05/13/2008 - 23:00

The furor over genetically modified foods

Laura H. Kahn

Laura H. Kahn

A general internist who began her career in health care as a registered nurse, Kahn works on the research staff of Princeton University's ...

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The United Nations estimates that world population will top 9 billion people by 2050. Combined with the anticipated consequences of global warming such as drought, this could lead to devastating food shortages. (See "Global Warming Will Strike Developing Nations the Hardest, UN Says.") Already, the world is experiencing riots over food shortages. Therefore, crops genetically modified to withstand drought, pests, and disease could mitigate the effects of global climate change, which is why the companies developing such crops have strongly promoted them.

But what about the safety of genetically modified foods? While the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that around 70 percent of all processed foods purchased in U.S. grocery stores are produced with ingredients from genetically modified crops, the European Union has reservations about using genetically modified foods, citing food safety and trade issues. Yet, long ago, people began manipulating wild plants such as wheat to keep the plant's grains from dispersing--a positive for the plant's future as it could self-propagate, but a negative for a farmer's yield. Indeed, the domesticated grains that many people assume grow naturally (rice, wheat, and barley) are genetically modified from the wild grass species.

In theory, genetically modified foods would help mitigate the effects of global warming, but in reality, the lack of global trust in the companies that produce them will hinder efforts to use them."

It's unclear if sophisticated genetic manipulation could achieve similar benefits. For example, consider "Bt corn," in which a gene of the microorganism Bacillus thuringiensis has been inserted into corn DNA to produce a natural insecticide that helps farmers use less chemical insecticides to protect their crops. Evidence suggests that the toxin is safe for humans and animals. But the environmental impact of Bt corn isn't completely understood, and some have suggested that it might unintentionally harm insects such as monarch butterflies--despite a study to the contrary. There's also the issue of whether the introduced genes could move by cross-pollination to native maize, affecting biodiversity and potentially destroying unaltered native germplasm--particularly worrisome in Mexico.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has held two meetings to address growing concerns about genetically modified foods. The first, in 1999, focused on consumer concerns such as the need for transparency in risk assessment. The 50 nongovernmental organizations present stressed that to achieve legitimacy with the public, producers of genetically modified foods had to provide scientific results. They wanted to see governments--not industries--set mandatory safety regulations with rigorous enforcement to ensure that genetically modified foods don't harm human, animal, and environmental health. They also wanted mandatory labels on foods produced with genetically modified crops.

A year later, the second meeting reviewed different approaches to assessing the risks and benefits of genetically modified food. Building trust between governments, industry, scientists, and the public was a significant issue, but there wasn't consensus on how to do it. There also wasn't agreement on which agency would decide the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods or even how to conduct such an assessment. But participants did agree that approaching the challenges in an international forum was the proper way to move forward.

In May 2002, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a review of the safety regimen of evaluating genetically modified foods. The report stated that all foods, including those from genetically modified crops, can pose human health risks such as allergic or toxic reactions. It considered genetically modified foods generally safe for consumption if analyses showed them to be comparable to conventional foods in their composition of allergens, toxins, and/or anti-nutrients.

In the United States, three federal agencies regulate genetically modified plants-- the Department of Agriculture, FDA, and EPA. In 1992, the FDA, which assesses the safety of foods, published guidelines for safety testing of foods developed through genetic engineering. It began assisting companies to meet its mandatory safety standards two years later. Currently, labeling to identify genetically engineered foods is voluntary and limited to foods that are uniquely different from conventional foods such as bioengineered tomatoes, cornmeal, and high oleic acid soybean oil. This policy hasn't reassured some people, who are actively campaigning on making labeling mandatory.

In July 2003, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization body that oversees international food standards, adopted the FDA's safety-testing approach and developed principles for the health-risk analysis of genetically modified foods. (See "Current Official Standards.") The next year, the National Academy of Sciences published a report assessing the safety of genetically engineered foods. The report acknowledged that the ability to interpret the results and predict possible health effects is limited despite the availability of highly developed analytic techniques. It also made a number of additional recommendations, including developing a framework for assessing the nutrient levels and internal compositions of genetically modified foods.

Genetically modified food is typically compared to the nonmodified food from which it was derived. Analyses include animal studies and post-marketing surveillance studies that look for effects from potential toxins, allergens, or other compounds. Post-marketing surveillance is commonly done with pharmaceuticals already on the market, with the goal of identifying rare adverse events that weren't detected in pre-marketing studies. Such after-the-fact assessment should be an important component of food-safety monitoring.

But assessing the long-term safety of any food is difficult because the effects might not be seen for years or decades after consumption. Both genetically modified foods and conventional foods can cause acute, short-term adverse effects such as allergic or toxic reactions. And because everyone reacts to foods differently, food effects would depend as much on the consumer's bodily constitution as on the food itself.

Meanwhile, the trade of genetically modified food is an equally contentious issue. Selling genetically modified seeds became a lucrative prospect on June 16, 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 that laboratory-derived life-forms could be patented. The case involved bacteria genetically engineered to breakdown crude oil, but it has been interpreted to include essentially all laboratory-derived life-forms. The decision created the incentive to develop patentable genetically engineered plants for agriculture. In 1982, scientists from the chemical company Monsanto genetically modified plant cells, and in 1987, began field trials using plants with biotechnologically introduced traits. In 1994, a genetically modified tomato became the first whole product to be put on the market. Less than a decade later, 100 million acres of genetically modified corn, cotton, and soybeans were planted on U.S. soil.

Other countries have been less enthusiastic. During the 1992 Earth Summit, participants agreed on a comprehensive strategy for "sustainable development" and established a Convention on Biological Diversity. World leaders subsequently met in 2000 to adopt an agreement known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms. Among other things, the protocol helps countries make informed decisions before agreeing to import genetically modified organisms. It entered into force on September 11, 2003, and includes 103 signatures, although not the United States.

In 1998, the European Union imposed a moratorium on genetically modified crops even though it insisted that it wasn't concerned about health and safety issues. The Clinton administration and agrochemical companies brought the case before the World Trade Organization, which ruled that the ban was illegal. Even with the ban, in 2001, the European Union passed Directive 2001/18/EC, placing stringent requirements on the production and sale of genetically modified foods.

Today, the trade battle continues, with Monsanto arguably having the most at stake. (See "French Court Says Ban on Gene-Altered Corn Seed Will Remain, Pending Study.") Founded in 1901, Monsanto once produced chemicals such as the herbicide dioxin used in "Agent Orange," a defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. In 1984, Vietnam vets sued Monsanto for the adverse health effects they experienced after exposure to Agent Orange; they eventually settled for $130 million, although some veterans decided to appeal.) In 2000, Monsanto merged with Pharmacia, before spinning off again into a "new" Monsanto that focuses on developing genetically modified crops instead of chemicals.

But although the company has a substantial market share in the genetically modified seed business, it can't escape its past. For example, for decades, Monsanto dumped millions of pounds of dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls, which are used as lubricants and coolants, into landfills and toxic waste in Alabama creeks and elsewhere, resulting in illnesses and deaths. (See "Monsanto Hid Decades of Pollution" and "Superfund's Shell Game.") And as a new biotech company, Monsanto allegedly conducts its business in an extremely belligerent way; its aggressive business practices and disregard for human and environmental health generating antagonistic grassroots websites such as Monsanto Watch and the Organic Consumers Association.

Thus, the real problem: In theory, genetically modified foods would help mitigate the effects of global warming, but in reality, the lack of global trust in the companies that produce them (a la Monsanto) will hinder efforts to use them. It's hard to imagine this problem turning around until these companies demonstrate that they genuinely care about the health of people and the environment more than profit margins.

They could start by accepting responsibility for their past actions, paying the medical bills of those injured by their products and cleaning up the environmental disasters they created. And instead of strong-arming farmers into using their products and seeds, they could offer farmers both conventional seeds and genetically modified seeds. They could even offer mixes that consist of different fractions of conventional and genetically modified seeds, which farmers who are reluctant to commit their entire acreage to genetically modified crops might find more palatable.

In an ideal future, farmers would be able to choose from different vendors offering a wide variety of seeds that would best meet the needs of industry and consumers. In developing countries, local seed cooperatives could sell seeds and work with the farmers in deciding what to plant. Nothing should be presented as an ultimatum. Cooperation and biodiversity will be critical strategies for the foreseeable future, as without either, feeding the estimated 9 billion people who will inhabit our planet by 2050 will be nearly impossible.