Spliced with alien genes for longer shelf life, proper plumpness, uniform size and color, the Flavr Savr tomato was the first genetically-engineered (GE) food to hit the market. Despite no long-term studies and consumer reticence, near euphoria spread throughout the food industry. A new age was heralded and our FDA, ever in step with the biotech industry, declared GE products “safe” and “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods and, therefore, in no need of regulation.
But even before the new tomato had been available in supermarkets, scientists had fed it to laboratory rodents who refused to eat it. When force-fed, the animals got sick. These facts were not made public at the time. In any case,-the Flavr Savr was a commercial disaster because, despite all it’s hi-tech breeding, it lacked the essential characteristic flavor!
None of this, however, dampened the fervor as companies from Western industrialized countries, especially the U.S., infiltrated the marketplace with scores of new GE foods. Slowly studies began to surface. A highly esteemed British scientist, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, reported harmful effects in rats fed GE potatoes, specifically damage to the kidney, thymus, spleen and gut of young rats. Dr. Pusztai subsequently lost his job and his status in the scientific community a warning, in effect, to all maverick researchers to go with the flow or else!
No doubt many independent-minded researchers were intimidated, but fortunately (as reported in the latest issue of the British monthly,The Ecologist), a 17-year-old Dutch undergraduate was not. Hinze Hogendoorn conducted experiments following basic scientific protocol which put the so-called experts to shame. He got 30 female six-week-old mice from the herpetology center and a supply of standard rodent mix some Kellogg’s and Quaker cereals, some oatmeal all specified “GE-free.” He also bought some GE corn and soy. When the mice were let loose in large cages with the two piles of food one GE, the other non-GE the young rodents completely emptied the non-GE bowls, leaving the GE food untouched!
But Hogendoorn went further. He conducted a series of experiments to find out what would happen if the mice were force-fed GE foods. The results: one died, others ate more than normal but lost weight and exhibited odd behavioral changes. As Hogendoorn put it, the GE-fed mice “seemed less active,” “more nervous and distressed” and “completely at a loss.” “Many,” he said, “were running round and round the basket scrabbling desperately in the sawdust, and even frantically jumping up the sides something I’d never seen before.” Meanwhile, the non-GE-fed control group ate less, achieved normal weight and displayed the usual mouse demeanor.
In the face of these findings, which received much play in the British press to the great embarrassment of the scientific establishment, the matter was essentially ignored by the American media and our FDA blithely goes on insisting that GE foods are perfectly fine and need not even be labeled as such! GE foods are now rife in our food supply (see list page 7) to a degree that is nearly impossible for the consumer to avoid.
Hogendoorn’s work has added new fuel to the already fired-up anti-GE movement in Europe, which has gone so far as organized protests to uproot GE plants in the fields, boycotts of supermarkets and fast food chains selling the stuff. But Americans have been generally silent and compliant, in spite of their gut “yuk” reaction to the whole gene transfer concept. Perhaps it’s time to turn that “yuk” into action on this side of the pond. Perhaps we need to exhibit some indignant behavior to our government “watchdog agencies” entrusted with the public health. Why not let your Congressional representatives and your President know that in the realm of genetically-engineered foods the mice know best! Aren’t we humans as smart as our little quadruped friends, the mice?