OTA’s Congressional Education Day 2001
Issue: Genetically Engineered Crops and Food
Background for Congress
Position: OTA urges congressional support of Congressman Kucinich’s bills on labeling, liability, farmers’ rights, and protecting the environment.
The main reason genetically engineered organisms (GEOs), also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, should be labeled is because they are not allowed for use in organic producers. Without labeling, organic producers have no way of knowing whether a product contains GEOs or not.
Genetically engineered crops have an economic impact on organic production because pollen drift, leading to gene flow, can contaminate organic crops. Genetic contamination is trespass, and can lead to significant economic losses for organic farmers. If current trends continue, consumers seeking products that do not contain genetically engineered materials will be denied this choice because of inadvertent contamination.
Bt crops are a special problem
Problems with pest resistance
The crops engineered with the toxin-expressing gene from Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) pose special problems. Bt, when used with care to prevent insect resistance, is an excellent biological control for corn and cotton insect pests. In fact, Bt is the most widely used off-farm biological control in organic agriculture. Responsible use of Bt involves large, very short-term doses (typically with insect exposure of less than 48 hours). On the other hand, the Bt in bioengineered plants is present in small doses over an entire growing season, inevitably resulting in insect resistance.
Some forms of Bt express the Cry1 protein toxin, which is of particular risk to Monarch butterflies. To address pest resistance to Cry1 protein, Adventis developed the Cry9 protein in StarLink corn, which is not approved for human consumption. Thus far, EPA’s attempts to create pest resistance management strategies based on planting patterns have not resulted in an effective protocol. This, combined with the lack of an enforcement program, will soon result in significant insect resistance, depriving organic farmers of one of their most useful tools.
Concern about soil ecology
Another major problem with Bt plants is that the Bt toxin is exuded through the plants’ roots and can remain underground for at least eight months after crops are harvested. The effects of this on soil ecology are unknown. Since organic agriculture relies on healthy soils, this aspect of Bt plants is fundamentally problematic.
General problems of genetic engineering in agriculture
Beyond specific problems with Bt, any genetically engineered crop can cause problems for organic agriculture through pollen drift. Organic consumers would like to be able to choose non-genetically engineered food, but the more genetically engineered crops are used, the greater the likelihood that organic crops will be contaminated with genetically engineered pollen.
Just as there are serious questions about the anomalous expression of fusion genes, so Congress must address the common use of antibiotic resistance marker genes. The British Medical Association has stated, “There should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to public health from antibiotic resistance developing in microorganisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century.” The American Medical Association has also expressed concerns: “…the use of antibiotic markers that encode resistance to clinically important antibiotics should be avoided if possible.”
Other ecological problems associated with genetically engineered plants include domestic crops crossing with wild plants. “Superweeds” have been created that are resistant to many herbicides: one in Canada was discovered that was resistant to three different herbicides through crossing with different genetically engineered plants.
Taken together, the problems above represent a significant burden for organic producers. At a time when pollution from agricultural runoff is problematic for many states, Congress should be assisting organic farmers rather than allowing practices which threaten ecologically sound production.