Steven M. Druker, J.D.
Producing new food-yielding organisms through recombinant DNA technology (genetic engineering) entails substantial new risks to the health of the consumer and the environment. The following paragraphs explain why. Before a genetically engineered (GE) food can be considered safe, it must be confirmed so through rigorous tests that can reliably screen for the full range of risks. Numerous eminent scientists have stated that not a single GE food has passed such tests - neither regarding safety for consumers nor safety to the environment.
- Unsound Science: Relying on a Flawed Assumption
The Fallacy of Equating Gene-Splicing With Traditional Breeding
The claims about the safety of the bioengineering enterprise have not been confirmed through standard scientific tests. Rather, they rest on an unfounded assumption - the assumption that genetic engineering is substantially the same as traditional breeding. As many experts point out, careful consideration of the facts reveals that this assumption is scientifically unsound.
Traditional breeding is based on sexual reproduction between like organisms. The transferred genes are similar to genes in the cell they join. They are conveyed in complete groups and in a fixed sequence that harmonizes with the sequence of genes in the partner cell. In contrast, bioengineers isolate a gene from one type of organism and splice it haphazardly into the DNA of a dissimilar species, disrupting its natural sequence. Further, because the transplanted gene is foreign to its new surroundings, it cannot function without a big artificial boost. Biotechnicians achieve this unnatural boosting by taking the section of DNA that promotes gene expression in a pathogenic virus and fusing it to the gene prior to insertion. This causes the transplanted gene to act independently of the host organism's intricate control system, as does an invading virus, in contrast to the harmonious coordination that exists among the native genes. Consequently, not only does the foreign gene produce substances that have never been in that species before -- it produces them in an essentially unregulated manner.
Accordingly, molecular biologist Liebe Cavalieri, a Professor at the State University of New York, says it is "simplistic, if not downright simple-minded" to claim that genetic engineering is substantially the same as traditional breeding -- and that to do so is a "sham."
Recognizing How Radical Genetic Engineering Really Is
Many respected scientists regard genetic engineering as not only radically different from traditional breeding but as the most radical technology ever devised. Nobel laureate biologist George Wald termed it "the biggest break in nature that has occurred in human history." Biochemist Erwin Chargaff points to its potential irreversibility as "awesome," and he and several other eminent scientists warn it is a greater threat than nuclear technology..
- Unprecedented Risks.
Due to its deep differences with traditional breeding, genetic engineering entails unprecedented risks to both the consumer and the environment.
New Risks to Our Food
- Because the foreign genes enter the host DNA haphazardly and disrupt the region into which they wedge, they can broadly and adversely alter cellular function.
- The viral boosters (called "promoters") artificially attached to the foreign genes are powerful and can induce erratic expression of surrounding native genes or activate biochemical pathways that are ordinarily inactive.
- The transplanted genes' continual and unregulated production of foreign substances drains energy from the organism's vital functions, which can induce metabolic imbalances. It can also upset complex biochemical feedback loops.
Each of these types of disruption can cause the generation of toxins and carcinogens - or other harmful substances - that are unpredictable, and the minimal testing currently performed cannot adequately screen for the numerous potential problems.
Therefore, GE foods present abnormal risk. Professor Philip Regal of the University of Minnesota, a renowned expert in plant genetics, says it is "scientifically justified" to be concerned about their safety -- and warns that some could be "quite dangerous."
Risks of Irreversible Harm To the Biosphere
Organisms with radically restructured DNA pose major threats to the world's eco-system.
- Through cross-pollination, they can pass their novel traits to wild relatives and create superweeds.
- The pieces of viruses engineered into many plants could recombine with other viruses to create superviruses -- and dangerous new diseases.
- Plants engineered to produce their own pesticide can kill beneficial species as well as pests.
Many also exude the toxic substances through their roots, destroying beneficial microorganisms essential for healthy soil. These and the many other environmental risks are especially problematic because their effects are to a substantial extent irreversible. Once released, gene-altered organisms are difficult to control. They continue to propagate, migrate, and cross-breed with similar species.
- Scientists Voice Their Concerns.
In light of the above facts, hundreds of scientists have signed an open letter to the world's governments warning of the hazards and calling for a moratorium on all GE foods. Signatories include professors of biology from Harvard and M.I.T. and the director of the prestigious Woods Hole Research Center. Further, nine scientific experts are so concerned they have taken the unprecedented step of joining as plaintiffs in the Alliance for Bio-Integrity's lawsuit to reform U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy on GE food. They did so to emphasize the extent to which they view the FDA's approval of GE foods as scientifically unsound.
- Irresponsible Government Oversight.
The FDA's own scientists also recognize the unique hazards of GE foods, and they repeatedly warned their superiors about them. This was exposed when our lawsuit forced the FDA to divulge its files. The pervasiveness of the concerns within the scientific staff is attested in a memo from an FDA official stating: "The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks." Yet, FDA political appointees - operating under a White House directive "to foster" the biotech industry - covered up these warnings, professed themselves "not aware of any information" showing that GE foods differ from others, and allowed GE foods to be marketed without testing on the claim there is an overwhelming consensus among experts they are safe. This claim of general recognition of safety remains the basis for the marketing of GE foods, despite the fact major disagreement exists in the scientific community.
Copies of memos of FDA experts and summaries of FDA's extensive misbehavior are at www.biointegrity.org