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Kept in the Dark

Jeffery Smith

2nd November, 2005

The days of Apartheid are over, but once again South Africa is the victim of a dangerous experiment. Jeffery Smith raises the alarm over the government's legislation of genetically modified maize

‘I challenge Jeffrey Smith to name one danger presented to consumers from biotech crops…’

This gauntlet was tossed my way by biotech PR man Alex Avery in a letter to a South African newspaper. He and others are trying to counter the alarmed reaction that my tour here is having on the population. Many South Africans are realising for the first time that they are eating genetically modified (GM) foods. Moreover, since many eat maize in every meal, and since the government astonishingly approved the genetic modification of that staple, South Africans may face a higher risk than those in any other country. ‘What type of risk?’ asks Alex. Here are a few.

In a study in the early 1990s, rats were fed GM tomatoes. Well actually, the rats refused to eat them. They were force-fed. Several developed stomach lesions and seven out of 40 died within two weeks. Scientists at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who reviewed the study agreed that it did not provide a ‘demonstration of reasonable certainty of no harm’. In fact, agency scientists warned that GM foods in general might create unpredicted allergies, toxins, antibiotic resistant diseases, and nutritional problems.

Internal FDA memos made public from a lawsuit reveal that the scientists urged their superiors to require long-term safety testing to catch these hard-to-detect side effects. But the person in charge of FDA policy was a former attorney for Monsanto (and later its vice president). The FDA policy thus ignored and even denied the scientists’ warnings. The agency does not require safety studies. Instead, if the makers of the GM foods claim that they are safe, the FDA has no further questions. The GM tomato was approved in 1994.

In a UK government-funded study, rats fed a GM potato developed potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, partial atrophy of the liver, and inhibited development of their brains, livers and testicles. When the lead scientist Arpad Pusztai went public with his concerns, he was a hero at the prestigious Rowett Institute for two days. Then, two phone calls were allegedly placed from the Prime Minister’s office, forwarded through the receptionist, to the director.

The next morning, Dr Pusztai was fired from his job after 35 years and silenced with threats of a lawsuit. His research, which was later published in The Lancet, revealed that the cause of the damage appeared to be from the process of engineering the potato, and not the specific trait that the GM potato expressed.

The GM crops on the market, including the GM maize being grown in South Africa, were created from the same process. The safety assessments made on those crops, however, are so superficial that they would have missed the type of damage that Pusztai found in his rats. In fact, if Pusztai’s potatoes had only been subjected to standard industry studies, the potato would almost certainly be on the market too. Thankfully it isn’t.

Hiding the horrors
Astonishingly there are only a handful of published animal safety studies into GM food. And despite the fact that much of the industry-sponsored research appears to be rigged to avoid finding problems, the evidence of harm is mounting. Rats fed GM corn had problems with blood cell, kidney and liver formation. Mice fed GM soy had problems with liver cell formation and pancreatic function, and the livers of rats fed with GM canola were heavier. Pigs fed GM corn on about 25 farms in North America became sterile, had false pregnancies or gave birth to bags of water. Cows fed GM corn in Germany died mysteriously. And twice the number of chickens died when fed GM corn compared to those fed with natural corn.

According to a report in the Daily Express, soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 per cent. Without follow-up tests, we can’t be sure if genetic engineering was the cause, but there are plenty of ways in which genetic manipulation can boost allergies.

  • A gene from a brazil nut inserted into soybeans made the soy allergenic to those who normally react to brazil nuts.
  • GM soy contains significantly more trypsin inhibitor, a common allergen in soy. (Monsanto’s own research showed a 27 per cent increase. But data that they had omitted from the study, and later recovered, showed that the increase was as high as seven-fold in cooked soy.)
  • GM soy currently consumed in the US contains a gene from bacteria. The inserted gene creates a protein that was never before part of the human food supply and might be allergenic. We simply don’t know, and what’s more remarkable is this ‘new’ protein has never been tested for its effect in humans.
  • Sections of that protein are identical to those found in shrimp and dust mite allergens. According to criteria recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), this fact should have disqualified GM soy from approval.
  • The sequence of the gene that was inserted into soy has inexplicably rearranged over time. The protein it creates is likely to be different than the one intended and was never subject to any safety studies. It may be allergenic or toxic.
  • The process of inserting the foreign gene damaged a section of the soy’s own DNA, scrambling its genetic code. This mutation might interfere with DNA expression or create a new, potentially dangerous protein.
  • GM soy contains significantly more trypsin inhibitor, a common allergen in soy. (Monsanto’s own research showed a 27 per cent increase. But sate that they omitted from the study, and later recovered, showed that the increase was as high as seven-fold in cooked soy.)

Staying in the gut
The only human feeding study ever conducted showed that the gene inserted into soybeans spontaneously transferred out of food and into the DNA of gut bacteria. This has several serious implications. First, it means that even if we give up eating GM soy, the bacteria inside our intestines may continue to create its novel protein inside of us. If it is allergenic or toxic, it may affect us for the long term.

The same study verified that the promoter, which scientists attach to the inserted gene to permanently switch it on, also transferred to gut bacteria. Research on this promoter suggests that it might unintentionally switch on other genes in the DNA – permanently. This could create an overproduction of allergens, toxins, carcinogens, or antinutrients. Scientists also theorise that the promoter might switch on dormant viruses embedded in the DNA or generate mutations.

Most GM crops are also inserted with antibiotic-resistant genes. The American Medical Association, WHO, and organisations worldwide have expressed concern that these might transfer to pathogenic bacteria inside our gut. They are afraid that it might create new, antibiotic-resistant super-diseases. The defence that the biotech industry used to counter these fears was that the DNA was fully destroyed during digestion and therefore no such transfer of genes was possible. The human feeding study described above, published in February 2004, found that significant amounts of GM soy DNA survived passage through the stomach and small intestine, overturning this baseless assumption.

This is only a partial list of what may go wrong with soya, a single GM food crop. The list for others may be longer. Take, for example, the corn inserted with a gene that creates its own pesticide. We eat that pesticide, called Bt toxin, and plenty of evidence suggests that it is not as benign as the biotech proponents would have us believe.
Preliminary evidence, for example, shows that Philippinos living next to a Bt cornfield developed skin, intestinal, and respiratory reactions and fever while the corn was pollinating. This occurred the following year, again during the time the corn was pollinating. Tests of their blood also showed an immune response to the Bt. Mice fed Bt developed an immune response equal to that of cholera toxin, as well as abnormal and excessive cell growth in their small intestine. Consider what might happen if the Bt gene were to transfer from corn into our gut bacteria. It could theoretically transform our intestinal flora into living pesticide factories.

The risks from Bt in corn is much higher in South Africa where corn can comprise the majority of the diet. By contrast, US consumers only eat about three to five per cent of their caloric intake as corn. That doesn’t stop biotech advocates from trying to quell South African’s fears by saying that millions of Americans have eaten GM for years and no one has been hurt. But is that true?

Lack of monitoring
No one monitors human health impacts of GM foods. If the foods are creating health problems in the US population, it might take years or decades before we have identified the cause. One epidemic in the 1980s provides a chilling example. A new disease was caused by a brand of the food supplement L-tryptophan, which had been created through genetic modification and contained tiny traces of contaminants. The disease killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness or disability in about 5,000-10,000 others. The only reason that doctors were able to identify that an epidemic was occurring was because the disease had three simultaneous characteristics: it was rare, acute, and fast acting. Even then it went unnoticed from 1984-1989 and was nearly missed entirely.

Studies show that the more people learn about GM foods, the less they trust them. In Europe, Japan, and other regions the press has been far more open about the potential dangers of genetic manipulation. Consequently, consumers there demand that their food supply be GM-free and that manufacturers comply. But in the US and South Africa, most people believe they have never eaten a GM food in their lives (even though they consume them daily). Uninformed consumers have been the key asset for the biotech industry.

This leaves the biotech industry quite vulnerable. At any time, a celebrity, religious leader, or popular politician could spill the beans to the population about GM food risks and a European-style revolt may ensue. Thus, people Alex Avery are part of a rapid response team, doing damage control on consumer education campaigns. But I’m seeing that when South Africans realise they are eating GM corn, even before they learn about Bt, organ damage in rats, or hijacked regulatory agencies, they have an intuitive understanding of the risks and decide that they don’t want to be part of this dangerous experiment.

I suspect, and hope that the current version of GM crops, which are prone to unpredicted side effects for health and the environment, will be withdrawn from the African continent soon.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2005


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