The GM Menace

The GMO Menace

*By Christian Zarro and Igor
Cima , AlterNet
. Posted March 25, 2005

Genetic engineering may offer some benefits; but with the exception of
nuclear energy, its threats to humanity are unparalleled within today’s
*GMOs’ Irreversible Nature*

There is conventional wisdom that genetic engineering will tremendously
affect life in the 21st century. This technology, in fact, carries
implications and impacts that are unprecedented in human history. It
will permeate more and more aspects of human life, from reproduction and
the cure of diseases, to solutions for the environment, to name but a
few. Yet genetic engineering does not only comprise benefits, such as
the opportunity to combat incurable illnesses, but also threats that,
perhaps with the exception of nuclear energy, are unparalleled within
today’s society.

These menaces are primarily represented by the transgenic agriculture
and the breeding of genetically engineered animals for nutritional
purposes. Such kinds of practices are to be prevented for reasons that
range from risks to human health and to the environment, to
socio-economic aspects and to the fight against world hunger. In this
article, we will examine the first two: the dangers to health and to the

In spite of the constant reassurances provided by part of the scientific
world and the political establishment on the harmlessness of GE
foodstuffs, the consequences for human health still remain obscure.

Transgenesis – the process to create a genetically-modified organism
(GMO) – consists of lab interventions which, through the insertion of
genes and other hereditary sequences, aim to modify the organisms’
genetic makeup. While this technique is relatively simple – it is widely
used in scientific circles – it could lead to destabilizing effects for
the modified organism. In contrast with what is generally sustained by
the GMOs’ supporters, the introduction of genes in fact triggers
profound changes within the plant or animal species. The latter could
react to the modification with unpredictable effects.

According to Gianni Tamino, biology professor at the University of
Padua-Italy, through the random insertion of genes into the organism,
transgenesis can alter the functioning of the genes that are already
embedded within the living organism. The genes, explains the scholar,
are interrelated with each other in a complex way, and when a new one is
introduced, the functioning of all genes could result in being unsettled.

Referring to an important report released by the British General Medical
Council in the first half of 2003, Michael Meacher, Great Britain’s
minister for the environment from 1997 to the beginning of 2003, asserts
that such genetic material could activate silent genes present in the
organism whose effects are unknown or, at worst, could even be toxic.

*Potatoes and Lab Rats*

With the benefit of hindsight, that is what may have occurred in Arpad
Pusztai’s highly controversial study. The well-known Hungarian biologist
and his staff administered genetically engineered potatoes to lab rats.
In the genetic makeup of the potatoes a gene was inserted that was
destined to produce an insecticide. This resulted in the potatoes’ DNA
experiencing a deep transformation. At the same time, a second group of
rats was fed with regular potatoes in which the same insecticide was
mixed. In this case, without genetic manipulation.

The group fed with GE potatoes was found to have abnormalities on parts
of the stomach as well as in the small and large intestine. In the
second group, none whatsoever. It was not the insecticide that caused
these abnormalities, but the process itself to modify the organism’s
genetic makeup – in short, the transgenesis – whose effect consisted of
modifying the regular functioning of the hereditary makeup of the
potatoes, which in turn brought up a toxic reaction for the rats.

Although Pusztai’s experiment was strongly criticized by both biotech
industry and a component of the British scientific establishment (mainly
by scientists who had strong stakes in the biotech field), it identified
the GMOs’ problem very well. At issue is not the transgenesis per se,
but the organism’s reaction to it. How will the existing genes react to
the newly inserted gene? Will there be any consequences for the
organism? If yes, what kind of impact will result?

In addition to the possible afore-mentioned risks, there are two that
deserve the greatest scrutiny. The first one consists of the possibility
that the consumption of genetically modified foodstuffs by humans may
transmit ever-growing resistances towards antibiotics. Aside from
containing genes for the resistance against diseases or insecticides,
GMOs are simultaneously designed with special genetic sequences to
resist antibiotics.

These sequences, called “markers,” are commonly utilized in labs because
they enable the process of verifying whether the first steps of
transgenesis have correctly taken place. The danger for humans is that
once the GE foodstuff is ingested, its DNA which is highly unstable
because of the modification process, could be fragmented. Therefore, as
shown in several studies, resistances to antibiotics that are embedded
within GMOs could easily be transferred to the bacteria that live in the
mouth and in the intestinal flora. The pathogenic bacteria that, during
an illness, colonize our mucous membranes, could acquire the capability
to resist antibiotics.

As a result, in order to defeat these germs, it would be necessary to
opt for different or even more powerful antibiotics, with the
possibility of increased side effects. Because of this, the European
Union has adopted a directive on the release of GMOs into the
environment, in which the trade of GE foodstuffs containing resistances
to antibiotics must come to a total end by late 2008.

*New Viruses*

The second risk concerns the possibility of the emergence of new
viruses. Usually, in order to genetically modify an organism, the
insertion of the new gene must be accompanied with other genetic
material, called promoters. The promoter’s goal is to guide the new gene
towards the desired effect. The added hereditary sequence often comes
from viruses. The most common example is the 35S promoter deriving from
a mosaic virus that hits cauliflowers. Such sequence is introduced into
a few GE plants. As is often the case with GMOs, it can be rejected and
transferred to other places of the genome, other cells or even other
organisms. In the specific case of the 35S promoter – but it could be
valid for other genetic material – it could activate genetic sequences
containing latent viruses of the genome.

Due to the instability generated through the insertion of the gene and
the hereditary material, these viruses may move into other living
beings, including humans, and evolve into dangerous forms for them. The
avian influence is emblematic of the strong likelihood of the appearance
of the new lethal viruses that could spread among organisms from
different species. With the cultivation of GE plants and the breeding of
GE animals, this possibility is even more likely.

To date, in-depth studies showing the possible consequences of
foodstuffs consumption for humans have never been carried out. The only
effects discovered so far consist of allergies and, more ominously, a
mysterious disease that, at the end of the 1980s, resulted in the death
of 37 people, and paralyzed more than a thousand individuals in the
United States. The L-Tryptophane, a GE food supplement, was identified
as the cause.

The biotech multinationals that operate in the agro-food sector have
always refused to undertake comprehensive examinations investigating
such risks and, through political lobbying, have ensured lenient
controls from public agencies. During a conference in Geneva in June
2001, Jeoffrey Kelley, director of external affairs for Europe for
Dupont, an American corporation active in the biotech sector, explained
the reason companies cannot perform such studies to a student audience
from the University of Southern California, “If the multinationals that
have invested a lot money, such as the Monsanto corporation, had to wait
for the results of these studies before introducing their products into
the market, they would be destined to bankruptcy.”

*Transgenic Agriculture*

If the presence of health risks is still not clear for the genetically
modified organisms that are currently grown, one could conclude they are
more likely with the new generations of GE plants built to produce
medicals and industrial chemicals. As recently indicated in the report
released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that counts
high-profile American scientists among its members, such organisms
cultivated in the open could in fact contaminate agricultural fields
with serious dangers for human health.

To date, in regard to health risks, there are too many elements that
suggest we should be very cautious towards transgenic agriculture and
the breeding of GE animals. Such cautiousness seems even more justified
by observing the large increase in the number of diseases linked to food
consumption, which have appeared in the United States since the
introduction of GE foodstuffs.

The U.S. government’s Center for Diseases Control believes that
food-derived illnesses have almost doubled in the last seven years. This
does not mean that the increase is to be attributed to the GE
foodstuffs, but by the same token, it cannot be excluded. The outbreak
of Mad Cow disease, which is recognized as the cause of a new variation
of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob illness, should prompt us to pay serious
attention to the possibility of such risks.

The GMO critics of today are faced with the same backlash as those who
warned about the possible consequences derived from the usage of animal
feed were subjected to in Europe a few years ago. The pattern of pinning
“anti-science” labels on critics and subsequent allegations of
incompetence are as evident today as they were back then. However, with
hindsight we all know now that their warnings have proven to be

While for human health the consequences still remain unclear, it is a
different story for the environment. Studies that have been undertaken
so far do not leave room for doubts: transgenic agriculture and the
breeding of GE animals have harmful repercussions for nature. In
particular, the effects are great for biodiversity.

Biodiversity is a cornerstone of biology, and holds a twofold meaning.
First, it refers to the variety of individuals present within a single
species: the more diversified these are, the higher the species’
likelihood to survive adverse situations such as epidemics or climate
changes. If a species is made up of homogenous individuals in terms of
the genetic makeup, it probably will be destined to extinction.

On the contrary, if its members are heterogeneous, it is possible that a
few of them, endowed with particular hereditary traits, will be able to
overcome the epidemics or the specific climate condition unharmed.
Secondly – and in a broader sense – the biological diversity alludes to
the multiplicity of species that inhabit a specific ecosystem. The more
the environment is populated by numerous species, the better its state
of health. A habitat that shelters a lot of species – therefore ruled by
lots of interactions – results into a more balanced condition. With the
genetically modified organisms, however, biodiversity, which is already
threatened by other human activities, is seriously endangered.

Because of these organisms’ aggressive nature, there is a high
probability for genetic pollution to occur. Through pollen transported
by bugs and wind even for long distances, the genetically modified
plants are able to contaminate other vegetable species, including wild
ones. Particular genetic make-ups of plants, whose process of evolution
can have taken place over thousands of years, risk getting lost because
of the cross-pollination with the transgenic organisms. The result of
this is a reduction in biodiversity, which explains what could have
happened in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

*Contaminated Corn*

In the winter of 2001, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, two researchers
from UC Berkeley, discovered contaminations within the cornfields of
this Mexican state. While the results of their research are still in
dispute, the contaminations could be attributed to the crops imported
from the United States where, in contrast with the Latin American
country, GMOs’ cultivations are authorized. The American grains could
have ended up in a few Oaxacan fields by mistake, and, through
cross-pollination, could have polluted the surrounding crops.

If the two scientists’ observations turn out to be accurate, humanity
should indeed be concerned.

As explained by Mark Shapiro in his article “Sowing Disaster”
, Oaxaca,
thanks to its biodiversity, is very important for the world’s food
security. Everytime the crops from a specific region in the world are
hit by disease, parasites or various environmental phenomena, this area
of Mexico becomes the destination of choice for international
agronomists. Due to the numerous varieties of corn that grow there,
scientists can find the solution to their problems. Through the taking
of samples of the most suited plants, they are generally able to find
remedies to the adversities that hit crops worldwide.

Preserving Oaxaca’s biological diversity is therefore essential to face
the unexpected events that target an important human source of supplies.
If the two researchers’ discovery were proven to be true – and this is
not unlikely given that many contaminations have already occurred around
the world – it would not be an exaggeration to conclude that, with the
corn’s contaminations of this Mexican state, the global food security
has suffered a serious blow.

*40 Generations of Fish*

The transgenic animals also have grave consequences for the environment.
The new organisms are so pervasive that do not give the various
ecosystems present on the planet the necessary time to adapt to the
newly introduced species.

A group of scientists from Purdue University discovered that GE fish
could bring entire populations of wild fish to extinction. In only 40
generations, a relatively short time in evolution, the modified fish win
the competition with their wild counterparts thanks to their bigger
size, which enables them to hunt more food and pair up more easily. The
researchers’ study also shows that, in order to cause the disappearance
of a 60,000 fish stock, it is enough that 60 modified exemplars escape
from a hatchery. That such an escape is possible is also confirmed by
the report released by the National Council for Research of the American
Academy of Sciences in January 2004. The report states that it is
difficult if not impossible to prevent the escape of GE animals from the
breeding sites and, more generally, the overall spreading of GE organisms.

GMOs also threaten the environment in another way. Contrary to the view
promoted by the supporters of the new technology, in general,
consumption of pesticides has actually increased with the genetically
modified organisms’ push.

This is what emerges from the study by Charles Benbrook, head of the
Northwest Science and Environment Policy Center in the United States.
Through the data of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the research
examined the impacts of transgenic agriculture in the United States from
1996 to 2003. The study concluded that despite the fact consumption of
pesticides had indeed been reduced during the first years of GMOs’
cultivations, it has significantly increased in the following years, to
the point that today the amount of pesticides sprayed on most transgenic
crops in the United States is higher than the doses used in the
conventional agriculture.

The only exceptions are the Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt)-Maize and
Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt)-Cotton for which there is a limited decrease
of the insecticides utilized. In the future, as we shall observe, this
slight decline, however, is most likely to reverse. But why then, except
for the two afore-mentioned species, has there been an overall increase
in the consumption of pesticides for the genetically modified organisms
in the United States?

The reason lies in the nature of the most common variety of GMOs, the
herbicide-tolerant plants. These, together with the Bt-plants, represent
the essence of transgenic agriculture.

Thanks to the capability to resist herbicides, the herbicide-tolerant
plants can be targeted with weedkillers without sharing the destiny of
the infesting weeds that in most cases are eliminated. Through the
pollen, however, such GE plants can fertilize other vegetable species in
the nearby areas, with the result of transmitting to them part of the
resistance to herbicides. This phenomenon, defined as hybridization,
frequently takes place in the transgenic cultivations, and represents a
serious problem. With the fields now free from weeds, in fact, these
vegetable species are able to spread without any trouble, and threaten
the cultivation of GMOs. At such point, given the resistance conferred
on these weeds, the amount of the herbicides previously administered are
no longer effective, and it is necessary to resort to stronger doses.

*Pesticides Consumption*

In the future, the increase in the consumption of pesticides could even
expand. According to several biologists, it is highly probable that
there will be a rise in pesticides used for the second variety of GMOs,
the Bt-plants. This increase is also caused by the characteristics of
the modified organism.

In the genetic makeup of the latter variety, which includes Bt-corn and
Bt-soya, a gene is integrated that enables the modified plants to
continuously produce a toxin from a bacterium, the Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin then acts as an insecticide. According to
Gianni Tamino of Padua University, on the one hand, the ongoing
Bt-production certainly permits the elimination of many parasites, but,
on the other, within a few years it does not do anything but strengthen
the insects.

“In a four-five years’ time, in the areas where these cultivations are
carried out, by reproducing themselves … these insects will become
more resistant and aggressive. As a result, it will no longer be
possible to utilize that kind of toxin, and it will be indispensable to
use larger quantities of insecticides.”

What has been described by Professor Tamino already happened in
Bt-cotton cultivations in three major states of Northern India Madhya
Pradesh, Maharashstra and Gujarat. There, farmers who heavily invested
in the Bt-technology, saw their Bt-cotton fields being completely wiped
out by the emergence of new and more resistant pests. Because the
cultivators had devoted all their funds to the purchase of the Bt-cotton
seeds, they could not resort to stronger insecticides that might have
avoided the destruction of their plantations.

The high consumption of pesticides which, as observed, generally
accompanies transgenic agriculture, and which in the future could spread
to all cultivations of Bt-plants, is not a fact limited to the United
States alone. In Great Britain, an in-depth study commissioned by the
British government and undertaken under the name Farm Scale Evaluations,
examined the possible consequences of GMO cultivations for the U.K.’s
ecosystem. The scientists responsible for the experimentations agreed
that the genetically modified organisms harm the wild fauna and flora
because of the more widespread consumption of pesticides.

During a three-year period, in more than 200 sites across England and
Scotland, three GE plants – GM beet, spring oilseed rape and maize –
were compared to their conventional counterparts. With the only
exception of GE maize, the other two modified varieties had serious
repercussions on wild animal and vegetable species. The positive result
of GE maize is however to be linked to the application of atrazine on
the traditional maize. Atrazine is an insecticide that has been banned
by several European Union countries because of its high toxicity. Soon
it may also be withdrawn from the British market for the same reason. A
few scientists believe that if a different product had to be sprayed on
the conventional maize, the transgenic variety would have most likely
resulted in the same negative impact of the other two species.

The result of the British study is another confirmation about the
harmful effects that GMOs have for the environment. In the future, other
consequences could be added to the ones that are already known.

To make the extent of the danger of the new technology to the
environment more apparent, there are two additional elements to
consider. These are the extraordinary capability of proliferation
embedded in GMOs and, more importantly, their irreversible nature.

In addition to spreading through reproduction in vegetables and animals,
the new organisms could also expand themselves through a horizontal
transfer of genes. The hereditary material inserted into the organism’s
DNA and expelled by it because of its high instability, can be
assimilated by other organisms. In the GE plants, the rejected genetic
material is absorbed by soil bacteria that in turn are able to transmit
it to other organisms such as vegetables and animals. Hence, the
possibility of pollution that surrounds the new technology is very high.

Furthermore, the irreversible nature of GMOs makes the issue of genetic
manipulation in agriculture and breeding even more serious. Unlike
traditional sources of pollution such as the one bound to fossil-fuel
consumption, the situation concerning GMOs is totally different. Once
the genetically modified organisms are released into the environment,
they trigger reactions from which there is no longer a point of return.

Does the fact that a few countries, including the United States,
Argentina and Canada, have embraced transgenic agriculture mean that the
battle against GMOs is lost? Absolutely not. The vast majority of
countries have so far refused the transgenesis in agriculture and
breeding. And even where it is authorized, there are many spaces that
are still uncontaminated and that ought to be defended.

An analysis of the dangers of genetically modified organisms would not
be complete without a discussion of the socio-economic risks and the
issue related to the fight against world hunger. That will be the topic
of a future article. For now let it be said that, contrary to what GMOs’
supporters maintain, genetically modified organisms are everything but
the solution to world hunger.

/Christian Zarro is a candidate for a MSc. in media and communications
at the London School of Economics. Igor Cima graduated from the
University of Bern-Switzerland with a Ph.D. in immunology./

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