Joined: 13 Dec 2006
Location: Cleveland, OH
|Posted: Dec Fri 15, 2006 7:49 pm Post subject: Genetically Engineered Foods
|Genetically Engineered Foods
Genetically modified food is already widely available. Now scientists warn it could be a health risk. Steve Farrar and Margarette Driscoll report
IS IT SAFE?
The birth of GM foods
Arpad Pusztai and his wife Susan were in good form last weekend as they sat over lunch with friends in their 16th-century farmhouse in the depths of the Scottish countryside.
Much of the talk revolved around his life in Hungary as a young scientist before the communist takeover. Pusztai, who has lived in Aberdeen since 1963, even told a joke: "What is the height of meanness? Four Aberdonians warming their hands around a candle. When it gets really cold, they light it."
When the conversation touched on the question of genetically modified food, however, Pusztai became grave. "He was clearly concerned that proper tests were not being carried out. There was even talk about the end of humanity," recalled one guest.
Pusztai is either a crank or a visionary. He claims that food which contains genetically modified components could be bad - even catastrophic - for human health. When he made this suggestion in August, he was bundled out of his job at the government-funded Rowett Research Institute. He claimed to have discovered that when he fed rats with a gene-modified potato, their brains shrank and their immune systems deteriorated. The results, he said, were dramatic and occurred within days.
The potato Pusztai used is not on sale to the public. It was created for the experiment. But the importance of the findings lies in their implications: if one GM product could have such an effect, who knows what damage others could do?
Many scientists do not believe that gene-modified foods can have an effect on human health. They accept that they may pose a risk to the environment, give rise to super-hybrids and encourage farmers to use more chemicals. But until Pusztai came up with it, there was no serious suggestion that they could be bad for humans.
As a result, GM foods have been allowed on sale in Britain with almost no independent scrutiny.
As The Sunday Times has learnt, there has been no independent testing of the materials which are now included in up to 60% of all processed foods on sale - everything from baby food to canned soup. The government has given permission for their distribution relying solely on data provided by their manufacturers. When Pusztai first declared his hand, he was discredited. It emerged that he had spoken out before his results were properly assembled.
Last week, as the government considered applications for the first commercial plantations of GM crops in Britain, 20 leading scientists decided enough was enough. They said Pusztai's results had been re-examined and that they appeared valid. One leading researcher said he had conducted his own experiments and found that GM foods did have a negative health impact on laboratory rats.
The scientists called for a five-year moratorium on the sale of GM foods. The truth is, they said, we know next to nothing about the long-term implications of eating such produce. If there is any suggestion of risk, however small, surely we should take stock and investigate?
In the uproar that has followed, the full force of public concern over this new technology became clear. Marks & Spencer announced that it was removing all GM foods from its products forthwith.
GM foods are made using technologies that do not - indeed, they cannot - occur in nature. Scientists take a gene from one species and transplant it into another. For example, an anti-freeze gene in fish has been modified and put in strawberries.
"That is the problem. We simply don't know anything about what these products will do to us long-term and I hope we don't find out the hard way," said Dr Douglas Parr, campaign centre director at Greenpeace. "In 10 years' time 80% of our food could contain genetically engineered material, yet the material used is taken from bacteria and viruses, things that have never been part of the human food chain."
Pusztai is bound to remain silent as the furore rages around him. He remains at home, constrained by a gagging clause in his contract.
SEVEN years ago, the first genetically modified food went on sale in Britain - a vegetarian cheese which used a genetically modified enzyme.
This was followed by tomato puree, maize - used for cattle fodder - and herbicide-resistant soya.
Last year, 15% of the American soya crop was genetically modified in this way; this year the total is expected to be much higher.
Both genetically modified and conventional soya crops are mixed on the commodity market and are widely used in processed foods. Hence, almost everyone has been eating genetically modified soya.
Four years ago the Scottish Office commissioned a ££1.6m research project into the impact of GM foods on animal health and nutrition. This was not part of an overall government strategy to investigate the safety of GM foods. The government has no such plan. Pusztai, a man of world standing in protein research, won the Scottish contract. In December 1996 he was asked to advise the government on a licensing application from a company wishing to test GM crops. It was then he realized how little substantive research had been carried out.
Pusztai warned that before the go-ahead was given there should be proper testing. "Do not leave it to chance," he said. The committee ignored his advice and gave approval.
Then Pusztai's own research began to produce unsettling results. He was experimenting with a gene that produces a protein called a lectin, taken in this case from the snowdrop. The coding gene for the lectin was put into a potato and it was fed to rats. There were changes in the weight of the animals' bodily organs and in their immune system. Theoretically, this could make the animal more susceptible to cancer and other diseases.
Pusztai wanted more money to continue the research, but funding was not approved. Then he went public on the World in Action programme - with the permission of the Rowett Institute - to air his concerns. Pusztai said it was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as human guinea pigs".
He was subsequently suspended and forced to retire. There were allegations of scientific fraud, but these were never substantiated. Some have accused Philip James, Rowett's director, of succumbing to industry and political pressure to sack Pusztai. Monsanto, the world's leading producer of genetically modified crops, donated a ££140,000 grant to the institute less than two years ago. James denies there has been any pressure.
What really happened to Pusztai remains a mystery. His research was abandoned. The bodies of the rats he used were passed to Dr Stanley Ewan of Aberdeen University Medical School. Ewan measured their internal organs and found the stomach walls of the rats fed GM potatoes were grossly distended.
Despite growing scientific anxiety, there is no continuing independent research into the threat of GM produce to human or animal health.
Professor Janet Bainbridge, chairman of the advisory committee on novel foods and processes advises the government on the safety of GM foods, said last week: "I believe we have the best evidence we can get and that is that this food is as safe as conventional food."
She conceded that her evidence is almost exclusively provided by the industry itself. The data presented to the committee includes expert opinions on nutrition, toxicity tests involving animals which look allergic reactions, vitamin deficiency or blood changes. But nothing is done to see what impact the proteins could have further down the food chain or specifically on human health.
A proposal before the committee includes consideration of the long-term impact on human health. But Bainbridge said it had not been decided how best to design an experiment.
Some, like Vyvyan Howard, professor of pathology at Liverpool University, are demanding that GM foods be to the same rigorous independent testing as drugs..
Bainbridge has ruled this out. "There isn't anywhere near the same risk," she said.
In the United States there is concern about the effect that genetically modified milk could have in promoting human cancer.
Some American scientists also believe that gene manipulation may have caused the deaths of 37 citizens and injured many others who took L-tryptophan, a sleeping pill which has genes added to the formula. The tablets produced an acid which caused appalling pain or death. The cause has never been verified.
FOR a government that prides itself on keeping its finger on the public pulse, Labour seems to be surprisingly out of tune on this issue. A senior Labour peer recalls a meeting with Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's press secretary. "He was so obviously busking it. He wasn't briefed on the subject and it scared me," the peer confided. "As far as he was concerned the science was a side issue."
The peer walked away from the meeting gravely concerned: "I was left with the impression that Downing Street was under immense political pressure from America not to rock the boat."
In stark contrast to its ban on beef on the bone, the government has said it sees no reason for a moratorium on GM food production in Britain. Tony Blair repeated that position last week.
Unusually, Downing Street officials were so anxious to show that scientists supported their position yesterday that they commissioned an expert to write a sympathetic article to back them up.
"The future benefits will be enormous and the best is yet to come," claimed Jonathan Jones, a researcher at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. He argued that GM foods can be safer than non-GM foods, but he did support environmental groups who argue for a delay in the planting of modified crops.
The Sainsbury Centre is funded by a charitable trust administered by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Labour science minister, who is an outspoken advocate of bio-technology. He denies any conflict of interest; the Labour party denies it is in thrall to the GM food lobby.
"It is scary," said a spokesman for the Consumers' Association. "The government had to do something about BSE because it had made such a fuss about it in opposition.
"Now what we hear about is 'protecting the needs of the biotechnology industry as well as the consumer'. If Labour was in opposition it would be jumping up and down shouting 'get this stuff off our shelves'."
THE BIRTH OF GM FOODS
•• In 1983 the first transgenic plant, a tobacco plant given an antibiotic resistance gene, was created
•• In 1992, the first food to contain a genetically modified (GM) element went on sale in the UK-a vegetarian cheese
• In 1994 the first application to market a GM crop was made in Britain, by AgrEvo
• In 1995 the first GM tomato paste appeared on our supermarket shelves. This was followed by maize-used for cattle fodder, and soya grown with a gene to make it resistant to a herbicide
•• The same year, Pusztai started research into the nutritional and environmental consequences of GM food. There was no reason to believe its findings would be controversial
•• In 1998, Pusztai went public with his concerns about genetic foods after his research indicated that laboratory animals showed adverse side effects. Subsequently, he was forced into early retirement
•• February 1999: Pusztai is vindicated by his peers.
•• Last year, 15% of the American soya crop was genetically-modified. This year the total is expected to be much higher
Additional reporting: Jonathon Carr-Brown, Tom Rhodes, Alastair Robertson and Jenny Shields
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Genetically Engineered Foods List
Posted by Glenda Hadley, ND
Genetically Engineered Crops
The following is a list of genetically engineered crops that have already been approved for sale:
••corn, not blue corn
••potatoes (Russett Burbank)
••yellow crook-neck squash
••red-hearted chicory (radicchio)
••dairy products from cows injected with the genetically altered hormone recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH)
Several agricultural inputs, such as soil bacteria that produce the Bt toxin, and a rabies vaccine have also been approved. For more details on the crop varieties, genes, and companies, check out the October 1997 issue of Gene Exchange on the Union of Concerned Scientists site.