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The Council for Responsible Genetics 

Summer 2000

Q. How many genetically engineered foods are on the market?

A. At least 35 varieties of genetically engineered crops have been registered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and/or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

Q. Isn't genetic engineering merely a minor extension of traditional breeding practices?

A. No. While farmers have used cross-breeding techniques to cultivate crop and animal species with desired characteristics, genetic engineering represents a radical departure from this practice. Cross-breeding can only occur within closely-related life forms. Genetic engineering allows scientists to cross the species barrier, mixing genetic material among of animals, plants and microorganism. The offspring of genetic engineering would never be found in nature. For example, fish genes have been placed in tomatoes, human genes in tobacco, bacteria in corn, and viruses in squash and fruit. 

Q. Won’t genetically engineered foods cure world hunger?

A. No. Hunger is not caused by a global shortage of food. 800 million people suffer from malnutrition because they do not have access to the world’s abundance of food, they lack the money to buy it, and they lack the land to grow it. Private biotech corporations prevent small farmers from reusing their seeds, a traditional practice that provides food security for 1.4 billion people. Furthermore, since improvements on staples that feed the world’s poor such as cassava and potato do not have much potential for profit, the majority of genetically engineered crops are aimed at helping large-scale farmers in industrialized nations boost their yields and profits. Genetically engineered crops also reduce food security in the long run by decreasing biodiversity and increasing the use of ecologically damaging chemicals.

Q. Isn't genetic engineering a precise and predictable science?

A. No. Genes interact with each other and with their environment in ways that are complex and impossible to predict. Scientists cannot accurately predict how a foreign gene will be expressed in a new system. For example, splicing a gene for human growth hormone into mice produced very large mice, while splicing the same gene into pigs produced skinny, cross-eyed, arthritic animals. Splicing a foreign gene into an organism for a single desired effect may unintentionally cause unanticipated harmful effects within that organism. Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Women's Environmental Network writes about the unintended effects of genetic engineering, "Genes for the color red placed into petunia flowers not only changed the color of the petals but also decreased fertility and altered the growth of the roots and leaves. Salmon genetically engineered with a growth hormone not only grew too big too fast but also turned green." 

Q. Do genetically engineered foods pose risks to human health and safety?

A. Yes. Genetic engineering may cause unintended side effects that make foods hazardous for human consumption. Unpredictable gene expression may result in the unanticipated toxic effects or allergies. We have indisputable evidence that genetically engineered foods may produce serious, even fatal, allergic reactions. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine proved that individuals who were allergic to Brazil nuts suffered the same allergic reaction when they consumed genetically engineered soybeans that contain Brazil nut genes. Under normal circumstances, consumers manage food allergies by avoiding those foods they know will cause allergic reactions. If genetically engineered foods are not labeled with the source of the foreign genes, consumers will not be able to identify these potential allergens.

Genetic engineering can also alter the nutritional quality of certain foods, making them less nutritious than their unmodified counterparts. In a study published in The Journal of Medical Foods, Dr. Marc Lappe found that genetically engineered soybeans contained less phystoestrogens than natural soybeans. Phystoestrogens are associated with protection against heart disease, osteoporosis (bone loss) and breast cancer. The genetically engineered soybeans were found to be 12 - 14% lower in phytoestrogens, a significant nutritional difference. Foods that have been engineered for a longer shelf-life may also exhibit counterfeit freshness. Genetic engineered may mislead consumers into buying fruits and vegetables that have the appearance of ripeness, without the accompanying nutritional quality or flavor. 

Q. Do genetically engineered foods pose risks to the environment?

A. Yes. A study published in the scientific journal Nature proved that genetically engineered crops can transfer genetically engineered traits to weedy relatives, thus creating more aggressive weeds. The creation of "superweeds" may disrupt delicate ecological balances.

Additional studies have shown that crops genetically engineered with Bt cause harm to beneficial insects such as ladybugs. More recent studies published in Nature conclude that the pollen from Bt plants is deadly to Monarch Butterflies. What effects Bt will have on birds that eat contaminated insects is unknown.

The most common trait being engineered into crops is that of herbicide-tolerance. Crops that have been genetically engineered for herbicide-tolerance can withstand larger and more frequent applications of chemical herbicides. The long-term health consequences of these synthetic chemicals is unknown, but many of the chemicals are known to cause birth defects or cancer in laboratory animals and are toxic to fish.

Studies have already linked Glyphosate, the active herbicide ingredient used on RoundUp Ready© herbicide tolerant seeds, to non-hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which is one of the most prevalent cancers in the Western world (occurances have risen 73% since 1973) has been linked directly to Monsanto's herbicide. This report, published in the New Scientist, was also published in the journal Cancer in 1999. Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops will certainly increase the dependence of farmers on chemicals and will delay the development of alternative sustainable weed control strategies. 

Q. Do genetically engineered foods raise other ethical considerations?

A. Yes. Vegetarians may not wish to eat vegetables that have been engineered to contain animal genes. Jews who keep Kosher may not wish to eat products that have been engineered with pig genes. Many consumers may not wish to consume foods containing human genes.

Many consumers also are concerned with the corporate ownership of seeds and genetically engineered food plants. Monopolistic business practices, the extreme consolidation of the seed industry, coupled with the patenting of seeds has led many consumers to question whether the agribusiness corporations have public welfare or private profit as top priority. 

Q. Doesn't the U.S. government test genetically engineered foods to ensure that they are safe for human consumption?

A. No. In most cases, the FDA does not require premarket safety testing, or even notification that a genetically engineered food has been introduced in the market. Industry is essentially on an "honor system," deciding whether and when to consult with the FDA. 

Q. What is the U.S. government policy on labeling of genetically engineered food?

A. The U.S. government does not require that genetically engineered foods be labeled as such unless they determine that the genetically engineered food is no longer "substantially equivalent" to the unmodified version. The FDA has considered most genetically engineered foods to be "substantially equivalent" to unmodifed food, regardless of reports detailing the substantial compositional and nutritional difference between genetically modified and unmodified foods. The "substantial equivalence" principle is vague and misleading, and encompasses most genetically engineered foods on the market today. 

Q. Do consumers have a right to know that their food has been genetically engineered?

A. Yes. In light of the uncertainty regarding the safety and environmental impact of genetically engineered foods, many consumers want to take a precautionary approach. Governments should require mandatory labeling of foods produced by or containing genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). The labels should specify the source of the foreign genes.

In addition, the US already allows "process" labels on other products. Kosher foods, for example, are equivalent in nutritional value and taste to non-Kosher foods. The Kosher label refers to the process by which livestock is slaughtered or foods are prepared. Similarly, "dolphin-safe" tuna is equivalent in nutritional value and taste to other types of tuna. The "dolphin-safe" process label indicates that special nets have been used that do not entrap dolphins.

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