inadequate and represents unacceptable risks to the safety of both humans and the environment.
In the effective absence of federal government testing and oversight on GE foods, the
organization supports the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act as a viable solution
for mitigating the significant risks associated with GE.
Risks of GE food to human health
The agri-food industry claims GE foods are rigorously tested and represent no risks to human
health. However, since GE foods are tested for safety only by the agri-food companies themselves
and effectively fall outside of FDA regulation, such claims are highly dubious. In fact, the FDA
never examines the original studies conducted by companies, but rather only the company’s
summary assessment of its own research. The FDA merely conveys the company’s conclusion as
to the food’s “substantial equivalence,” pointedly avoiding any sort of explicit approval of its
own. This is perhaps due to liability concerns on the part of the government.
However, studies conducted independently of the agri-food companies reveal serious health risks
associated with GE foods as well as inadequate safety testing by the companies. Unfortunately,
there is a paucity of information on the safety of GE foods, as agri-food companies often obstruct
external peer review of their products and safety testing protocol.
As genetic engineering may involve the transfer of new and unidentified genes from one food
into another, there is the potential that these genes could cause allergic reactions and other
unintended effects when consumed by humans. Food allergies aren't simply a matter of slight
discomfort; they can potentially result in life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Without labeling,
people with allergies won't know if they are eating foods that contain genes from other foods to
which they are allergic. Similarly, the absence of labeling portends lack of accountability, as the
person affected by a GE induced allergic reaction will be unable to identify the reaction’s cause
or hold the producers liable for such injury.
Though the potential for unintended effects of GE foods is poorly studied, there exist some
examples of health risks and lack of oversight by agri-food companies. For instance, in 1996,
researchers were stunned to discover that soybeans engineered to include protein-rich genes from
the Brazil nut also contained the allergenic properties of the Brazil nut. Animal studies had not
revealed the allergenic nature of the mutated soybean. Fortunately, the manufacturer halted the
release of the soybean prior to its entering the market.
A similar example of GE product leading to unintended health effects occurred in 1989, when a
genetically engineered version of tryptophan, an amino acid used as a dietary supplement,
produced toxic contaminants. Before it was recalled by the Food and Drug Administration, the 5
mutated tryptophan wreaked havoc. Thirty-seven Americans died, 1,500 were permanently
disabled, and 5,000 became ill with a blood disorder, eosinophila myalgia syndrome.
Because of these consequences, the leading doctors' organization in England has stated that a ban
on GE foods should be considered if they are unlabeled, with a statement by over 2,000 doctors
calling the use of antibiotic genes in GE foods "a danger to health that can be avoided." A leading
scientific society has noted that infants and children could be especially at risk for food allergies
from GE foods.
Further, humans may not actually need to consume GE foods to be affected by the unintended
effects of genetic engineering: one study reported that Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium
that has been spliced into millions of acres of corn, potatoes and cotton, may produce allergies in
people. Science News reported in July 1999 that a study of Ohio crop pickers and handlers shows
that Bt "can provoke immunological changes indicative of a developing allergy. With long-term
exposure, affected individuals may develop asthma or other serious allergic reactions."
Other unknown risks may involve the use of antibiotic markers which appear in almost every
genetically modified organism to indicate that the organism has been successfully engineered. It
is believed that these antibiotic markers may contribute to the decreasing effectiveness of
antibiotics against diseases in humans.
The journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease reported in 1998 that commercial gene
technology may be responsible for the recent resurgence of drug- and antibiotic-resistant
infectious diseases. As the author of the report, indicates:
"At the heart of the issue is horizontal gene transfer - the transfer of genes by vectors such as
viruses and other infectious agents - which is exploited by genetic engineers to make transgenic
organisms. While natural vectors respect species barriers, the barrage of artificial vectors made by
genetic engineers are designed to cross species barriers, thus greatly enhancing the potential for
creating new viral and bacterial pathogens, and spreading drug and antibiotic resistance. Totally
unrelated pathogens are showing up with identical virulence and antibiotic resistance genes.
Risks of GE to the natural environment
The effects of genetically engineered crops on the natural environment are as poorly studied as
human health risks, but the unintended consequences may be just as numerous.
One major concern is that GE crops increase the use of pesticide in production agriculture. Many
of the new GE crops, such as Roundup Ready soybeans, are designed to allow farmers to spray
heavier doses of herbicides on their land. These chemicals will inevitably find their way into our
water and food supply, endangering humans and wildlife. New Scientist magazine reports that
many farmers that have converted to GE production use as many pesticides as their conventional
counterparts, while some GE farmers now use more pesticides.
In the same vein as concerns regarding horizontal gene-transfer of GE genes into the genomes of
human pathogens, there is significant concern about the widespread release of genetically
engineered organisms into the environment. In the United States, millions of acres of land have
been planted with GE crops. GE organisms may spread through ecosystems and interbreed with
endemic organisms thereby affecting non-GE environments, as well as future generations, in an
unforeseeable and uncontrollable way.
GE crops can also have major impacts on farmers who 6 produce natural and organic food because growers can lose their harvest when GE crops contaminate their fields. As such, the release of GE organisms will cause genetic pollution and represents a major threat because they cannot simply be recalled once released into the environment. Unlike other kinds of waste, genetic contamination cannot be cleaned up or contained. Horizontal gene transfer was confirmed in 2000 by Professor Hans-Hinrich Katz, a leading German zoologist, who found that the gene used to modify rapeseed had transferred to
bacteria living in the guts of honey bees.
In connection with the preceding issues, extensive planting of herbicide-resistant GE crops could
lead to a new class of so-called superweeds that are resistant to spraying. Given that the largest
class of genetic engineered foods is pesticide-resistant crops, such as Roundup Ready soybeans, it
seems plausible that newly created transgenes may be spread unintentionally by bird, insect or
wind from target crops to related weed species, which then also acquire resistance to the
pesticide. Nature magazine reported in 1996, for example, that herbicide-resistant GE rapeseed
released in Europe has spread to several wild relatives.
Finally, there is concern that genetically mutated crops may damage the soil. Research published
in Nature magazine reported that some types of GE crops may be leaking powerful toxins into the
soil. For example, corn and potatoes have been engineered to produce toxins to fight pests that
eat their leaves and stems. The fear is that beneficial soil organisms may also be killed and that
some insects may become resistant to the toxins. Other research has revealed that lacewings that
consumed corn borers reared on GE corn had also died, increasing speculation that these crops
are indirectly harming beneficial organisms.