Genetic Modification: Good or Bad?

Genetic modification is a broad area, and can have very beneficial applications. For instance, milk from goats that were genetically modified to produce higher levels of a human antimicrobial protein has proved effective in treating diarrhea in young pigs, demonstrating the potential for food products from transgenic animals to one day also benefit human health, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis.

Important Questions That Need Answering

On the other hand, some important questions are also being raised.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a heated ideological debate on a subject is usually unlikely to produce as much light as heat. Anything worth doing is worth doing with both eyes open.

This article raises some of the more urgent concerns that we need science needs to address thoroughly and transparently. The expectation of science should be that it should not rely entirely on studies commissioned and funded by those who have an economic stake in the issue and a chequered history, ie. industries that produce the products themselves.

Crops Engineered to Produce Pesticides

Background: GM corn and cotton are engineered to produce a built-in pesticide in every cell. Biotech companies claim that the pesticide produced from soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis—has a history of safe use, as organic farmers and others use Bt bacteria spray for natural insect control.

However, the Bt-toxin produced in GM plants is thousands of times more concentrated than natural Bt spray, has properties of an allergen, and unlike the spray, cannot be washed off the plant. Even the less toxic natural bacterial spray, when dispersed by plane to kill gypsy moths in the Pacific Northwest, about 500 people reported allergy or flu-like symptoms. 

Anecdotal Observations: Such symptoms are now being reported by farm workers throughout India where Bt cotton has been handled. In 2008, based on medical records, Sunday India reported victims of itching related to cotton farming increased massively that year.

Additionally, in India, where animals graze on cotton plants after harvest, thousands of sheep died after grazing on Bt cotton plants. Post mortems showed severe irritation and black patches in both intestines and liver as well as enlarged bile ducts. Investigators concluded that preliminary evidence strongly suggests that the sheep mortality was due to a toxin that was most probably Bt-toxin. In a small follow-up feeding study by the Deccan Development Society, all sheep fed Bt cotton plants died within 30 days while those that grazed on natural cotton plants remained healthy. Likewise, buffalo that had grazed on cotton plants for eight years without incident in Andhra Pradesh grazed on Bt cotton plants for the first time on January 3rd, 2008, and all were sick the next day and died within 3 days.

Bt corn has also been implicated as well in deaths of cows in Germany, and horses, water buffaloes, and chickens in The Philippines.

Lab Studies: In lab studies, twice the number of chickens fed Liberty Link corn died; 7 of 20 rats fed a GM tomato developed bleeding stomachs; another 7 of 40 died within two weeks. Monsanto’s own study showed evidence of poisoning in major organs of rats fed Bt corn, according to top French toxicologist G. E. Seralini. Unfortunately, such studies are few and further, their findings have been questioned. But more conclusive research is needed rather than less.

Political Resistance to Rigorous Long Term Testing

According to documents released from a lawsuit, the scientific consensus of scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even in the early 1990s was that GM foods might create hard-to-detect allergies, poisons, gene transfer to gut bacteria, new diseases, and nutritional problems, and they urged their superiors to require rigorous long-term tests.

As the White House had ordered the FDA to promote biotechnology, the FDA recruited Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney, to head the formation of GMO policy, still in effect today. 

The FDA denies knowledge of scientists’ concerns and declares that no safety studies on GMOs are required. It holds that it is up to biotech companies to determine if their foods are safe. Coincidentally, Mr. Taylor later became Monsanto’s vice president.

The fact is that there are dangerously few studies. Not a single human clinical trial on GMOs has been published. A 2007 review of published scientific literature on the “potential toxic effects/health risks of GM plants” revealed “that experimental data are very scarce.” The author asks, “Where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe, as assumed by the biotechnology companies?”

Canadian geneticist David Suzuki agrees that: “The experiments simply haven’t been done and we now have become the guinea pigs.” He adds, “Anyone that says, ‘Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,’ I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying.”

Dr. David Schubert points out, “If there are problems, we will probably never know because the cause will not be traceable and many diseases take a very long time to develop.” If GMOs happen to cause immediate and acute symptoms with a unique signature, perhaps then we might have a chance to trace the cause.

We may never know whether other GM foods are contributing to the rising incidences of autism, obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer, heart disease, allergies, reproductive problems, and other common health problem now on the increase. 

However, we do observe that animals fed GMOs have had such a wide variety of problems, so it is only reasonable to test whether susceptible people may react to GM food with multiple symptoms as well.   Anecdotally, in the first nine years after the large scale introduction of GM crops in 1996, the incidence of people having three or more chronic diseases nearly doubled, from 7% to 13%.

Working Toward A More Productive Discussion

What reasonable people are asking is for the medical community, and independent scientific community to gather case studies potentially related to GM food consumption and health effects, to begin epidemiological research to investigate the role of GM foods on human health, and to conduct safe methods of determining the effect of GM foods on human health.”