The Big E
Commentary on environmental news
BY LARRY CRENSHAW
The American government loves genetically modified (GM) crops: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided not to regulate them, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) promotes them, the Clinton Administration tries to force them on countries that donít want them. The government considers them so safe that it doesnít want to label them, as we consumers would just get confused.
Government, GM businesses, some scientists, and most members of the American media ask, "Whatís the problem?" After all, they argue, weíve been genetically modifying crops for millennia through plant breeding. Why would a group of irrational, unscientific, environmental nutcases come out against processes and products that can feed the world and reduce the use of pesticides?
First, to compare GM with crossbreeding is like comparing nuclear power with a windmill; they both produce power, but the similarities stop there.
For one thing, GM is bound to have pleiotropic effects ó which means that changing a plantís genetic code for one effect will make other, unforeseen changes. The GM food might absorb fewer nutrients or concentrate toxins more heavily. The only way to know for sure is with extensive testing, which the FDA doesnít require.
(Breaking news: after three years of tests, Germany has banned the growing of one type of GM corn because it appears to reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans; recent studies have connected GM potatoes to stomach problems in rats ó pleiotropia in action.)
The FDA under President George Bush decided not to regulate GM foods. When some FDA scientists said that pleiotropic effects were likely, the FDA ignored and covered up their concerns. A recent lawsuit revealed the truth.
Proponents argue that GM crops mean fewer pesticides. In theory, yes, but right now GM crops are being created to use MORE pesticides. Roundup Ready soybeans have been engineered so that poison can be applied more heavily, killing everything around the crop, damaging the soil, and polluting water and air.
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) potatoes produce their own bacterial insecticide, meaning that the bacteria Bt was produced in every cell of some of the potatoes at your grocery store. (Which potatoes? Sorry, no labeling allowed.) The effect of increased Bt on humans is unknown. The effect of potato roots injecting Bt into the soil is unknown. A recent study showed Bt from GM crops kills the larvae of Monarch butterflies.
Brazil nut genes have been inserted into soybeans. Some people have deathly allergies to Brazil nuts. Will soybeans kill them? Weíll find out. Flounder genes have been added to tomatoes ó might there come a point when a tomato becomes an animal? GM crops can interbreed with weeds ó are we creating superweeds, kudzu on steroids, that will wipe out habitat and biodiversity?
Most environmentalists arenít against genetic modification but believe it should be tested in the laboratory rather than the biosphere. If GM foods are going to be produced, they should at least be labeled so that the consumer can choose whether or not they want to eat poison-producing potato, filet of tomato, or hormone-enhanced milk.
The Good, the Bad, and the Spud-Ugly
The Good News: Due to consumer concern, especially overseas, GM planting in the U.S. is expected to drop 20 percent this year. Meanwhile, Frito-Lay has stated it will no longer use GM foods in its products. Note to Frito-Lay: Now dump the Olestra.
The Bad News: The Clinton Administration continues to claim that science proves the safety of GM crops. Donít believe íem.
The Spud-Ugly News: The man in charge of studying GM foods for then-President Bush was then-Vice-president Dan Quayle, meaning that the man who couldnít even spell potatoes, much less Bacillus thuringiensis, has decided that itís okay for you to consume Bt potatoes. Words to the wise: Buy organic.
Larry Crenshaw is a native South Carolinian now writing and doing environmental work in Alabama.