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January 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

GMO's Mad Cows

Genetically modified organisms or genetically engineered crops are plants with genes added that confer resistance to insect, fungal and viral pests to plants that might otherwise die or require heavy doses of pesticides to prevent damage from these pests. For example, GMO Starlink corn seed includes the plant pesticide Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt, which kills the destructive European corn borer by producing a plant with a toxin in its tissues that kills corn borer pests.


GMO crops spread rapidly in the US in the 1990s. The acreage of GMO or GM crops rose from three million in 1996 to 62 million in 1999. About one third of the corn and over half of the soybeans planted in the US in 1999 were genetically modified. As of 1999, five principal biotech crops--soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and potatoes--were being commercially cultivated in eight countries (Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Mexico, Spain, and the U.S.); the US accounted for two-thirds of global biotech production.


In Fall 2000, a controversy over the use of GMO corn in food products made for human consumption arose when Starlink corn, sold by the French company Aventis CropScience, wound up in a variety of crop products. Starlink corn was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for animal feed, but not for human consumption because it might cause allergic reactions. It was planted in 1998 on about 10,000 acres in the US, some 250,000 acres in 1999, and more than 350,000 acres in 2000, or about one-half of one percent of corn planted in 2000.


Some of the grain elevators that bought farmers' corn did not separate StarLink from other corn, and as a result some 10 million of the 80 million bushels of GM corn was mixed with non-GMO corn and used to make taco shells, cereal, and other products.. This prompted the recall of products such as taco shells and forced several food manufacturers, including Kellogg, to temporarily stop cereal production until the corn used could be guaranteed to be free of GMO corn. Mission Foods Inc, which makes 300 varieties of taco shells, tortillas and snack chips under its own and private labels, announced a recall of its products in November 2000, and promised to switch from yellow to white corn.


Food processors began to test incoming loads of corn for the Cry9C protein, which is the one gene added to the 60,000 in Starlink corn. Efforts to find and remove products made in part with Starlink corn are expected to cost between $100 million and $1 billion. Aventis earned about $1 million in licensing fees over the past three years from Starlink. Most experts say that the Starlink fiasco has set back the US biotech industry in agriculture by at least five years.


Four federal agencies are involved in overseeing genetically engineered food, and one option actively considered was to declare Starlink corn safe for humans. However the Environmental Protection Agency in October 2000 said it would oppose granting temporary approval for Starlink corn to be used in foods for human consumption.


In November 2000, USDA reported that corn exports fell sharply, as foreign buyers feared that the US corn they were buying might be contaminated with Starlink corn.


The Pope dedicated November 19, 2000 to the world's farmers, and said that those who are developing new biotechnologies must keep a "healthy balance" with nature to avoid putting people's lives at risk.


GMOs can also provide benefits. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Zeneca Agrichemicals (Syngenta) invented "golden rice," rice with beta carotene, an important source of vitamin A, necessary for healthy vision and resistance to disease. Golden rice is made by moving genes from yellow daffodils into rice; it is self-pollinating, so that farmers can save seed from one crop for the next.


According to experts, golden rice is the first GMO that primarily benefits consumers, and shows that "The potential to improve the nutritional content of many crops in many ways is now technically feasible."


The next wave of GMOs affects animals. Rex Dunham, an Auburn University researcher, has added DNA from salmon, carp and zebrafish to channel catfish to make them grow faster- most catfish stop growing in the winter months, but DNA from other fish keep them growing year-round. Dunham's catfish grow to their market size of about two pounds within 12 to 18 months, rather than the normal 18 to 24 months. A/F Protein Inc., a Massachusetts firm, is seeking approval for a fast-growing salmon that it is developing in indoor tanks in Canada.


There are two concerns with GMOs in animals: are the animal products safe for consumers, and will the accidental or deliberate release or intermixing of DNA-altered animals change the current species?


Mad Cows. Beef sales dropped sharply in France and throughout the EU in Fall 2000, after a French farmer was arrested trying to sell a diseased cow. French public schools in Paris banned beef from their menus, and beef sales dropped by 30 to 50 percent, as McDonald's reported sharp sales losses.


By January 2001, the focus shifted to Germany, which believed it was free of mad-cow disease, and prompted a plan to ban the use of animal parts in all EU animal feeds. Health Minister Andrea Fischer (Green) and Agriculture Minister Karl-Heinz Funke (SPD) were forced to resign for failing to halt the spread of mad-cow disease.


Including bone and other animal parts in animal feed can allow mad-cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to develop and spread in animals. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can then be transmitted to humans who eat the meat; CJD destroys the brain, and there is no cure. There have been 100 cases of mad-cow disease discovered in animals so far in 2000 in France, up from 39 in 1999. More than 80 people have died in Britain and two in France from the human equivalent of mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.


In November 2000, the French government imposed a moratorium on using meat and bonemeal in animal feed, so that France, Britain and Portugal now prohibit the use of animal remains in farm animal feed. Other EU countries ban meat and bonemeal from ruminant feed but allow it for pigs, poultry and fish.


In early December 2000, EU agricultural ministers banned the use of feed that includes animal products for all farm animals for at least six months. The EU also required that all cattle over 30 months old must be tested or removed from the food chain. Experts predicted that two million head of cattle in the 15-nation EU would be slaughtered at a cost of $3.5 billion.


When mad-cow disease was discovered in the UK in 1996, the EU banned British beef exports until August 1999. Some 170,000 cases of mad-cow disease were discovered in the UK since 1996. The cost of dealing with BSE is very high: the British destroyed 4.5 million head of cattle in an attempt to stem the spread of BSE, but they have still registered 1,150 new cases in 2000.


The Union of Concerned Scientists used the BSE controversy in Europe as the backdrop for a January 2001 report that concluded that antibiotics are far more heavily used in the US livestock industry than had previously been reported. US government officials said that the US does not have a reliable system for tracking antibiotics use http://www.ucsusa.org/).


The UCS estimated that US farmers used 25 million pounds of antibiotics a year for "nontherapeutic" purposes, meaning growth promotion and disease prevention, as opposed to therapeutic use, which means the treatment of disease. The nontherapeutic total includes about 10.3 million pounds in hogs, 10.5 million pounds in poultry and 3.7 million pounds in cattle. There are 7.5 billion chickens; 292 million turkeys; 109 million cattle; and 92 million pigs in the United States. By contrast, only about three million pounds of drugs a year are used to treat diseases in 280 million Americans.


There is no link between BSE in livestock and GMO crops, but consumers often make a link anyway. The European Union has banned cattle feed containing bone meal and other animal parts, which has led to a feed shortfall likely to be met by importing grain from the United States and Brazil, where genetically modified corn, soybean and rapeseed are prevalent. Green groups in Europe are targeting animal feed as a way to slow the spread of GMO crops, hoping to show the clumsy handling of the BSE crisis is also occurring with GMO crops.


The US Food and Drug Administration in 1992 concluded that foods made from GMO crops were substantially equivalent to their conventionally grown counterparts, so no labeling of products from GMO crops is required. The EU has taken the opposite approach, requiring labeling of products made from GMO crops.


Organics. Effective February 19, 2001, USDA's first regulations governing food labeled organic go into effect. They prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on organic crops, and the use of antibiotics on animals whose meat is labeled organic. Organic foods cannot be produced with irradiation, biotechnology and sewer-sludge fertilizer. Organic food sales totaled $6 billion in 1999; total food sales were about $440 billion.


The Netherlands, the world's third-largest food exporter, after the United States and France, is considering building a six-story "Agropark" of pig pens, chicken coops, salmon tanks, mushroom beds and a greenhouse. The Green Space and Agrocluster Innovation Network says one 62.5 acre building in Rotterdam with 300,000 pigs and one million chickens could provide sufficient meat for an entire city.




Marjorie Miller, "Europe Has New Beef With Biotech Foods," Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2001. David Barboza, "Gene-Altered Corn Changes Dynamics of Grain Industry," New York Times, December 11, 2000. Suzanne Daley, "Europe Takes Toughest Steps to Fight Mad Cow Disease," New York Times, December 5, 2000. Jon Christensen, "Golden Rice in a Grenade-Proof Greenhouse," New York Times, November 21, 2000. Suzanne Daley, "Fear of Diseased Beef Deepens in France's Supermarket Aisles," New York Times, November 15, 2000. Marc Kaufman, "Corn Woes Prompt Kellogg to Shut Down Plant," Washington Post, October 21, 2000.