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PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION

Genetically Modified Foods

Processed foods
There are many problems associated with the regular ingestion of food that is over processed. Over processed pre-packaged foods generally contain too much sugar; saturated fat; salt; artificial flavours, colours, preservatives and other chemicals. Recently research has shown that about 60-90% of processed foods (tinned, dehydrated, pre-prepared e.g. ice cream, baby food, chocolate) contain genetically modified organisms (mostly soya or maize). Unless a pre-packed food specifically says that it does not contain GM ingredients, assume that it does. All food with an organic certification does not contain GM ingredients.

Foods and ingredients likely to contain GM material
The main foods that are likely to be genetically modified are as follows.

  • Soya products: soya protein; textured vegetable protein (TVP); soya protein isolate; soya flour; soya lecithin; E322 NOTE: Soya is often a hidden ingredient in pre-prepared foods.
  • Maize products: whole corn; corn oil; corn syrup; corn starch
  • Cotton products: cotton seed oil
  • GE chymosin: Vegetarian cheese rennet
  • Canola (Rapeseed): canola (rapeseed) oil
  • GE Yeast for baking and brewing

Consumer Power
By eating organic food and supporting the organic food industry, you will be avoiding the potential health risks of eating GMOs (which are largely unknown as yet). More importantly, for future generations and present generations of wildlife, you will be withdrawing your support for the multinational food giants such as Monsanto and Novartis who are trying to force this technology upon our environment and us. Consumer power has had a great effect on the GM industry but we must be sure to keep it up if we are to continue to make a difference.

What is Genetic Engineering?

In order to truly understand why the use of genetically engineered organisms on a large scale, out in the open uncontrolled environment is such a bad idea, it is necessary to have a little look at the science.

What is a gene?
A gene is a certain segment of DNA with specific instructions for the production of usually one specific protein. Proteins are the basic building materials of a cell. Different proteins have different functions: enzymes (e.g. for digestion) or hormones (e.g. growth hormones or insulin). Muscle fibres are mainly made of proteins. Proteins are thus crucial in the formation of cells and in giving cells the capacity to function properly. Genes are crucial for the formation of the correct proteins.

Gene expression and non-expression
In front of each gene there is a stretch of DNA that contains the regulatory elements for that specific gene, it is known as the promoter. When a message molecule signals that more of a specific protein is required, the promoter flags up the correct section of the DNA so the message molecule can 'dock' and switch on the process for the expression of that gene. No cell will ever make use of all information coded in its DNA - large sections remain non-expressed. In plants, root cells will not produce green chlorophyll; leaf cells will not produce pollen. Gene expression is also age dependant. For instance: young shoots will not express any genes to do with fruit ripening.

The Process of Genetic Engineering
Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of moving genes and segments of DNA from one species, e.g. fish, and put them into another species, e.g. tomato. GE provides a set of techniques to cut DNA. Once isolated, one can study the different segments of DNA, multiply them up and splice (stick them) next to any other DNA of another cell or organism. GE makes it possible to break the species barrier, thus to splice the anti-freeze gene from flounder into tomatoes or strawberries; the insect-killing toxin gene from bacteria into maize and so on.

The Use of Viral Promoters
In order to give the fish gene a promoter with a "flag" that the tomato cells will recognise a shortcut is used. Instead of looking for an appropriate tomato promoter sequence, viral promoters are used.
Viruses are very active, there is very little one can do once they have found a new host. They integrate their genetic information into the DNA of the host cell, multiply, infect the next cells and multiply. Simply by taking a promoter from a plant virus and sticking it in front of the information block of a fish gene, you can produce a combined virus/fish gene (known as a construct) to work wherever and whenever you want in a plant.
The drawback to this process is that it can't be switched off. The plant no longer has a say in the expression of the new gene, even when the constant involuntary production of the new product is weakening the plant's defences or growth. Mother nature's expression is thus over-ridden by genetic manipulation.

Bio-ballistics and Pleiotropic Effects
Though often hailed as a precise method, the final stage of placing the new gene into a receiving higher organism is rather crude - lacking precision and predictability. It is known as bio-ballistics. The construct is literally fired at the genetic code of the material it will manipulate. The new gene can end up anywhere, next to any gene or even within another gene, disturbing its function or regulation. If the new gene gets into the non-expressed areas of the cell's DNA it is likely to interfere with the regulation of gene expression of the whole region. It could potentially cause genes in these areas to become active. Such effects are known as pleiotropic effects: an example is salmon genetically engineered with a growth hormone gene which grew too big too fast and also turned green; other effects have included an increase in the production of toxins by the organism.

What is wrong with Genetic Engineering?

Health related problems
The long-term health effects of consuming GMOs are as yet unknown. So far, the following problems have been identified:
Allergies: Recently a soybean containing genetic material from a Brazil nut caused allergies in individuals allergic to nuts; other allergens may be produced.
Cross species transfer of viruses and bacteria with unknown consequences. Austria and Luxembourg are currently resisting the import of genetically engineered maize that contains an antibiotic resistance gene. They are concerned that consumption of the maize will lead to an increased resistance to antibiotics.
Increased toxicity - plants may produce toxic substances as a side effect of tampering with its gene sequence; more chemicals retained by the plant, due to heavier crop spraying as weeds become resistant to the spray due to cross contamination.

Environmental problems
Gene flow: the transfer of introduced genetic material to other crops and wild plants. In 1994, tests showed that 72% of natural potatoes grown near GE potatoes had absorbed the modified gene. Another study found that pollen from GE rapeseed had fertilised plants up to 2.5km away. Increased reliance on agro-chemicals: as pests and weeds become resistant to these herbicides, more toxic chemicals will be needed. There is concern that herbicide resistance will spread to weeds and then they will need to be controlled with other chemicals.
Reduction in genetic diversity: as crops not resistant to herbicides cannot be used or die from chemical poisoning, contamination of non-GM crops by GM pollen. Serious dangers to wildlife particularly insects such as ladybirds; bees and lacewing insects; birds, mammals and indigenous plants at crop borders are also threatened.

ONCE RELEASED GENETIC MISTAKES CANNOT BE CLEARED UP:

THE SEEDS ARE IN THE ECOSYSTEM AND CANNOT BE RECALLED.

Socio-political and ethical problems
Domination of world agriculture markets by companies who supply the patented GE seeds and the patented chemicals: increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.
Patenting of "life" whereas it was previously impossible to patent plants and animals, it is now possible to own the patent rights to a life once it is genetically engineered. This amounts to the commercialisation of nature. The commercial "logic" therefore is to genetically engineer every commercially viable species of crop and thereby collect royalties every time that crop is grown.

Labelling problems
The legislation on labelling only applies to products containing GE soya or GE maize. No other genetic foods have to be labelled by law. So ingredients such as soya oils, lecithin, processing aids and additives do not at present need to be labelled as containing GM material. Serious loopholes in EU legislation mean that the majority of GE foods do not have to be labelled. The decision to label GE soya and maize only came after public outcry.

Multinationals who produce GMOs
The five major corporations controlling GMO production are Aventis; Zeneca; Novartis; Du Pont and Monsanto.
Some facts about Monsanto:

  • Monsanto produced Agent Orange - a toxic chemical defoliant that was used in Vietnam. It was responsible for massive environmental destruction and killed tens of thousands. It still causes major birth defects today.
  • Monsanto were a major producer of PCBs (Polychlorinated bi-phenyls) until their production was banned in 1976. PCBs are one of the most persistent and toxic chemical ever produced; they continue to be responsible for cancers and mutations today. Monsanto claimed that PCBs were safe up until the ban.
  • The Advertising Standards Authority has recently fined Monsanto for providing misleading information about genetic engineering.
  • In 1995, Monsanto ranked fifth among US corporations in the US Toxic Release Inventory, having discharged 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land, water and underground.

What you can do

  • Avoid genetically engineered food, currently in products containing soya and maize and soya and maize by-products
  • Buy organic products; look for the Soil Association logo and those of other organic certifiers.
  • Tell your MP and the Minister of the Environment you object to GE crops being released on test sites. Ask your MP why GM foods are not on the menu at the House of Commons.
  • Give this information to a friend.
  • Demand clear choice and non-GE products from your food suppliers: consumer power can make a difference. It is important to resist the commercial growth of GE-food in this country. Lodge your protest now!
Sources : This information was compiled using information from the Women's Environmental Network; the Greenpeace web site; the Friends of the Earth web site and the Genetix Food Alert bulletins.

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