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Whoops! The Legacy of Genetically Engineered Food


By Mary Budinger

Published in Townsend Letter
October, 2010

The history of genetically engineered (GE) crops reads like a series of unintended consequences. Whoops, the wind blew that GE seed into the non-GE fields next door. Whoops, GE crops use a lot more water than advertised so farmers in India went broke and committed suicide in droves. Whoops, no one was monitoring the fields of StarLink corn - unapproved for human consumption - and it somehow ended up in our taco shells. Whoops, somehow the LiberyLink rice - unapproved for human consumption - got out of bounds and the rice market tanked when Japan and Europe wouldn’t buy American rice…

Get ready for another whoops! Genetic engineering is changing the dirt under our feet.

We know crops can be genetically modified by purposely inserting foreign genes to give them certain traits or to make them immune to herbicides. But what is happening in the soil beneath those plants? Dirt is teeming with a variety of life - thrips, collembolans, mites, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and earthworms to name a few.

Some Canadian scientists got an idea to go into fields where genetically engineered (also called genetically modified) corn is grown and look at soil-dwelling creatures there. To their surprise, many of the creatures tested positive for the transgene responsible for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate present in GE Roundup Ready® corn. Whoops.

The researchers recently reported:

“We found evidence of the transgene at all dates and in all animal groups. Transgenic DNA concentration in animal was significantly higher than that of background soil, suggesting the animals were feeding directly on transgenic plant material. These results are the first to demonstrate the persistence of transgenic crop DNA residues within a food web.”[1]

The roots of plants discharge DNA which can then be taken up by soil organisms such as bacteria. Scientists call this “horizontal gene transfer” of transgenic DNA into completely unrelated organisms. It is not clear whether the transgenes were just passing through the digestive system of these soil dwellers or whether the transgenes had integrated themselves into the creatures’ DNA and/or internal bacteria.

The only human GE feeding study ever published, the 2004 Netherwood study, revealed that transgenes from soy transfer into the DNA of bacteria inside our intestines and continue to function.[2]

“The new soil research is a most disturbing finding,” said Jeffrey Smith, Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of Seeds of Deception. “Long after we stop eating GE foods, we have genetically modified proteins produced continually inside of us with no known protocol to clean up this genetic contamination. It appears now this may be happening in the soil as well. It underscores how much of a risk genetically modified organisms are to our food supply and to the complex ecosystem. This is another reason why we must immediately terminate field trials and cultivation of GE crops.”

At issue is an ecosystem vital to the environment, farmers, consumers, and the food security of future generations.

Soil organisms make the ground fertile. In one gram of productive soil there is a complex web that can exceed 100 million microorganisms, representing more than 1000 species. Together they are responsible for the cycle of decomposing and restructuring organic material so that it will be accessible to growing plants. A good amount of soil organisms means the soil will have good water-retaining properties. Without these tiny creatures, the food web would not continue. They are tiny, but hugely important.


One of the promises of GE crops is that they would lessen the amount of pesticides used on agricultural land. This promise lies at the heart of efforts in the U.S. and Europe to build public support for GE crop technologies.

In November 2009, scientist Charles Benbrook, PhD, released a landmark analysis of pesticide use in the U.S. after more than a decade’s experience with GE crops.[3] Drawing principally on data from the USDA, Benbrook found that GE crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. between 1996-2008.

Why? Because Mother Nature adapts to survive. Weeds want to survive. They adapt and become resistant to the herbicides and pesticides. In response, mankind uses more and more pesticides.

Benbrook wrote:

“This dramatic increase in the volume of herbicides applied swamps the decrease in insecticide use attributable to GE corn and cotton, making the overall chemical footprint of today’s GE crops decidedly negative… The steep rise in the pounds of herbicides applied with respect to most GE crop acres is not news to farmers. Weed control is now widely acknowledged as a serious management problem within GE cropping systems. Farmers and weed scientists across the heartland and cotton belt are now struggling to devise affordable and effective strategies to deal with the resistant weeds emerging in the wake of herbicide-tolerant crops.

“But skyrocketing herbicide use is news to the public at large, which still harbors the illusion, fed by misleading industry claims and advertising, that biotechnology crops are reducing pesticide use. Such a claim was valid for the first few years of commercial use of GE corn, soybeans, and cotton. But, as this report shows, it is no longer.

“Herbicides and insecticides are potent environmental toxins… While the USDA continued to collect farm-level data on pesticide applications during most of the 13 years covered in this report, the Department has been essentially silent on the impacts of GE crops on pesticide use for almost a decade.”

Benbrook’s report was commissioned and funded by funded by a coalition of non-governmental organizations including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, the Cornerstone Campaign, GE Policy Project, Greenpeace, and Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. The Organic Center supported the writing and publication of the report.

Genetically engineered seeds were introduced commercially in 1996. They are either HT or Bt. According to Benbrook’s figures:

• Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops are genetically engineered to survive direct application of herbicides, chemicals that would otherwise kill or severely stunt the crop. Nearly all HT crops come from “Roundup Ready” seeds that tolerate applications of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide, the active ingredient in the Roundup product. Farmers planted 941 million acres of GE HT corn, soybeans, and cotton from 1996 through 2008. HT soybeans accounted for two-thirds of these acres. HT crops have increased herbicide use by a total of 382.6 million pounds over 13 years. HT soybeans account for 92% of the total increase in herbicide use across the three HT crops.

Bt crops are engineered to produce toxins derived from the natural bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in plant cells. These toxins are lethal to certain agricultural insect pests. Bt corn and cotton were grown on 357 million acres, with corn accounting for 79% of these acres. Bt corn and cotton have delivered consistent reductions in insecticide use totaling 64.2 million pounds over the 13 years.

“This report confirms what we’ve been saying for years,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. “The most common types of genetically engineered crops promote increased use of pesticides, an epidemic of resistant weeds, and more chemical residues in our foods. This may be profitable for the biotech/pesticide companies, but it is bad news for farmers, human health, and the environment.”

The history of sugar beets really shows the rise in the use of pesticides. In December 1998, the USDA approved Monsanto’s first GE sugar beet for commercial planting and sale. Several months later, at Monsanto’s request, the EPA increased the maximum allowable residues of the herbicide, glyphosate, on sugar beet roots from 0.2 ppm to 10 ppm.[4] But remember, we don’t eat the beet itself. Sugar beet roots are refined and processed into sugar. Thus EPA’s policy change represents a 5,000% increase in allowable toxic weed killer residues.[5]


Glyphosate, a systemic, broad-spectrum herbicide, is the active ingredient in the “Roundup” product manufactured by Monsanto. Farmers were encouraged to rely exclusively on glyphosate for weed control and so they embraced glyphosate-resistant crops. Farmers were assured by experts that resistant weeds would never be extensive or difficult to control. Whoops.

Excessive reliance on glyphosate has spawned a growing epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds, just as overuse of antibiotics can trigger the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Benbrook reports that GE crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops, 1996-2008. In 2008, GE crop acres required over 26% more pounds of pesticides per acre than acres planted to conventional varieties. The report projects that this trend will continue as a result of the rapid spread of resistant weeds.

“Today, nine or more glyphosate-resistant weeds collectively infest millions of acres of U.S. cropland,” Benbrook wrote. The Palmer amaranth weed has spread dramatically across the South and Benbrook reports that severe infestations pose a major threat to U.S. cotton production.

Some farmers are turning to more high-risk herbicides, including 2,4-D, dicamba and paraquat. Others have turned to hoeing by hand. This gets expensive. In regions where farmers are combating resistant weeds, university experts are projecting increases of up to $80 per acre in costs associated with HT crops in 2010. Benbrook reports that just two Palmer amaranth plants along a 20 feet section of a row of cotton can reduce yields by almost one-quarter, imposing on farmers a devastating economic loss. A single female plant can produce up 450,000 seeds.

Benbrook predicts that this situation has ramifications we should not ignore:

“Growing reliance on older, higher-risk herbicides for management of resistant weeds on HT crop acres is now inevitable in the foreseeable future and will markedly deepen the environmental and public health footprint of weed management on over 100 million acres of U.S. cropland. This footprint will both deepen and grow more diverse, encompassing heightened risk of birth defects and other reproductive problems, more severe impacts on aquatic ecosystems, and much more frequent instances of herbicide-driven damage to nearby crops and plants, as a result of the off-target movement of herbicides.”


As long ago as 1997, scientists warned that genetically engineering food may result in new human pathogenic bacteria.[6] Genetic engineering represents an unprecedented breach in the species boundary.

In 1999, front-page news in the British press gave a first look at the dangers of swapping genes into food crops. The eminent scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute forever changed the GE debate. He was the first to demonstrate that GE foods can be poisonous to mammals.

Dr. Pusztai studied rats fed potatoes which had been genetically modified to contain a pesticide. He compared them to rats fed non-GE potatoes. He found damage to the stomach lining of lab rats which ate the GE potatoes. He also found that the liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain. There were indications that the rats’ immune systems were weakening.

The key point: the damage was caused by the side effects of the genetic process of inserting foreign genes, not from the particular gene that had been inserted. Why? Because when rats ate potatoes that had merely been sprayed with the same pesticide, there were no changes in the stomach lining. So the process itself appeared to be the source of the problem.

The research strongly suggests that all GE foods on the market may create similar problems. Dr. Pusztai’s work ignited an uproar. Government funding was cut off. He was fired, and his reputation and findings smeared.

Fast forward a decade: In December of 2009, Dr. Arpad Pusztai was awarded the Stuttgart Peace Prize for tireless advocacy for independent risk research.

In the years between those two events, more and more scientists around the world had begun to warn that genetic manipulation can increase the levels of natural plant toxins in foods – or create entirely new toxins – in unexpected ways by, for example, switching on genes that produce poisons.

GE food pollution leads to environmental pollution. The failure of GE crops to use less pesticides means people are exposed to even more chemicals. In 2009, Dr. Theo Colborn and colleagues published a list of endocrine disrupting chemicals. It includes 180 pesticide active ingredients.[7] Well over half the important pesticides used by farmers in the U.S. and globally are on the list. Most Americans are exposed to four to seven of these chemicals on a near-daily basis.[8]

Exposure to pesticides is now linked to all manner of chronic illnesses including increased risk of reproductive abnormalities, birth defects, neurological problems, allergies, and cancer. Glyphosate has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and human embryonic cell death.

GE foods were released into the American landscape with no required safety testing, and no labeling. The official government policy claims that the foods are not substantially different. Monsanto - the company that brought us Agent Orange and the industrial coolants called PCB’s, the company that was one of the largest chemical companies in the 20th century - was largely in charge of shaping official U.S. policy as to the safety of GE food.

Despite industry and government attempts over the years to minimize fears, growing numbers of doctors and patients became convinced GE food is contributing to the skyrocketing numbers of gut problems so common to those with allergies, autism, ADHD, and some autoimmune diseases. They question if Bt crops may be damaging the walls of our intestines, breaking apart the integrity of our gut, creating leaky gut.

In May of 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine called for a moratorium on GE foods. It was the first U.S. medical group to take a public stand, saying “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects.”[9] The British Medical Society had called for a ban on the introduction of GE crops and food a decade earlier, in no small part because the GE issue received so much more press coverage in Europe.

In July 2009, University of Chicago researchers were awarded a $433,100 grant by the EPA to investigate how food allergies are triggered. Although this is a tiny amount compared to what is needed, it nonetheless could lay the groundwork for assessing whether GE crops are more likely to cause food allergies than non-GE crops. In a new book, The Unhealthy Truth, Robyn O’Brien outlines the logical connection between the astronomical increase in allergic response among the American population and the unbridled consumption of these altered foods.[10]

In December 2009, the American Public Health Association (APHA) formally opposed the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered variant of the natural growth hormone produced by dairy cows. rBGH increases milk production, but as Dr. Samuel Epstein points out, the resulting milk is supercharged with high levels of a natural growth factor (IGF-1) and excess levels have been implicated in breast, colon, and prostate cancers. APHA’s resolution follows an official position statement released last year by the American Nurses Association opposing rBGH.


Corn, soybean, and cotton farmers increasingly view the spread of resistant weeds as a slow moving train wreck eroding their bottom line. They may decide to plant fewer GE crops.

In the 2009 crop year, the percentage of national soybean acres planted to Roundup Ready varieties decreased for the first time since their introduction in 1996. The decline is tiny – 92% to 91% – yet perhaps indicative of frustrations with failed promises. Farm managers and seed distributors in five states released a report last October that yields from new soybean seeds didn’t meet their expectations. The Roundup Ready soybeans planted so far actually reduce yield by about 5-10%. “The distrust that could be building in the market is very negative for Monsanto,” said Paul Baiocchi, a senior market strategist at Delta Global Advisors.[11]

The agricultural biotechnology industry claims that higher prices of GE seeds are justified by multiple benefits to farmers, including decreased spending on pesticides. The price of GE seeds has risen precipitously in recent years, and the need for more herbicides because of resistant weeds is also increasing the farmers’ costs. As an example, corn farmers planting “SmartStax” hybrids in 2010 will spend around $124 per acre for seed, almost three times the cost of conventional corn seed. The new-generation “RR 2” soybean seed, to be introduced on a widespread basis in 2010, will cost 42 percent more than the original Roundup Ready seeds they are displacing.

In early 2009, Germany banned the cultivation of GE corn, and the sale of its seeds. The German Agriculture Minister said the corn breed MON 810 is dangerous for the environment.

In October 2009, Monsanto was found guilty by France’s highest court of false advertising, for claims that Roundup, its toxic weed killer, is biodegradable and leaves “the soil clean.” The company was fined 15,000 euros ($22,400). French environmental groups had brought the case in 2001 on the basis that glyphosate, Roundup’s main ingredient, is classed as “dangerous for the environment” by the European Union.

A September 2009, a U.S. federal court ruling fired a shot across the bow of the GE seed producers. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White rejected the USDA’s decision of 2005 to allow Monsanto to sell “Roundup-Ready” sugar beets. Planting genetically modified sugar beets has a “significant effect” on the environment, Judge White ruled, because of “the potential elimination of a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food.”

GE sugar beets are wind pollinated. The judge’s ruling “sends a very clear message to the USDA to protect American farmers and consumers and not the interests of Monsanto,” said Kevin Golden, a San Francisco attorney for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, which opposes genetically modified foods and supports organic farming.

The judge said the government must prepare an environmental impact statement, which would include public input. This could force the American media to cover the GE story. To date, there has been much more coverage of the subject in Europe than in the U.S., thanks in so small part to the political clout of Monsanto.

The judge’s ruling does not put a hold on the GE sugar beets already harvested and ready to be used in food processing. It does put in limbo what can happen when it comes time to plant next year’s crop.

The first GE case had made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Monsanto v. Geertson Seed. The Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit in on behalf of a coalition of non-profits and farmers who wished to retain the choice to plant non-GE alfalfa. Alfalfa is open-pollinated by bees, which can cross-pollinate at distances of several miles, spreading the patented, foreign DNA to conventional and organic crops. Such biological contamination threatens the livelihood of organic farmers and dairies, since the U.S. Organic Standard prohibits genetic engineering.

The Supreme Court’s decision in June, 2010 did not overrule the lower court’s ban on the planting and sale of GMO alfalfa and, therefore, Monsanto is still prohibited from selling and planting its Roundup Ready GM alfalfa. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the threat of GMO contamination was a sufficient cause of environmental and economic harm to support future challenges on GMOs.[12]

Jeffrey Smith sees that we are approaching a tipping point. “As the public learns about the dangers of GE foods, they are refusing them more and more,” he said. “When even a small percentage of American shoppers – say 5% – refuse brands with GE ingredients, we will see a tipping point. GE ingredients will be seen as a marketing liability, and food companies will scramble to eliminate them. It happened in Europe, and it is expected here as well. Schools throughout the U.K. and parts of Europe banned GE food years ago. In the U.S., the emergence of the ‘healthy school lunch’ movement provides a ready platform to promote GE-free school meals.”


The number of genetically engineered foods can be counted still on two hands: soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and to a much lesser degree, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini, and yellow crook neck squash. But the acreage and impact are so huge, they’ve triggered anti-trust concerns.

The World's Top 5 Seed Companies:

1. Monsanto (US) – $4,964m – 23%
2. DuPont (US) – $3,300m – 15%
3. Syngenta (Switzerland) – $2,018m – 9%
4. Groupe Limagrain (France) – $1,226m – 6%
5. Land O’ Lakes (US) – $917m – 4%

Source: ETC Group
2007 seed sales (US$ millions) – % of global proprietary seed market

The World's Top 7 Pesticide Companies:

1. Bayer (Germany) – $7,458m – 19%
2. Syngenta (Switzerland) – $7,285m – 19%
3. BASF (Germany) – $4,297m – 11%
4. Dow AgroSciences (USA) – $3,779m – 10%
5. Monsanto (USA) – $3,599m – 9%
6. DuPont (USA) – $2,369m – 6%
7. Makhteshim Agan (Israel) – $1,895m – 5%

Latest figures indicate 91 percent of the soybean crop grown in the U.S. is GE. Of all the corn planted, 85 percent is GE and most of that is yellow dent, also called field corn. It is used both for animal feed and for human consumption. Because it is high in starch, it is used to fatten animals. Yellow dent GE corn is the primary corn used by the large food manufacturers in making a myriad of products including cereals, corn oil, corn meal, corn chips, tortillas, taco shells, corn sweeteners, and derivatives. American cotton is about 88 percent GE. Canola grown in the U.S. and Canada is 80-85 percent GE. And some 90 percent of the sugar beet crop is GE.

It appears Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of seed genetics. Monsanto’s business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world’s food supply.[13]

The concern is not limited just to the crops already on the market. Many times, it is the test crops which raise concerns.

A federal jury ruled December 4, 2009, that Bayer CropScience LP must pay about $2 million for losses sustained by two Missouri farmers when an experimental GE variety of rice the company was testing cross-bred with their non-GE crops. The experimental crop was not approved for human consumption because it produced a protein which caused serious allergic reactions in some people.

Farmers from Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have filed more than 1,000 similar cases against Bayer since the USDA announced in August 2006 that trace amounts of the genetically modified LibertyLink rice were found in U.S. long-grain rice stocks. Within four days, rice futures plunged, costing U.S. growers about $150 million, according to a consolidated complaint filed by the farmers. Exports fell as the European Union, Japan, Russia, and other overseas markets slowed purchases of U.S. grown long-grain rice for testing or stopped importing it.

There is no GE rice on the market today.

Many people remember the case of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who grew non-GE canola. His neighbor’s GE canola blew onto his land. Monsanto took Schmeiser to court saying he was illegally growing Monsanto’s seed and the company should be paid for it. Schmeiser countered no, he had never bought Monsanto seed, didn’t want it, and that Monsanto’s seed had destroyed his property. The court ruled in 2001 in favor of Monsanto; it didn’t matter how the seed got into Schmeiser’s field, it belonged to Monsanto and the farmer had infringed on their patent. The ruling made international headlines, pitting farmers’ rights against those of multi-national corporations.

But the rest of the story was rarely reported: Schmeiser’s land was again contaminated by canola seed flying off trucks along a road next to his farm. Although Monsanto said they would only clean up the contamination if Schmeiser signed an agreement to never sue the company and to never speak about the settlement, the farmer refused. He paid for someone to clean up the canola plants, and sued Monsanto for the $660 bill. At the last minute before trial, Monsanto agreed to pay the $660 clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields, and no gag-order or other restrictions were placed upon him. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement “ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.”[14]

Jeffrey Smith says the real power to put an end to the unintended consequences of genetic engineered food lies in the hands of consumers, not the courts. “You and I can put an end to GE food just by saying NO,” Smith explained. “Demand that GE foods be labeled. Almost every food label has an 800 phone number on it. Once or twice a week, take a minute to call that number, ask if there are any GE elements in that food, and why the labels don’t identify GE ingredients. Let the food manufacturers know you are looking. And use the “Non-GMO Shopping Guide” to select healthier non-GE brands. We can drive GE out of the market by choosing not to buy it. Hand this article to all your friends. Educate everyone you know.”

See for tips and brands of non-GE options.

Mary Budinger is an Emmy award-winning journalist who writes about complementary and alternative medicine.

[1] Miranda Hart, Jeff Powell et al. Detection of transgenic cp4 epsps genes in the soil food web. Agronomy for Sustainable Development. October/ December 2009, 29:497-501[2] Trudy Netherwood, Susana Mart et al. Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract. Nature Biotechnology, February 1, 2004, pages 204-209, doi:10.1038/nbt934 [3] Charles Benbrook. Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years. Published by The Organic Center, November 2009. Accessed at [4] 64 Fed. Reg. 18360-18367 (April 14, 1999). [5] DeVuyst. C.S. & C.J. Wachenheim. American Crystal Sugar: Genetically Enhanced Sugar beets? Review of Agriculture Economics, Vol. 27. No. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 105-116. [6] Ho, M.W. & Tappeser, B. (1997). Potential contributions of horizontal gene transfer to the transboundary movement of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. In Transboundary Movement of Living Modified Organisms Resulting from Modern Biotechnology: Issues and Opportunities for Policy-Makers (K.J. Mulongoy, ed.) pp.171-193, International Academy of the Environment, Switzerland. Accessed at [7] [8] [9] Genetically Modified Foods. A white paper of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. May, 2009 [10] [11] Jack Kaskey. Monsanto Facing Distrust as It Seeks to Stop DuPont., November 10, 2009 Accessed at [12] [13] Christopher Leonard. AP Investigation: Monsanto seed biz role revealed. December 14, 2009. Accessed at [14]
Whoops! The Legacy of Genetically Engineered Food