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7. Independent Study Points to Dangers of Genetically Altered Foods

In These Times, January 10, 2000
Title: No Small (Genetic) Potatoes
Author: Joel Bleifuss

Extra!, May/June 2000
Title: Genetic Gambling
Author: Karen Charman

Multinational Monitor, January-February, 2000
Title: Don’t Ask, Don’t know
Author: Ben Lilliston

Corporate news coverage: Wide coverage in England including The Independent, The Herald, Irish Times, The Guardian, The Times London, Washington Post, 10/15/99 p. A-3 (negative review)
The Wall Street Journal attempted to debunk the story with the headline “Attack of the Killer Potato,” 2/16/99

Faculty evaluators: Lynn Cominsky, Myrna Goodman, Richard Senghas
Student Researchers: Katie Anderson, Kate Sims, Stephanie Garber

In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, preformed the first independent non-industry sponsored study analyzing genetically engineered food and its effects on mammals. The study had been undertaken to determine whether or not the spliced genes themselves could be damaging to the mammal ingesting them. However, preliminary data from the study suggests something even more startling. The actual process of genetic alteration itself may cause damage to the mammalian digestive and immune systems.

Pusztai’s study found that rats fed transgenic potatoes (artificially bioengineered to include a gene from another species) showed evidence of organ damage, thickening of the small intestine, and poor brain development. The transgenic potatoes used in the study had been genetically engineered to contain lectin, a sugar binding protein, to make the plants pest-resistant. The adverse reactions only occurred in the group that was fed the transgenic potatoes. The control group, fed plain potatoes mixed with lectin from the same source, were normal.

These results indicated that the adverse reactions were not caused by the added lectin, but by the process of genetic engineering itself. “All the presently used genetically modified material has been created using essentially the same technology,” Pusztai told the Sunday Herald “If there really is a problem, it won’t just apply to the potatoes, but probably to all other transgenics.”

In August 1998 Pusztai appeared on the British television program The World in Action to report the findings of his study. In an attempt to quell the resulting public furor, Rowett Institute director Philip James (who had approved Pusztai’s TV appearance) said the research didn’t exist. He fired Pusztai, broke up his research team, seized the data, and halted six other similar projects. It came out later that Monsanto, a leading U.S. biotech firm, had given the Rowett Institute a $224,000 grant prior to Pusztai’s interview and subsequent firing.

Evidence emerged to support the legitimacy of Pusztai’s research. The research that James claimed did not exist showed up during an internal audit. Later, Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, published a peer-reviewed paper Pusztai had co-authored supporting the research. Prince Charles began to question the safety of genetically engineered foods on his website and became allies with Pusztai. Charles wrote an article in the Daily Mail expressing concerns over the lack of prerelease safety research on genetically engineered foods.

Back in 1992 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had determined that genetically engineered foods were in most cases “the same as or substantially similar to substances commonly found in food” and thus are not required to undergo specific safety tests prior to entering the market. The FDA’s policy was a dramatic shift away from the long- standing requirement that companies prove their products are safe. Says Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund. “FDA’s policy strongly favors food manufacturers at the expense of consumer protection.”

According to author Ben Lilliston, no independent or government-sponsored research into the effects of genetically engineered foods on mammals is now being carried out in either the United Kingdom or the United States. Pusztai wrote in Lancet, “[These] experiments need to be repeated. We would be happy to oblige. It was not we who stopped the work.”

Update by Ben Lilliston

“Genetically engineered crops have been introduced in the U.S. in a quiet, almost stealthy manner. Most Americans know little about this radically new way of producing food, and even less about what type of risks these foods pose. Traditionally, U.S. regulatory agencies are some of the toughest in the world in protecting human health and the environment. But, as the article points out, genetically engineered foods have entered the marketplace almost entirely unregulated.

The story was published at the beginning of a turbulent year for the biotech industry. For the first time since engineered crops have been introduced, we saw a decline in the overall planting of GE crops in the U.S. In response to growing domestic and international criticism, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was drafting new rules for regulating these crops. Perhaps the most important event in the last year was the contamination of the food supply with the unapproved genetically engineered StarLink corn. The corn had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for consumption by animals but not humans, because of concerns that it may cause allergic reactions. The StarLink discovery by a coalition of advocacy groups has resulted in approximately 300 food products recalled, mass litigation within the agriculture community, and drops in exports to key markets including Japan. StarLink has also raised questions about the U.S. regulatory system, and, at the end of 2000, several bills in Congress were proposing major changes in the way U.S. agencies regulate these crops.

The last year has seen dramatic changes within the agriculture community regarding GE crops. Farmers are now having to worry about liability, markets, and cross pollination. Grain elevators are facing increased expenses associated with testing and segregating genetically engineered and non-GE crops. And even giant grain processors like Archer Daniels Midland are warning farmers about growing genetically engineered crops. The entire food sector is wary of the impacts these crops are having on our ability to export.

The mainstream media has been consistently behind the ball on the story of genetically engineered crops-particularly the regulatory angle. While they have been quick to cover the latest scientific breakthroughs by the industry, and report extensively on the promise of the technology, they have ignored the inability of U.S. regulatory agencies to keep up with the advances and unique risks of biotech foods. While the StarLink debacle has received considerable coverage, few reporters have identified the underlying cause, which is the overwhelmed, antiquated system that allowed it to happen.

There are numerous resources on the web for more information on genetically engineered foods:
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy –
Greenpeace USA –
Union of Concerned Scientists –
Ag Biotech Info-Net –
Ben Lilliston

Update by Karen Charman

Genetic technologies, like chemical and nuclear technologies before them, have the potential to alter in unforeseen and unwelcome ways all that we depend upon for our survival-our environment, our food, and our health. Like the products of chemical and nuclear technologies, biotechnology products are being ushered out into the environment and onto the market for people to consume without fully considering, let alone understanding, either their long- or short-term impacts.

Through intellectual property patents, biotechnology grants private corporations ownership to previously unowned living things. The economics behind biotechnology are the technology’s driving force, but discussion of life patents and their implications are absent from most media accounts and, consequently, public debate.

My story on media coverage of biotechnology for Extra! pointed out that scientific understanding of how genes work in organisms is in its infancy. The same is true for scientific understanding of ecology. Yet, without a thorough understanding of the web of life and how its different components interact with each other, it’s impossible to know what the true impact of releasing these novel organisms will be or to assess whether we should be taking this genetic gamble.

Much less risky solutions exist to the problems biotech purports to solve. But they are not being presented in the mainstream media. Instead, most coverage continues to uncritically spread industry-promoted myths about biotechnology while failing to comprehensively and accurately report the technology’s impacts, risks associated with biotechnology, and why it is being pushed so hard. Biotech food has become a flash point with consumers overseas and now that opposition is growing here on the home turf, biotech promoters are attempting to manage the public debate with sophisticated PR. Unfortunately, much of the PR continues to appear in the mainstream media.

A number of citizen groups are now doing excellent work on genetic engineering issues. The Organic Consumers Association has a website with a tremendous amount of information and links to other sites covering genetic engineering. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has in- depth information on economics and trade issues related to agricultural biotechnology. The Ag BioTech InfoNet compiles scientific reports and technical analysis on biotechnology and genetic engineering in food production, processing and marketing.

In addition to becoming informed about genetically engineered food, people can take simple action on their own by buying and requesting organic food.

Karen Charman:

Update by Joel Bleifuss

The U.S. media has not covered the disturbing public health questions raised by Arpad Pusztai’s research into genetically engineered potatoes. Genetic engineering continues to receive a clean bill of health by U.S. regulatory agencies despite the fact that no independent, government-supported research into the effects of genetically engineered foods on mammals has been or is being conducted. This is in large part because the biotech industry has a sophisticated PR apparatus in place that has so far successfully been able to spin the industry’s line that genetically altered food is absolutely safe. Concerns raised by scientists like Pusztai or Michael Hansen at Consumers Union are all but ignored. As Hansen told me, “But for the folks that criticize it, Pusztai’s study is still a much better-designed study than the industry-sponsored feeding studies I have seen in peer-reviewed literature. Pusztai’s are the kinds of experiments that need to be done with engineered foods.

Joel Bleifuss:

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