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Keeping an Eye on Our Potatoes

Guest Column
Anton Van der Ven

Most of us probably trust our regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to ensure that the foods we eat are safe. Even if some processed foods are unhealthy, they are always accompanied with a label listing their ingredients, enabling us to choose what we eat based on our health concerns. Well, you may be surprised to find out that more and more of the foods we eat contain ingredients that have been genetically modified -- and food manufacturers are not required to notify us about it. For nearly a decade, food including corn, potatoes, tomatoes and soybeans has been grown from genetically-modified (GM) seeds. It has been estimated that 60 percent of the food we eat contains at least one genetically modified ingredient.

Experience with genetically-engineered foods has already shown that they could trigger unexpected allergies in humans. Moreover, some of these crops could have devastating environmental effects. Unlike chemicals, genetically-engineered crops reproduce and cross-pollinate with non-GM crops and closely related wild species. If a genetically-engineered crop creates unanticipated problems, it will be impossible for us to withdraw it from the environment.

Surprisingly, the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- the three agencies assigned the task of regulating genetically-engineered crops and foods -- have remarkably lax policies regarding GM foods. The FDA views genetically-engineered foods as similar to those produced by traditional plant breeding and therefore declares them to be safe. Furthermore, the three agencies do not require the companies that buy from farmers and sell to food producers and grocery chains to keep GM crops separate from traditional crops. Food manufacturers are not obligated to, and in fact do not, label food products with information indicating their genetically-engineered origins. Obviously, this lack of labeling infringes on the ability of consumers to make informed choices about what we eat. In addition, if GM foods have deleterious health effects, it will be impossible for epidemiologists to trace the problems.

A distinction needs to be made between genetic engineering in medicine and GM crops and food. In medicine, the goal of genetic engineering is to correct inherited or acquired genetic anomalies which can, for example, lead to cancer. New medicines are subjected to extensive clinical trials to identify potential health hazards and unexpected side effects. But even with these safeguards in place, 50 percent of approved medicines have to be recalled within the first five years after introduction. Furthermore, medicines are taken voluntarily. In the case of genetically-modified foods, new products containing GM components are approved with no more than a safety assessment performed by the companies intent on selling the product. They are then released into our environment and food supply without the public’s knowledge or approval.

While many scientists contend that the nature of our food is undergoing a huge transformation, the American media is surprisingly silent about the issue. In Europe, meanwhile, there has been enormous public outcry against GM foods, forcing supermarket chains to withdraw most of their GM foods. Some European countries, including France, Italy and Denmark, have imposed a moratorium on further approvals of GM crops. Foods sold in Europe containing a significant amount of GM ingredients must now be labeled with this information.

The conversion to GM crops and foods is being driven by a small handful of companies that include Dow, DuPont and, most notably, Monsanto. Although Monsanto is currently portraying itself as a “life science” company, in the past it has specialized in producing chemicals, among them Agent Orange. The agrochemical companies, as they are more appropriately called, argue that GM crops are needed to feed the ever-growing world population, to save the environment by reducing the need for pesticides, and to make farming less expensive.

Despite these claims, two-thirds of genetically engineered seeds are specifically designed to increase the sales of pesticides sold by the same companies developing the seeds. Monsanto has developed corn and soybeans that are resistant to their herbicide Roundup and they plan to introduce Roundup-resistant GM wheat in the future. These genetically-engineered seeds enable farmers to spray their crops with much higher doses of Roundup. In fact, to make the introduction of Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant seeds possible, the EPA had to triple the allowable residues that could remain on the crop. Another risk, according to an article in Science, is that engineered genes from crops may transfer to closely related weeds, producing superweeds that can withstand the herbicides meant to kill them.

Monsanto also produces genetically-engineered crops containing genes from a natural pesticide called Bt. Bt kills caterpillars that eat the leaves of crops and is used on organic farms and by farmers who try to limit their use of chemical pesticides. The GM plants containing Bt genes produce levels of caterpillar-killing toxins that are significantly higher than when used in its natural form. This threatens to severely disrupt the local ecosystem, and industry insiders have admitted that they believe that Bt as a pesticide will lose its effectiveness within ten years.

People who are critical of genetically-modified foods are not necessarily against the field of genetic engineering, but generally believe in the precautionary principle. This principle holds that we should not make irreversible changes to our ecosystem and food supply before we fully understand their consequences. Efforts to rush to a food supply drawn predominantly from genetically-modified crops only serves the corporations that expect to make windfall profits from the conversion. The rest of us, who have had no say in this decision (either through political democracy or as informed consumers), only serve as unwitting guinea pigs in a massive experiment. The citizens of Europe, however, show us that people who are unwilling to participate in the experiment can change their situation by insisting that foods are adequately labeled and that stringent testing is required before GM crops are introduced into the environment.

Anton Van der Ven is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.