Richard Moore

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=======================Electronic Edition========================
.                                                               .
.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #638           .
.                    ---February 18, 1999---                    .
.                          HEADLINES:                           .
.                   AGAINST THE GRAIN, PART 2                   .
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The corporations that are introducing genetically modified crops
into the global ecosystem want you to think of genetic
engineering as a well-understood science similar to laparascopic
surgery. Indeed, the phrase "genetic engineering" gives the
impression that moving genes from one organism to another is as
straightforward as designing a rocket or a TV set. This is not
the case.

Basically, a plant's genome (all of its genes, taken together)
is a black box. Genetic engineering takes a gene from one black
box and forces it into a second black box (the recipient plant),
hoping that the new gene will "take." Most of the time, the
experiment fails.[1] Once in a few thousand tries, the foreign
gene embeds itself in the recipient plant's genome and the
newly-modified plant gains the desired trait. But that is all
the technicians know. They have no idea where in the receiving
plant's genome the new gene has found a home. This fundamental
ignorance, combined with the speed and scale at which modified
organisms are being released into the global ecosystem, raises a
host of questions of safety for the future of agriculture, for
the environment, and for human health.

** To begin with, genes don't necessarily control a single
trait. A gene may control several different traits in a plant.
Without careful study, plants with undesirable characteristics
may be released into the global ecosystem. And biotechnology is
not like a chemical spill that can be mopped up -- once you
release a new gene sequence into nature, your grandchildren are
going to be living with it because there's no taking it back.

** How a gene affects a plant depends upon the environment. The
same gene can have different effects, depending on the
environment in which the new plant is growing.[2] What appears
predictable and safe after a few years of observation of a small
test plot may turn out to have quite different consequences when
introduced into millions of acres of croplands in the U.S. and
elsewhere, where conditions vary widely.

** Does the new gene destabilize the entire plant genome in some
unforeseen way, leading one day to problems in that crop? Only
time will tell.

** Genes can travel to nearby, related plants on their own. This
is called gene flow. In 1996 gene flow was discovered to be much
more common that previously thought.[3]

According to SCIENCE magazine, many ecologists say it is only a
matter of time before an engineered gene makes the leap to a
weedy species, this creating a new weed or invigorating an old
one. "It will probably happen in far less than 1% of the
products," warns ecological geneticist Norm Ellstrand of the
University of California at Riverside, "but within 10 years we
will have a moderate-to-large scale ecological or economic
catastrophe, because there will be so many [genetically
modified] products being released,"[3] Ellstrand predicts. It is
worth noting that U.S. farmers already spend $4.3 billion
purchasing 628 million pounds of herbicides (active ingredients
only) to control weeds.[4,pg.32]

The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)
recommended that all genetically modified plants should be
considered non-indigenous exotic species, with the power to
disrupt ecosystems.[4,pg.29] Non-indigenous, introduced species
have provided great benefits to humanity (most of U.S.
agriculture relies on introduced species), but we also should
learn from kudzu, purple loosestrife, the gypsy moth, the fire
ant, and the boll weevil that exotic species can be extremely
disruptive and very expensive to control (if indeed they can be
controlled at all).

** A public health disaster was narrowly averted in 1996 when a
group of researchers tried to improve soybeans by giving them a
gene from the Brazil nut.[5] The goal was to improve the
nutritional value of soybeans by forcing them to produce more
methionine, an essential amino acid. The gene from the Brazil
nut was successfully transferred to soybeans. After this had
been accomplished, but before the soybeans were sold
commercially, independent researchers tested the soybeans to see
if it would cause allergic reactions in people. Many people are
allergic to nuts, particularly Brazil nuts. In some people,
allergic reaction to Brazil nuts is swift and fatal.

A series of laboratory tests on humans confirmed that the
genetically modified soybeans did provoke Brazil-nut allergy in
humans. They could not feed the genetically modified soybeans to
people for fear of killing them, but through scratch tests on
skin, they confirmed unequivocally that people allergic to
Brazil nuts were allergic to the modified soybeans. In
discussing their findings in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF
MEDICINE, the researchers pointed out that tests on laboratory
animals will not necessarily discover allergic reactions to
genetically modified organisms. Only tests on humans will

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires testing
for allergic reactions if a gene is being taken from a source
that is already known to cause allergic reactions in humans.
Many genes are being taken now from bacteria and other
life-forms whose allergenicity is entirely unknown, so federal
regulations require no allergy testing in these cases. This
reduces regulatory costs for the corporations, but leaves the
public unprotected.

** Crops are being genetically modified chiefly as a way to sell
more pesticides. [See REHW #637.] In some cases, the modified
crops change the pesticides themselves, giving them new
toxicity. The herbicide bromoxynil falls into this
category.[1,pg.41] Bromoxynil is already recognized by U.S. EPA
[Environmental Protection Agency] as a possible carcinogen and
as a teratogen (i.e., it causes birth defects). Calgene (now
owned by Monsanto) developed a strain of cotton plants (called
BXN Cotton) that can withstand direct spraying with bromoxynil.
Unfortunately, the bromoxynil-resistant gene in cotton modifies
the bromoxynil, turning it into a chemical byproduct called
DBHA, which is at least as toxic as bromoxynil itself.

Although humans do not eat cotton, traditional silage for cattle
contains up to 50% cotton slash, gin mill leavings, and cotton
debris. Both bromoxynil and DBHA are fat-soluble, so they can
accumulate in the fat of animals. Therefore, it is likely that
DBHA will make its way into the human food chain through meat.
Furthermore, cotton seed oil is widely used as a direct human
food and as a cooking additive. In licensing bromoxynil for use
on Monsanto's genetically modified BXN Cotton, EPA conducted a
risk assessment that assumed bromoxynil and DBHA had no way to
enter the human food chain. Lastly, cotton dust -- the cause of
brown lung disease -- will now carry the added hazard of
bromoxynil and DBHA, another danger that EPA has disregarded.
Thus genetic engineering -- which is being promoted as a
technology that will reduce the perils of pesticides -- will in
some instances increase them.

In rats and in rabbits, bromoxynil causes serious birth defects,
including changes in the bones of the spine and skull, and
hydrocephaly ("water on the brain"). These birth defects appear
in offspring at doses of bromoxynil that are not toxic to the
mother. Despite these findings, and despite a law (the Food
Quality Protection Act of 1996) that explicity gives EPA the
power to reduce exposure standards to protect infants, EPA in
1997 declined to require a special safety factor to protect
children from bromoxynil.

Lastly, when EPA added up the cancer-causing potential of
bromoxynil, they found it to be 2.7 per million, and they
promptly declared this to be "well within" the one-in-a-million
regulatory limit.[1,pg.46]  Is 2.7 less than one?

By all appearances, EPA is more interested in protecting
Monsanto's investment in this new technology than in protecting
public health.

** Because genetically-engineered soybeans will be doused with
increased quantities of herbicides, such as Roundup
(glyphosate), soybeans and soy products will carry increased
chemical residues. Infants who must be reared on soy milk,
because they cannot tolerate lactose in regular milk, will be at
special hazard.

** Crops that are genetically modified to resist herbicides
detoxify the herbicides by producing proteins, which will be
incorporated into our food with unknown results.[1,pg.143]

** When crops are genetically modified to incorporate the
naturally-occurring Bt toxin into their cells (see REHW #636),
those Bt toxins will be incorporated into foods made from those
crops. What will be the effect of these toxins and gene products
on the bacteria and other organisms (the so-called microflora)
that live in the human digestive tract? Time will tell.

** The "life sciences" companies have big plans for turning
agricultural crops into "factories" for producing
pharmaceuticals and specialty chemicals in open fields. They
plan to manufacture vaccines, drugs, detergents, enzymes and
other chemicals by putting the right genes into the right

The net effect of all this will be to expose soil insects and
microorganisms, foraging and burrowing animals, seed-eating
birds, and a myriad of other non-target organisms to these
chemicals and to the gene products that make them. The Union of
Concerned Scientists says, "Herbivores will consume the
chemicals as they feed on plants. Soil microbes, insects, and
worms will be exposed as they degrade plant debris. Aquatic
organisms will confront the drugs and chemicals washed into
streams, lakes, and rivers from fields."[4,pg.6]

** Most fundamentally, genetically-engineered crops substitute
human wisdom for the wisdom of nature. As genetically-engineered
crops are planted on tens of millions of acres, the diversity of
our agricultural systems is being further diminished. Do we know
enough to select the "right" combination of genes to assure the
stable, long-term yield of our agricultural systems? Our recent
experiences with PCBs, CFCs, DDT, Agent Orange, and global
warming should give us pause. Genetic engineering is by far the
most powerful technology humans have ever discovered, and it is
being deployed by the same corporations that, historically, have
produced one large-scale calamity after another. Is there any
good reason to think things will be different this time?

[1] Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, AGAINST THE GRAIN;
1567511503] (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1998).
Available from Common Courage Press, P.O. Box 207, Monroe, ME
04951. Tel. (207) 525-0900 or (800) 497-3207.

FORGOTTEN FACTOR OF CONTEXT (Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press,
1996). ISBN 0-940262-77-0. Available from Lindisfarne Press, RR4
Box 94 A-1, Hudson, NY 12534.

[3] James Kling, "Could Transgenic Supercrops One Day Breed
Superweeds?" SCIENCE Vol. 274 (October 11, 1996), pgs. 180-181.

[4] Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, THE ECOLOGICAL RISKS OF
ENGINEERED CROPS (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996).

[5] Julie A. Nordlee and others, "Identification of a Brazil-nut
Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF
MEDICINE Vol. 334, No. 11 (March 14, 1996), pgs. 688-692.

Descriptor terms: agriculture; biotechnology; genetic
engineering; regulation; epa; food safety; food security;
pesticides; bt; glyphosate; roundup; monsanto; bromoxynil; dbha;
herbicides; allergens; bxn cotton; soybeans;

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