What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
Humans have manipulated nature for thousands of years but until recently this has only been between close species. The domestic plants and animals we know today are the result of our first step towards controlling nature.
But genetic engineering goes beyond the natural limits of breeding within closely related species. Now scientists can take qualities from anywhere in nature, for example, a gene for frost tolerance from a fish or disease resistance from bacteria, and put them into any plant or animal. The boundaries between species have now been breached.
Most genetic engineering has so far been with crops, which have been modified to either withstand herbicides or produce their own pesticides. Companies such as Monsanto and the Novartis Group (formerly Ciba-Geigy) have genetically engineered corn (maize) to produce an insecticide against the corn borer and tolerate their own herbicide. So spraying kills weeds, without affecting the crop. Genes from bacteria that naturally produces Bt toxin as an insecticide, when spliced into the genes of corn, enables the corn to produce the insecticide. Monsanto has also put Bt genes into potatoes against the potato beetle. The plants actually produce insecticide continuously, within every cell, so that when attacked the pest quickly dies.
Problems may arise when modified DNA infects other species. The so-called 'superweeds' result from accidental crosses between neighbouring crops which have been genetically modified to resist different herbicides. Farmers are often forced to resort to older stronger herbicides to remove them.
Scientists use an enzyme to cut the desired gene from the source DNA and a bacteria or virus to carry the new genetic material into the cell. These break through the cell wall as they would do in nature and then embed the gene into the cell's DNA. A variety of other materials are added to force the DNA of the host plant or animal to accept the foreign gene and thereby create new genetic characteristics. They still do not know where in the coil of DNA the gene has landed. If the gene lands in a poorly suited location it can disrupt the normal functioning of the host. New proteins are created which may escape detection until we have better testing procedures. The host may reject the new gene or it may switch it off and switch off other genes too. Second generation GMOs are frequently sterile and unable to match the performance of the original GMO.
Scientists isolate the type of gene that produces the desired characteristic; they force it into the host cell. They also add a "marker" gene to the information in order to be able to identify the plants. They cannot be certain however where or if the gene will be taken up in the plants' DNA. It may take a few thousand attempts before they succeed in implanting the gene successfully. How the GMO turns out, is to a large degree subject to chance. The scientists hope it 'takes' and produce the desired characteristics. It may however be benign, it may die or it may turn into a freak.
A gene may control several different characteristics in a plant or animal. Scientists cannot predict what characteristic will emerge in the GMO. Undesirable characteristics frequently occur. If they are not detected before they are released into the global ecosystem they may cause untold damage to the environment. Genetic pollution cannot be cleaned up like an oil spill. Once in the environment, it cannot be retrieved.
Biotechnology companies have acquired the knowledge to introduce a so called 'terminator' gene into GMOs, which will cause every seed produced by the genetically modified plant to be sterile. Although Monsanto has said they will not be using the terminator technology, they demand that farmers sign a declaration that they will not reuse seeds from GMOs. Terminator has been widely condemned as an immoral technology that threatens global food security, especially for the 1.4 billion people who depend on farm-saved seed. If commercialised, the technology will prevent farmers from saving seed from their harvest for planting the following season. Terminator technology will enable biotechnology companies to privatise plants that civilisation has modified for over 10,000 years.
What you can do
Demand to know what you are eating - there are risks from GM foods. Support boycotts organised by consumer groups highlighting the dangers of GMOs - for example Genethics Australia, GenetiX Snowball UK, GeneWatch UK and GeneWatch USA. Ask your local school, council and local shops to go GM-free. Write to the editor of your local newspaper and phone talkback radio.
Buy GM-free products. Care about what you are eating and avoid GM foods until you know they are safe. Buy organically grown foods and products. Support the producers and food manufacturers who are GM-free. Avoid foods imported from the US, except those certified as organic.
Ask for a moratorium on GMOs. Ask that they delay the commercial development of GMOs for a period of say, five or ten years to allow for debate, for better testing and until an international biosafety protocol is in place. Ask for adequate buffer zones around all GM crops. Ask that the biotechnology industry be regulated by an independent body, and one that has teeth to fine companies for breaches in the regulations. The biotechnology industry has been in charge of monitoring its own releases of GM crops into the environment for too long.
Governments are responsible for food safety and most Western governments went along with the industry line that most genetically modified foods are safe and do not need to be labelled.
Demand full labelling of all food containing GMOs. GM foods and all quantities of GM ingredients in food must be properly labelled. People need to feel confident that their food is safe.
Biotechnology companies (like Monsanto) and food groups (like The Australian Food and Grocery Council), support the idea of an industry code of practice with voluntary labelling. A code of voluntary labelling however, is not acceptable to consumers. Industry cannot be trusted to self-administer this code of practice.
Current laws in the US and most of the world are out of date. They apply to the science of the chemical age. Laws must be written which respond to biotechnology discoveries and development today. The US Congress has so far passed no environmental law dealing specifically with biotechnology and gene pollution.
Ask your politicians to support GMO-free agriculture in your country and organic farming in particular.
Contact the various food manufacturers. Ask them if GMOs are present in their products and ask them their attitude to using genetically engineered crops in foods. Tell them you will only continue buying their product if they guarantee no genetically engineered material is contained in their product.
Write to the biotechnology companies and ask them to delay introduction of GMOs until more testing can be done and legislation can be introduced to ensure they are safe to the consumer and environmentally benign.
In the USA there has been a deliberate policy of mixing crops together. It is important that we separate GM crops from ordinary crops, both for local and export consumption. Patent laws are woefully inadequate and need reviewing.
In Australia and New Zealand current laws to protect the consumer are inadequate. There are too many foods, which are exempt from the labelling system. GM foods that are present in quantities below a certain threshold are exempt. A category has been created, which neither confirms the existence of GMOs in foods nor denies them. The label, which simply states 'may contain GMOs', tells us nothing.
Buy foods labelled 'Product of Australia' except cottonseed oil. Do not buy foods labelled 'Made in Australia' because they contain imported ingredients, which may be genetically modified.