Genetically Engineered Nightmare

BIODIVERSITY BOMBSHELL

On September 4, 2001 Mexican officials admitted that an alarming
number of genetically engineered (GE) corn plants have been detected
growing alongside traditional corn varieties over a widespread area in
the state of Oaxaca. For millennia corn has been sacred to the Maya
and other native people of Mexico. Over centuries small farmers have
carefully bred and preserved thousands of different traditional
varieties of corn, called landraces, which are specific to each
geographical region, soil type, and micro-climate of the country.
Corn, or maize as it is called traditionally, remains today the most
important crop for a quarter of the nation's 10 million indigenous and
small farmers. Corn tortillas play a major role in the diet of Mexico'
s 100 million people. Critics have warned that GE corn should never
be imported into Mexico, the most important world center of
biodiversity for corn, since the gene pool of the nation's 20,000 corn
varieties and plant relatives, including the progenitor species of
corn, called teosinte, could be irreversibly damaged by "genetic
pollution" from the genetically engineered (herbicide-resistant or
Bt-spliced) maize being aggressively marketed by Monsanto, Syngenta
(formerly called Novartis), and other agbiotech transnationals.

Under pressure to protect the nation's corn biodiversity, Mexican
authorities have proclaimed a moratorium on domestic cultivation of GE
corn. Meanwhile, they have ignored the massive dumping of millions of
tons of cheap (US taxpayer-subsidized) GE corn by corporations such
Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill. Agronomists and
environmentalists fear that Mexican farmers have now, perhaps
unknowingly, spread this imported Frankencorn into most of the
corn-growing regions of the country, by planting GE corn from the US
which was supposed to be sold for human food consumption only. Since
impoverished Mexican farmers are looking for the cheapest corn seed
possible to plant, they are increasingly choosing to buy the imported
GE-tainted corn from the US, since it is considerably cheaper than
non-subsidized Mexican varieties.

CORN DUMPING: COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Compounding Mexico's genetic pollution problem is the fact that major
overseas buyers of corn (Europe, Japan, Korea) are stubbornly refusing
to buy gene-altered corn. Consequently North American exporters are
finding it necessary to dump increasing amounts of GE-tainted maize on
captive markets such as Mexico, China, Egypt, Colombia, Malaysia, and
Brazil. Nineteen percent of the US corn, 14 million acres, is now
genetically engineered, although GE acreage is down 30% from two years
ago, mainly due to global resistance against Frankenfoods.

Corn dumping in Mexico has accelerated since the advent of the 1994
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the relentless
pressure of globalization, Mexico has been transformed from being a
major producer of corn (producing 98% of its needs for example in
1994) to a major importer, ranking third in the world (after Japan and
Korea) in terms of imports from the US and Canada. The reason for this
is simple. Corn costs essentially $3.40 a bushel for family-sized
farmers in the US and Canada to produce, and even more for a small
farmer in Mexico. Yet Cargill and ADM, due to their monopoly control
of the market, pay US farmers less than $2.00 a bushel, with the US
taxpayer picking up the remainder of the tab. This enormous subsidy in
turn gets reimbursed to farmers, although large corporate farms get
the lion's share of the US's annual $20-30 billion in farm price
support payments. Even with enormous taxpayer subsidies, most years US
farmers have trouble even recuperating their costs of corn
production-leading to demands by family farmers for a breakup of
Cargill and ADM's grain monopoly. Only organic corn farmers, operating
outside ADM and Cargill's cartel, are receiving a fair price for their
harvest. And of course North American organic corn growers are
increasingly alarmed over the fact that "genetic pollution" or gene
flow from GE corn fields are starting to contaminate their valuable
crops.

Longstanding Mexican government regulation of corn supply and prices,
support for small corn growers, and price subsidies for corn tortillas
for Mexican consumers have been eliminated, all at the behest of
Cargill, ADM, and ADM's powerful Mexican partner, Gruma/Maseca. The
end result of this globalization process is that small and
medium-sized farmers, both North and South of the border, can't make a
living, while ADM and Cargill (and their preferred customers such as
McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Tyson, Smithfield) make a killing. Meanwhile,
consumers, who have been promised that Free Trade would result in
lower prices, are paying more for food every year. Corn tortillas, the
main staple of the Mexican diet, have risen in price 300% since NAFTA
came into effect.

SOUTHERN CORN BLIGHT: A CAUTIONARY TALE

As botanists and plant breeders warn, contaminating Mexico's
irreplaceable corn landraces and germplasm pool could be
"catastrophic" for farmers and consumers. For example in 1970,
millions of acres of the US corn crop were devastated by a Southern
corn leaf blight which destroyed 15% of the total US harvest (50% of
all corn in some areas), leading to over $1 billion in losses, not to
mention marketplace shortages. By going to the "germplasm" bank of
thousands of traditional varieties cultivated in Mexico, and
withdrawing several varieties which were resistant to the Southern
corn blight, plant breeders were able to use conventional
cross-breeding and come up with a single blight-resistant hybrid
variety which was planted in 1971-thereby saving billions of dollars
in losses and maintaining global food security.

Underlining the central importance of corn biodiversity and preserving
traditional varieties or landraces, researchers have also found in
recent years that a perennial variety of corn's original parent,
teosinte, found in Mexico, contains genes that can protect plants from
seven of the nine principle viruses that infect corn crops in the US.

Of course if herbicide-resistant and Bt corn had already been
polluting Mexico's centers of corn biodiversity before 1970, no one
knows if the traditional variety resistant to Southern corn blight
would still have been around to save the day. Likewise no one can
predict the impact of Frankencorn pollution on virus-resistant
teosinte varieties and other corn plant relatives. But one thing is
certain, if globalization continues to drive several million Mexican
farmers from the land, and forces traditional growers to shift to
growing non-corn export crops, most of the nation's heirloom corn
varieties or landraces will be lost forever, since centralized seed
banks (which typically store rather than cultivate their thousands of
different varieties) cannot properly preserve landraces which are no
longer being cultivated in their native areas. Analysts estimate that
almost a million small farmers-primary breeders and stewards of
thousands of corn and other crop landraces–already have been driven
from their cornfields and communal lands (ejidos) since Mexico
essentially turned over control of its agricultural sector to Cargill,
ADM, and other North American food giants.

Even US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists have
previously warned that genetically engineered crops should not be
grown where wild relatives exist (prohibiting for example GE cotton
from being grown in parts of southern Florida, where wild relatives of
cotton exist), much less in biological centers of diversity such as
the maize-growing areas of Mexico. Of course this concern over genetic
pollution didn't prevent the EPA in October 2001 from giving the green
light to allow Bt corn to continue to be grown for seven more years in
the US, ignoring environmental and public health concerns voiced by
scientists and consumer groups–knowing full well that millions of
tons of GE-tainted corn continue to be exported by US corporations to
centers of corn biodiversity such as Mexico, Central America, South
America, and the Caribbean.

Genetic engineering of agricultural crops and corn dumping not only
pose a serious threat to Mexico (and Central America's) corn
biodiversity, but also pose a threat to continental peace and
stability as well. Since NAFTA went into effect, local and regional
markets for indigenous and small farmers in the region have been
undermined and destroyed. Farmers are finding it increasingly
difficult to sell their corn, beans, coffee, or other crops. Rural
poverty and hunger have increased, forcing millions of campesinos to
migrate to the US. Mounting desperation has also spawned widespread,
at times violent, agrarian conflicts in Mexican states such as
Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero and threatens to reignite armed struggle
across Central America.

FRANKENCORN: ADDITIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS

The threat to thousands of traditional varieties of corn in Mexico is
just one of the environmental hazards of genetically engineered corn.
Other environmental dangers include:

  • Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)-spliced corn and crops pose a mortal
    threat to organic and sustainable (low-chemical input) agriculture,
    since they may soon destroy the effectiveness of organic farmers' most
    important biopesticide. In its non-GE, natural Bt spray form, Bacillus
    thuringiensis is the most important pest control agent in organic
    agriculture, with yearly sales in the US alone of $60 million. This
    non-GE spray form of Bt is applied externally and evaporates within
    2-7 days. Scientists predict that the super-potent, long lasting toxin
    found in Bt gene-spliced corn and other plants are likely to give rise
    to Superpests such as corn ear-worms which will be immune to the
    natural organic Bt sprays.

  • Bt-spliced crops such as corn damage the soil food web, killing
    beneficial soil microorganisms and reducing soil fertility. Bt corn
    leaches its powerful genetically engineered poison into the soil (a
    toxin which differs considerably from the naturally occurring Bt soil
    bacteria) and remains toxic up to eight months, even after being
    plowed under the soil.

  • Bt-spliced crops kill off natural predators and disrupt the balance
    among insects, leading to pest infestations.

  • Bt-spliced crops kill beneficial insects such as lacewings and
    ladybugs.

  • Bt-spliced crops, due to increased insect mortality, reduce the food
    supply for birds and other insect predators such as bats.

  • Bt-corn pollen (ingested along with other Bt-contaminated corn
    tissue) kills monarch butterflies and related species, such as the
    endangered Karner Blue butterfly.

  • Herbicide-resistant GE corn, sprayed with Monsanto's Roundup Ready
    weed killer, kills all the foliage in and around cornfields, depriving
    butterflies and related insects of important food sources such as
    milkweed. Roundup or glyphosate residues also remain in the soil and
    water, killing soil microorganisms and marine life.

    FRANKENCORN: HUMAN HEALTH HAZARDS

    Bt corn is designed to punch holes in the intestines of certain
    insects and kill them. But what does it do to the gut, immune system,
    and other vital organs of humans and animals? A good question,
    especially since the biotech industry, EPA, and other government
    officials have never bothered to look at this public health issue,
    despite growing concerns expressed by a broad cross-section of
    scientists and public interest consumer groups. Everyone by now has
    heard about the StarLink corn fiasco 18 months ago, when an illegal
    and likely allergenic variety of Bt corn contaminated 10% of the US
    corn crop and forced a billion dollar recall of 300 brand name
    products, including Kraft Taco Bell shells. But what about the other
    varieties of Bt corn, the stuff you're likely eating every time you
    bite into a corn product which is not labeled "organic?"

    The Gene Giants claim that Bt corn is chemically "substantially
    equivalent" to conventional corn, and that eating it, therefore, will
    have exactly the same physiological impact as consuming regular corn.
    Well-respected experts such as Dr. Michael Hansen from the Consumers
    Union point out that this is not true. The Bt endotoxin and proteins
    expressed in every cell of genetically engineered corn are different
    from what humans and animals have ever eaten before. The haphazard
    insertion of a "genetic cassette" (including promoters, vectors, and
    antibiotic resistance marker genes) into the corn host genome is
    essentially random since scientists don't know if or when the foreign
    gene will be spliced into the plant's DNA, which of hundreds or even
    thousands of proteins will be expressed or generated, or even how many
    copies of the gene will be produced. Bt, the naturally occurring soil
    bacteria, is not the same as Syngenta or Monsanto's patented and
    gene-altered Bt forcefully injected into GE corn. Although there's a
    lot we don't know yet about the potential hazards of eating GE corn,
    in terms of toxins, allergies, and impacts on the human gut and
    digestive system, there are enough danger signs already to give us
    pause for thought. Mounting evidence includes the following:

    • Hundreds of Americans over the past year have reported allergic
      reactions to the FDA after eating corn products likely containing
      StarLink corn or other Bt varieties.

    • Scientists have pointed out that all Bt corn varieties produce
      proteins closely related to the suspected allergen in StarLink corn.

    • Cattle and other animals have been observed on a number of farms in
      the Midwestern US refusing to eat genetically engineered corn, while
      simultaneously munching conventional corn, along with the entire
      cornstalk, right down to the ground.

    • In a well-funded and carefully-designed experiment carried out by
      Dr. Arpad Pusztai in the UK in 1995-99, rats fed lectin-spliced
      potatoes (Bt is a member of the lectin family) suffered significant
      damage to their gut, immune system, and other vital organs. Pusztai
      later warned–after he was abruptly fired and his lab was shut
      down–that all gene-spliced lectins, including Bt crops, should be
      carefully investigated for possible adverse human health impacts.

    • Gene-altered antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) genes, similar to
      those contained in Bt corn, have been found in the guts of bees which
      had consumed the pollen from GE plants. Sophisticated studies in the
      Netherlands and Britain have indicated that ARM genes can likely
      combine with bacteria already present in the human throat, mouth, and
      gut. These "armed genes" can then give rise to new virulent,
      antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, exacerbating the already
      serious problem of antibiotic resistant pathogens such as salmonella,
      now routinely found in non-organic meat and other animal products. The
      British Medical Association and the World Health Organization have
      recommended that the use of antibiotic resistance genes in GE corn and
      other food crops be eliminated.

    FRANKENCORN AND MICE: ANOTHER CAUTIONARY TALE

    Concerned that industry and government have failed to carry out proper
    scientific studies on the safety of GE corn and other Frankenfoods, a
    young Dutch science student, Hinze Hogendoorn, recently decided to
    take matters into his own hands. Dr. Mae Wan-Ho, a British geneticist
    and world renowned critic of biotechnology, reported the results of
    this simple, yet remarkable animal-feeding experiment on her website
    www.i-sis.org in December 2001. Here are excerpts from Dr. Ho's
    report:

    "A Dutch farmer left two piles of maize in a barn infested with mice,
    one pile GM (genetically modified), the other non-GM. The GM pile was
    untouched, while the non-GM pile was completely eaten up. Incredible!
    Young undergraduate Hinze Hogendoorn, from University College, Utrecht
    devised his own laboratory tests and confirmed the finding, and more.
    An activist group (Jongeren Milieu Aktief) presented the report Hinze
    has written to the Dutch parliament on December 11, 2001 and is
    featuring it on their new website (www.talk2000.nl).

    Hinze couldn't find a single scientific report on animals being tested
    for preference of GM versus non GM food on the web when he began. On
    extending his search to effects of GM foods on animals, he came across
    reports from companies developing GM foods, all declaring there were
    no adverse impacts. But he also came across independent researchers
    who have reported harmful effects, including Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who
    found GM potatoes damaged the kidney, thymus, spleen and gut of young
    rats.

    Hinze was stumped at first, because he would have needed to go
    through a lot of bureaucracy to experiment on animals. However, he
    managed to rescue 30 female six-week old mice bred to feed snakes from
    a herpetology centre. [Hinze gave] them a staple food along with the
    two foods [GM and non-GE corn and soya] that were to be compared, so
    they could really show their preference without being starved.

    Large cages were used so the mice had plenty of room to move around.
    At the beginning, all the mice were weighed before they were put into
    the cage[s].The mice had not eaten for some time, but amazingly, they
    [immediately] showed very definite food preferences [preferring the
    non GM corn and soya]. For the next [nine] week[s], Hinze continued to
    give the mice GM and non GM maize or soya chunks. the mice consumed
    61% non GM and 39% GM food when given free choice.

    For the next experiment, Hinze tested for the [health] effects of GM
    food. Over the next 10 days, he kept track of the amount of food that
    the two groups consumed each day, and weighed the mice, halfway
    through and at the end of the experiments.

    The group fed GM ate more, probably because they were slightly heavier
    on average to begin with, but they gained less weight. By the end,
    they actually lost weight. In contrast, the group fed non GM ate less
    and gained more weight, continuing to gain weight until the end of the
    experiment. The results were statistically significant.

    That was not the only difference observed. There were marked
    behavioral differences. The mice fed GM food "seemed less active while
    in their cages."

    The most striking difference was when the mice were weighed at the end
    of the experiment. The mice fed GM food were "more distressed" than
    the other mice. "Many were running round and round the basket,
    scrabbling desperately in the sawdust, and even frantically jumping up
    the sides, something I'd never seen before." They were clearly more
    nervous than the mice from the other cage. "For me this was the most
    disconcerting evidence that GM food is not quite normal."

    Another "interesting result" is that one of the mice in the GM cage
    was found dead at the end of the experiment. Hinze concluded, "At the
    end of everything, I must admit that the experiment has done nothing
    to soothe my qualms concerning genetically enhanced food."

    FRANKENCORN OR PESTICIDES: CHOOSE YOUR POISON

    The hazards of genetically engineered corn, and other GE foods, are
    frightening. But even if global resistance were able to drive GE corn
    off the market tomorrow, we would still be left with a highly toxic,
    chemical-intensive, industrial-style system of corn production which
    is depleting soil fertility, poisoning municipal water supplies, and
    quickly turning indigenous people and family farmers into an
    endangered species. Even without Frankencrops, we would still be
    facing an out-of-control globalization process, which is driving
    millions of farmers off the land and forcing desperate peasants to
    chop down remaining forests–in the process driving hundreds of
    thousands of landraces and traditional varieties of plants,
    microorganisms, (and animals) into extinction.

    Syngenta's conventional (non-GE) corn and pesticides are just as scary
    as their Frankencorn. Syngenta profits by selling corn farmers either
    gene-altered Bt corn or its conventional (fertilizer and
    pesticide-intensive) hybrids, along with its super toxic weed killer,
    Atrazine, a known carcinogen. Unfortunately Atrazine not only kills
    weeds, but also ends up as a dangerous residue in the meat and dairy
    products of animals that have eaten Atrazine-sprayed corn. Atrazine,
    along with its companion pesticides, have also polluted wells and
    drinking water in 97% of the communities in the US Corn Belt. What's
    more dangerous, eating Bt corn, consuming pesticide residues in your
    Big Mac or non-organic dairy products, or drinking the tap water that
    comes out of your faucet?

    Similarly, Monsanto is in the business of selling toxic pesticides and
    herbicides, whether it is to farmers growing GE crops, farmers growing
    non-GE hybrid crops, Roundup-spraying drug warriors in Colombia or
    California, or suburbanites trying to get that perfectly green lawn.
    After 100 years of poisoning the public with substances like PCBs and
    Agent Orange, Monsanto tells us that their latest toxic chemicals such
    as Roundup, or their latest seed varieties, such as Roundup Ready corn
    are perfectly safe. Should we believe them? Or what about Cargill?
    They're happy to sell their chemical nitrate fertilizers (which also
    end up in most Americans' drinking water) to farmers, whether they are
    planting GE Frankencrops or just conventional industrial hybrids. Or
    ADM, who are happy to sell you either GE corn or non-GE corn, as long
    as they can drive the prices down which they pay to farmers, and drive
    the prices up to their "enemy," the consumer.

    The solution of course to all this is to buy and eat organic food, and
    to buy from local and regional farmers and companies, rather than the
    transnational corporations whenever possible. Mexicans can protect
    their health and preserve their biodiversity by boycotting gringo
    GE-tainted corn and buying organic corn produced by Mexican farmers
    cultivating traditional varieties. US consumers similarly can protect
    their health, their drinking water, and their children by buying
    organic and local. Fortunately this is what more and more people are
    doing everyday, not only in the USA but across the world. Farmers in
    130 nations are now producing certified organic food for a booming
    market of organic consumers, making organic the fasting growing
    component of world agriculture. Thirty million Americans are now
    buying organic food and the numbers are rising every month. Since
    September 11, sales of organic and natural food have increased 8%.

    RAISE HELL NOT FRANKENCORN

    Beyond voting with our consumer dollars and our knives and forks for a
    sustainable and organic future, organic consumers also need to
    organize ourselves into a potent political force. As the labor
    populist Mother Jones told rural Americans 100 years ago: "It's time
    to raise less corn and raise more hell." Instead of letting the
    politicians raise our taxes in order to subsidize the profits of the
    Gene Giants and corporate agribusiness, we should be raising hell in
    Washington and in our state capitals to raise corporate taxes to
    subsidize healthy food and a healthy environment. Instead of
    subsidizing GE corn, pesticide-intensive corn, and industrial-sized
    farms, our billions of dollars in farm subsidies should be promoting
    organic agriculture, saving family farms, and promoting Fair Trade,
    not Free Trade, among nations.

    The OCA, is organizing, along with our allies in the Genetically
    Engineered Food Alert a national day of protest
    against genetically engineered corn on February 6. We will be
    targeting the largest food corporation in the US, Kraft/Phillip
    Morris, as well as other companies and supermarket chains to remove GE
    corn from US consumer products. On this day we will also be telling
    the government to take Bt corn off the market, unless it can be proven
    safe for human consumption and the environment (which of course it
    cannot). At the same time we are calling on grain exporters and the US
    government to protect corn biodiversity and to honor the global treaty
    on Biodiversity (the Biosasfety Protocol signed in Cartagena,
    Colombia, Feb. 2000) by ending the dumping of taxpayer subsidized GE
    corn in Mexico and other nations.

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