Genetically Engineered Organisms, Are They Safe?
Leading experts representing both sides of the issue shed light on the controversy
By Léo Azambuja
The presence of Genetically Engineered (GE) crops on Molokai has been a controversial topic for some time. Earlier this year Monsanto, the leading GE company worldwide, expanded its operations on Molokai to include 1,650 acres, raising concerns amongst those who believe GE farming might irreversibly affect the environment. But there are also those who believe GE crops are beneficial and do not pose environmental or health threats.
The Molokai Dispatch has engaged leading scientists and professionals in health and agricultural fields to weigh in on the GE farming issues which could affect Molokai. To be fair, a set of six questions was sent to opposite sides of the opinion field. Here, we present the first two sets of questions, and their respective answers. In the next issue, the Dispatch will publish the remaining three sets of questions.
Challenging the benefits of GE crops are: Bill Freese, a Science Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Service in Washington D.C.; and Dr. Lorrin Pang, who works for the Hawaii State Department of Health as a Maui District officer.
Representing the defense of GE crops are: Harold Keyser, PhD, a Maui County Administrator for the College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources at the University of Hawaii; and Sally Irwin, a PhD in genetics, who is an associate professor at Maui Community College.
Please be aware that the professionals participating in this forum do not, in any way, represent the views of their respective employers or subordinates.
Is there available scientific evidence suggesting or proving that GE farming could adversely affect the surrounding environment?
Harold Keyser, Ph.D.:
The short answer is clearly no. In fact, just the opposite has been found. Large scale scientific studies with different biotech crops have shown that their use can significantly reduce the amount of pesticide that farmers use compared to non-biotech crops; well documented in the scientific literature are reports showing 40% reduction over 3 years in the United Kingdom, reduction of 46 million pounds in the US in a single year, and 80% less pesticide use on rice over a two year period in China.
Improved soil conservation is another environmental benefit from the adoption of biotech crops. Grower surveys and expert polls strongly indicate that the adoption of herbicide-resistant crops correlated positively with increase in no-till acreage since 1996, the year when herbicide-resistant crops were first planted on a commercial scale.
No-till and minimum tillage practices enhance soil quality through reduction in loss of soil organic matter, reduced loss of CO2 (a greenhouse gas), reduced soil erosion, and increased water infiltration. In 2006, 16 million acres of corn, and 33 million acres of soybean in the US (representing 20% and 44%, respectively, of the total crop) were planted by no-till.
There is a belief among some opponents of genetic engineering that the new biotech crops might cross-pollinate with related (genetically compatible) weeds, possibly resulting in “superweeds” that become more difficult to control. One concern is that pollen transfer from glyphosate-resistant crops to related weeds can confer resistance to glyphosate. While the chance of this happening, though extremely small, is not inconceivable, there are other classes of herbicides which could be used to control such a plant.
In Hawaii, the main biotech crops are papaya and corn. Neither has led to development of “superweeds;” indeed, the nearest relative for corn to successfully transfer pollen to is in Mexico.
In assessing the evidence on risks versus benefits to the environment of GE farming, the benefits are clear and the risks, so far, remain theoretical.
Dr. Lorrin Pang:
We do know of contamination and recall of our food supply (for example Starlink corn) with GE products not intended for human consumption. Last year US commercial rice (long grain) was found to be contaminated with unapproved experimental GE rice, which was planted under “restricted” conditions from 1998-2001, resulting in a massive, expensive recall and ongoing litigation.
There are laboratory studies which show that the GE mutations can be transferred from GE plants to soil microbes. We are learning that microbes (especially viruses) are especially efficient at transferring genes (including GE mutations) among the different species of plants that it infects.
Finally, there are reports of “superweeds” which cannot be killed by use of Roundup and require more potent, toxic herbicides. In the field of medicine we see that germs become resistant when antibiotics are overused and abused. The same is true in the field of insects and insecticides. It surely occurs for plants and herbicides. But the difference with GE Round-Up Ready plants is that they are given the mutations to resist Round-Up. Do superweeds make resistance on their own do they simply “steal” the protective gene from the GE crops?
In medicine we have seen how easy it is to spread and share genes. As we observe the occurrence of “theoretically impossible events”, we should be humbled by how little we know or can predict with our current level of genomic knowledge in a single organism, let alone in ecology.
Four of every 5 acres of GE crops worldwide are herbicide-tolerant, which allows farmers to indiscriminately spray a chemical weedkiller “over-the-top” of the crop to kill nearby weeds. The vast majority are Monsanto’s Roundup Ready varieties, resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (aka glyphosate).
Herbicide-tolerant crops encourage large-scale, chemical-intensive farming. Glyphosate use has climbed ten-fold since the first Roundup Ready crop was introduced in 1995. USDA data show increased use of other nasty weedkillers, too, like atrazine and 2,4-D (a component of the infamous Agent Orange).
Increased chemical use has fostered an epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds, just as overuse of antibiotics spawns resistant bacteria. Resistant horseweed infests over 1.5 million acres in Tennessee, and resistant pigweed in Georgia survives 12 times the normal dose of glyphosate. Many farmers now plow to remove resistant weeds, increasing soil erosion.
GE crops also reduce biodiversity. A 2003 study by the British government found lower populations of bees and butterflies in test plots of GE beets and canola. Commercial-scale plantings would threaten the survival of birds by reducing the weed seeds they feed on. Roundup is toxic to some amphibians, and may be implicated in declining frog populations. Recent research shows that the toxin produced in GE corn may harm aquatic food webs.
Is GE produce required to carry identifying labels? Is there any scientific evidence suggesting or proving that GE produce could adversely affect humans? What is your stance on the current level of government regulation of the GE industry?
Dr. Lorrin Pang:
The FDA once ruled that no studies are needed because the GE foods are “equivalent” to non-GE foods. This is an opinion and not data based.
The FDA opinion goes against that of the National Academy of Science (NAS) which provides a graph showing that GE foods have a higher risk of unintended health effects. There is a caveat by the NAS that unintended health effects are not necessarily “bad” – but if I was in the best of health I would not want to risk new unintended effects
Sometimes the FDA gives a “grandfather clause” that GE foods have been used for decades and so they probably are safe. Long term exposures to new products require long term studies for chronic toxicities – to include cancer. Think of the decades it took us to figure out smoking caused cancers.
Finally, like products which MIGHT have long term, cumulative, irreversible health effects (say cancer) we especially need to follow the precautionary principle. This principle requires that commercial products have their risks studied prior to marketing. Risks do not have to be zero but must be known and the public informed as part of labeling. If the risks are truly zero (as verified under large, long term, post marketing studies) I would like to see the data and then MIGHT consider removing labeling and warnings.
Sally V. Irwin Ph.D.:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a labeling policy that requires biotech foods to be labeled if the product is significantly changed nutritionally or uses material from a potential allergen. In other words, if a biotech product is nutritionally the same as a non-biotech product, there is no requirement for labels. The American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs supported this policy.
However, if a biotech food product introduces a protein from a source that commonly poses an allergy risk, then it must be labeled under the current FDA labeling policy. Today, the majority of biotech products in the marketplace are not labeled as such since they are nutritionally equivalent and are not derived from known allergens.
What many people don’t understand is that all the food we eat are constantly changing genetically, sometimes intentionally by breeding and selection techniques, chemical or irradiation treatments to cause mutagenesis, spontaneously through mutation or insertion of genes from other organisms (i.e. viruses), or through bioengineering techniques. The only food that is being tested and regulated for ill effects due to genetic changes is the bioengineered food.
To date there has not been one documented case where a bioengineered food has caused a health problem in humans.
Scientists around the world have reached a remarkable degree of agreement that biotech-derived foods are safe to eat. In fact, some international food safety organizations have concluded that because of the strict regulatory oversight of biotech foods, they are probably even safer than conventional plants and foods
The health risks of genetic engineering arise from the new compound(s) intentionally introduced into the crop, and the unpredictable effects of genetic engineering itself.
GE corn with “built-in” insecticides was grown on 45 million acres this year in the U.S., and poses the risk of food allergies.
One such GE corn variety approved only for animal feed use massively contaminated the food supply in 2000, resulting in recall of over 300 food products and hundreds of reported allergic reactions, some of them life-threatening.
A British study found that the herbicide-resistance gene in GE soybeans transferred to gut bacteria in people who ate GE soy products, showing that the same could happen with antibiotic resistance genes.
The GE Flavr-Savr tomato caused gastric lesions in rats – findings that were dismissed, but never adequately explained, by the FDA. Hungarian scientist Arpad Pusztai found hyperplastic intestinal cell growth in rats fed GE potatoes. A short 90-day feeding study with a Monsanto GE corn variety found signs of liver and kidney damage.
U.S. government “regulation” of genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods is largely a sham exercise to reassure the American public rather than ensure that GE crops are safe for human health and the environment.
Experimental GE crops grown in field trials have contaminated the commercial food supply numerous times under the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s watch. Evidence that insecticide-producing corn may cause food allergies, liver or kidney damage has been ignored by the Environmental Protection Agency, while the Food and Drug Administration lets biotech companies determine whether their GE crops are safe.
Biotechnology companies – particularly Monsanto – “wrote the book” on the rules that govern them during the first Bush Administration.
FDA scientists opposed this policy of “self-policing,” and instead recommended mandatory toxicology studies, tests for genotoxic effects, and even “limited studies in humans” for new GE crops. They emphasized that genetic engineering could cause hazardous unintended effects not found with traditional breeding. These scientific concerns were overruled by administrative superiors at the FDA and White House, resulting in today’s “voluntary consultation process,” which rests on the fiction that GE crops are “substantially equivalent” to traditionally-bred crops.
Under voluntary consultation, biotech companies, not FDA, are responsible for the safety of GE crops. Companies decide which tests to perform, how to conduct them, which data to share or not share with FDA, and even whether to consult with FDA at all.
Independent experts, including the National Academy of Sciences, have repeatedly criticized government regulation and biotech company health and safety testing as grossly inadequate.
Harold Keyser, Ph.D.:
The U.S. government has a coordinated, risk-based system to ensure new biotechnology products are safe for the environment and human and animal health.
Established in 1986, the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology describes the federal system for evaluating products developed using modern biotechnology. The Coordinated Framework is based upon health and safety laws developed to address specific products and is carried out by the USDA, EPA and FDA prior to commercial release for genetically modified (GM) crops. These pre-market tests have consistently found that the new proteins in GM crops show no similarity to known toxins or allergens; they are present in very low levels; they are easily and rapidly digested by humans and animals; and they have shown no harmful effects to animals when fed at very high levels. As a result, the food and feed products from GM crops have a perfect safety record with not one verified incident of harm after growing and consuming them on a large scale for over a decade.
In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences’ comprehensive report on this issue stated the following: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” Similar conclusions have been reached by the American Medical Association, World Health Organization, and the American Dietetic Association.
The USDA is responsible for ensuring compliance with regulations of biotech crops. Depending on the type of crop being tested, a site may be inspected by USDA up to seven times to ensure that the requirements are carefully followed. In Hawaii during 2004, they conducted 79 inspections of permitted field tests and 148 inspections of field tests approved through the notification process.
Detractors who say this industry is not sufficiently regulated have not done their homework.