The International Center for Technology Assessment - Holding Technology Accountable -
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Center for Food Safety Fact Sheet on the Dangers of Genetically Engineered Food
Why is genetically engineered food dangerous? Genetically engineering plants and animals for food is risky and unsafe. Biotechnology is too young of a science to be able to fully assess or understand the potential problems that can come from altering the genes of living creatures. There is numerous potential for problems on many different levels. From the unpredictable occurrence of toxins and allergens, to environmental hazards, to ethical issues, biotechnology poses a serious threat.
Toxins One problem with genetic engineering is that it can cause unexpected mutations in an organism, which can create new and higher levels of toxins in foods. In 1989, a genetically engineered form of the dietary supplement, L-tryptophan, produced toxic contaminants that caused 37 deaths and 1,511 nonfatal cases of a disease called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS).
Allergic reactions Genetic engineering can also produce unforeseen and unknown allergens in foods by altering the context of a gene pattern so that gene products are mixed in novel configurations. It is nearly impossible to predict whether these new genetic configurations will cause allergic reactions.
Another problem regarding food allergy is that without proper labeling, millions of Americans who suffer from food allergies will often have no way of knowing what is in their food and therefore which foods to avoid. A study from the University of Nebraska showed that soybeans genetically modified to contain a gene from a Brazil nut caused an allergic reaction in people known to be allergic to Brazil nuts.
Lack of safety testing Currently, there are no requirements to safety test genetically engineered foods before they are released on the market. The argument is that the risk from genetically engineered food is small and that it is unnecessary to carry out stringent safety testing. This view is based on unscientific assumptions and is irresponsible. The small risk that a product will produce unanticipated effects becomes virtual certainty of harm when many new genetically engineered foods have become part of the diet of large populations over extended periods of time.
Genetic engineering uses material from organisms that have never been part of the human food supply. Without long-term testing no one knows if these foods are safe.
Increased pesticide use Herbicide-tolerant crops are engineered to contain new genes that help plants avoid the harmful effects of particular weed killers. Scientists estimate that plants genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant will actually triple the amount of herbicide use. Currently, a crop's sensitivity to herbicides limits the amount that growers can apply. Farmers, knowing that their crops can tolerate the herbicides, will be persuaded to use them more liberally.
The biotech industry has developed and field tested tomato, tobacco, cotton, walnut, and potato plants genetically engineered to contain an insect-killing toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.). B.t. is a soil microorganism that has been used for twenty years as a commercial biocontrol agent against certain insect pests. Widespread use of crops genetically engineered to contain the B.t. toxin poses a potentially significant problem: accelerated evolution of pest resistance to B.t.. If this were to happen, agriculture would lose one of its safest, most valuable pest control agents.
Biological pollution When genetically engineered plants and animals are taken out of the laboratory and introduced into the environment, ecological havoc could result. In one survey, the top 100 environmental scientists in the United States warned that genetic engineering's "imprudent or careless use...could lead to irreversible, devastating damage to the ecology of the planet." Major environmental risks include cross-pollination of transgenic plants with genetically original plants and the unpredictable ecological effects of altering the balance of nature.
The industrialization and monopolization of agriculture Biotechnologists claim that genetic engineering will solve all kinds of problems, from agricultural pests to world hunger. However, when one reads through the propaganda, the facts point to a more powerful motive for the biotechnology industry: profit. Biotechnologies are controlled by a small number of corporate powers, and are protected by patents, which means that farmers must pay royalties to the patent holder each time they breed their stock, and must buy fresh patented seed each year.
Ethical problems Many consumer, animal welfare, religious, and environmental groups worry that biotechnology promotes a view of life as mere chemical manufacture and invention with no greater value or meaning than industrial products. Animal rights groups point out that genetic engineering threatens the rights of animals to quality of life and their own genetic integrity. For example, researchers at the University of Wisconsin have engineered chickens that no longer contain the genetic trait for brooding, eliminating the "mother instinct" of hens in order to create more efficient egg producers. Biotechnologists are altering the genetic makeup of living creatures by introducing genetic material from humans and other species in order to create more efficient and profitable animals and plants. Some religious groups contend that genetically modifying plants and animals is incompatible with a God-centered world view.
For more information: (1997, Jan. 20). "Science: Unnatural Selection: Are genetically altered foods really safe?" Maclean's, p. 56. Cummins, Joe. (1997, Feb.) "Allergenicity." Gene Tinkering Blues. Kimbrell, Andrew. (1994, Dec.) "Brave New Food." Currents in Modern Thought, p. 399-408. Liebman, Bonnie. (1996, May). "Allergic to biotech? Foods created with biotechnology may cause food allergies to people who are susceptible to specific proteins." Nutrition Action Healthletter, p. 4. Rissler, Jane. "Biotechnology and Pest Control: Quick Fix vs. Sustainable Control."