The Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods

By Margulis, Charles | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods


Margulis, Charles, Environmental Health Perspectives


"Genetically Modified Foods: Breeding Uncertainty" (Schmidt 2005) overlooked many serious concerns about the environmental and health risks of this new technology. Potential problems from antibiotic-resistant genes used in gene-altered crops, risks from unintended effects of the genetic engineering process, the increases in pesticide use stemming from widespread planting of gene-spliced varieties--these and several other concerns were ignored or hardly mentioned in the lengthy article. Additional information on this topic is available from the Center for Food Safety (CFS 2000, 2004).

Instead, Schmidt's article states that "GM agriculture is here to stay" (Schmidt 2005) and gives readers the false impression that safety and regulatory issues have been adequately addressed by industry and government. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, regarding the risk of allergies from gone-altered foods, Schmidt stated that biotech companies avoid allergy problems by avoiding genes from the most common allergens. However, in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Nestle (1996) pointed out that this approach leaves many uncertainties:

   Most biotechnology companies use microorganisms
   rather than food plants as gene donors, even
   though the allergenic potential of these newly
   introduced microbial proteins is uncertain, unpredictable,
   and untestable.... Because FDA requirements
   do not apply to foods that are rarely
   allergenic or to donor organisms of unknown
   allergenicity, the policy would appear to favor
   industry over consumer protection.

Schmidt (2005) went on to assert that after a 1993 study alerted them to the possibility of introducing allergens, biotech companies developed better screens and learned to abandon varieties that could not be deemed allergen-free. Far from abandoning a risky new variety 5 years after this study, industry marketed a new genetically engineered corn variety, despite warning signs that it might trigger allergies in people. Although it was registered only for nonfood uses, the altered corn, called StarLink, contaminated hundreds of food products sold in supermarkets nationwide and cost industry and farmers hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. Aventis paid $110 million to compensate farmers for lost markets due to StarLink contamination, and analysts estimated that the company spent an additional $500 million to pay for losses to farmers, food processors, and grain handlers (Harl 2003; Jacobs 2003). Despite this and other troubling contamination episodes, such as those described by Gillis (2002), Nichols (2002), and Greenpeace (2005), the biotech industry continues to grow open fields of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops (crops altered to produce experimental drugs or industrial proteins) that have never been assessed for their allergenic potential or other food safety issues.

Schmidt also ignored scientific concerns about the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approach to gone-altered foods. Millstone et al. (1999) criticized the idea of "substantial equivalence" that the FDA uses to evaluate genetically engineered foods, calling the concept "inherently anti-scientific because it was created to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical and toxicological tests." In a letter published in Nature Biotechnology, Schenkelaars (2002) also derided the concept and noted that more appropriate testing methods would "systematically detect unintended changes in the composition of GM crops ... as such changes may be of toxicological, immunological, or nutritional concern." A lawsuit the CFS brought against the FDA exposed documents from top level scientists throughout the agency, who warned that the FDA's equivalence-based policy was inadequate to protect against these kinds of unintended changes in gone-altered food (Alliance for Biointegrity 2004).

The purported benefits of gone-modified varieties should be examined against other agricultural approaches that have shown documented gains for food production and the environment. …

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