GMO Crops: Boon To Humanity Or Reckless Science?
By Tom Mysiewicz
27 May, 2014
Recently, an NGO (non-governmental organization) in Russia—the National Association for Genetic Safety–began working closely with the Russian Duma to enact a set of laws criminalizing the introduction of harmful genetically-modified crops (GM or GMO crops) as well as withholding information on harmful effects of such crops. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will sign such legislation, saying Russia can grow enough food for itself without genetic engineering it.
“If Americans like to eat such foods, they can eat them,” Putin is reported to have said. But with GMO companies in the U.S. massively campaigning to hide GMO content—do Americans really know what they are eating?
I believe Russia and, increasingly, countries elsewhere, are on the right track in this regard. And I base this belief on my first-hand observations from the inception of GMO crops—and the original promises made and assurances given for this technology—to the much different reality I see today.
As founder and editor of the weekly biotechnology newsletter–BioEngineering News–I covered GMOs and ag-biotech from 1980 through 1993 and was the first journalist allowed (under a secrecy agreement) to cover a Gordon Research Conference. This groundbreaking conference, on Plant Genetic Engineering, was at U.C. Davis in the early 1980s. I have also had hands-on research experience, including lab courses on plant tissue culture in which I cloned a variety of plants from jojoba to redwood.
The original promise of genetic engineering was that crops could be grown without fertilizer or pesticides, in salt water if fresh water was scarce, and that the nutritional content could be altered at will by the addition of genes for amino acids (the building blocks of protein) such as L-lysine and genes coding for vitamins, such as vitamin A. In this “brave new world” hunger and malnutrition would be eliminated by massively higher crop yields. And there would be no down side: We were assured that there would be no actual or consequential harmful effects from such alterations.
Many Americans are not aware that the system of clinical trials and double-blind studies for new drugs means that it can cost $30- to $60-million to get a single new drug through FDA-mandated clinical trials. And, still, how many horror stories have we heard of dangerous drug side effects? Imagine if NO clinical trials were required for new drugs and only some rudimentary safety testing was necessary? Would you feel safe taking a new drug?
Well, that is the situation with GMO crops.
In the early 1980s—at about the time of the abovementioned Gordon Conference at U.C. Davis—the USDA and FDA (apparently at the behest of large agribusiness interests) determined that GMO crops were GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) meaning they were substantially equivalent to existing crops and were, therefore, “grandfathered in” and exempt from rigorous testing under existing food, drug and cosmetic laws.
Exempted from costly safety testing, a virtual “gold rush” of ag biotech companies and investors ensued to commercialize the first GMO crops.
Jump to the present. Many (if not most) GMO crops have cloned resistance genes for Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide (Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine))—whose effects on weeds are similar to Agent Orange. Previously, this herbicide (an estrogen mimic active in mammals in the part-per-trillion range, some say) could not be used on many of these crops. Now it can be—and vastly more Roundup can be used on GMO crops that previously tolerated it– and some estimates of increased glyphosate usage are sobering:
“Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pounds) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011.” ( Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years. Charles M Benbrook, Centre for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University, Hulbert 421, PO Box 646242, Pullman, WA, 99164-6242, USA, Environmental Sciences Europe 2012, 24:24 doi:10.1186/2190-4715-24-24. The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at: http://www.enveurope.com/content/24/1/24 )
This means Americans are now ingesting much higher levels of the herbicide and have much higher blood-serum levels of glyphosate—this without adequate knowledge of the cumulative effects of such exposure. My belief is that some of the adverse human and animal effects attributed to GMOs may, in fact, be due to “glyphosate intoxication” indirectly resulting from genetic modification of crops to allow large amounts of this herbicide to be sprayed on fields. Also, most corn and soy is GMO now and this is fed to a variety of meat animals destined for human consumption.
While little has been done to reduce the need for fertilizers or to incorporate salt-tolerance genes into crops, a certain percentage of GMO crops incorporate genes for production of BT toxin, a natural insecticide derived from the pest-killing microbe BT or Bacillus thuringiensis. The gene coding for BT-toxin is “spliced” to various delivery vehicles or vectors designed to get them into the plant cells.
The problem here is that, whereas the BT microbe is sprayed onto crops and can be washed off by the consumer, the gene coding for the BT toxin is cloned into a food plant the consumer eats. Just because the toxin is “natural” (like the deadly ricin) does not mean it is not a poison—as evidenced by the fact that it kills bugs.
Have comprehensive clinical trials been done on the effects of BT toxin? I think not and anecdotal evidence is surfacing of a number of potential ill health effects. In addition, there is also increasing evidence that some of the vehicles (vectors) used to introduce genes into plant cells may also be infecting mammalian cells exposed to them. If these genes were to be expressed in the tissues of consumers ingesting such foods, the levels of BT could rise substantially. Once again, there is no adequate research into the long-term effects.
Then there is the issue of incorporating genes coding for different amino acids to “improve protein quality” in food crops. For instance, it was theorized that a “meatato” could be produced that would have an amino-acid compliment making it nutritionally equivalent to meat. And various genes have been incorporated to raise levels of specific amino acids, as previously mentioned, such as L-lysine.
There is a slight problem with such efforts. Some of the amino acids and proteins produced may not have the proper shape even if they have the same chemical formula. In the body, enzymes are necessary to metabolize proteins and amino acids. Some have likened the process to a lock and key. If the “lock” (protein/amino acid) is the wrong shape the “key” (enzyme) will not fit. And metabolism will be disrupted. This could account for some of the ill effects associated with GMOs.
In the early days of genetic engineering nobody worried about such considerations. But they are important. For instance, a microbial-GMO produced L-tryptophan amino-acid supplement by Japan’s Showa Denko—possibly a mixture containing isomers having the wrong “shape”—is believed to have resulted in 30+deaths and over 1000 injuries. According to Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST) in a report originally issued 6 Jan. 2007 and updated 9 June 2013:
The commonly held “filtration hypothesis” – that the accident was caused by insufficient purification of the product – has been definitely disproven.
Two abnormal substances “IMT” and “EBT”, closely similar to tryptophan, were found in the product.
The only tenable scientific explanation for their appearance is a disturbance of tryptophan metabolism caused by the introduction of four foreign genes all designed to influence synthesis of tryptophan.
It is of minor importance whether these two substances were the specific cause of the deaths, or not. The important thing is that genetic engineering evidently generated at least two unexpected poisonous substances very difficult to detect. In any case, it is established beyond reasonable doubt that some product from disturbed metabolism due to genetic engineering was the ultimate cause of the deadly disease.
The PSRAST website is useful as well as it contains a comprehensive listing of anecdotal side effects of human and animal consumption of GMO foods: http://www.psrast.org/
We now know it’s possible for genetic-engineering vectors in plants to infect mammalian cells. And, since recombinant genes are expressed in pollen, it is certainly possible for GMO crops to infect the same crops and even unrelated plants and weeds.
On an immediate level, the contamination by GMO pollen of non-GM fields can lead to economic ruin if the farmers are competing for non-GMO markets. And GMO agribusiness companies frequently and successfully sue these victims of contamination for patent infringement!
Since GMO crops containing herbicide-resistance genes are so common, it is also well within the realm of possibility that resistance may eventually spread to weeds–ultimately disrupting agriculture and leading to food shortages.
By their nature, GMO plants will also reduce diversity in targeted crops, leaving them susceptible to unforeseen natural diseases and blights—much like the use of a single potato cultivar was a cause of the infamous “Irish potato famine.”
Finally, to prevent seed saving by poor farmers and ensure high profits—ag-biotech companies have developed so-called “suicide genes” that allow only one crop to be grown from purchased seeds. Imagine the global catastrophe that could ensue if such genes were to jump to non-GMO fields, were to infect other food crops and even infect wild plants?
We could be quickly facing a national or international crisis of monumental proportions.
Along these lines, in closing, I’d like to share my opinion that GMO crops are a form of “weaponized agriculture”. Making foreign countries dependent on externally-supplied GMO seeds leaves them open to the worst sort of extortion and could lead to wars and global instability. Further, having established production and distribution facilities for GMO seed could allow rapid targeting of the agricultural sector of an “enemy” country. Simply having this capacity could create a climate of suspicion and lead to retaliatory measures that could substantially reduce the human population.
Tom Mysiewicz is a biotechnologist.
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