Genetically Modified Plants, Used for Food

The practice of genetic modification of plants is based on a false premise; i.e., the insertion of a gene(s) into a plant genome will have no effect other than trigger the production of a protein controlled by that gene(s). That premise is false for reasons described below. In general terms, insertion of foreign gene into a locus in the genome that it occupies by chance has the potential to disrupt the formation and function of many genes and their products. This is true in clnical4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,13 as well as other systems of gene insertion.

The insertion of genes into plants for foods has, in most cases, been aimed at commercial profit, not at improving the nutritional quality of the food. One common example is the insertion of a gene for resistance to glysophate (RoundupReady), a herbicide. The resulting genetically modified plants and the herbicide are owned by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed and herbicide/pesticide manufacturer, with patents for glysophate. Thus, the farmer buying these seeds becomes dependent on also buying the herbicide from Monsanto. Monsanto has now become a monopolist company acting to control the seed and herbicide markets of the world.3,2

The safety of foods derived from genetically modified (GM) plants sold to consumers has never been tested by properly designed feeding trials and it never will be under the current regulatory regimes. In the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, which are leading growers of plants for GM foods, the regulatory regime consists of a demonstration that the food is “substantially equivalent” to similar plant foods. Thus, in these governments, no scientific body has done or will do research on long-term (from weaning during infancy through reproduction) studies of the effects of eating foods derived from GM plants. The major sources of funding in the GM plants field are the patent owners for these plants: Monsanto, Aventis, etc. The negligible likelihood that funding from these sources will become available for valid studies of the safety of food from GM plants is obvious.1

Countries, including Canada and the USA, that allow food from GM plants to be consumed do not, with exceptions in the EU, require labeling of food so derived. Thus, the consumer has no way of knowing which foods came from GM plants. The only way to avoid purchasing GM foods is by buying organic foods, and in the USA a push is on by the Dept. of Agriculture to allow GM plants grown under certain conditions to be labeled “Organic”. If this push succeeds, there may be no way of avoiding such food. This fact underscores the undemocratic nature of the forcing of food from GM plants on the world. Add to that the determined effort by the US and its allies in GM to force all countries to accept their GM food using the WTO.

The lack of safety of releasing GM plants into the environment has also been demonstrated. The genes providing resistance to glysophate (Roundup Ready) or the genes for expression of the Bt toxin can spread into the environment where GM plants are grown by spread of both pollen and seeds from the GM plants. These problems are most significant when native plants existing in the local environment are capable of interbreeding with GM plants. Soy, in Canada, maize throughout the world, and wheat are examples of the many plants that have local native species capable of interbreeding with GM plants. This problem was clearly illustrated in Mexico, the locus of many of the plants which contain the genes which led to the current varieties of corn (maize) cultivated around the world. There importation of GM corn under NAFTA has resulted in most of native strains of maize becoming contaminated with genes from GM maize. The availability of these heritage stocks of maize for breeding purposes has been compromised by this invasion3.

Another environmental concern is the development of resistance to the herbicide or pesticides used in GM plants by the herbs or pests that they target. Further, the non-specificity of herbicides and pesticides may lead to damage to non-target species. Although GM plant advocates claim that the sowing of GM plants with herbicide resistance or with Bt toxin has reduced pesticide usage, much evidence does not support this claim2,3.

Not only is there lack of adequate safety data for food from GM crops, there is also no evidence that these plants have led to increased intrinsic yield; i.e., the potential yield based on their biology. Increases in operational yield, the yield under the prevailing operational conditions, have been absent or small12.

Probably the most disastrous aspect of the spread of the cultivation of GM plants is its imposition of an industrialized form of agriculture on the world. Now GM plants are spreading into the developing world, into India, China, parts of Africa, and South America. The commercial success of food from GM plants depends on large scale farming, on their being planted on large farms where they are exposed to large quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides. Such large scale farming practices require the use of farm machinery, oil, other sources of energy; and the goal is the production of cheap food or plant product, like cotton, to undersell small farmers. The free market of modern neo-liberal capitalism assumes that the best outcome will occur because the cheapest and most efficient producers will automatically provide a plentitude of cheap food or plant product. The real consequence is that in the developing world small farmers, working by seed saving, composting, and use of animal fertilizer, and minimal use of machinery and energy, are driven by the cheap imported food into bankruptcy, and forced off the land and into the urban fringes14.

The unlikelihood of long-term sustainability of industrialized agriculture, with its dependence on cheap energy (oil), oil-based fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and export around the world using oil-driven transport is clear. It cannot last. Meantime, over a billion people on earth are hungry because local food sources are disappearing, food is too expensive, food is diverted to ethanol, and organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have compelled countries to cease supporting their national agricultures.

General Reading

Books:

1 Seeds of Deception Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. By Jeffrey M. Smith 2003  ^

2 The GMO Trilogy. By Jeffrey M. Smith 2006  ^

3 Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation. By William F. Engdahl 2007  ^

Specific References:

4 Gabriel R, et al., Comprehensive genomic access to vector integration in clinical gene therapy. Nat Med. 2009 Dec;15(12):1431-6. Epub 2009 Nov 22.  ^

5 Daniel R, Smith JA. Integration site selection by retroviral vectors: molecular mechanism and clinical consequences. Hum Gene Ther. 2008 Jun;19(6):557-68. ^

6 Wessler SR, Baran G, Varagona M. Alterations in gene expression mediated by DNA insertions in the waxy gene of maize. Basic Life Sci. 1988;47:293-303.  ^

7 Dixon LK, Koenig I, Hohn T. Mutagenesis of cauliflower mosaic virus. Gene. 1983 Nov;25(2-3):189-99.  ^

8 Fütterer J, et al. Differential inhibition of downstream gene expression by the cauliflower mosaic virus 35S RNA leader. Virus Genes. 1989 Sep;3(1):45-55.  ^

9 Shapiro JA. Changes in gene order and gene expression. Natl Cancer Inst Monogr. 1982;60:87-110.  ^

10 Ortiz DF, et al. Insertion of Mu into the Shrunken 1 gene of maize affects transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation of Sh1 RNA. Mol Gen Genet. 1988 Sep;214(1):135-41.  ^

11 Luehrsen KR, Walbot V. Insertion of non-intron sequence into maize introns interferes with splicing. Nucleic Acids Res. 1992 Oct 11;20(19):5181-7. ^

12 Gurian-Sherman, Doug, FAILURE TO YIELD. Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2009.  ^

13 Allison Wilson, et al., Genome Scrambling — Myth or Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants (Oxford: Econexus, October 2004), available from econexus.info, and Jeffrey Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods (Fairfield, Iowa: Yes Books, 2007)  ^

14 Fred Magdoff, Frederick Buttel, and John Bellamy Foster (eds.), Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).  ^