HomeBiographyWritingsBook IntroductionsIn the MediaNews and EventsResourcesContact

Farmaggedon, Frankenfoods, and the FDA: The Dangers of Genetically Modified Food

"There is no justification for using millions of people as guinea pigs for a genetic experiment without even asking whether we want to participate." Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace

"The assumptions underlying the FDA's policy are so out of line with sound scientific thinking that they cannot form a reliable basis for the safety of our nation's food supply." - Dr. John Fagan

Ever wonder what it's like to be an experimental laboratory animal? Wonder no more, because you -- like everyone else in the U.S. and millions more throughout the world -- have been one for years, as the planet's food supply has been massively infiltrated with genetically modified foods (GMFs). It doesn't matter whether you are a carnivore, Muslim or Jew, or vegan, you have already consumed an alarming quantity of Frankenfoods.

The floodgates to the genetic engineering of the world's food supply were opened in 1992 when the FDA absurdly declared that GMFs are "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods, even though "transgenic" species -- the product of splicing the genes of one organism into another -- are unprecedented technological creations. The agency's own top scientists argued this point and warned that genetic alteration may create unexpected toxins, carcinogens, allergens, and anti-nutritive substances. But to protect corporate over public interests, and to allow corporations to regulate themselves ("with informal FDA consultation only if significant safety or nutritional concerns arise"), the FDA ignored the admonitions, suppressed the documents (subsequently disclosed in a 1998 public interest law suit against the agency), and began a campaign of lying to the American public and world at large (for documentation see www.bio-integrity.org/).

Seizing the initiative, American transnational corporations like Monsanto and Novartis began to engineer foods for specific characteristics (mainly to make them resistant to herbicides and insects) and aggressively marketed these to the world, using lies, deception, cajolement, and illegal tactics when necessary. Although a massive global protest movement against GMFs has been mounting for years and finally reached the shores of the soporific U.S in late 1999, the genetic revolution quite possibly has forever changed agricultural methods.

Currently, 55% of soybeans, 35% of corn crops, 60% of processed foods, and 60-75% of nonorganic food in U.S. supermarkets are genetically modified. Four dozen GMFs cultivated over 90 million acres of land turn up in a wide array of items, from tofu to tortillas, from canola oil to corn chips, from potatoes to protein powder, from breads to beer, and from syrups to salad dressings. And none are labelled as genetically altered for, according to FDA, this would be "alarmist," "impractical," and "confusing" to the consumer since they declared GMFs safe. This violates their own policy which requires that substances added to foods be identified and which prohibits "false or misleading" labelling.

The biotech industries want us to believe that GMFs are a miracle cure for problems such as world hunger when in reality they are trojan horses of profit and power. Interestingly, as the first wave of innovation is running aground in failures, law suits, protests, rejections, and crop burnings, a second wave of GMFs are being developed in the form of "biopharming" or "edible vaccines" which could prevent or cure diseases simply by eating genetically engineered raw foods. Moreover, this development might prevent the need to exploit animals in the new system of "pharming" which genetically alters their bodies to produce drugs for human consumption. But this new "medicine on a fork" likely will be impaled by the same problems and dangers besetting first wave products.

Despite assurances from the government and Jolly Gene Giants that GMFs are harmless, the fact is that gene-splicing is crude, inexact, and unpredictable in its effects; that science has little clue as to how genes interact with one another, especially when bizarre transgenic novelties are created; and consequently that the Brave New Foods are risky. Transgenic crops and foods are made using viruses, bacteria, insect and pig DNA, and other substances as "vectors" that transport foreign genes into cells. Invariably, antibiotic resistance marker (ARM) genes are used to determine if genes were successfully spliced into the host organism, and some researchers warn that ARMs will contribute to the growing worldwide problem of antibiotic resistance.

Although you may seem fine, no one knows the potential long-term effects of GMFs on the human body; certainly, the government and biotech industries didn't care enough to find out before they flung open the Pandora's box of gene splicing. Rather than embrace the precautionary principle which says to take no action until it is proven safe, rather than undertaking rigorous testing, and rather than giving the consumer the choice of what to eat by labelling GMFs, the U.S. government, its accomplices in Britain and elsewhere, and genetic industries have rushed GMFs onto the marketplace in a mad dash for profit and control of the global marketplace, stampeding sound science through disinformation and powerful lobbying forces all along the way.

The inherent risks and unpredictability of genetic recombination already have become manifest in a number of disturbing phenomena and studies. The first indication that genetic engineering could bring not only harmful but lethal results occurred in 1989, when a batch of the dietary supplement L-tryptophan killed 37 Americans, sickened 5,000 with a potentially fatal blood disorder, and permanently disabled 1,500 others. The problem was traced to a Japanese company which used genetically engineered bacteria that unpredictably caused molecules of the compound to bind in a novel and toxic manner.

Other uncertainties involve food allergies. Soybeans genetically crossed with brazil nuts (for a more complete protein) gave hives to human volunteers allergic to the nuts. If the company testing the product, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, had been irresponsible enough to market it (they withdrew it in 1996), they would enjoyed the blessings of the FDA. With this experiment, however, the danger of serious allergic reactions to GMFs became vividly clear. As scientist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho points out, "There is no known way to predict the allergenic potential of [genetically engineered] foods."

Obviously, if labelling of ingredients in GMFs is not enforced, it is impossible to identify allergens (8% of Americans have food allergies). In general, given that biotechnology corporations use genes from viruses, bacteria, insects, and animals, people have no concept of what they are consuming. This means, for example, that vegetarians may be ingesting fish genes in their tomatoes. The religious beliefs of Muslims and Jews who wish to avoid specific animal products are routinely flouted. And those who eat pork spliced with human genes (for maximal growth effects) are not only carnivores but also cannibals.

In May 1999, entomologist Dr. John Losey from Cornell University published a shocking study in Nature. In a laboratory setting, he found that 44% of monarch caterpillars died within four days when they consumed milkweed plants -- the staple of their diet -- dusted with pollen from "Bt" corn genetically engineered with a bacterium (Bacillus thuriniensis) to kill the European core borer. Other butterflies were stunted in their growth, but those who consumed regular crop pollen survived unharmed. What will be the fate of butterflies in a world planted by Monsanto and Novartis? What will be the environmental consequences of the genetic drift of Bt corn pollen (which could contaminate not only milkweed plants but also "organic" crops)? What might be happening to human beings who already are consuming a steady diet of Bt corn crops? And why was this study done after the government approved the use of Bt genes that were fused into a third of the U.S. corn crop?

In October 1999, Dr. Arpad Pusztai and Dr. Stanley Ewen published a more disturbing report in Lancet. Their controversial study showed that over a period of 110 days (equivalent to 10 years in human time), rats fed potatoes genetically engineered to produce an insect-repelling chemical (a plant-derived compound called the "snowdrop lectin") and using a common vector (the Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter [CaMv]), suffered damage to their vital organs, immune system, and digestive tract, results which did not occur to rats fed ordinary potatoes. The researchers concluded that the viruses used in the gene-altering process made the potatoes toxic. Another study found that CaMv "has the potential to reactivate dormant viruses or create new viruses in all species to which it is transferred. This transgenic instability increases the possibility of promotion of an inappropriate over-expression of genes to the transferred species" which could lead, among other things, to cancer.

A publication in the December 1999 issue of Nature indicated that Bt toxins were leaching into the soil through the plant's root systems and damaging or destroying beneficial microorganisms while disrupting the entire soil ecology. The paper documented that Bt binds with soil particles for up to 243 days and remains toxic to soil insects for long periods of time. What could it be doing to us?

Finally, in late May 2000, at the same time as 600 British farmers learned they inadvertently planted oilseed rape contaminated with GM seed from Canada, and Professor Hans-Hinrich Kaatz in Germany found that genetically modified rape seed had jumped species barriers and was taken up into the DNA of honey bees, Monsanto was forced to admit that its GMFs contained unexpected gene fragments, undermining their claim they can effectively manage and monitor genetic technologies.

Call me, if you like, an alarmist, technophobe, or bioluddite. Perhaps GMFs are still at an early stage of development and, once the bugs are worked out (no pun intended), will become wonderfoods that will be super-nutritious, cure diseases, reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides, and save the planet from starvation. So say the likes of Monsanto, the FDA, and Bill Clinton.

But logic, research, science, and a little political savvy lead me to reject this surrealist utopia, and, increasingly, a whole planet full of people share the fears and suspicions I have of government agencies such as the FDA, USDA, EPA, the EU, and the WTO; the biotech industries; and mainstream science whose "objectivity" is bought and paid for by Monsanto, Novartis, American Cyanamid, and Dow (although, increasingly, concerned and responsible scientists are loudly condemning GMFs and FDA policy).

Whatever exciting potential might exist in GMFs is overridden by the dangers of manipulating genetic ecologies and the disastrous impact biotechnology already is having on the environment, biodiversity, the world's farmers, and, perhaps soon enough, human health. GMFs are carriers of allergens, viruses, toxins, carcinogens, and increased pesticides, as new studies show they have reduced nutritional value compared to conventional crops.

There should be an immediate moratorium on all genetic modification of foods until we better understand this powerful technology. We need sound science, more rigorous testing, and more accountability (including liability for any damages caused by GMFs). Minimally, since consumers have the right to know what they are eating, there should be exact labelling of all foods with genetically modified ingredients. Since studies show over 90% of U.S. citizens wouldn't buy GMFs if they had the choice, and countries around the world are rejecting U.S. food imports, it's no mystery why they aren't labelled.

With ever-increasing protests against GMFs around the world, such as were part of the dramatic "Battle in Seattle" in December 1999, we are now at a crossroads where the future of the biotech revolution is uncertain. GMFs could be pulled from the shelves, or they could advance irrevocably to the point of total saturation of our food supply (the industry predicts 100% of our food will be genetically engineered within 5-10 years). The fact that the biotech industries are currently on the defensive -- in areas ranging from major companies such as Frito-Lay, Gerber, and Heinz vowing not to use genetically modified ingredients to investment firms pulling out of the food biotechnology field to farmers around the world rejecting GMFs -- speaks volumes as to what consumer awareness and citizen struggles can do, but the fight has only begun.

Until we are at least given a choice to eat "modified" or "conventional" foods, I encourage extreme caution in selecting your food options (such as they are). Since carnivores eat at the top of the food chain, they consume the greatest amount of genetically modified substances, and this is yet another reason to avoid meat. But in the Brave New World of GMFs, being vegetarian or vegan is not enough (vegetarians beware of genetically altered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone [rBGH] in your dairy products!); one also should assiduously avoid genetically altered ingredients.

First and foremost, eschew all processed foods -- including granola bars, high-fructose corn syrup, and soy or rice-based "ice cream" -- as they likely contain genetically engineered ingredients such as soy lecithin. Second, eat organic food when possible as, at least so far, organic crops are not genetically modified (although there is the problem of genetic contamination and two years ago the USDA tried to allow genetically modified ingredients and other impurities into "organic" foods until they were clobbered by a quarter million angry consumer responses). Unlike some pesticides, you can't wash gene-spliced viruses or bacteria out of your food. Third, become educated and ask questions. Know which companies use genetically engineered products, and if you're not sure, call them. Study internet sites and various publications to keep current with rapidly changing events (see the links on this page).

Good luck, friends. Eating with awareness and being healthy in a toxic world has become all the harder.

Back to Essays page