Genetic Modification of Foods and Seeds: Is It Inherently Dangerous?

By Howard, Pat | Canadian Dimension, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Genetic Modification of Foods and Seeds: Is It Inherently Dangerous?


Howard, Pat, Canadian Dimension


In the March/April issue of CD, Ken Hanly acknowledges a number of the health and environmental risks of genetically modified foods and seeds, but he is critical of the more sweeping concerns of many activists working on this issue. He suggests that "a Marxist perspective should analyze both positive and negative aspects of biotechnology and suggest means for its socialization." He argues that it is capitalism and its misuse of the technology that produces the risks.

Hanly reviews the evidence of risk, but repeatedly downplays the problem. "For example, people who are allergic to nuts might have an extremely allergic reaction to a GM food that contains a gene from nuts. The solution to this problem is proper labeling, warnings, and caution." Labeling, however, is not an adequate solution. People with life-threatening nut allergies should not have to worry about eating genetically engineered soy derivatives in an enormous range of processed foods. There is no justification for insertion of foreign genetic elements into food that may be, or in this case, are proven to be dangerous to a minority of the population.

Hanly does not mention more alarming hazards of consuming genetically engineered foods and food additives that are being discussed in the scientific literature. He does not discuss evidence of abnormal liver, brain, and heart development and weakened immune systems in rats fed genetically engineered potatoes. He does not mention the 27 people who died and the several thousand left with chronic illness and painful disabilities after injesting a genetically engineered food supplement, L-tryptophan, in 1989. The British Medical Association in May 1999 released a statement calling for more caution and testing because "information about the effect of genetic modification on the chemical composition of food, and in particular its safety, is needed urgently."

In April, 2000, the National Research Council of the U.S. Academy of Sciences issued a report calling for more rigorous testing of GM foods because of health and environmental risks.

Hanly writes, "Critics argue that the insertion of a gene from one species into another may have unanticipated effects. But where is the evidence that this will happen?" CD is neither a scientific nor an academic journal. I cannot use this forum to provide a long list of sources. However, I urge Hanly and his readers to go to the websites of the many civil-society organizations working on this issue where there are plenty of references to scientific studies. On the specific question raised by Hanly as to whether there are inherent risks of insertion of foreign DNA, I suggest readers look at a collaborative report by a team of British, Canadian, and Norwegian scientists for the Third World Network. It is entitled "Unregulated Hazards: 'Naked' and 'Free' Nucleic Acids" and attempts to explain the hazards in accessible language for non-scientists. The authors point out that genetic engineering involves artificial constructs of DNA "typically containing a heterogeneous collection of genes from pathogenic bacteria , viruses and other genetic parasites belonging to practically every kingdom of living organisms... They are, by definition, xenobiotics -- substances foreign to nature -- with the potential to cause harm. Some, such as gene therapy vectors and vaccines, have already been shown to elicit toxic and other harmful reactions in pre-clinical trials."

So there is growing scientific evidence of harmful effects, but it is important to remember that it took 60 years before we realized that DDT was a hormone disruptor with muragenic effects in birds and mammals. It is also

important to remember the massive effort by the chemical companies to discredit Rachel Carson. Something similar is occurring today when scientists speak out about the potential hazards of genetically engineered food and crops.

The story of Dr. Arpad pusztai, who first discovered the health effects of feeding generically modified potatoes to rats, reveals the considerable risks faced by those scientists who dare to speak out about the potential risks of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment and injesting them in our foods and medicines.

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Genetic Modification of Foods and Seeds: Is It Inherently Dangerous?
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