Shield of the Episcopal Church of the United States Environmental Stewardship Commission
(MEESC)
Shield of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota
Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Environmental Stewardship Resolution


The following is offered for your information and comment.  On this and similar pages the Environmental Stewardship Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota intends to offer thoughts and ideas on how any congregation or individual can implement portions of the Resolution.

From "A Resolution on The Spirituality of Food Production"
passed at the 144th Annual Convention (October 26-27, 2001)

"THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that that the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota will continually provide its parishioners, clergy, and congregations with information and educational opportunities concerning the issues of food sources, biodiversity, genetic engineering, ownership and distribution of our food sources, and related issues concerning the health and well-being of ourselves and future generations"

Concerns Regarding Genetically Modified Food
by the Rev Helen Hanten

This article is a part of the series by the Minnesota Episcopal Environmental Stewardship Commission written in support of our resolution on the spirituality of food, especially its production, which was passed at the 2001 Diocesan Convention and has been submitted to General Convention.

 – Helen Hanten
Humans have long used selective breeding of domestic animals to bring out desired characteristics.  As an example, domestic dogs have been bred to exhibit chosen traits to the point there are recognized "breeds" which almost breed true in those traits, while still maintaining the genetic arrangement of all domestic dogs.  Likewise, plant breeders select desirable characteristics and produce flowering plants with blossoms of new size and color, and wild rice that retains the ripened grain so paddy grown rice may be harvested from a drained field with a combine.  In each of these examples the genes involved are ones naturally occurring within the species.

In the recent 20 years biotechnical industries have succeeded in accomplishing things dreamed of and written about in science fiction of earlier years.  In medical science blood and plasma transfusions, commonplace by the 1940s, have been followed by transplants of other tissues, and then whole organs and now even organ systems.  Reproductive technologies have proceeded from artificial insemination to in-vitro fertilization and now the promise and threat of cloned human life.  In plants new techniques have been employed to produce characteristics not previously seen in some species.

The new technology discussed in this article concerns genetic engineering (GE) used to produce genetically modified (GM) plants grown for food for humans or domestic animals.  Usually the modification is performed with the hope that the plant will better resist insect damage, or be resistant to herbicides applied to control weeds.

Genetic engineering is a process where genes from one species of organism are transferred artificially to another species.  The DNA in the transferred gene provides coded instructions for the host cell, enabling it to form proteins not normally found in that species.  This makes it possible to mix DNA between organisms that could never interbreed and to introduce new characteristics in the recipient organism.  As an example, the human gene for producing insulin might be inserted into the DNA of a bacterium, with the result that insulin could be harvested from those bacteria.

Starting in the 1980s and recently accelerating rapidly, genetic engineering has been used to insert foreign genes into common and important crop plants such as corn and soybeans.  In recent years these crops have appeared as ingredients in foods in U.S. supermarkets.  These foods are not labeled with this information so consumers are not aware when they eat GM foods.

Herbicide tolerant crops account for most of the acreage of GE crops.  These plants survive amounts of applied herbicides that ordinarily would be lethal.  GM crop plants grown in the US include Roundup Ready™ corn, soybeans and canola which have been engineered to survive applications of Monsanto's Roundup™, as well as exposure to other herbicides.  When these crops are grown, Roundup™ can be applied to kill the weeds without the crop plant being affected.

Insect resistant plants are toxic to the insects that eat them.  As an example, corn has been developed which kills the European corn borer which feeds on corn plants, by adding genetic material from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to the genes of the corn.  B.thuringiensis naturally produces a protein toxic to some insects.  Organic farmers sometimes spray Bt on crops as a natural pesticide.  In genetically engineered Bt corn, the corn plants produce the toxin in the cells of the plant itself.

The concerns related to producing GM foods are various.  There is concern that very little is known of the long term consequences, that there has been little effort to regulate the production, and now there is mounting evidence that food produced by growers in the US will not be salable in some other parts of the world.

Concerns regarding GM foods for human use:

Environmental concerns: Some of the unknowns:

It is largely unknown whether novel genes have actually been introduced into wild related populations and into the ecosystem, and if they have, what the long term consequences will be.

It is not known how Bt toxin added to the soil will affect soil bacteria in the long term.

It is not known how Bt toxin will affect predators other than the target insects eating the Bt plants.  What of the cattle that eat the corn, and the milk from those cattle, and the beef as human food?  Is there anything that will be amplified in the food chain?

Some insist that we need to investigate before proceeding further with genetically modifying food.

Regulation:

Three federal agencies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have responsibility for genetically engineered foods, but there is nothing to guarantee that GE foods sold in the U.S. have been tested for human health or environmental effects.

The FDA policy statement issued in 1992 stated that their agency considers GE foods to be "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) unless in the judgment of the manufacturer there is a reason for concern. Food considered GRAS is not subject to pre-market safety testing.  There is likewise no requirement of a label unless the GE food "differs from its traditional counterpart such that the common or usual name for the food no longer applies, or if a safety or usage issue applies".  In 1998 a coalition of non-government organizations, scientists and others filed suit against the FDA for failing to fulfill its regulatory duties.  In January 2001 the FDA proposed new regulations on genetically engineered food which still failed to require either pre-market safety testing or labeling.  The main new requirement in the proposed regulations requires producers of GE foods to notify the FDA 120 days before introduction of the foods and include information as to the inclusion of antibiotic-resistant marker genes and whether the food is likely to produce allergic reactions.  The FDA says it will make a list of these foods, available to the public but that some information about the foods may be confidential commercial information.

The USDA is responsible for regulating plant pests (organisms that cause harm to plants).  Thus, genetically engineered plants containing transplanted genes from organisms such as some bacteria which are plant pests, may become labeled plant pests themselves, and subject to USDA regulation.

The EPA has the authority to regulate pesticides and is therefore responsible for evaluation of the health and environmental consequences of these engineered plants, which are, themselves, pesticidal.  This is the agency that must continue to monitor the evidence of long term consequences to the environment in the production of GM crops.

Economic concerns:

The growing concerns regarding GM foods have resulted in major difficulties for Monsanto, the major developer of genetically modified foods, and for growers whose crops are losing markets abroad.  In an article released by the Organic Consumers Association in November 2002 it is reported that Monsanto has warned that profits from its agrochemical business would be lower than forecast, has pulled back from its plan to bring the first genetically modified wheat to market by 2005 because millers in Europe and Japan have said they don't want the product, and that there is already a rapid spread of weeds resistant to Roundup™ herbicide.  In an article reprinted from the New Zealand Herald it is claimed that in 1996, before GM crops were introduced, US corn farmers made a profit of US$1.4 billion, and in 2001 they lost US$12 billion.  The US government picked up a third of this in farm subsidies.  Four countries, the US, Canada, Argentina and China grow 98% of the GM crops, and all are backtracking.  The gates to Europe and Japan for North American GM commodities have all but closed.  They not only do not want GM foods, they allow zero tolerance for contamination by GM foods. and lastly, the same article states, "[t]here are  no proven market models for either farmers or food companies to gain benefits from GM crops.  To date, only herbicide companies have reaped profits".

Conclusions:

While it has become possible by genetic engineering to produce crop plants such as corn, soybeans and canola which are resistant to damage from insects or herbicides, the benefits of doing so have to be weighted against the grave concerns about human health, environmental protection and the economics, which to this time have mainly benefited the manufacturers of herbicides.  The absence of required testing for effects on human health and on the environment are grave concerns, as is the absence of required labeling of these products.

Web sites with lots of information:
The Organic Consumers Association has a site with much information and links to other sites covering genetic engineering.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy site has in-depth information on economics and trade issues related to agricultural biotechnology.

The author of this article used information obtained from these two sites, from the Optimal Wellness Center, and from articles in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Helen B. Hanten.  December, 2002
 
Copyright statement


The Rev Helen Hanten is a retired deacon and an active member of St. Andrew's by the Lake Episcopal Church, Duluth, MN. She originally wrote this essay in 2002.  Helen and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to The Rev Helen Hanten or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
 
MEESC
c/o C. Morello
4451 Lakeside Drive
Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

The MEESC assumes that all correspondence received is for publication on this web site. If your comments are not for publication, please so note on your correspondence. The MEESC reserves the right to decide which items are included on the web site.


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