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Genetically Altered Foods
May be Putting America at Risk

The new science of genetic engineering. . . the altering of the structure of living things through adjustments in the DNA chain. . . is opening the door to an exciting future that may include longer and healthier life spans for anyone who can stay alive during the next decade of evolutionary change.

As it is with all new discoveries, however, some unscrupulous people are rushing to use it for dark purposes. Big business is creating patented products that will make certain people very rich at the expense of the environment and at a threat to human health. And I have no doubt that somewhere a mad scientist also is using gene splicing to create new forms of super "bugs" in preparation for the looming threat of worldwide
germ warfare.

This column will not be addressing the latter.

Since we are dealing with living organisms, there are only certain areas in which genetic engineering can be attempted. These are: human, animal, microbe and plant. Because there are tough legal and moral issues to be resolved before human gene splicing will be openly permitted, the "mavericks" have been secretly doing their tinkering in areas of agriculture.

While the media has been amusing us with stories about a cloned European sheep named
Dolly, some American geneticists have been developing Frankenstein varieties of fruit, vegetables and grains and quietly introducing them to American growers. These foods are already on our grocery store shelves and they were put there without our knowledge or consent.

These foods are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are not being inspected by the Department of Agriculture. A spokesperson for the Michigan Cooperative Extension Service at Michigan State University, in the state where I live, recently confessed that the agency is unable to advice farmers or the public about these new
modified foods because almost everything about them is a secret. The information is locked behind closed doors at the headquarters of the seed manufacturer.

Small wonder that the European Union has banned the import of genetically altered food from the United States. The people in Europe refuse to eat this stuff and who can blame them. It appears that the industry is subjecting the people in the U.S. to mass experimentation to find out if the new foods will hurt us. And even if they do cause problems a few years in the future, who will ever prove it is the result of genetic engineering? We have no way of determining what, if any, of the foods we are eating are altered, or what has been done to them.

When first touted after the discovery of DNA in the 1970s, we were promised the development of an economically viable agricultural product that would allow farmers to get away from the use of harsh herbicides and pesticides. We wanted, and expected, an environmentally friendly product that would enhance our food supply and stop the massive contamination of our soil and water supply by excessive chemical dependency.

What we are getting, however, is very different to what was promised. To date, an estimated 30 crop and forest tree species have been purposefully modified to withstand lethal or damaging doses of herbicides.

In fact, it appears as if the very companies that promised to produce environmentally friendly crops have purposefully double-crossed us while our backs were turned.

Anybody who does their research will find that the very companies that are developing these seeds are among the largest herbicide producers in the world. And they have created plants that are more dependant on a heavy spraying of herbicides than ever! I suspect similar seed development is going on in the area of pesticides.

Among the herbicide tolerant produce already available: alfalfa, canola, carrots, cotton, corn, oats, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarbeets, sunflowers, tobacco, tomatoes, and wheat.

This whole story looks like a plot from a cheap 1950's science fiction horror film. What is scary is that it is really happening and the American public doesn't seem to be alarmed. That the Europeans are sounding out gives me some assurance that not everyone is totally brain dead.

In fact, some voices in this country are starting to be heard.

A national coalition of organic food industry producers, scientists and consumer activist groups recently formed and announced plans to launch a nationwide fight against what it calls genetically engineered organisms
(GEOs) in our food. The group is especially protective of the organic market, which has a large following in the U.S.

Dr. John B. Fagan, a molecular biologist who has looked into the DNA tinkering, recently wrote an article for USA Today in which he warned that the altered food may indeed be dangerous.

Fagan noted that genes from bacteria and viruses have been added to some foods. Other produce containing foreign DNA from insects, fish and even humans, is being tried.

He said foods developed through genetic engineering often contain proteins and other components "that have never before been part of the human diet. . . There is no way to predict whether these foods are safe to eat. The only way to tell is to test them rigorously. Yet our government does not require such testing."

The warning does not come without some history.

Genetically altered supplements and foods already have caused deaths, cripplings and allergic reactions. The genetically engineered supplement L-tryptophan 
was removed from the shelf in 1989 after it caused 37 deaths in the U. S. and 1,511 nonfatal cases of a disease called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS).  In yet another case, severe allergies resulted after a mutated genetically engineered soy bean, spliced with DNA from brazil nuts, was tried.

There wasn't much media coverage, but America's most popular butterfly, the Monarch, 
was all but wiped out last summer because it fed on corn pollen genetically engineered to contain pesticide.

You may not realize it, but corn pollen is an airborne substance, that gets in everybody's lungs when they live around growing corn. The fact that this pollen killed the butterfly scares me. Even though my car air conditioning was not working, I passed many Michigan corn fields last summer with my windows rolled up because I did not want to contaminate my lungs with bug and weed killers.

Because of the European ban, the genetically modified crops could make the sale of produce at the market a little tricky. Farmers where I live were experimenting this year with GMO corn. Now that the harvest season is on, they are finding that they have to shop around for grain elevators equipped to handle their corn. Most grain companies are selling on an open world-wide market, so they now have to separate the "conventional" corn from the GMO corn. Not only must farmers sign papers stating the type of grain they are selling, but the grain companies are forced to test the grain to make sure the farmer is telling the truth.

All of this seems a little folly to me. Because pollen is carried by the wind from field to field, I suspect that once herbicide spliced corn seed is grown in one field, the gene is spreading 
to his neighbor's "conventional" corn crop.

When I expressed my concern about this, one farmer said he was told hybrid plants can't cross pollinate with other plants of their kind. He thinks GMO corn fits into the category of a hybrid plant. That was his belief, but I doubt if it is true. I know of another area farmer who specializes in growing a certain variety of sweet corn for seed. He is so concerned about cross pollination that he goes to great lengths to make sure neighbors for miles around do not grow corn. He supplies them with all of the free sweet corn they want just to keep them from growing something that will cross with his corn.

This whole thing must be very disconcerting to organic growers, who strive to produce the purist of food, totally free of chemicals. With GMO farmers in the neighborhood, the organic farmer may someday be forced to grow his food in sealed greenhouses.

One elevator operator said he thought most of the GMO corn grown in Michigan will be used for livestock feed and that there would not be a problem disposing of it. But what about the meat produced when that livestock is slaughtered? Will it be contaminated? And if the corn is fed to dairy cattle, will the milk from those cows be safe? The thought of consuming weed killer in my food, in any form, is not making me happy.

And there is another problem. Once in widespread use, the exchange of herbicide-tolerant genes between the domesticated crops and their relatives among the weeds is bound to happen. Within a few years we are sure to find herbicide-resistant weeds plugging our crops anyway. This in turn will force the use of more powerful (and higher priced) weed killing chemicals. And what will that do to our already ruined Earth ecology?

I fear that in their rush to get rich, our chemical companies have unwittingly opened Pandora's box.

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