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September 10, 2009
What is genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering begins with the identification and isolation of a gene that expresses a desirable trait. Then a recipient plant or animal is selected, and the gene is inserted and incorporated into its genome. Once part of the recipient, the newly inserted gene becomes part of the genome of the recipient and is regulated in the same way as its other genes.
For example, tomatoes are sensitive to frost. This shortens their growing season. Fish, on the other hand, survive in very cold water. Scientists identified a particular gene which enables a flounder to resist cold and used the technology of genetic engineering to insert this "anti-freeze" gene into a tomato. That makes it possible to extend the growing season of the tomato.
What it does to our health:
Allergic Reactions – Genetic engineering can also produce unforeseen and unknown allergens in foods. An example is transferring the gene for one of many allergenic proteins found in milk into vegetables like carrots. Mothers who know to avoid giving their sensitive children milk would not know to avoid giving them transgenic carrots containing milk proteins. In 1996, the Iowa based biotech seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, attempted to change the protein content of soybeans by adding a gene from the Brazil nut. When researchers tested the modified soybean on people with sensitivity to Brazil nuts (but no sensitivity to soybeans), they found it triggered an allergic reaction. The next case could be less ideal, and the public less fortunate. - Hippocrates Health Institute
Toxins – Genetic engineering can cause unexpected mutations in an organism, which can create new and higher levels of toxins in foods. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some of the new genes being added to crops can remove heavy metals like mercury from the soil and concentrate them in the plant tissue. The purpose of creating such crops is to make possible the use of municipal sludge as fertilizer. Sludge contains useful plant nutrients, but often cannot be used as fertilizer because it is contaminated with toxic heavy metals. The idea is to engineer plants to remove and sequester those metals in inedible parts of plants. In a tomato, for example, the metals would be sequestered in the roots; in potatoes, the leaves. Turning on the genes in only some parts of the plants requires the use of genetic “on/off switches” that turn on only in specific tissues, like leaves. Such products pose risks of contaminating foods with high levels of toxic metals if the “on/off switches” are not completely turned “off” in edible tissues. And what about the creatures that feed off the roots and leaves of these plants?
What is does to our environment:
Superbugs - According to Hippocrates Health Institute, of the 50 or so genetically engineered plants currently cleared by the government for use, most fall into two basic categories: plants engineered to include their own pesticide, a toxin produced by the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacterium, and plants engineered to survive weed killers (herbicides), including the so-called “Roundup-Ready” soybeans and cotton.
Bt is a natural and highly effective pesticide that has long been used by organic growers to control caterpillars and other pests. What organic farmers and gardeners use sparingly, biotechnology has introduced into each cell of every genetically engineered plant, from the roots to the pollen to the chaff plowed under after harvest. Because of Bt’s ubiquitous presence in millions of acres of crops, even the industry’s own scientists concede that it is just a matter of time – as little as 3-5 years – before Bt resistant insect strains evolve. Direstives that farmers interplant these Bt carrying crops with non-modified varieties are expected to merely delay the inevitable. When the inevitable happens, organic growers will lose a powerful pest control, and conventional growers will return to chemical pesticides.
Although, so far, there is no evidence that Bt carrying crops hurt humans, there is something unsettling about eating food that is itself a pesticide registered with the EPA. Unlike conventional pesticides, the built-in Bt bug killer cannot be washed off; it is in every bite.
Superweeds – As mentioned above, those plants engineered to survive herbicides could cross-pollinate with their wild cousins and create herbicide resistant weeds. These weeds could, therefore, become invasive, spreading beyond their fields and choking out natural habitats and causing the use of even more herbicides on our environment.
Gene pollution – Genetic engineers intend to profit by patenting genetically engineered seeds. This means that, when a farmer plants genetically engineered seeds, all the seeds have identical genetic structure. As a result, if a fungus, a virus, or a pest develops which can attack this particular crop, there could be widespread crop failure. Once genetically engineered organisms, bacteria and viruses are released into the environment, it is impossible to contain or recall them. Unlike chemical or nuclear contamination, negative effects are irreversible.
Pollen drift – Insects, birds, and wind can carry genetically altered seeds into neighboring fields and beyond. Pollen from transgenic plants can cross-pollinate with genetically natural crops and wild relatives. All crops, organic and non-organic, are vulnerable to contamination from cross-pollination. Organic farmers could lose their certification and face huge financial losses if their fields are contaminated by wind-born pollen from neighboring genetically modified crops.
Morals and beliefs – People who choose not to eat animals for religious or moral reasons face an almost impossible task with many genetically engineered foods. When cold-hardiness genes from flounder are splices into tomatoes, or genes from chickens are added to potatoes for increased disease resistance, are those vegetables still, purely speaking, vegetables? Without mandatory labeling, how can people who object to eating any trace of meat know what they are getting?
Feed the Needy? – The claim that genetic engineering is needed to feed the world is equally riddled with falsehoods. It is a technical fix that obscures the political causes of hunger. According to an article written in The Corner House by Nicholas Hildyard, “there is enough food in the world. And there are many ways to increase output without genetic engineering. If people starve, it is because they do not have land to grow food for themselves or money to buy it. Genetic engineering will do nothing to address these underlying causes of hunger – and much to exacerbate them.”
A United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization conference in Rome, Italy, in May 2007, reported that a large scale shift to organic agriculture could help fight world hunger and bring environmental improvements.
So far, scientists have identified a number of ways in which genetically engineered organisms could potentially adversely impact both human health and the environment. Once the potential harms are identified, the question becomes how likely are they to occur. The answer to this question falls into the arena of risk assessment. And the next question is... Do you want to risk it?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not labeled, and there is no regulation requiring them to be. Making a purchase at the supermarket is your way of voting for what you think is right. The more people who buy organic, the more the message gets through. If you don't buy organic, you don't know what your buying. Your best bet is to go organic... as much as possible.
I'm a Master Naturalist and an outdoor enthusiast -- mostly kayaking, and I live on a Peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay. I'm the author of The Nature Fan, Nature Fan Activists, Green Earth Almanac, and Amanda's Geographic. Formerly, I ran the nationally syndicated column "National Green Activism" for The Examiner, and I was a key factor in the success of many campaigns. Make sure you don't miss a post, and subscribe by email! Thanks for reading.