A Biological Apocalypse Averted

Book Excerpt: The Food Revolution

World Reports

These [genetically engineered] products are absolutely safe. For the most part you wouldn’t know [if you were eating them] but the point being that you wouldn’t need to know.

Bryan Hurley, Monsanto spokesperson

There is a great deal of controversy about the safety of genetically engineered foods. Advocates of biotechnology often say that the risks are overblown. “There have been 25,000 trials of genetically modified crops in the world, now, and not a single incident, or anything dangerous in these releases,” said a spokesman for Adventa Holdings, a UK biotech firm.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate George W. Bush said that “study after study has shown no evidence of danger.” And Clinton Administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said that “test after rigorous scientific test” had proven the safety of genetically engineered products.

Is this the case? Unfortunately not, according to a senior researcher from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr. Jane Rissler. With a Ph.D. in plant pathology, four years of shaping biotechnology regulations at the EPA, she is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the environmental risks of genetically engineered foods. Dr. Rissler has been closely monitoring the trials and studies.

“The observations that ‘nothing happened’ in these… tests do not say much,” she and her colleague Dr. Margaret Mellon (a member of the USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology) write, “The field tests do not provide a track record of safety, but a case of ‘don’t look, don’t find.’”

When scientists actually look, what they see can be terrifying. A few years ago, a German biotech company engineered a common soil bacterium, Klebsiella planticola, to help break down wood chips, corn stalks, wastes from lumber businesses and agriculture, and to produce ethanol in the process. It seemed like a great achievement. The genetically engineered Klebsiella bacterium could help break down rotting organic material and in the process produce a fuel that could be used instead of gasoline, thus lessening the production of greenhouse gases.

It was assumed that the post-process waste could be added to soil as an amendment, like compost. Everybody would win. With the approval of the EPA, the company field tested the bacterium at Oregon State University.

As far as the intended goals were concerned–eliminating rotting organic waste and producing ethanol–the genetically engineered bacterium was a success. But when a doctoral student named Michael Holmes decided to add the post-processed waste to actual living soil, something happened that no one expected. The seeds that were planted in soil mixed with the engineered Klebsiella sprouted, but then every single one of them died.

What killed them? The genetically engineered Klebsiella turned out to be highly competitive with native soil microorganisms. Plants are only able to take nitrogen and other nourishment from the soil with the help of fungi called mycorrhizae. These fungi live in the soil and help make nutrients available to plant roots. But when the genetically engineered Klebsiella was introduced into living soils, it greatly reduced the population of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. And without healthy mycorrhizal fungi in soils, no plants can survive.

It is testimony to the amazing powers of science that researchers were able to track the mechanism by which the genetically engineered Klebsiella prevented plants from growing. There are thousands of different species of microorganisms in every teaspoon of fertile soil, and they interact in trillions of ways.

But the scientists discovered something else in these experiments, something that sent chills down their spines. They found that the genetically modified bacteria were able to persist in the soil, raising the possibility that, had it been released, the genetically engineered Klebsiella could have become established–and virtually impossible to eradicate.

“When the data first started coming in,” says Elaine Ingham, the soil pathologist at Oregon State University who directed Michael Holmes’ research on Klebsiella, “the EPA charged that we couldn’t have performed the research correctly. They went through everything with a fine tooth comb, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with the experimental design–but they tried as hard as they could… If we hadn’t done this research, the Klebsiella would have passed the approval process for commercial release.”

Geneticist David Suzuki understands that what took place was truly ominous. “The genetically engineered Klebsiella,” he says, “could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying.”

Meanwhile Monsanto and the other biotech companies are eagerly developing all kinds of genetically modified organisms, hoping to bring them to market. How do we know if they’re safe? According to Suzuki: “We don’t, and won’t for years after they are being widely used.’’

It’s not a prospect that helps calm the nerves and restore confidence in our collective future. Surely, I’ve wanted to believe, when the chips are down, scientists and researchers would never do anything that would jeopardize life on Earth. Surely, the people who run these companies–and the government officials who oversee them–would never allow something that dangerous to occur.

But then again, this wouldn’t be the first time that corporations like Monsanto have brought us new products they promised would make life better for everybody and that turned out to do something very different. This is the same company, after all, that brought us PCBs and Agent Orange. Even the product the company was originally formed to produce, the artificial sweetener saccharin, was later found to be carcinogenic.

Of course, Monsanto tells us that this time we don’t have to worry.

GE Crops Can’t Be Contained

A test conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that 16 of 20 vegetarian foods labeled as being “free” of genetically engineered products actually contained GE soybeans. As Arran Stephens, president of Nature’s Path Foods, noted: “You cannot build a wall high enough” to prevent genetic pollution of wild and organic crops.

In August, a team of Belgian researchers were surprised to discover that Monsanto’s GE soybeans contained “a DNA segment… for which no sequence homology could be detected.” “No one knows what this extra gene sequence is [or]... what its effects will be,” said Greenpeace-UK’s Doug Parr. “If Monsanto did not even get this most basic information right, what should we think about the validity of all their safety tests?”

John Robbins is the author of Diet for a New America and founder of EarthSave International. Excerpted with permission from Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Save your Life and the World [Conari Press, 2550 Ninth St., Suite 101, Berkeley, CA 94710, (510) 649-7175].

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