Genetic engineering myths debunked

by Cameron Woodworth

This article was originally published in September 2001

drawing of tractor

It has been only six years since the first genetically engineered foods were in troduced to the American public. Already, approximately two-thirds of the food on the shelves of the average American supermarket today are genetically engineered (GE), or contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Some GE foods, such as potatoes and corn, are engineered to produce pesticides — at full potency — in every cell. You can’t wash the pesticides off and they don’t degrade. It’s as if you are eating a pesticide. Biotech companies, in an obvious attempt to win over an increasingly wary public, make a number of boasts about the genetically engineered foods they produce. Do these promises hold up? Let’s take a look.

“Golden rice”: a cure-all for global malnutrition?
Several months ago, biotech advocates began arguing that genetically engineered “golden rice,” enriched with Vitamin A, will save thousands of children in developing countries from blindness and malnutrition. Greenpeace researchers shattered this myth when they discovered that a person would need to eat nine pounds of uncooked golden rice daily to meet the Vitamin A requirement.

“It is clear from these calculations that the genetic engineering industry is making false promises about ‘golden rice.’ It is nonsense to think anyone would or could eat this much rice and there is still no proof it can provide any significant vitamin benefits anyway,” says Greenpeace campaigner, Von Hernandez in the Philippines, where the first grains of “golden rice” were delivered to the International Rice Research Institute for breeding into local rice varieties.

One of the principal sponsors of “golden rice” is the Rockefeller Foundation. Its president, Gordon Conway, says the biotech industry is going overboard in its zeal for promoting golden rice.

“The public relations uses of ‘golden rice’ have gone too far,” he says. “The industry’s advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers.”

GE foods and the environment
Biotech proponents claim that genetically engineered foods are better for the environment. They claim, for example, that genetic engineering reduces the amount of pesticides needed for crops.

But many of the new GE crops, including Monsanto’s Roundup™ Ready soybean, are engineered to allow farmers to spray more pesticides on their land. According to New Scientist magazine, many farmers who plant GE crops use as many pesticides as their conventional counterparts, while some farmers use more. The Bureau of National Affairs reported in 1998 that use of glyphosate herbicides (Roundup™) has been increasing at a rate of about 20 percent annually, primarily because of crops that are genetically engineered to be tolerant of the herbicide. This past July, Iowa State University scientists reported that insecticide use remains widespread, despite claims that GE corn engineered to resist the European corn borer would reduce insecticide levels.

There are other environmental concerns as well, ranging from the potential rise of pesticide-resistant “superweeds” to genetic contamination of the environment. Two years after Cornell University scientists discovered GE corn may be deadly to Monarch butterflies, scientists are still trying to get a handle on the impact biotech crops may have on wildlife. In one study, researchers determined that GE crops might kill birds in Great Britain.

Organic foods are especially at risk. In 2000, the StarLink™ corn controversy erupted, when scientists discovered StarLink,™ (a variety of GE corn unapproved for human consumption), in hundreds of food items. Even though StarLink™ was planted in less than one percent of the U.S. corn supply, tests conducted in recent months reveal that it may have affected about 10 percent of the country’s corn, including cross-over to some organic corn.

Feeding the poor, or just blowing smoke?
Advocates of biotech food say it will feed the world’s poor, but are biotech companies simply using this argument to win favorable publicity from the media? “This notion that genetically engineered crops will save developing countries misses the real point,” Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, head of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency, told Sierra magazine. “The world has never grown as much food per capita as it is doing now, yet the world has also never had as many hungry. The problem is not the amount of food produced, but how it is both produced and distributed. For example, farmers in developing countries who buy genetically engineered seeds that cannot reproduce — and so can’t be saved and used for next year’s crop — become tied to transnational companies like Monsanto.”

Here’s what Salil Shetty, chief executive of Action Aid — an anti-poverty organization that works with more than 5 million of the world’s poorest people in 30 countries — has to say about the issue:

“Rather than reducing world hunger, genetic engineering is likely to exacerbate it. Farmers will be caught in a vicious circle, increasingly dependent on a small number of giant multinationals, such as Monsanto, for their survival. For 25 years, Action Aid has been listening to poor farmers and supporting their efforts to maintain sustainable farming. Even though the world’s population is growing, we know it produces enough food for all — food mountains are evidence of this. It is the inequitable distribution of food that is keeping millions hungry. The truth is that genetically engineered crops will provide a ‘better way forward’ for Monsanto’s profits, but could be a huge step backwards for the world’s poor.”

The campaign to label

The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act is likely to be reintroduced to the Congress in September.

The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods says bills are ready for both the House and Senate. The Campaign’s focus is to flood Congress with letters from citizens asking Senators and House members to co-sponsor and support the bills.

The Campaign’s website has extensive news and educational information about GE foods. It offers letter ideas, form letters and addresses for mailing. Although membership in The Campaign is free, The Campaign welcomes donations and volunteers. The Campaign is based here in Seattle.

Cameron Woodworth is communications director for The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods,

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