Playing with Our Food
Most Americans know little if anything about a massive food experiment already underway in our nation's fields and grocery stores. Already thousands of products, including many of the best-known brand name foods found in millions of households, contain ingredients from genetically engineered (GE) crops. Yet since none of these products are labeled as "genetically engineered," consumers don't even know about-and can not avoid-these genetic experiments in their shopping cart.
Greenpeace is working to stop this massive food experiment, which poses unknown risks to human health and the global environment. We oppose any release of genetically engineered organisms, since these human-made life-forms can not be controlled or contained once they are let loose into nature. The companies producing genetically engineered crops today are among the worst polluters of the 20th century. Their chemical experiments have left a legacy of contamination that threatens nature and human health on a planetary scale. Now, with genetic engineering, these companies are introducing a new form of pollution: biological pollution, pollution that is a qualitatively different than any previous human intrusion on nature.
With this technology, we face the specter of pollution that is alive, that reproduces and moves through the environment. Doctors warn that genetically engineered foods could pose immediate and long-term risks to our health, while the biotech industry goes about contaminating the entire food supply with its genetic experiments.
Many GE crops have been approved for commercial sale in the US, and consumers are often confused about what foods in their stores might be gene-altered. Though many crops are in development, just four crops--soy, corn, canola and cotton--make up nearly all the genetically engineered crop acreage in the US. There are virtually no fresh foods sold in supermarkets grown from gene-altered seed (with the possible exception of papaya from Hawaii, where about half the crop is GE).
Yet estimates routinely note that 60-70 percent of the foods in supermarkets are made with gene-altered ingredients. This reflects the massive amount of processed foods that include ingredients from soy and corn. A look at processed food labels shows how ubiquitous ingredients like soy oil, lecithin, soy protein and corn syrup, cornstarch and other corn and soy ingredients have become. Canola and cottonseed oil are also widely used in processed foods. Avoiding just these four foods requires eliminating virtually all processed foods from our diets.
It is also important to know that just two gene-altered traits account for almost all of the US acreage of GE crops. GE crops are being grown either for insect resistance (including corn and cotton) or herbicide tolerance (including soy, corn, cotton and canola). While industry repeatedly touts biotech foods that will be more nutritious, better tasting, or healthier, neither of these varieties has any such benefits.
Herbicide tolerant crops make up about 70 percent of the acreage of GE crops in the US. These crops are engineered so toxic plant-killing pesticides can be sprayed directly on the crop. Previously, farmers using such herbicides had to carefully avoid the crop, which would also be killed by the chemical. Now, GE herbicide tolerant varieties can be sprayed once, twice, even three times a season, without harming the crop. While industry promotes genetic engineering as reducing pesticide spraying, independent researchers have shown that farmers who grow Monsanto's "Roundup Ready"(RR) soy actually use two to five times more chemicals than farmers who grow natural soy. In fact, when its RR soy was in development, Monsanto successfully petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to raise the amount of its flagship chemical Roundup allowed on soybeans. Overnight the agency raised the tolerance of Roundup on this food from 6 ppm to 20 ppm.
The remaining biotech crop acreage in the US is in insect resistant crops. Also called Bt crops, these plants pose a tremendous threat to organic farming. Bt is a natural pest control, used in emergency situations by about half of America's organic farmers to control certain insects. The Bt sprays they use are derived from natural soil bacteria, and farmers (both conventional and organic) have used the sprays safely for over 30 years. Now the biotech industry has engineered plants so that the plant produces an altered form of Bt. Unlike natural Bt sprays, which naturally degrade in the environment in a matter of a few days, genetically engineered Bt plants produce an altered toxin throughout the entire growing season, at a very high dose. This scenario will surely lead to insect resistance to Bt, probably in just a few years. When such resistance develops, farmers who use pesticides and GE crops will simply move on to the next toxin, but organic farmers will have no options. This threat to organic farming led Greenpeace to bring together over 70 organic farmers and farming organizations in a lawsuit challenging EPA's registration of Bt crops.
Biotech industry proponents say that there is no evidence that GE foods cause any harm. In fact, there is already evidence of environmental problems from GE crops, and doctors around the world warn that these foods could harm human health. Lab evidence that Bt corn could harm monarchs and other endangered butterflies has been verified in the field. Despite a massive industry attempt to debunk this research, the scientific debate is still raging. In Canada, scientists have found that engineered canola has become a nearly uncontrollable weed. One scientist there said the crop is a classic "superweed." Other scientific studies show that GE crops can cause insecticides to build up in soils, cause food chain effects, transfer genes to wild relatives, and contaminate natural crops.
For consumers, the prospects are even more worrisome. The New England Journal of Medicine warned in 1996 that the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) policy on GE food left consumers at risk from potential new food allergies, yet the agency still has made no change (the policy has actually never been finalized, leading a federal judge to rule that FDA has no rules regarding GE foods). This is even more stunning after the StarLink incident, in which a gene-altered corn that was never approved for human consumption contaminated over 300 products sold in supermarkets and restaurants across the country. Scientists repeatedly told the government that the corn could trigger dangerous food allergies, and hundreds of consumers reported allergic reactions. Even more recently, Britain's leading scientific body, the Royal Society, suggested that consumers should be tracked for potential allergic responses to GE foods, noting that infants and children could be especially at risk. Of course, since there is no labeling of GE foods in the US, such tracking here would be virtually impossible.
While the problems are daunting, we have seen amazing successes. When Greenpeace tested Gerber baby food and found contamination from gene-altered soy and corn, we were able to pressure the company to announce it would eliminate all GE ingredients from its products. Gerber's announcement forced Heinz, its main competitor, to follow suit. Consumer pressure also lead McDonalds, Frito Lay and McCain Foods (one of the world's largest potato processors) to reject Bt potatoes. Monsanto has since been forced to shut its Bt potato development facility, and the crop is off the US market. The FDA has approved genetically engineered rice and sugar beet, but the biotech industry has been forced to shelve the crops, since farmers know consumers don't want these GE foods. As more and more Americans learn about GE foods, it becomes even harder for industry to bring these genetic experiments into the market.
Yet the industry continues to fight labeling of GE food, so Greenpeace took action, compiling the True Food Shopping List to support your right to know what is in your food. Since the first launch of the List in October 2000, thousands of consumers have joined our free True Food Network to take action against GE food. The Network connects consumers across the country in a grassroots effort to force food companies to stop using GE food. Last year, the Network won a major victory when a year-long campaign against the supermarket chain Trader Joe's resulted in that company declaring it would eliminate GE foods from its line of store brand products. Now the campaign is focusing on other supermarkets, including the New England-based Shaw's stores and the national chain Safeway. In Europe, this kind of consumer action forced nearly the entire food industry away from GE food. Together, we can do the same here.
To join the free True Food Network, or call Greenpeace at 1-800-326-0959.
Charles Margulis is a genetic engineering specialist with Greenpeace. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and a long-time professional baker.
© Earth Island Journal, Winter 2003