Genetically Manipulated Food News

31 July 1997

Table of Contents

Roundup Ready: dangerous
CBC Radio interview: GE Practises

Back to Index


Biotech industry officials have repeatedly claimed that Roundup is not so toxic and should not be worried about. Here is a synopsis written by Dr. John Fagan in response to these claims and in response to the Roundup resistant sugar beets in Ireland:


Supplemental Information on Roundup resistant sugar beets,

by John Fagan, Ph.D.

The following are points arguing against allowing Monsanto to go ahead with the field trials of Roundup resistant sugar beets now proposed to be carried out in Ireland.

Monsanto's proposed field tests of Roundup Ready sugar beets threaten the environment and health. Furthermore, The proposed field tests are designed to assess only the field productivity of the beets in Ireland. They are not designed to assess the potential impact of these beets on the Irish environment. If tests are to be allowed in Ireland, they should at least include measurements that will allow the objective assessment of environmental effects.

The Roundup Ready sugar beet poses two major threats to the environment. They also pose threats to the health of consumers. These problems are summarized below:

  1. Increased use of Roundup will occur if these beets are allowed to be grown commercially. This herbicide is touted by Monsanto as short-lived in the environment and harmless to living things. However, there is evidence in the scientific literature that calls both of these claims into question. Significant residues of Roundup have been detected in soil long after application . for instance, one study revealed residues as long as 3 years after application of Roundup (Torstensson, NTL, et al. Ecotoxicol. Environ. Safety 18:230;1989). Thus this chemical can persist in the soil and be taken up by subsequent crops. Recent observations in

    Several studies indicate that Roundup is also harmful to fish (WHO UN Environmental Program, International Labour Organization. 1994. Glyphosate. Environmental Health Criteria #159. Geneva, Switzerland), earthworms (Soil Biol. Biochem. 24:1739;1992), and beneficial insects (Pestic. Sci. 30:309;1990).

    Direct evidence that Roundup is harmful to human health is also growing. For instance, research done in California has found that Roundup exposure is the third most frequent cause of toxic reactions in farm workers (Pease, W.S. et al, 1993, Preventing pesticide-related illness in California agriculture: Strategies and priorities. Environmental Health Policy Program Report. Berkeley, CA: University of California School of Public health, California Policy Seminar).

    Effects on reproductive function in small mammals also suggest that Roundup may have harmful effects on reproductive function in humans. In rat feeding studies, Roundup reduced sperm counts and lengthened the estrous cycle (US Dept. Health & Human Services. Public health Service. National Institutes of Health. NTP technical report on toxicity studies of glyphosate (CAS No. 1071-83-6) administered in dosed feed to F344/N rats and B6C3F mice. (NIH Publication 92-3135), and Toxicity Reports Series No. 16. Research Triangle Park, NC: National toxicology Program). Other reproductive and developmental problems were also observed in rats (WHO UN Environmental Program, International Labour Organization. 1994. Glyphosate. Environmental Health Criteria #159. Geneva, Switzerland). Some multiple generation studies have also resulted in adverse effects on fetal development (US EPA Office of Pesticide Programs. Special Review and Re-registration Division. 1993. Re-registration Eligibility Decision (RED) Glyphosate. Washington DC (September, 1993).

  2. Cross-pollination with wild relatives of sugar beets may occur. Roundup ready beets are part of a family of plants (the Chenopodiaceae) that is widely distributed in Europe and that includes chard, spinach, as well as all varieties of beets. Northern Europe is not the center of biodiversity for this family. However, human commerce in agricultural products has carried weedy relatives of the beet to Ireland. Moreover, non-genetically engineered domesticated beets are grown widely across Ireland. The evidence presented in Monsanto's application, itself, demonstrates clearly that the genetically engineered Roundup-resistant beet will readily cross-hybridize with both wild beets and domesticated beets.

    The proposed field tests specify a minimum distance of only a 2 meters between the genetically engineered beets and neighboring non-genetically engineered beets. The OECD specifies an isolation distance of 1000 meters for beet seed production, and standards set by other organizations specify much greater distances, ranging from 3500 to 10,000 meters. Clearly the isolation distance proposed by the applicant is inadequate.

    Isolation is critical because introduction of the Roundup resistance trait into agricultural and/or wild beets will be irreversible. Over time, this trait could be transferred to other Chenopodiaceae, as well. If release occurs, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to control any unanticipated environmental or safety problems that arise. Clearly the current application should be denied simply on the basis of the inadequacy of the isolation procedures proposed by the applicant.

  3. The human health hazards of the Roundup Ready sugar beet have not been assessed adequately. Genetic engineering can introduce unanticipated allergens and toxins into foods, and can reduce the nutritional value of foods. Research should be done to evaluate whether the Roundup Ready sugar beet is hazardous to the consumer before it is considered for commercial use in Ireland. Arguments will be lodged that table sugar is highly purified and will be free of any potentially harmful component present in the beets, themselves. This is not accurate, since there are individuals who display allergic reactions to table sugar. This implies that table sugar contains sufficient levels of allergenic protein to cause reactions in these highly sensitive individuals. Therefore, if genetic engineering has introduced unanticipated allergens into the Roundup Ready sugar beet, sufficient levels of that allergen could be present in table sugar to cause problems for some consumers. Furthermore, it should be remembered that other parts of the sugar beet find their way into the human food chain (for instance molasses) and harmful substances present in the sugar beet would be present in higher levels in those fractions.

The points presented above present firm evidence contra-indicating the field trials and commercialization of the Roundup-resistant sugar beet proposed by Monsanto.

John B. Fagan, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular Biology
Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa, USA 52557-1078


CBC Radio Interview with A. Kimbrell

The following text was taken from an interview 2/3/97 on CBC national radio in Canada, Sunday Morning Show, with Andrew Kimbrell who is Executive Director of the International Centre for Technology Assessment in Washington, DC, and author of the book, The Human Body Shop, which speaks in detail about genetic engineering and its hazards. The interview was edited slightly into proper grammar.

Mr. Kimbrell said:

Dolly is not the first cloned mammal. Scientists and corporations have been cloning mammals for about 10 years. Up until recently, scientists have only been able to use DNA taken from embryo cells in order to clone animals. However, with recent advances, scientists no longer have to limit themselves to embryo cells for cloning. For instance, Dolly was cloned from DNA taken from udder cells, rather than embryonic cells.

The DNA, once removed, is inserted into the nucleus of an egg cell, which is then put into a surrogate mother. This egg then develops (in the surrogate mother) into a sheep that is supposed to be identical to the sheep from which the udder cell was originally taken.

Cloning is important for biotech companies. For example, these companies are trying to make genetically engineered sheep that produce valuable blood clotting elements and other pharmaceuticals in their breast milk. These sheep become essentially bio-reactors, producing valuable pharmaceuticals. Once the researchers go all the trouble to create such sheep, they can't allow the sheep to reproduce naturally, because normal reproduction would bring in random gene selection. Consequently not all the offspring would be able to produce the pharmaceuticals. The sheep are therefore cloned.

In another case, Texas A&M has been genetically engineering the 'perfect steak cow'. Researchers can't risk mating these cows with bulls, because natural offspring would not necessarily be perfect steak cows.

Corporations are genetically engineering human genes into animals for two major reasons. One reason is to turn these animals into bio-reactors that produce valuable pharmaceuticals in their blood or in their breast milk. The other reason is so that organs of these animals can be used for transplantation.

Researchers have had a kind of race to see who could clone mammals, with corporate sponsors behind them, urging them on, because at the end of that process is patenting. One of the reasons Dr. Wilmott kept Dolly a secret is because he wanted to get the patent. If you can patent the process, everyone has to pay you. The research is not just for scientific discovery, but for big bucks. The race is to see who can get the cloning procedure down and who can patent it. (Genetic engineering is predicted to be a $20-30 billion industry by the next decade.)

Dr. Willadsen had one major embarrassment with his technology. It was used by the British milk board in the early 1990's to try and clone the ideal milk cow that produced the most milk in the least time. The researchers cloned about 1000 cows. The problem was that about 1 in 5 cows was far too large, and about 1 in 19 was a virtual monster, about twice the size that it should have been.

Now everyone of these clones requires a surrogate mother. The cloned cows were so big they had to be removed by cesarean section. The researchers sent these giant cows to 20 universities around the world to try to understand what in the cloning process could have triggered this massive inappropriate grown. We still do not have those answers.

When we talk about human cloning, we have to remember that Dr. Wilmott had 270 tries and got one right. With Dr. Willadsen, one in 20 was a monster. What do we do with those monsters, or with the human failures? How do we treat the mistakes?

Incidentally, in the USA there are about 300 registered fertility clinics (and probably at least that many not registered) who have said that they are going to use the kind of cloning that Dr. Wilmott did in Scotland. Will the cloning turn out to be efficient? One in 270 is not a great success ratio. It has to be improved.

Corporations have been involved in genetically engineering livestock, as has the Canadian government. The government has been taking human genes as well as bovine grown genes and putting them in salmon to try to create super salmon.

These super growth genes from cows, once put into the permanent genetic code of salmon, will be passed on to the salmon's offspring. So the genes become part of the new genetic code of the species.

Therein lies a significant problem. If one of the corporations or the government working on the salmon releases the super-salmon into rivers, or if the pond these fish are in is inadvertently flooded out, these salmon with foreign genes would mate with native salmon.

The result is biological pollution, which could happen in a very short time, could not be recalled, and could pollute an entire species. This could be the major environmental issue in the next century. These companies are going for economic gain, but are unable to predict the long-term consequences.

Q: How far away are these companies from cloning on a mass scale?

As long as cloning requires surrogate mothers, the process will always be somewhat awkward. However, I do think that for companies producing animals for pharmaceutical, this process will be more and more efficient and profitable, and therefore could be realized more quickly.

Regarding species to species transplants, such as organs from animals to humans, there are a lot of problems. For instance, there are a number of viruses that we are not seeing in animals and we do not know how they affect humans. Mad Cow Disease is one example. At one time, it was thought to not have any impact on humans. Now, we know that is probably not true.

In addition, we have bovine Leukemia virus, pseudo-rabies in pigs, bovine immuno-deficiency virus, a close relative of AIDS, which used to be non-existent in cows, but now affects 10-20 % of cows. So before we talk of transplanting organs from pigs or cows into human beings, we have a serious contamination problem in that we have not even identified many of these viruses. This might be a permanent bar to the successful transplantation of animal organs into humans. We should we very wary of Xenotranplantation.

Q: Other things to watch out for?

Many of these biotech companies have been looking at producing valuable pharmaceuticals. If you are going to be producing blood clotting elements, anti-cancer agents, etc., you also face the same contamination problem as with organs. This remains the most significant problem that these corporations are facing.

The biotech industry has invested billions of dollars, and advertised enormous benefits. But when you look at what has been accomplished, the advantages brought to the population are very small at this point. The promises of vast food to feed the masses, pharmaceuticals, organs for transplants, etc. are still a very long way away.

I think this has caused a significant shake-down in the biotech industry. Over the last 3-4 years there has been a real problem with getting investment, because these companies still seem to be far away from producing a product that is profitable. Cloning is an essential key in finally turning these genetically engineered animals into profitable products for these corporations.

Q: When can they expect a payoff?

A success ratio of 1 in 270 is not good enough for massive investment, and they do not have a patent yet. The patent is the real key here, because if this does become an efficient process later on, then the patent owner will reap huge profits.

Q: How much influence could these businesses have in their attempts to regulate these procedures.

They have already had an unfortunate impact. Here in the USA, we have already gone two decades into biotech, and we have yet to have a single law on the release of genetically engineered plants, animals, or organisms. We do not have a single law that declares a moratorium on cloning or prevents human cloning. An absolute legal vacuum. Anyone trying to get these laws has been unsuccessful because of the extraordinary influence of these major transnational corporations, who have such influence world-wide.

Q Why were the biotech companies so upset with how the Dolly story turned out?

The biotech industry has been able to do anything they want without anyone knowing what there are doing. Virtually no one knows that researchers have taken about 3 dozen human genes and put them into the permanent genetic code of animals. No one was aware that animals have been cloned before Dolly and even humans have been cloned.

Q Humans cloned?

George Washington University researchers (reported in the New York Times, Oct. 24, 1993, p. A1) took 17 human embryos and cloned them into 42 identical embryos. This provided a pattern for future cloning. There were demonstrations. The less people know about it, the more happy biotech companies are, because public action could lead to restrictive legislation, which these companies do not want.

Q Why are companies or researchers studying the cloning of human embryos?

Right now it is difficult for those involved in embryo research to get consistent embryos to work on. It is a hit or miss situation, getting embryos from abortion clinics or hospitals to do research on. However, cloning would give identical embryos, which would be perfect for research.

Incidentally, the US patent office said that clinics can now get a patent for the embryo lines they create. Clinics can have their own patented embryo lines, which they sell to researchers.

Q Based on Dolly, will we see cloning of human embryos as a big business sooner than you expected?

I think so, because the ability to use non-embryo DNA allows for one to more easily create tailor-made human embryos for research. This will spur a whole industry into trying to create designer embryos for a variety of research and a variety of diseases. So when we talk of corporate ownership of the entire human genome, it is not entirely in the abstract. It is already happening.

This is an important issue. Before this, we thought that the human body was a common heritage that we all owned and could not be owned by a particular company, especially our own genes! However, we are now seeing a full-scale invasion of the market into the body commons and I for one think it is a very unfortunate development that needs to be stopped as quickly as possible.


Richard Wolfson, Ph.D., Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food

Natural Law Party, 500 Wilbrod Street Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2 Tel. 613-565-8517 Fax. 613-565-6546 email: rwolfson@concentric.net

Our website is: http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html It now contains previous biotech articles from Alive, articles from Joe Cummins and John Fagan, other GE website links, etc.

To receive regular news from the Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food, please send an email message to rwolfson@concentric.net , with the words 'subscribe GE' in the subject line. To remove yourself from this list, please send the message 'unsubscribe GE'

Back to Index