Is Our Food Safe? Genetically Engineered Crops Are Here -- Whether We Like It Or Not
by Karen Charman
February 23, 2003
Americans are continually told we have the safest food supply in the world. But recent revelations about genetically engineered food crops -- specifically ones that grow pharmaceutical drugs or industrial chemicals in their plant tissue -- raise serious questions about the safety and future of our food. The practice in question is called biopharming. It is being touted as the agricultural biotech industry's next bonanza, the savior that will bring chronically broke commodity grain farmers not only desperately needed profits, but riches. And in today's harsh rural landscape of bankruptcies and broken dreams, promises of generating $2 million an acre -- the figure commonly bandied about in the farm belt -- are enticing indeed.
"Widespread consumer rejection of genetically engineered food in foreign markets has already cost American grain farmers dearly."
This particular dream, however, is more likely to turn into a nightmare -- for both farmers and the eating public. Biopharming may even be the proverbial straw that breaks the back of American farming. Why? Because crop plants and farm fields are not closed units. As biological entities that exist in an open environment, plants evolved to spread their traits and mix with, or "contaminate," other crops. It's in their nature.
So, if the government allows biotech companies to test and grow experimental drug- and chemical-producing food crops in the open environment, we better get used to the idea of eating those pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals in our food. As Dirk Maier, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering points out in a Purdue University fact sheet: "Whenever new genetic material is introduced into the agricultural crop mix, trace contamination of non-target crops is unavoidable. This fact is common knowledge in the seed industry."
What foods are we actually talking about? At this point, mainly corn, the biopharmers' crop of choice. But biopharm companies are also tinkering with soybeans, canola, rice, barley, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, wheat and sugarcane.
Widespread consumer rejection of genetically engineered food in foreign markets has already cost American grain farmers dearly. European officials have said Europe would prohibit American grain exports if transgenic crops producing pharmaceutical or industrial compounds are planted because of health concerns about pharma-tainted food crops.
U.S. Department of Agriculture records show that more than 300 experimental pharma plots have been grown in the open environment in 36 states since 1991, most in the farm belt in the last three years.
In November 2002, the Texas-based biotech company, ProdiGene, was busted in Nebraska for contaminating 500,000 bushels of soybeans with pharmaceutical corn the company had grown in the same field the previous year. The tainted soybeans were confiscated at a grain elevator in Aurora, Neb. -- but not before they were mixed in with 500,000 bushels that had been destined for the food supply.
Two months before, ProdiGene was ordered to burn 155 acres of a neighbor's corn crop in Iowa that USDA inspectors said may have had been contaminated by the company's experimental test plots.
At the moment, federal regulations don't permit pharma crops to contaminate food crops. However, the biotech industry and some of its promoters would like to change that, because, as Prof. Maier's comment above reveals, it won't be possible to keep them out of our food.
Grain handlers and processors -- those who collect, clean and store commodity grain -- learned this lesson in 2000 when StarLink, an unapproved biotech corn, ended up in more than 300 food products. StarLink contamination prompted massive food recalls and a quagmire of lawsuits. Now this segment of the grain industry is demanding that federal regulators set threshholds that allow measurable quantities of pharma crop contamination.
"Federal agencies are now grappling with the question of how to cope with pharma crops -- largely outside the public's gaze."
Grain industry representatives aren't the only ones pushing to allow these substances into our food. So are some biotech researchers at leading agricultural universities. According to The Washington Post, even the consumer group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, is arguing that trace amounts of pharma crops should be permitted if the substances undergo early safety tests.
Food manufacturers have been enthusiastic supporters of biotech food. But they are understandably mortified at the prospect of expensive recalls and the potential to damage consumer confidence in their products. They have come out strongly against using food crops for biopharming.
But after speaking with John Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association, my hunch is that if the government set tolerance levels and deemed those levels safe, the food manufacturing sector's concern would diminish. "As long as the rules are the way they are, there has to be zero tolerance," Cady said.
Downplaying Health Risks
Federal agencies are now grappling with the question of how to cope with pharma crops -- largely outside the public's gaze. Instead of raising the alarm, some media reports are downplaying the risks. Both The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times recently reported that in most cases, the bioengineered industrial or pharmaceutical proteins would not be harmful, because as Los Angeles Times reporter Stephanie Simon put it, they would "dissolve harmlessly in the gut."
Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumer's Union, says that blanket assumption can't be made. Many of these compounds may break down in the gut, but to know for sure, each one would have to be tested for digestibility in a form it is likely to be ingested. "We don't know if those tests are being required, because this is all confidential," Hansen said. "Right now we're talking in a data vaccuum."
As with all biotech food crops, safety testing of bioengineered crops that produce industrial compounds is currently voluntary. If the crop produces a drug, it must undergo safety tests.
"We are not designed to ingest industrial compounds."
But the testing procedures typically used are inadequate. They don't examine either the whole food or even the biopharmaceutical actually produced in the plant. Instead, standard practice is to use a surrogate version of the inserted protein that is produced in bacteria. This method may be cheaper and easier for companies. But plants and bacteria process genes very differently, so testing a bioengineered protein in bacteria can't detect whether the protein creates toxic or allergenic substances in the plant.
We are not designed to ingest industrial compounds. Pharmaceuticals -- which often have unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects -- are generally prescribed in specific doses for specific illnesses. They don't belong in our food. But if these substances are grown in food crops, they will undoubtedly end up in our kitchens and on our plates -- whether we want them there or not.
Karen Charman is an investigative journalist
specializing in agriculture, health and the environment. This article first
appeared in TomPaine.com (www.tompaine.com)