The Warsan

Genetically Engineered Food – Who Needs It?

by Susan James, Originally published on:
Reproduced by consent of Susan James: March 05, 2003

Why GE Food Aid?

Dr. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist, who worked with others to develop Kenya’s first genetically engineered sweet potato during the 1990s, has contributed to the recent debate on genetically engineered (GE) food. She is quoted as saying “Europeans can afford to debate. They are arguing from the comfort of a food surplus. Hungry people want something to eat today.”

The implication of this statement is that anyone who would deny a hungry person a meal today, even a GE one, is complacent, unfeeling, unable to imagine the cruelty that is starvation. So we should feed the hungry with GE food now.

But why GE food?

Why should we dump unwanted GE products on those who have limited freedom of choice as it is?

Why should the vulnerable be expected to take risks over food that we in the rich Northern hemisphere are unwilling to take ourselves, and against which no insurance company anywhere is willing to insure?

Why should the Governments of Developing Countries run the risk that, if they accept GE aid, they will later find it politically difficult to oppose the corporate take-over of their agricultural economies (as suggested by Devinder Sharma)?

We in the North, who have so much, should be giving of our best to those less fortunate that we are. Where it is needed urgently, we should send non-GE food that we would be prepared to eat ourselves. Or we should send money to buy some of the surplus non-GE food that is already available. And, in the long term, we should be changing global attitudes and systems so that hunger is eradicated completely.

Why GE food aid? I cannot think of a good reason.

Is GE Food So Bad?

But why are GE food and GE technology so unpopular?

Genewatch UK refers to a 2001 Euro barometer survey which showed that : 94% of Europeans want the right to choose whether to eat GE food; 85.9% want to know more about GE foods before eating them;70.9% do not want to eat this type of food at all. As a result of huge public pressure in the UK, supermarkets have made significant efforts to stock goods that are GE-free, and the organic items available have greatly increased in number and variety.

Our worries fall into a number of categories:

  1. UnpredictabilityThe effects of this technology are unpredictable. Scientists remove genes from one species and insert them into another, so that the second organism will contain certain characteristics belonging to the first. So, for instance, a gene from a fish which lives in sub-zero conditions was inserted into a strawberry plant so that the fruit would survive in frost.

    But scientists have to test the technology to know what effect it will have. How will the new gene react away from its own environment, and how will the ‘host’ organism react to the new gene? In one trial, a nut gene was introduced into a soya plant. In that case, when the soya plant was tested on blood samples from individuals who were already allergic to nuts, their blood was found to be allergic to the new soya. They were fortunate to find that out. Perhaps the reaction of those blood samples was foreseeable. But what about results which cannot be foreseen? How can scientists look out for things which they cannot even imagine might happen?

    A few years ago, a company engineered a tomato plant with a new gene which allowed it to last 3 days longer than normal before it went rotten. It seemed to be a great success and was sold in the shops. But it turned out that the crop would not grow in certain areas of the country and it was eventually taken off the market.

    In 1996, cotton was engineered in the US with a built-in pesticide gene to kill off bollworm using a gene from a soil bacterium – Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). But the pesticide effect of the seed was not sufficient to kill off all the pests through the season. Many farmers had disastrous crop results.

    Elsewhere, when scientists took a gene for red colouring from maize and put it in petunias, the plants went red but also displayed other unpredicted characteristics such as more leaves and shoots, and lowered fertility.

    In the natural world, interbreeding between species generally does not happen. Fish do not cross with strawberries. This is because natural safeguards exist to prevent crossbreeding. Genetic engineering technology has been researched over some twenty years or so and is designed to circumvent these safeguards which have developed over thousands of years. Small wonder, then, that it is so unpredictable.

  2. Inadequate Research In view of the unpredictability of the technology, many of us believe it is far too soon to be selling GE products before they have undergone long-term testing. According to Dr Mae Wan Ho of the UK Institute of Science in Society, ‘There is no evidence that the requisite tests for toxicity and allergenicity of food products have been carried out. Not only are field trials inadequately designed and monitored, the regulation is perfunctory.’ In drug development, very rigorous testing is done, using the best methods available. Even so, in about 3% of all new remedies, these methods have failed to detect effects so harmful that, after the remedies have been sold, they have had to be withdrawn from the market. In addition, about 10% of new remedies, approved after thorough safety assessment, have turned to be so harmful that their use must be limited to an important extent.

    Testing of GE foods is even more difficult because completely unexpected chemical substances may appear. Crop foods are more complex than individual drugs or chemicals and their composition varies according to differences in growth and agronomic conditions. Scientists do not know what to look for.

    According to Professor Arpad Pusztai, formerly of the UK Rowett Institute, the industry’s approach has been to compare GE and non-GE crops. ‘When they are not significantly different, the two are regarded as “substantially equivalent”, and therefore the GM food crop is regarded as safe as its conventional counterpart. This ensures that GM crops can be patented without animal testing. However, substantial equivalence is an unscientific concept that has never been properly defined and there are no legally binding rules on how to establish it.’

    No testing has been done on the long-term effects of eating GE food and so little is known about it. This applies especially to maize. The average American consumer consumes relatively small quantities of maize, whereas, for some people, it makes up a very large percentage of their diet.

    Public confidence in the Committees appointed to regulate the biotech industry is low in the UK, for a number of reasons. For instance, members of the very industry which is meant to be regulated attend the meetings of these regulatory committees. Again, in November 2000, about 70 groups from around the UK, many voluntary, gave evidence at a public enquiry. It was an inquiry into one seed company’s application for a licence to grow a GE fodder maize commercially in the UK, and the first application of its type. It went on for a number of weeks, until one day it was discovered that the company had not conducted all the testing required by law. After an adjournment of 18 months, the enquiry was reconvened and we are now awaiting the judge’s report. He will make recommendations to the Minister responsible. During that inquiry, evidence was given by many world-respected scientists to the effect that this maize should not be commercially produced. All of the volunteers who gave evidence said we were willing to be cross-examined by the seed company, but the company refused to take part in the proceedings, which meant that we could not cross-examine them. So it was that, after the adjournment, the company had seen all the evidence from our witnesses, which they tried to challenge, but we were not able to challenge them.

    The UK Government now intends to change the law to prevent any further public inquiries happening in future. It says this one was too expensive. We say that this was the only opportunity we had to air our views at a public hearing and we are lobbying our MPs to stop this change in the law.

  3. Health RisksIf GE is so unpredictable and its regulation is such a worry to us, we believe it reasonable to question the health effects of eating GE organisms in our food. Many are worried about the possible toxic effects of GE food products. The Natural Law Party Wessex refers to a ‘huge’ increase in birth defects in the last five years. Whilst there is no suggestion that there is any connection between UK birth defects and the introduction of food in the diet, what we do know is that this five year period does coincide with the introduction of a new type of soya into the food chain, the GE type. There may be no correlation at all between these two phenomena, particularly if the proportion of GE beans amongst the overall amount of soya consumed is small in the UK. But who has researched it?

    Antibiotic Resistance

    British scientific researchers have demonstrated for the first time that GE DNA material from crops is finding its way into human gut bacteria, raising potentially serious health questions. Although the GE material in most GE foods poses no health problems, many of the controversial crops contain antibiotic-resistant marker genes. This is because, when a gene is inserted into a new organism, it has to be possible to identify it. The way this is done is to attach it to a ‘marker’ gene which is resistant to a specific antibiotic. GE is a technology designed to overcome the species’ defence mechanisms which would normally prevent the genes from entering the new host. Scientists are concerned that if genetic material from these marker genes can find its way into the human stomach, as experiments at Newcastle University suggest is possible, then people’s resistance to widely-used antibiotics could be compromised.

    A gene resistant to the antibiotic ‘Kanamycin’ has been used as a marker gene in this way. Proponents of GE food products have maintained that the Kanamycin-resistant marker gene is of no practical importance, as Kanamycin is of little use today. But research has shown that this particular marker gene also confers resistance to other antibiotics that are of considerable value.

    We know that antibiotics were the wonder drugs of the 20th century for those fortunate enough to live in wealthier countries. They have prevented millions of deaths from infections and diseases. The microbes which they kill become resistant to them all too easily, however, and new antibiotics are continually being invented. This is why it is important that antibiotic resistance should be kept to a minimum. The British Medical Association stated a few years ago that “there should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM foods, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century”.


    Practically all genetically engineered crops contain genetic material from viruses. Research has shown that these virus genes may combine with genes from other viruses, so generating new and potentially hazardous viruses.

    Often a virus called the ‘cauliflower mosaic virus’ (CaMV) is used in GE. The CaMV has the potential to reactivate dormant viruses or create new ones in all the species to which it is transferred.

    Experiments show that the new viruses created in this way may be more infectious, may cause more serious diseases, and may have a tendency to cross from one species to another.

    As yet, however, there is still not enough knowledge to assess the risk for the emergence of new viral diseases from GE crops.


    Researchers into GE yeast found that it accumulated a highly toxic substance known as ‘methylglyoxal’. They warned that careful thought should be given to safety when GE yeasts were used in fermentation for making food.

    In another study, a bacterial gene was inserted into tobacco plants. Not only was gamma-linolenic acid, (which is safe) produced, but also octadecatetraenoic acid (OTA). Although OTA is useful in a number of industrial processes, it is highly toxic.

    Even more worryingly, when a food supplement, Tryptophan, was manufactured from a GE bacterium, it caused some 5,000 people to become ill. Within a few months, 37 had died. Around 1,500 are now permanently disabled. The manufacturers claimed that it was not the GE process which had caused the poison, but the fact that they had cut corners in the purifying the product. They had, though, cut corners before, and it is likely that other companies would have done the same in the manufacture of non-GE Tryptophan, but this poison had never arisen before. Also, the bacterium used had never before been associated with this toxin.

    It is a shame that the manufacturer destroyed the evidence of what happened. It would have been in its interests to prove beyond doubt that GE was not the cause. As it is, in the words of Dr John Fagan of Physicians and Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST), ‘it is highly likely that the GE process was to blame’.

    Effect of Chemicals

    Crops are being engineered to be resistant to weed-killers. For instance, the fodder maize, Chardon LL is designed to be resistant to the weedkiller gluphosinate ammonium. There are, however, serious questions regarding the safety of these chemicals. In our own country, a variety of chemicals have been produced for use on (non-GE) crops during the last 50 years and, one by one, they have been proven to be harmful. Professor Malcolm Hooper of the University of Sunderland, says of gluphosinate: ‘It is difficult to imagine a compound with greater potential threat to human and environmental health than gluphosinate. If it were a drug candidate, it would have been withdrawn from development years ago on account of its teratogenic and neurotoxic properties’.

    For one reason or another, then, GE products might unexpectedly contain substances harmful to people who eat them. Scientists cannot however estimate the probability of harm in any specific case, because not enough is known about the new field of genetic engineering.

  4. Environmental HazardsOur own health depends on the health of our environment because we eat, drink and breathe it, but GE is having an increasing number of adverse effects on the environment. Contamination

    Canadian organic oilseed rape has been so badly contaminated by GE oilseed rape that certified organic farmers no longer try to grow it. Now they are suing GE companies for compensation for damage caused by GE rape.

    Last year a Mexican scientist revealed that GE material had contaminated native species of maize plants grown in Mexico. The scientific journal ‘Nature’ first published his paper, but then retracted amid allegations that they had given in to pressure from scientists backed by biotechnology companies. The scientist had previously been taken to meet a Government official, who warned him “how dangerous it would be for him to publish” the findings.

    Herbicide and Pesticide Resistance

    Friends of the Earth quote the following statistics: almost 2/3 of GE crops grown commercially in the United States have been engineered to tolerate certain weedkillers. Crops such as corn, soya and canola have been engineered to withstand otherwise lethal doses of chemicals. Farmers, therefore, can douse their fields without having to worry about killing their crops.

    It has been shown that herbicide-resistance genes can spread to related plants in pollen carried by bees or the wind. Researchers have found evidence for this in the case of canola and sugar beet in Europe. In Canada, three plants which were each resistant to a different herbicide, were planted near each other. They crossed randomly and produced new plants which were resistant to all three herbicides.

    Superweeds can be difficult and expensive for farmers to eradicate. They could displace existing species of plants, destroying local ecosystems and threatening biodiversity.

    Research in the UK has shown that pollen from GE crops can contaminate fields up to 4km away, creating serious problems for farmers growing crops for the expanding markets in non-GE and organic foods.

    Any plant is a weed if it is simply unwanted. Kudzu and Johnson grass, for example, were both introduced into the United States from other places and today have become serious weeds. Herbicide-resistant crops, therefore may also become weeds if they grow in places where humans do not want them.

    Plants such as corn, canola, potatoes and cotton are also engineered to produce pesticides in all their tissues, including the edible grain where applicable. About 25% of the U.S. corn crop is now planted in Bt varieties. Proponents of GE argue that Bt crops will reduce the need for insecticides and therefore spare the environment. But, in the same way that pests rapidly become resistant to pesticides, so these plants will be protected for a short while only. Instead of a pesticide being sprayed a number of times in a season, it is now produced by the plant 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Insects can adapt within one or two years and, if major crops engineered in this way are widely planted, the chance that insects will adapt is high. In other words, back to square one.

    Soil Fertility

    Physicians and Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST) are concerned that GE plants might cause disturbances in soil micro-organisms so that the very complex interplay between them might become disrupted. Soil fertility is greatly dependent on this interplay. If PSRAST are right, damage to soil fertility might occur. In the worst case, it could be irreversible and these genes could feasibly spread uncontrollably over vast areas.


    GE crops have been noted to cause troubling and unexpected effects on beneficial insects, including the monarch butterfly, ladybirds and lacewing.

    Genes from GE pollen eaten by bees have been found in the gut bacteria of the bees. Scientists warn that this kind of transfer may cause problems. It is completely uncontrollable.

    So, in answer to the question ‘Is GE food so bad?’ the answer in my view is ‘Yes’.

Would GE Not Feed the World?

To go back to Florence Wambugu: inherent in her remark quoted earlier is that Europeans, whatever their wishes for their own countries, should not prevent the hungry elsewhere from benefiting from GE technology. After all, we are told that GE crops will, in the long term, feed the hungry. How can we ignore a promise such as that?

Many of us have not ignored the promise – we heartily wish it could be fulfilled – but we are skeptical:

  1. YieldsTo begin with, crop yields have not always been as prolific as farmers were led to believe. 25 cotton farmers in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Louisiana have sued one company for fraud and misrepresentation for losses incurred when yields were lower than promised. In Minneapolis over the last six years, farmers who have planted a certain type of GE corn have lost $92 million or an average of about $1.31 per acre, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in the US. Farmers in the US are also experiencing significant corn crop losses from herbicide blown by the wind onto adjoining crops which are not suited to the herbicide concerned. According to agronomists at Mississippi State University Extension this problem has led to thousands of acres of corn having to be replanted.
  2. Buying SeedNext, the companies which have developed these products have invested enormous sums of money to do so and their first priority is to recover that money, not to feed the hungry. That is why farmers have had to pay high prices to use GE seed. They contract with a large company to buy grain, on condition that they will not save and replant it in future years. The company then reserves the right to inspect the farmers’ land from time to time. If the farmers are discovered to have saved seed, rather than buying new next year, the company has the ‘right’ to fine those farmers. In Illinois, a group of seed-saving farmers have had to pay fines of up to $35,000 each.
  3. TerminatorKnowing that farmers would have more sense than to buy new seed every year, but would save seed instead, the GE industry decided to prevent their doing this and developed the terminator gene. This gene makes harvested seeds sterile so they cannot be used to grow another crop. The implications of this are frightening. According to scientists at the Institute of Science in Society, this technology introduces serious hazards beyond those of GE crops in general. The greatest danger of terminator crops stems from the spread of the genes, not only to related species, but also by transfer to unrelated species. This sort of transfer could have catastrophic effects on agriculture and biodiversity.

    As a result of universal condemnation by farmers and non-Government organisations world-wide, the company which pioneered this technology has announced that it will not commercialise terminator crops. The company’s research and development into terminator technology have continued unabated, however, and it has kept appearing in different forms. In fact, we might think that such crops only exist in theory, but they have been out there in one form or another for years.

  4. Buying ChemicalsGE is forcing farmers to become dependent on chemical herbicides and fertilisers because of the evolution of plants and insects resistant to them.
  5. LitigationIn addition, farmers whose crops are contaminated by GE crops planted by other people nearby face being sued for having ‘stolen’ the seed company’s ‘rights’ over the contaminating genes This happened to a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser. He did not want the GE seed; he had already decided that it would not suit his land. Yet his crop was contaminated through no fault of his own and the Canadian court awarded a huge amount in damages to the seed company.
  6. Patents Another difficulty is that of patents. To quote Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundations for Science, Technology and Ecology of India, ‘Knowledge is considered to be the product of individual creativity, based on western scientific thought and systems of knowledge creation and gathering whereby the resource base is merely viewed as ‘raw material’.’ So, knowledge and creativity are so narrowly defined that the creativity of nature and non-western knowledge systems have been ignored. She speaks of ‘resource piracy’, whereby the biological and natural resources of communities are stolen, ‘without recognition or permission, and are used to build up global economies’. So, once a biotech company has ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ a new food product, they take out a patent on it. This means reserving all ‘rights’ over it, even if it has been in use (in its original form) for generations. The neem plant is one example. Neem has been freely available in India for millennia and so fundamental that the entire Indian health care system now relies on it. But once it was ‘discovered’ by an American company, it became scarce and its market value shot up. So, patenting simply serves to make the poor pay more for what was theirs in the first place.
  7. Effects on farmingFlawed Approaches What would be the long-term effect on local communities and small farmers if GE crops were to become the norm? GE in farming is likely to strip farmers of their skills, independence and ability to innovate new crops. Flawed approaches to farming could take root, regardless, because of the marketing and lobbying strength of the companies behind them.

    Lost Varieties

    If GE strains become the norm, especially if they contaminate neighbouring crops, the rich variety of breeds currently available in many areas could be lost. José Esquinas-Alcazar of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has been quoted as stating last year that more than 90% of the agricultural diversity that existed at the beginning of the 20th century has already been lost. If farmers are dependent on large companies for a small number of varieties, they will be much more vulnerable if those remaining varieties fail.


    As to whether GE crops could help fight disease, there is little evidence as yet. The case of the Vitamin-enriched rice comes to mind. Rice has been engineered to contain increased vitamin A to counteract blindness. But for it to have the desired effect, an adult would, in effect, have to eat 9kg of cooked rice (the equivalent of 3.75kg of uncooked rice) a day to satisfy the required intake and a pregnant woman would need twice that amount.

  8. An African Response In 1988, more than 24 leading African agriculturalists and environmental scientists issued the following statement: “We do not believe that such companies [seed companies] or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.” To the question ‘Would GE feed the world?’, an African might respond, ‘No, not in practice’. And so would I.

Do We Not Need More Food?

Hunger, however, is a daily reality for over 800 million people in the world. Suffering on this scale is hard to take in. It must mean that there is not enough food to go round. But, according to Christian Aid, current production, if equally shared, could provide everyone, each day, with “two and half pounds of grain, beans, and nuts; about a pound of fruits and vegetables; and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs”. Eight out of ten malnourished children in developing countries live surrounded by food surpluses.

Hunger is political. During the worst period of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, some of the best farming land was being used to grow animal feed for export to Britain and the rest of Europe. In 1995, India exported five million tonnes of rice and $625 million worth of wheat and flour. At the same time, more than one in five Indians went hungry. Malawi is now faced with famine after it was forced to sell maize to earn dollars for debt servicing. And it is taking another loan to purchase GE food from the United States.

No, I do not believe we need more food. But it is useless to have enough food if people cannot afford to buy it, or to buy the land to grow it, or if they have been forced to sell crops for cash to repay international debt.

Is There An Answer?

The solution to a problem depends on identifying its causes.

The causes of hunger and disease are many.

A major cause is poverty. To quote Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia: ‘There are still hungry people in Ethiopia but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy… we strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public’.

Other causes include: insufficient and deficient diet, climatic conditions, the transition to agriculture where only one crop is grown and the resulting unemployment, unjust distribution of land and power, war, ineffective government by leaders concerned about their own pockets, public debt, and control over the food supply resting with corporations, bureaucracies and large landowners. There are also other factors to consider, e.g., water conservation, land reform, overgrazing and tree and soil loss.

Such a complex problem must require many solutions, not just one. There follow a number of ideas, some suggested by Christian Aid:

  1. AttitudesNo-one should be judged “surplus to requirements” and excluded from the wherewithal to live. Wealthier nations should show more respect for the less fortunate by ceasing to dump GE food and technology on them.
  2. Sustainable AgricultureLet those with the resources promote mixed, organic, sustainable farming, making information available, giving incentives for good farming practice, putting in place checks and balances to control unpredictable new technologies, helping with marketing, and overcoming transportation difficulties. Steps should also be taken to protect plant diversity. Small farmers in places such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, India and Thailand are repeatedly shown to be efficient, productive stewards of their local environments. In Brazil, farms under 50 hectares account for only 1/5 of planted land, yet they produce 70% of food for the domestic market and 56% for export. According to Genewatch, maize yields in Honduras have been increased by 300% through sustainable agriculture projects.
  3. Rights The rights of communities to benefit from their own resources should be protected so that those who do the work have a voice and are properly rewarded. A strong biosafety protocol could create a framework to contain problems with trade in GE and its products. It would uphold the right to choose, and ensure that producers take responsibility for their products.
  4. Globalisation The ability of smallholders and family farmers to exercise local and regional control over food production, distribution and marketing should be promoted. There should be an effective international mechanism to prevent global monopolies emerging, (In North America the entire seed industry is effectively dominated by just two companies). Friends of the Earth are currently calling for a global treaty on corporate accountability at the forthcoming Earth Summit.

    Developing countries should be encouraged to participate at the World Trade Organisation, where international trade rules are negotiated. We should ensure that trade rules do not contradict international measures to protect plants and animals.

  5. Debt More Developing Country debt should be written off.
  6. Patenting Life itself should remain free and not become private property. Patents on life should be discontinued and the knowledge held by indigenous communities accorded legal recognition as the ‘common property’ of the communities concerned.
  7. Alternative Science Genomics, the science of gene mapping, should be investigated further. The technology makes it possible to make complete gene maps of organisms. In conventional breeding the search for best crossing partners is a tedious and very time consuming trial and error procedure. With genomics it is possible to select breeding partners on the basis of gene maps. So is there an answer? I think there are many non-ge answers to the problem of hunger and disease, probably many more than I have mentioned.

Last Word

To wave the GE banner as the answer to world hunger is like putting a dirty sticking plaster over a yawning gash. It does not mend the wound. Nor does it play a part in identifying its causes. But, for the GE food industry, as it reels under a growing rejection of its products, there is money in that yawning gash.

Genetically engineered food – who needs it? The hungry? Or the biotech giants?

Susan James was trained as a lawyer but has also excelled in the languages acting as a Spanish interpreter for Cubans and Chileans at international conferences. Both Susan and her husband enjoy traveling and have visited various countries in North America, Europe, Australia and Africa. In 1998, Susan co-founded Carmarthen Gene Concern, a campaigning group whose main aim is to distribute information about agricultural genetic engineering and to lobby to prevent the commercial promotion of this technology. She resides with her husband in Wales and is currently translating a French website for a Belgian organic certification body called Ecocert. You may write to her at

Opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author but not necessarily reflect the policy of Warsan magazine

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