Learn about the dangers of genetically modified crops.
Will genetically modified crops save us or sink us?
When members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in
Seattle last fall to discuss global trade issues,
negotiations were unexpectedly shut down by the shattering
of shop windows and police in body armor. Nearly 35,000
demonstrators from around the world clogged the city's
streets to protest what many saw as the closed-door
politics of global food corporatism. Meanwhile, the 137 WTO
delegates were there-rather skeptically by all accounts —
to iron out labor issues, decision-making policy and to
discuss what to do about a tense and growing international
food scare: the potential dangers of genetically modified
(GM) food. Instead, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets
littered the streets, 400 protesters went to jail and the
WTO went home stunned and empty-handed. Why? While the
immediate reasons involve an arguably overzealous response
to recent headlines, the root causes can be traced back to
a small seacoast lab, more than a century ago.
In 1874, Luther Burbank, a 26-year-old farmer's son from
Lancaster, Massachusetts, with an elementary school
education, had the unprecedented idea of taking the pollen
from one plant and fertilizing the fruit of another — thus
creating a hybrid. He didn't know if the qualities of the
male or the female would dominate, but the experiment was
an interesting gamble. In his 55 years of working with
plant species, Burbank produced over 800 strains and
varieties. Among these was the Burbank potato, developed to
combat the devastating potato blight affecting Ireland's
crop. He sold the rights to his lifesaving potato for $150.
In the 1950s, scientists began exposing seeds to X-rays,
hoping to jostle the genes inside. It worked, and mutant
varieties were the result. They selected from these and
were able to develop some new varieties that were
worthwhile, but the process was largely hit-or-miss and no
less time-consuming than hybridization.
Then science took a giant leap forward when the first gene
was transferred between plant organisms in 1973. Such
engineering involves the splicing of a gene from one
organism into another. Every gene — whether of bacteria,
plant or animal — codes for a specific protein. Thus, when
you insert a foreign gene into an organism, you prompt that
organism to produce a non-native protein, changing its
basic structure at the cellular level.
Just 14 years after the initial experiment, the first
genetically engineered plants were grown outdoors. By 1995,
these plants were growing on commercial acreage. Today,
more than half the nation's soybean crop is genetically
engineered. Modified soya is now in so many foods that it
is very difficult to keep it out of your shopping cart, try
though you might. There is no labeling requirement. The
only way you can be assured that what you eat has not been
genetically engineered is to grow it yourself or to buy
food that has been certified organic.
So what? Is there any reason someone should not want to eat
genetically altered food? To date, nobody knows for
certain, and that lack of certainty has thrown thousands of
jobs, untold fortunes and the general health of billions of
people into a blind trust. And trust may never again come
so easily to the dinner tables of the world.
Stirring the Pot
The current wave of anxiety concerning engineered food
began in early 1999, when a biologist named Arpad Pusztai
fed potatoes to rats in Aberdeen, Scotland.
The experiment Pusztai performed at the Rowett Research
Institute was meant to test whether GM crops designed to
produce an insecticide — in this case potatoes patented by
the Swiss company Novartis — could be harmful or toxic to
animals. He found that rats fed the GM potatoes for ten
days developed intestinal deformities and seemed to have
weakened immune systems compared to rats that were fed
natural potatoes. Even before the experiment could be
properly checked, Pusztai appeared on national television
pillorying GM food, consequently handing radical
environmental groups and already panicky consumers a reason
to fear GM crops as a health hazard.
In retrospect, it's no coincidence that the public outcry
over food safety began in Britain. It was the English,
after all, who discovered BSE, or mad cow disease, in their
livestock, an epidemic that has killed (or was a material
reason for the killing of) more than a million head of
cattle since 1991. Some 1,500 cows were destroyed because
of BSE as recently as last year. Needless to say, the
European public was already on edge about the safety of its
food. That fear was exacerbated last year, when Belgium
removed chicken from grocery store shelves after some of
the meat was found to have a high content of toxic dioxin.
And as if that wasn't enough, Coca Cola was forced to
recall $103 million worth of Coke in Belgium after
consumers complained of nausea, dizziness and headaches.
Small wonder GM foods were met with resistance.
And yet what do the facts of Pusztai's experiment really
show? Is ten days of feeding potatoes to rats enough
evidence to condemn biotechnology altogether? Scientists in
Britain point out that any normal potatoes fed to a rat for
ten days would stress both its digestive and immune
systems. Pusztai's study was discredited as "dubious
science" by Britain's Royal Society and no other evidence
has since been found to suggest that GM food is harmful to
human health. Likewise, studies at Cornell University, Iowa
State University and in Switzerland have come up empty on
forays into the possibility that GM crops may be harmful to
Nevertheless, the European public has not wavered. By the
time the WTO met in Seattle last November, the United
States and the European Union were in a trade war. The EU
had banned American beef treated with growth hormones,
while the U.S., in retaliation, imposed 100% tariffs on
certain EU foods like French truffles and British pork.
Meanwhile, McDonald's restaurants in France and Belgium
were vandalized and fields of modified crops in Germany
Bowing under public pressure, the EU refused to import any
more GM crops from the U.S. and Canada, thereby setting the
stage for the debacle in Seattle and the latest round of
talks in Montreal this past winter (see "The Biosafety Protocol Safeguards Against Genetically Modified Crops" in this issue). In the space of a few months, much of the
world had seen the promise and perceived danger of GM food .
. . and opted out.
Governing Business and Safety
Globally, sales of genetically modified seed grew 20-fold
between 1995 and 1998, a remarkable start out of the gate
for a relatively new technology. During that time, the GM
food corporations' promise of safety went unquestioned both
at home and abroad. And the seed corporations enjoyed what
can only be described as a cozy relationship with the U.S.
governmental bodies responsible for overseeing product
With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) overseeing the
nation's food supply, pesticides have to be approved by the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and new plant species
come under the review of the Department of Agriculture
(USDA). However, when genetic engineering involves breeding
plants that actually kill pest insects, the line between
food and insecticide is blurred. Responsibility quickly
becomes confused. The regulatory response to that conundrum
leaves large holes through which GM seed corporations have
been jumping for years.
Consider the FDA decision in 1992: The agency would not
recognize the process by which a food was developed, only
its character. It said, in effect, that if a new strain of
GM potato looks, smells and tastes like an ordinary potato,
then its review is concluded. Any nonaesthetic
modifications — the transfer into a potato of a gene from
the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt),
for example — would not be considered in food analyses. Bt,
a natural insecticide used by many organic farmers, is
already a registered pesticide in the U.S., excusing the
EPA of any further obligation to review Bt crops. The
USDA's responsibility is to make sure that new plant
varieties pose no threat to production agriculture or to
the environment during cultivation. It is enthusiastic in
its support of GM plants and has said as much in numerous
statements, including the following from its Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS):
Over the past year, there has been a continuous flow of
requests for determinations by APHIS that particular
field-tested organisms have no potential for... risk and
should no longer be regulated. These requests, from
developers of new products produced through biotechnology,
facilitate the entry of the products into the marketplace.
Sixteen new products in seven crop plants were the subject
of such determinations in the past 28 months.
Small wonder, then, that the first four years of GM seed
sales were astronomical.
But increasing concern among consumers — in Europe, Asia
and more recently the U.S. — over the unknown health and
environmental hazards of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) has suddenly got the biotech seed industry
scrambling to assure governments, growers, food processors
and the public of the safety of their products.
They look to be losing ground: Among the companies that
have announced they will refuse GM crops are Cadbury and
Nestle (in Europe); the Japanese brewers, Kirin and
Sapporo; Mexico's largest tortilla maker, Grupo Maseca; and
baby food manufacturers Gerber (which, incidentally, is
owned by biotech seed giant Novartis) and H.J.
Heinz. Add these to the dozens of high-profile companies
that have refused GM crops from the beginning, including
Eden Foods, Barbara's Bakery, Newman's Own, Bird's Eye, Ben
& Jerry's, Stonyfield Farm and Horizon Organic Dairy,
and the sum is a public relations nightmare. Even the U.S.
pet food company Iams has said it will reject GM maize for
its dog chow. But the latest blow may sting the most: In
January, Frito-Lay Inc., the enormous snack food division
of PepsiCo, announced that it was jumping on the GMO-free
Monsanto spokesman Dan Verakis was quick to note that even
Frito-Lay admitted its decision was driven not by any
proven health threats, but rather by consumer attitudes. He
dismissed the move as evidence of what he sees as a
potential "niche market for non-biotech grain, similar to
the market that exists for organics" (this, despite
Frito-Lay's status as mainstream snack king).
In the midst of this turmoil, the world's largest seed and
agrochemical companies are pooling war chests, as mergers
sweep the industry, leaving just a handful of
megacorporations in charge of much of the planet's food
supply (see "The World Food Supply Falls Under Control of a Few International Companies" in this issue).
While clearly the motive is profit (business is business,
after all), these industry giants also claim more
beneficent aims. This technology, say its proponents, will
help to feed the world, while reducing the use of chemical
pesticides. And, in the very near future, it could produce
foods that are tastier, more nutritious and even
Feeding People or Pockets?
According to the United Nation's Food and Agricultural
Organization (FAO), nearly 800 million people worldwide do
not have enough to eat. Moreover, the global population is
expected to double in the next 40 years — with the vast
majority of this explosion occurring in underdeveloped,
"We know this means that agricultural output and production
needs to increase by 70%," says Monsanto's Verakis. "And so
how do we do that? Clearly, dumping more chemicals on the
ground isn't the answer. I don't think many people would
agree that slashing and burning the remaining rain forests
is a very good approach. Frankly, biotech is not the Holy
Grail either, but it has demonstrated its ability to
increase yield and reduce chemicals."
But hunger, at least in today's world, seems to have little
to do with food. Global production systems currently
produce the equivalent of roughly four pounds of food daily
for every man, woman and child on the planet. So why are so
The FAO identifies poverty and marginalization as the root
causes of hunger in nations at peace, while, predictably,
physical destruction and displacement of people perpetuate
hunger in nations at war.
"Feeding the world is not a technology-related problem,"
says Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist with the Union of
Concerned Scientists (UCS), a 50,000-member, nonprofit
watchdog group concerned with the misuse of science and
technology. "It is a problem of wealth and distribution of
wealth. It is a problem of politics. Having a new
technology guarantees very little in the face of poverty."
Rissler suggests that the industry is not just misguided,
but duplicitous: "If these companies do want to feed the
world, then why are they trying to sell genetically
engineered crops in the U.S. and Europe? That is not
feeding the world. These companies are trying to play on
our guilt feelings by convincing us that if we don't buy
this technology and make it a success, somehow the world
will not get fed. It's a public relations ploy."
As evidence, Rissler points to the fact that, with the
exception of rice, the inexpensive staple and subsistence
crops so important to Third World farmers are hardly on the
minds of the megacorporations. "There is not," she
observes, "a great rush to develop products for the
To be fair, Monsanto for one did open its St. Louis
laboratories to two Kenyan researchers, whose efforts there
produced a genetically modified sweet potato resistant to
the feathery mottle virus. (Sweet potatoes are among the
world's most important subsistence crops.) According to
Verakis, Monsanto "gave away the technology" and has "no
commercial interest" in the product.
Monsanto and the other biotech giants do, however, maintain
a very definite comrnercial interest in the world's major
cash crops — cotton, corn, wheat, soy — to the extent that
they've made seed-saving criminal, compelling farmers to
purchase a supply annually. Critics worry that the high
cost of biotech seed, combined with shrinking alternatives,
may force poor farmers worldwide out of business.
Environmental Boon or Bust?
Even as Greenpeace and other environmental groups continue
to staunchly oppose GMOs, the industry holds fast to its
claim of a "green" agenda. Bioengineered seed, say its
boosters, will decrease the use of herbicides and
pesticides, while increasing per-acre yields. Monsanto's
Verakis points for example to cotton farmers, who he says
can substantially reduce their pesticide use by switching
to Bt cotton, which protects against the bollworm. "Instead
of spraying ten or 12 times, farmers who plant our Bt
cotton are now spraying only once or twice, depending on
the size of the infestation," says Verakis. "In much the
same way a silicon chip in a computer is replacing huge
roomfuls of information, we are putting information in a
seed, and that gene, that DNA, replaces tankers full of
pesticides and other chemicals."
But are bioengineered seeds living up to their promise? In
1999, genetically modified crops were grown on some 73
million acres in the U.S., roughly a fifth of the nation's
total cropland. Yet definitive evidence of corresponding
pesticide reductions is hard to come by.
The USDA compared GM to non-GM plantings in terms of both
pesticide use and crop yields (using 1997 figures), but
cautions that its results are imperfect, since differences
may be attributable to such factors as weather, soil
conditions, irrigation, pest pressures and production
practices. Nevertheless, the department was able to draw
some general conclusions — chiefly that the impact of GMOs
varies considerably depending on the crop and the
technology. In some cases, yields increased while pesticide
use decreased (where, for example, farmers planted Bt
cotton or herbicide-tolerant soy), but there is also
evidence that herbicide use may have increased in some
areas planted with herbicide-tolerant seed. (Such seed
enables farmers plagued by weeds to spray with abandon,
without endangering their crops.)
"This is not a slam dunk," says the UCS's Rissler. "One
cannot conclude that this technology has been proven to
increase yield or to substantially reduce pesticide use
across the board. So our question is: With so little
benefit, why are farmers and consumers being asked to take
Are There Human Health Risks With GMOs?
While so far no human health scare has been linked to GMOs,
concerns that "Frankenfood" could harm life or limb have
consumers worldwide worried.
Fueling the frenzy are misleading accounts of cross-species
experiments (see "The Monsanto GMO Story: Adding a Fish Gene Into Tomatoes" in this issue) and at least one highly
publicized near-miss involving a Brazil nut gene spliced
into a soybean; researchers discovered that people allergic
to Brazil nuts would also be allergic to the modified soy
and the product was pulled from development before it went
commercial — but not before it raised real doubts about the
safety of bioengineered foods.
Critics further worry about the introduction into our food
supply of genes and thus proteins from bacteria and other
nonfood organisms. The fear is that these novel proteins
could prove allergenic or even toxic.
But biotech proponents argue that the Brazil nut incident
actually bolsters industry safety claims, since the danger
was identified and the project killed well before it might
have become a public health risk. Monsanto spokesman
Verakis says his company tests its products ad nauseam:
"The director of our regulatory and safety division has
calculated that the number of person hours his team has
devoted to safety testing of biotech crops . . . together adds
up to more than 400 years."
But critics caution that laboratory results cannot predict
every eventuality (witness the number of prescription drugs
that pass 12 years of clinical trials only to later be
pulled from the shelves).
"There hasn't been enough research done," says the UCS's
Rissler. "We are not building a database of information;
this food is not labeled so we can't follow its effects. We
may have already had people who have gotten sick from it,
and we just don't know about it . . . . If you don't look, you
don't see risk. And that's pretty much where we have been
in this country. We don't look and so therefore we have not
The Next Wave of Genetically Modified Crops
Already complicated, the debate over genetically modified
food is about to get more difficult. While both sides may
convincingly argue over herbicide-tolerant or
pest-resistant crops, it gets tougher to oppose foods that
may improve nutrition or medicine for millions.
Globally, health-care delivery systems are overtaxed, and
advanced practices and pharmaceuticals remain beyond the
reach of much of the world. Verakis suggests that foods
bioengineered to deliver important nutrients or drugs could
prove a significantly less expensive, more practical way to
fight malnutrition and disease on a global scale. His
company is working to engineer healthier cooking oils that
will help to lower cholesterol, as well as a canola oil
high in beta carotene (the precursor to vitamin A).
And Monsanto is not alone: Earlier this year, "golden rice"
— a product engineered by Swiss researchers to contain high
levels of beta carotene — made headlines as the next best
hope for the 124 million children in Southeast Asia and
elsewhere who are deficient in vitamin A, a quarter million
of whom go blind annually,
But despite its seeming promise, UCS's Rissler isn't sold
on the rice: "It hasn't been proven outside of the
laboratory, in the fields. It's not clear that people will
buy yellow rice [golden rice has a decidedly unnatural
hue]. It's not clear what will happen when people cook the
rice. There are a lot of unknowns, yet the industry just
jumped right on that golden rice, hoping to ride that
little board through some pretty big waves, because they
really needed some good news.
"The industry," she adds, "is always criticizing people who
talk about risk, saying it is all conjectural, lout many of
their benefit statements are also conjectural."
For his part, Verakis would like to see an end to the
criticisms from both sides, and the beginning of real
discussion: "What we are pushing for is a proper dialogue"
about GMOs, he says. "But if, at the end of the day, you
can't acknowledge the benefits of biotechnology, there is
no room for dialogue. And likewise, if you can't
acknowledge that people have concerns about biotech, there
is also no room for dialogue."
The Hardest Hit: Family Farms
As with many controversies Surrounding food production in
the last century (the first plant hybrids commercially
introduced in the 1930s and the Alar apple scandal spring
to mind), the biggest burdens of the GMO battle will fall
upon farmers. Combines and trucks are running on fuel that
continues to skyrocket in price, food surpluses have been
driving crop values lower, and now farmers are forced to
contend with an increasingly unpredictable marketplace. In
the short-term, nearly all that GM crops have accomplished
on the farm is to make planting a juggling act, with a
family's security hanging in the balance. Gary Goldberg,
president of the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based American Corn
Growers Association (ALGA), has been fielding reports from
farmers and comparing GM crop yield results since the
plants first appeared in the fields of North America.
"If the promise of GM plants, in our instance corn, is that
they will boost yields for the farmer, then we can do
without them. We already have lost $200 trillion in sales
last year because the European Community and others have
refused our corn. And this happened when we already had a
corn surplus. We can't afford to see prices drop any
further but they might."
Goldberg goes on to say that even a well-intentioned move
away from GM crops carries its own risks.
"The biggest threat facing farmers right now," he reports.
"is the marketplace. Every farmer growing corn has to
wonder if his crop will be sellable by the end of the year.
In this kind of incredibly volatile market . . . in which
Seagram's suddenly refuses to accept GM crops, in which
Heinz and Gerber baby foods, Iams and Frito-Lay do the same . . . well, there's no way for a farmer to really plan. It's
making a difficult business much more so."
And as if the threat of a continually dwindling national
and international marketplace isn't enough, Goldberg sees a
legal battle looming on the horizon. "Say an organic
farmer's land is next to that of a farmer who plants GM
crops, and GM pollen drifts onto the neighbor's land. Well,
now that organic farmer is out of business because he can
no longer guarantee pure food. We will have farmer suing
farmer, neighbor suing neighbor."
As for the safety and reliability of the GM seed and
finished crops, the ACGA is more pragmatic than fearful.
Goldberg explains: "Genetic modification of crops is a
tool, nothing more. If it can boost nutrition and help grow
better crops, then full-speed. Of course we want complete
safety assurances, but our primary job is to get better
food on the table. If GM helps . . . great."
Bob Cannard of Cannard Farms in Sonoma, California, a
longtime proponent of sustainable agriculture and an
outspoken critic of GMOs, sees repercussions in "enhanced"
food more serious than even bankrupt farmers.
"In a few years," Cannard warns, "all the food varieties
and all the plant varieties we have selected and bred for
thousands of years, lovingly, scientifically, will be
thrown away if the current trend continues. And for what?
For plants that resist pests they'd be able to resist
already if we grew better commercially?"
Cannard sees GM proliferation as both a complex and
dangerous solution to a simple problem. "Healthy plants
grow well, grow in abundance and largely don't need
pesticides . . . something that every sustainable farmer and
organic grower will tell you. Take corn for instance. It
honestly isn't one of my big crops here, but as an
experiment, I planted two pounds of Iroquois white corn
seed, which produced about 4,000 ears. The corn grew
beautifully with minimal attention, and when I picked
through the ears, I found not one corn borer [the pests
that genetically modified Bt corn is designed to fight].
It's not a scientifically complete test," allows Cannard,
"but it helps prove that well-fed and healthily maintained
plants require few pesticides — much less genetic
engineering, which warps their structure forever."
When asked what he makes of the GM seed corporations'
assertions that billions of dollars have been devoted to
ensuring that modified seed is perfectly safe, Mr. Cannard
counters: "Any scientist will tell you that mammalian
testing requires at least three generations of observation
and study. Which means that any allergies or other
physiological problems will manifest themselves most
probably in the third generation from ours — our
grandchildren. But there won't be any non-GM seed to revert
to by then. Farmers are having a tough time getting hold of
traditional hybrids even now."
Most voices in the community of food producers are not as
strident as Cannard's, but the majority of farmers seem to
be concerned equally about the quality, safety and
sellability of the food they grow. Mort Mather, a longtime
MOTHER contributor and organic grower, sees profitable
possibilities in this concern and hopes for an increasingly
robust non-GM marketplace. "These seed corporations leave
behind many niche markets where farmers can sell directly
or nearly directly to consumers. As consumers learn more
about genetic engineering and some of the problems that
come with globalization of the food industry, the demand
for locally grown food increases. More and more people want
to have a face attached to their food or to see some label
indicating the food is certified to meet some strict
But at the same time that GM crops may ease open new
markets for organic products, they could also make life
much more difficult for organic growers, warns Mather. "Now
that Bt is in a very large proportion of corn, potatoes and
cotton, it is a certainty that pest insects will build up a
tolerance," he predicts. "Even the scientists who did the
genetic engineering agree that this will happen!
They have said that these crops should be planted with a
buffer [a border of non-GM crops around the much larger GM
field] so that insects that get a nonlethal dose will mate
with insects from the buffer and somehow this will delay
the inevitable a few years. Well, the farmers aren't
leaving the buffers — and the seed companies don't care.
The USDA doesn't care. The EPA doesn't care. And the gene
companies are telling us not to worry, that they will find
something to replace Bt once it becomes ineffective.
"Which is more troubling," wonders Mather, "what they come
up with next or the possibility that they will destroy a
safe insecticide and not find a replacement? Either way
they will make organic farming more difficult and
expensive. That's one way to hurt the competition."
The Last Analysis: Do We Care?
Even the most impassioned pleas for more caution in the
proliferation of seed may fall on deaf ears here at home,
according to Thomas Hoban, a professor of sociology at
North Carolina State University and a longtime tracker of
social awareness of food issues. "About one in three people
in the U.S. are aware of the GM food controversy. This
compared to, say, the U.K., where 90% or better of the
general public is aware." The discrepancy is attributable
to a variety of factors according to Hoban, chief among
them a generally enthusiastic European press corps, keen to
report on every turn in the biotechnology road.
The second factor is faith. "The public trusts the USDA and
the FDA to care for the food supply, period. There is no
single regulatory voice in Europe anything like those two
organizations, and so, for better or worse, it leaves each
country to come to its own conclusion."
In the final analysis, Hoban suggests that we might simply
be too busy to worry about possibly imaginary food dangers.
"To Americans, taste comes first on a wish list, then
nutrition; the mechanics of food production are a distant
To Boldly Go . . .
Until we can make our own decisions on GM crops and
products by reading labels on tomato sauce cans and bread
bags, genetic experiments will continue to either the
benefit or the detriment of ourselves and or ecosystems. As
a result, there will almost certainly be more genetic
changes in the next millennium than there have been in the
previous twenty. Some will be intended, others not. Will
any be cataclysmic? Will these changes put our species at
risk or will they herald a new age of boundless
agricultural productivity? At the very least, it's worth
more than just a few moments of this kind of consideration
before we meddle with the genetic blueprints holding our
The World Food Supply Falls Under Control of a Few International Companies
Congress and the Genetically Engineered Food Act of 2000
The Biosafety Protocol Safeguards Against Genetically Modified Crops
The Monsanto GMO Story: Adding a Fish Gene Into Tomatoes