01.01.2008 GE Crops

Rolling the GE Dice

In a climate of increasing official support for GE crops in Australia, Margaret Evans reviews Genetic Roulette by Jeffrey Smith

In late November, Australia elected a new government. After months of unrelenting and obscenely expensive campaigning, both official and unofficial, it all seemed strangely anticlimactic. Hints perhaps of the old saying,"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Just three days later, with extraordinarily synchronistic timing, the governments of NSW and Victoria announced an end to their moratoria on genetically engineered canola crops. While this joint event was almost lost in the pale afterglow of the election result - for once,the PR trumpets were strangely silent - the repercussions of this decision are vastly greater than the outcome of even the most overblown election result. While supporters of GE cropping are rejoicing, those who've paid closer heed to its remorseless spread across our globe are unified in both their condemnation of the decision and their concern at what it means - for our health, our food choices, our future generations, our environment and ecosystems, even our economy. The words of a spokeswoman for Japanese consumer groups which import 450,000 tonnes of Australian canola each year were strikingly direct: "If Australian farmers start growing GM canola,it would be a very big problem for us." And for us.

Into this gathering maelstrom has dropped, in another example of synchronicity but, this time, one that is working to our benefit, a book which, in its accumulated detail, shatters the myths that, somehow, GE foods are better for us. Or at least not harmful. The ominously titled Genetic Roulette is the latest work by Jeffrey Smith, best selling author of Seeds of Deception and adviser to leaders on every continent about the risks of going the GE route. The book is published in Australia by Melbourne-based Gene Ethics with the intention of providing hard evidence of documented health risks of GE foods, a gap that has been cynically exploited in the decision to lift the bans in NSW and Victoria.

We're reminded that when the moratoria on the commercial development of GE crops were implemented in 2003, it was to allow for scientific testing to assess health risks to take place. This decision has been taken, in the case of the NSW Government four months before the moratorium was due to expire and, in the case of Victoria three months early, despite the fact that no such significant testing has yet been undertaken anywhere in Australia.The NSW Government has stated that proposals to plant GM canola must first be approved by an expert committee, while Victoria is not, it seems, imposing any controls.

One can only wonder at the precipitous nature of this decision taken in a climate where 250 companies including Australia's largest food producer, Goodman Fielder,and the country's biggest lamb exporter Tatiara Meats,have recently urged an extension of the GE ban. In a letter to State premiers, Goodman Fielder warned that,"consumers are increasingly concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the possible long-term effects of consuming genetically modified material." Those concerns will be greatly heightened as soon as they start reading this book.

Over the past two years, Smith has worked with more than 30 scientists to document known proven health risks- and that is the strength of what is essentially an impressive compilation of investigative journalism.It presents no fewer than 65 health risks, the first 20 dealing with adverse findings linked to GE products.It records literally thousands of toxic and allergic reactions, thousands of sick, sterile and even dead animals - chickens, rats, sheep, cows - and multiple organ damage in laboratory animals. Along with the reports on the 12 cows in Germany that mysteriously died after eating corn engineered to produce Bt toxin (that's where a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensisis inserted into the plant DNA as a built-in pesticide);the rats that either developed stomach bleeding or died after being fed GM tomatoes; soy allergies skyrocketing in the UK in a single year after the introduction of GM soy; the heavier livers in rats fed GM canola; one report bears stark testament to the wisdom of nature contrasted with the aberrations that man can inflict on it. It documents eyewitness accounts of animals avoiding whole fields of GM crops - geese turning their beaks up at GM soybeans so completely that they left a demarcation line down the middle of the field with grazed natural beans on one side and untouched GE beans on the other; squirrels leaving Bt corn untouched even when they'd consumed all the natural corn cobs left out for them by an Iowa farmer, and this in the coldest days of winter; cattle that broke through a fence and walked through a field of GM corn just to eat the non-GM variety on the other side. If only we'd learnt from our animal friends!

Beyond these first 20 studies, the last of which relates the case of a GM brand of the food supplement L-tryptophan,that was found to have killed close to 100 people and caused illness or disability in another 5,000 to 10,000 in the US in the 1980s, the book details another 45health risks based on current scientific understanding and theory. Genetic Roulette is, as Michael Meacher, former British Government Environment Minister, says in one of three impressive forewords: "the authentic book on genetic modification that the world has been waiting for. So much has been written about GM - some of it thoughtful and interesting, much of it mischievous or downright deceitful - but none of it systematic, authoritative and comprehensive. What has long been needed is not more polemic, but the facts, the unvarnished detail that provides the evidence on which people can make up their own minds. This book is it."

For instance, we learn from no fewer than 11 examples that gene insertion may disrupt the DNA leading to mutation;another nine examples suggest problems caused by the protein produced by the inserted gene; we read of six instances where the foreign protein may be different from what was intended; we learn that, despite industry claims, transgenes can survive the digestive process and "wander"; that GM crops may well accumulate toxins in the food chain; and, the greatest worry of all, that the risks of GM foods are greater for children and newborns. Perhaps regulators and avid supporters of genetic engineering from farmers through to politicians to agribusiness executives, even shareholders in biotech companies, should pause a moment and take in the measured words of acclaimed environmentalist and winner of the UNESCO science prize, David Suzuki: "The ability to introduce alien genes into a genome is an impressive technological manipulation but we remain too ignorant of how the genome works to anticipate all of the consequences,subtle or obvious, immediate or long term, of those manipulations. This book validates the concerns of biotech critics who warned that our knowledge is too primitive to avoid the unexpected and deleterious consequences."

Let's look at just two or three of the health risks highlighted to glean a small sense of what could await us now that Australia's two most populous states have let the GE genie out of the bottle.

Researchers Terje Traavik and Jack Heinemann have discovered evidence that refutes the earlier assumption that DNA was fully destroyed in the gut and thus dismissed in risk appraisal of GM crops. Instead, they found that DNA fed to mice was found to "persist in fragmented form in the gastrointestinal tract, penetrate the intestinal wall, and reach the nuclei of leukocytes, spleen and liver cells." Marker and transgenes were found in the intestines of chickens, sheep and pigs. They concluded that, "when pregnant animals are fed foreign DNA, fragments may be traced to small cell clusters in fetuses and newborns". They go on to suggest that the uptake of transgenes could "ultimately lead to development of chronic disease conditions".

The capacity of DNA to survive in the gut has added to widespread concern about the practice of inserting antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) genes into most GMf oods on the market. These genes allow cells to survive applications of an antibiotic. The concern is that if ARM genes were allowed to transfer to pathogenic bacteria inside the gut or mouth, they might create super diseases,with multiple antibiotic resistance. Such multiple resistance is already an alarming problem even where no GMOs exist in the environment, a reality experienced in many Australian hospitals. An internal memo from the US Food and Drug Administration's Division of Anti-Infective Drug Products is revealing: "It would be a serious health hazard to introduce a gene that codes for antibiotic resistance into the normal flora of the general population."

Genetic Roulette raises concerns that pregnant mothers eating GM foods may endanger their unborn children and that this "altered gene expression" could continue to affect future generations-the field of study called epigenetics. It documents a 2003 study where scientists managed to change the coat colour of baby mice by feeding their mothers four common nutritional supplements before and during pregnancy and lactation.The study reported in Molecular and Cellular Biology showed the genetic change also showed up in their offspring and lowered their resistance to obesity, diabetes and cancer.

In these 65 health risks, supplemented with more than40 pages of small print End notes, there is a great deal more to concern us all, but that's beyond the scope of this article. Maybe we should let ourselves be guided by some of those who've earned our trust over years of trying to improve our nation's health. One such is nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton who is accorded the first of the forewords in this impressive book. Identifying herself as "someone trained in science", she is strongly critical of the inadequate level of research on GM foods and the prevailing attitude among agribusiness companies to refuse to allow "adequate and independent testing". She clarifies what has long been the major stumbling block preventing adequate safety testing of foods even when this lack has been repeatedly questioned- the USFDA's acceptance of industry assurances that GM foods modified to resist particular herbicides are"substantially equivalent" to non GM foods and therefore don't require safety testing. And while the public has shown a willingness to accept medical applications of gene technology, says Dr Stanton, they've made it clear they don't want GM foods.

"The difference is that medical products have a benefit, are tested before release, and their use is restricted and contained. GM foods, on the other hand, get minimal testing and companies push for their widespread environmental release - with scant regard for any long-term effects." And the fact that GM foods have been consumed for some years in the United States is "no proof of their safety since there has been virtually no appraisal of their health effects. Indeed, without labelling, there is no way that any public health problems could be identified." Suddenly,that jumbo burger and fries with a soda enhanced with who knows what becomes even less digestible than it would otherwise be!

We read elsewhere that at the beginning of 2007, just 12 months ago, there existed just over 20 peer-reviewed animal feeding safety studies on GM crops. "Only a single human feeding trial has been published and there is no post-marketing surveillance on those eating GM foods."

Given the concern expressed across the globe, from the European Union to China which both reject GM food technology on safety grounds, to food producers locally who see the immediate loss of Australia's once vaunted" natural, GM-free" status and the market premium that commands among health conscious consumers the world over, to organic food producers who are already foreshadowing legal action if their crops become contaminated with GM canola, perhaps the worst possible choice of crop because it pollinates, even the reservations of farmers themselves and they're the ones who'll be growing it, the decision of the NSW and Victorian governments to lift the bans must continue to be questioned. There is still much soil to be turned before GM canola becomes a fact of life in this country.

* To have your say, visit these websites:


* To avoid GM foods, shop organic, support non-GMOlabels or check out shopping guides that identify GMand GM-free food brands. US brands are listed at www.Responsible.Technology.org

* Visit NOVA Magazine's website www.novaholisticjournal.com for recent stories on GM and Epigenetics. In the Articles archive you'll find "The Missing Link" - Dr Peter Dingle's exploration of Epigenetics (Issue 13.6,August 2006), and "Gearing up for GM" by Margaret Evans 2007 (Issue 14.7, September 2007)

* Write to your local MP and the appropriate Federal Ministers
* Or look out for this book: Genetic Roulette Jeffrey M. Smith Gene Ethics RRP $28.95

Margaret Evans

Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.