Albion Monitor /News

Genetic Food Engineering Turns Poor Nations Into Farmers For Rich

by Judith Perera

on genetically- engineered food and related article on useage in Third World
(IPS) LONDON -- Products developed by biotech companies are mostly aimed at markets in industrialized countries, says London- based pressure group Consumers International (CI), noting that genetic engineering research involving tropical crops tends not to be aimed at improving production of staple crops in those parts of the world where hunger and malnutrition are serious problems.

Instead, it is mostly aimed at producing cheaper substitutes for commodity crops such as cocoa, sugar cane and vegetable oils on large, industrial farms.

"If these substitute products are dumped on world markets, the exports on which many Third World countries depend could be undermined, with serious consequences for local small-scale farmers and food security" says CI.

Transgenic tomatoes and strawberries which contain "anti-freeze" gene from an arctic fish
Some scientists urgently warn that genetically engineered food could have serious long-term health and environmental consequences and may worsen chances of food security in the developing world.

Dr Michael Antoniou, a senior lecturer in molecular pathology in London, Britain, explains that normally gene function is extremely tightly controlled so that the right proteins are made in the correct place within the organism, at the right time and in the appropriate quantity.

"This ensures an integrated and balanced functioning of all the tens of thousands of structures and processes that make up the body of any complex organism, whether plant or animal. One will not normally find liver functions in the brain or leaf specific proteins in the fruit and vice versa."

He also points out that natural cross-breeding can only take place between very closely related species while genetic engineering allows the transfer of single or multiple genes between totally unrelated organisms "circumventing natural species barriers."

For example, he says, transgenic tomatoes and strawberries are under development which contain the "anti-freeze" gene from an arctic fish to improve tolerance to frost. These plants have also been given parts of a plant virus which helps to "switch on" the fish gene as well as an antibiotic resistance "marker" gene.

He warns that such manipulation frequently has unexpected results. "Once injected into the reproductive cells of an organism, the introduced gene randomly incorporates itself into the DNA of its new plant or animal host. This disrupts the tight genetic control and balanced functioning which is retained through conventional cross-breeding."

When a gene from the brazil nut was introduced into the soybean, people allergic to brazil nuts were also allergic
In a recent study, CI also called for better consultation on genetically engineered foods.

CI recommends that regulations and controls should be put in place to ensure the safety of all genetically modified foods.

These foods should also be carefully monitored for any health, socio-economic and environmental repercussions, with special attention paid to the impact on developing countries.

The study says ways must be found to enable the public to participate fully in decision-making about genetically engineered foods, and that international guidelines on genetic engineering, including research, development, testing, production and marketing, must be agreed "as a matter of urgency." The public must be fully informed about all aspects of the safety evaluation of genetically modified foods.

All genetically modified foodstuffs that come on to the market should be fully and clearly labelled so that consumers are in a position to decide for themselves whether to buy products created as a result of this new technology.

"A symbol identifying food that has been produced using genetic modification, which will be recognized around the world, needs to be developed," CI urges.

The CI study warns of the potential impact of genetically modified foods on people with food allergies. "New allergens could be developed unintentionally, and known allergens could be transferred from traditional foods into the genetically engineered variants.

"For example, when a gene from the brazil nut was introduced into the soybean, people allergic to brazil nuts were also allergic to the genetically modified soybean." In addition, the use of antibiotic marker genes may contribute to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

India farmers using Monsanto's genetically engineered seeds pay an extra $50-$65 per acre as a technical fee
Genetic engineering may also result in the creation of new toxins, or increased levels of toxins, in food. Dr Antoniou notes that in 1989 the U.S. faced an epidemic of a new disease, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS). It was eventually traced to the consumption of a particular brand of food supplement derived from bacteria genetically engineered to overproduce the amino acid, tryptophan.

The engineering process had led to the formation of a novel toxin from the excessive amounts of tryptophan, which contaminated the final product. Out of the estimated 5,000 people who contracted EMS, 37 died and 1,500 are permanently disabled.

The CI study says the potential environmental consequences could be extremely large-scale. "Genetically modified organisms might migrate, mutate and multiply, and genetically pollute traditional crop varieties -- but they cannot be recalled like a faulty product.

"The long-term consequences of releasing transgenic species into the environment are difficult to predict, particularly if they start cross-breeding with other species."

Field trials in Scotland and Denmark using transgenic, herbicide resistant oilseed rape, saw the new plants easily cross-pollinate related, wild brassica varieties. Within a single growing season herbicide resistant "superweeds" were generated.

The possible impact on developing countries is also causing concern. Tom Campbell, a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the Development Studies Center in Dublin, Ireland, says one of the biggest myths perpetuated by the biotechnology industry is that genetically engineered crops are likely to provide a solution to world hunger.

"Famines are not caused by lack of food but by lack of access to food and alternative sources of income in times of crisis." He says biotechnology creates dependency.

"The majority of Third World farmers are small-scale, farming a variety of crops. By switching to genetically engineered seeds they have to change their practices and become dependent on the companies which provide the 'package' of seeds, herbicides, fertilizers, irrigation systems, etc."

He points out that in India, farmers using Monsanto's genetically engineered seeds pay an extra $50-$65 per acre as a technical fee over and above the price of seed. Farmer must sign a contract stating that they will not buy chemicals from anyone else.

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Albion Monitor April 6, 1998 (

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