Michell Haunold, TimeForMine.com – Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have had their DNA altered by scientists through genetic engineering. Their goal is to increase, for example, a plant’s tolerance to various detrimental environmental factors, such as drought, soil salinity, pests or herbicides. Genetic modification is also designed to increase the amount of food a plant will produce. For example, cows with altered DNA, a major genetic modification project with vast economic benefits, produce much more milk.
Genetic modification in one form or another is nothing new. Traditional means of genetically altering plants have been carried out for hundreds of years by a variety of crossbreeding techniques. This is a process where geneticists take plants with traits they desire, and cross (or mate) the plant with another similar plant that they hope to enhance with the traits they’re looking for. For example, strongly scented roses with big blooms were created by taking genes from roses that had big blooms, but no scent, and mating them with roses that had little blooms but strong scent. You may remember studying Gregor Mendel and his pea plants in high school biology class. He discovered that only certain traits pass naturally from parent plant to offspring plant. By selectively choosing which traits the scientist wishes to pass along through a selection process the genetics of plants can be manipulated the way scientists want to achieve certain traits. (1)
My father was a hop-geneticist; he was responsible for creating many of the widely used varieties of hops for the US brewing industry. The beer industry was in crisis in the mid 1960s because the hop plants that were necessary for making beer were succumbing to a disease called Downy Mildew. Through many years of crossbreeding, my father eventually was able to create multiple new varieties of hops that were resistant to this disease by finding plants that naturally had this characteristic already and crossbreeding them with hop plants that had other desirable traits, such as large yields, but not this disease resistance.
I grew up helping my father in the fields and in the green house; growing the baby plants up to adults, taking measurements and running experiments to see if the generation of hops he was working on would yield the results he was looking for. This is a safe way of creating new varieties of plants for commercial use, as well as for the home garden. It only involves breeding genetically compatible species together (something that could occur naturally in nature). This has been done for hundreds of years to create many of the crops we commonly eat today, including tomatoes and potatoes, and the plants we use in our gardens, such as all the wonderfully fragrant roses that are available for home gardens.
However, this type of genetic manipulation is time consuming. It can take many years to achieve what the breeder is working towards (the last variety my Dad released took almost 30 years to create), and sometimes, the results never work out the way the breeder hopes.
This type of genetic manipulation can have beneficial results, such as creating a variety of potato that is resistant to blight (a potato disease that was the cause of the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1800s). It can also help crops to produce more, as in the case of some corn, rice and wheat. All positive things when we’re looking at the future of feeding billions of people.
However, the flip side of this practice is what concerns us in this article. The simple fact is that many plants that are part of our food chain now have been altered with non-plant based products, such as herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics. (2)
This is where GMOs come in. Scientists by-pass the time-tested method of crossbreeding and pluck a desired trait out of one organism and put it into the DNA of another. These species do not need to be genetically compatible; they can do this by actually taking totally different and naturally unrelated species and mixing them together in the lab, putting animal or bacteria genes into plants and creating a whole new organism that could never occur in nature (this is called Transgenic). (3) For example some types of potatoes have been genetically modified to carry the hepatitis vaccine for developing countries; other plants are being developed to carry a variety of recombinant pharmaceuticals. Monsanto currently has a product available called “Round Up Ready®” plants, where the herbicide Round Up® is breed into crops.
According to the Journal of Royal Scientific Medicine: “Currently, over three million people die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases, the vast majority in the developing world. The current model of profit-motivated pharmaceutical production by companies in the developed world is ineffective in ridding the developing world of disease. GM plant technology may provide an alternative, as it is relatively low-tech and can be applied locally in the developing world by scientists working in partnership with governments and not-for-profit research funding agencies.” (4)
The practice among large commercial farms is to only plant GMO plants that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides (Monsanto’s “Round Up ® Ready” crops). It’s very costly to weed large farms, so growers spray their entire fields with a swath of herbicides to kill the weeds and pesticides to kill pests. Why don’t the herbicides kill their crops? Because those very same herbicides and pesticides have been bred into the genes of the plants to be resistant to these chemicals.
Why is this something these huge commercial farms and chemical companies are trying to keep the public from learning more about? It’s all about money. Once these Genetically Modified Plants go into production, these companies hold patents on these plants, and no one can grow them without paying Monsanto (or whomever holds the patent) a fee. It’s about controlling supply and this could have a dramatic impact worldwide on how food is grown and who can grow it. As farming diversity declines, so too does the type of plants the world can grow to get food. (5)
There are a lot of unknowns around GMOs, but one of the biggest unstudied potential problems are how these plants will affect the environment when their genes cross-breed with other similar plants, a process called “open pollination” a natural cross-pollination done by wind, bees and other insects hopping around from plant to plant.
Suppose an organic farmer has his/her small organic farm across the road from a large commercial farm. The organic farmer is planting heirloom varieties of tomatoes (non-GMOs), and across the road, the commercial farm is planting the GMO tomatoes. These farmers cannot keep the wind and insects from visiting each other’s farms. Inevitably, cross-pollination occurs through the forces of nature, and the small organic farmer may produce a tomato plant that has the GMO tomato traits of being resistant to herbicides and pesticides.
Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsi or whomever holds that patent can sue that small farmer because he/she did not pay the Patent Holder the Patent fee to grow that tomato! This sounds extreme, but this is actually one of the scenarios that are being heard in the courts right now. (6)
One of the other things not addressed with these genetically modified plants is the effect they are having on the pollinators and other beneficial insects. What’s happening with the decline in the bee population might possibly be an unintended side effect of the GMO plants with pesticides bred into them. We don’t know though; while a few studies have been done on the effects of GMOs on insects, they’ve been small and poorly funded, so the results have been questioned. (7)
So many unknowns add up to a real need for raising awareness for the food-consuming public (i.e., everybody). This is why labeling GMO foods is so important. Starting in 1998 with Europe, and followed quickly by Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and a number of other countries required GMO foods to be labeled. (8) The EU is currently considering a ban on importing certain food products from the US because there is no way to differentiate GMOs from non-GMOs. These countries don’t want their citizens accidently eat herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics. Thus blocking foods that cannot be identified as GMOs or not may be their only recourse if the US doesn’t step up and also start identifying these foods.
The FDA currently feels that GMO based foods are safe for our consumption. (9) However, in light of the recent political activity surrounding the labeling of GMOs in California (Proposition 37), scientists are now looking more closely at possible health risks and several studies are raising interesting conclusions. (10) Criigen.org (an international group of experts having a trans disciplinary approach on the benefits and risks of genetic engineering) issued the following statement:
“The implications are extremely serious. They demonstrate the toxicity, both of a GMO with the most widely spread transgenic character and of the most widely used herbicide, even when ingested at extremely low levels, (corresponding to those found in surface or tap water). In addition, these results call into question the adequacy of the current regulatory process, used throughout the world by agencies involved in the assessment of health, food and chemicals, and industries seeking commercialization of products.” (11)
These ongoing studies are truly raising the question whether the public should unknowingly ingest plants that may have herbicides and pesticides inserted into their DNA; making the public aware through a labeling process allows the public to consciously choose what they are willing to consume.
As a Master Gardener certified by the state of California, my job is to teach the public earth-friendly gardening practices and healthy earth stewardship. I grow an organic garden and I teach others how to grow their own organic food through proper cultural practices (amending the soil with organic matter, planting beneficial-insect attracting plants, proper watering techniques etc.). I assume everything I am growing is free of herbicides and pesticides because that’s how I’ve designed my garden, and that is the focus of my classes. I consciously choose to garden in an environmentally harmonious way, and that means hand-pulling weeds and good gardening practices to deal with pests (choosing plants that attract beneficial insects to my garden). There are many commercial farms around where I live, so hopefully none of the food I’ve been growing has been cross-pollinated with GMOs but I honestly don’t know. There’s no way of knowing for sure without taking samples in to be tested.
There are many reasons to start labeling these types of foods that are available for public consumption. For example, during my research, I found out the corn oil I regularly buy is made using GMO corn. Despite being an educated consumer, it never occurred to me to question the commercial brand of corn oil I was buying!
Scientists, doctors and other health officials all agree the practice of over-using agents such as pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics creates resistance through natural selection by organisms building up a tolerance to them. By allowing the public to make informed decisions about what they are ingesting, not only are we educating the population, we are looking forward to protecting our already fragile environment, where bacteria and viruses are becoming immune to the chemicals we used to rely on to control them. This means continued creation and uneducated use of stronger and more powerful chemicals used in the production of our food if we don’t get a handle on this.
Really, the only thing to focus on is the fact that very little research has been done on the effects of GMOs on our bodies or on the environment. It is irresponsible to let these for-profit companies dictate how we live by keeping us in ignorance. By requiring GMO based foods to be labeled, the public can then choose for itself what they will and won’t put up with. For example, in the early 1990s, Calgene introduced the Flavr Savr Tomato to consumers in Davis, CA. The product was clearly labeled genetically modified. The company took time to educate the public through media outlets, handouts and community meetings about the benefits of these tomatoes. With proper education, demand stayed high for this product until production costs caused the product to slowly disappear from the marketplace. (12) (13)(14)
Proper labeling allows people to decide what they feel is important, by either buying it, or not. A lot of fear about increased food costs has been thrown around, but look at the rise of organic products on commercial shelves; consumers are voicing with their purchases what they are willing to pay for, and being able to purchase food knowing it is free from herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics is becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
Yes, information is available for all motivated individuals to find out for themselves right now what is GMO and what isn’t. But it is human nature is to trust our government, and our leaders; that’s what we elect them for. We assume the food on our shelves is safe for us and for our children. There are agencies in place to make sure this is true. Why not take it one step farther? Write to your public representative and encourage them to further explore the possibility of labeling GMOs so you can be a more informed consumer. An excellent in-depth balanced article, written by Deborah B. Whitman in 2000 shines the light on both sides of the GMO debate: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php
Education and widely available information are the keys to ensuring a safe, healthy food supply for ourselves and our families.
2. Medical molecular farming: production of antibodies, biopharmaceuticals and edible vaccines in plants (Trends in Plant Science, Vol 6, No 5, pp 219-226, May 2001)
5. http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/GMO see Economic Concerns
7. Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae (Nature, Vol 399, No 6733, p 214, May 1999)