concerned Scientists
Feb. 26, 2009
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[Editor’s note: UN-BEE-LEEV-A-BLE!!! We may soon all be eating corn that contains proteins discovered in three mysterious deep-sea creatures found only near hot vents in the ocean. The Syngenta Co. has genetically engineered corn to produce the new proteins found in the mysterious creatures, and now the USDA is about to approve widespread cultivation of the new GE corn, which is intended to be used for ethanol production. Problem is, corn is wind pollinated, which means that the proteins Syngenta has added to their corn will almost certainly spread quickly and end up in everybody else’s corn.

If you prefer not to have your food contaminated with material from plants that have been engineered to produce drugs or industrial products, you need to let your congressional representatives, the secretary of agriculture and the president know ASAP. See below for more information, prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, on this startling genetic engineering controversy. — Cheryl Long, editor in chief]

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently closed the public comment period for its proposal to permit — for the first time — widespread cultivation of a food crop engineered for biofuel production. If authorized, the new ethanol corn would also be the first genetically engineered industrial crop destined to be planted on millions of acres annually. Grown at such an enormous scale, the ethanol corn would inevitably contaminate corn intended for the food and feed supply, exposing people to new engineered proteins that may pose an allergy risk.

In comments submitted to the USDA, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called on the agency to ban the outdoor production of ethanol corn and all other food crops engineered for industrial or drug purposes to protect the food supply. Additionally, UCS supports moving beyond corn — engineered or not — as a biofuel source because it may contribute to, rather than reduce, global warming pollution, and because alternative sources can be obtained in a more responsible and sustainable manner.

Background

Last November, the USDA announced its preliminary decision to grant non-regulated status to Syngenta Company's genetically engineered ethanol corn, and invited public comment on both the decision and the draft environmental assessment that details the agency's reasons for its decision. After reviewing those comments, the USDA will decide whether to deregulate the new industrial crop. Deregulation would mean the product would no longer be subject to USDA oversight and could be grown without any restrictions at any scale in the United States.

Syngenta, a giant, multinational pesticide company, developed the ethanol corn to reduce the costs of producing ethanol from corn kernels. By engineering the crop to contain a new protein that breaks down corn starch under the high temperature phase of ethanol production, the company expects its new product to supplant the current method of using proteins derived from microbes. The genetic engineering process ensures that most of the novel protein is produced at relatively high levels in the corn kernel.

Syngenta patched together the engineered protein from ones it obtained from three unusual and relatively unknown organisms that live near extremely hot deep sea vents. Scientists have found them to be so extraordinary that they cannot be classified with such well-known organisms as yeast, bacteria, plants or animals, but must be assigned to an entirely new category.

If grown at the scale Syngenta intends, the new corn would certainly contaminate the food supply, according to UCS scientists. As a result, people would wind up consuming these new proteins, which have never been in food and were never intended for human consumption. In fact, except for a small cadre of scientists, human beings have never encountered them. Without this history of human exposure, scientists are uncertain if these new proteins will produce allergic reactions.

UCS Recommendations

In comments to the USDA, UCS urged them to ban the outdoor production of the ethanol corn and any other food crop genetically engineered to produce pharmaceutical or industrial substances. Absent a ban, UCS urged the agency not to move ahead with a decision regarding Syngenta's product until newly appointed officials are in place and have had an opportunity to review the ethanol corn request and broader biotechnology regulations.

Trade groups and companies involved in milling, refining, and exporting corn, including the Corn Refiners Association, National Grain and Feed Association, North American Export Grain Association, and North American Millers' Association, also opposed USDA approval of this engineered corn, citing concerns that its engineered protein could damage food products such as breakfast cereals and snack foods, as well as disrupt exports of such products.

UCS also urged the USDA to delay a decision because, according to UCS' analysis, the agency's decision-making process on the ethanol corn did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). To meet NEPA requirements, UCS urged the USDA to revise its draft environmental assessment, or prepare an environmental impact statement that details the major environmental impacts that widespread cultivation of the new corn may cause. UCS found that the agency's initial assessment failed to comply with NEPA in three respects. First, it did not allay concerns that the industrial corn's new protein may cause allergies in people. Second, the assessment did not consider the potential economic effects of commercial production of the ethanol corn, including impacts on exporters and growers if the corn were to contaminate shipments to countries that have not approved it. Third, the USDA only partially addressed alternatives to Syngenta's corn, ignoring other products that may offer significant advantages over the industrial crop.

Finally, UCS opposes a USDA decision to deregulate Syngenta's product because producing ethanol from corn may actually contribute to — rather than reduce — global warming emissions. Recent studies suggest that the production of biofuels from corn and other food crops — genetically engineered or not — may increase climate changing pollution. However, given the enormity of the global warming challenge, UCS believes that the United States should take advantage of the opportunity presented by biofuels by turning away from today's unsustainable food-based biofuels to tomorrow's sustainably produced non-food biofuels, such as mixed native grasses, agricultural waste and other cellulosic-based sources.

In a related matter, just before inauguration day, the USDA — at the request of UCS and others — extended the comment period for a controversial rule that would substantially weaken oversight of all engineered crops, including pharmaceutical and industrial crops. UCS submitted comments last November on the proposed rule, lambasting the USDA's rulemaking as "a serious abdication of its responsibility" to ensure that genetically engineered crops are produced and used safely. The extended public comment period, which ends March 17, gives the Obama administration an opportunity to weigh in on this important rule.


The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., and has offices in Berkeley, Calif., Chicago and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit the UCS website.

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