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Genetic Engineering

What are the costs and dangers?


Currently GM crops are very expensive. The biotechnology companies intend to make a lot of money out of bioengineering. They have been marketing GMOs aggressively and most farmer organisations have embraced the technology. The biotechnology companies intend to recoup their costs in research and production. They have already increased their profits from higher sales of their own herbicides and from their patented seeds.


Taking genes from one species and putting them into another species may be very dangerous because of the unknown behaviour of GMOs and their unpredictable interaction with natural ecosystems. We will create new genetic characteristics. Flowering GM crops have been shown to displace native organisms. Bees, butterflies, ladybirds, earthworms and some types of fungi have died after eating GM plants. We do not know the consequences of releasing more GMOs into the environment. We have not adequately tested them in the laboratory or in the environment. If the number of GMO releases continues to increase at the present rate, then within a few years there could be an ecological catastrophe.

Monopolisation over Genes

Like the air we breathe, genes have traditionally been in the public domain, regarded as part of a common heritage, which nobody owned. Five years ago, there was no point in owning genes. There was no money to be made because it was impossible to prove your plant contained your genes. Now, a biotechnology company can add an ID marker gene to the changed gene, and with a simple test, show that the plant is the company's intellectual property. Genes can be isolated and moved to another cell to perform a specific function.

Now, genes are up for grabs and biotechnology companies, like Monsanto, own the genes that go into the GM crops that we eat. These companies are protected by laws, which control the patenting of new varieties of plants. And companies have already taken legal action against hundreds of farmers in the US. Farmers who buy GMO seeds must sign a contract that allows company representatives to test in their fields at any time.

The consequences of a few giant US companies owning the genes of nature are huge. It gives corporate America control over many areas, including forestry, food production and medicine.

Monopolisation over Seeds

For thousands of years, farmers collected and saved the seeds from their best crops and traded them with other farmers. This resulted in the strong domestic varieties of crops we have today.

Over the past thirty years however, farmers have begun relying more on seeds bought from large companies. The number of varieties of crops has diminished, as companies, like Monsanto, have been buying up the independent seed companies around the world. As seed diversity is reduced, a larger proportion of food will be vulnerable to disease and attack by pests. Smaller numbers of corporations reduce competition, and could control agriculture better and raise prices.

Biotechnology companies have control of the production all along the line. They own and control many of the world's seeds. Some GM seeds can only be used with the chemical that the company produces. Other brands will not work.

The Food & Agriculture Organisation’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (sometimes known as the International Seed Treaty) came into force on 29 June 2004 to try and address some of these issues.

Health and consumer

So far there has been no known detrimental effect from people eating GM foods. However, Dr Arpad Pusztai in the UK, found rats fed GM potatoes had damaged organs and immune systems. Testing on rats does not provide sufficient proof of safety for humans. Although some GM crops have been around for several years, health problems could take a long time to surface.

Processing removes most of the DNA in foods. So many scientists consider GM foods safe. But some DNA may survive processing and digestion and create problems.

In 1996, scientists introduced the gene from a brazil nut into a soybean plant, in an attempt to increase its protein content. People allergic to brazil nuts suffered their usual allergic reaction when given the GM soybean. The unwanted allergy characteristics could have proven fatal if the soybean had been produced commercially. In the US, tests for allergic reactions are only done if the GMO is derived from a known allergy causing food.

GM soybeans are present in many foods and are known to contain higher levels of the plant hormones, phyto-oestrogens. Oestrogens are the female sex hormones and increased levels in men, and particularly in boys, may cause sexual dysfunction.

The "marker" gene, which is added to the host DNA to identify it, may be an antibiotic-resistant gene. The Flavr Savr tomato contains a gene, which gives resistance to two antibiotics, kanamycin and neomycin. Bt corn has a gene that gives resistance to ampicillin. It has been proposed that antibiotic-resistant genes in GM food may be transferred to bacteria living in the gut of animals and humans, making medicines less effective in the treatment of infections like tuberculosis. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is already a problem and we should seriously look into the effects of transferring these kinds of characteristics and making the problem worse.

GMOs are being tested on consumers with scant regard for their health. Until some serious research is done, we will not know if GMOs are safe. Before we consume GM foods, we need independent scientists to demonstrate that genetic engineering is safe. Until then, consumers will feel that they are part of the experiment and will obviously be reluctant to participate.

Farmers, Organics and Resistance to pesticides

Monoculture farming is not sustainable. During the period of chemical farming, some weeds have developed resistance to herbicide and some insects have become resistant to pesticides. Because of this, more and more spraying is required to keep the system going. This may be become a more serious problem with the introduction of GM resistant crops. The Northwest Science & Environment Policy Centre at Sandpoint, Idaho studied GM corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the USA and found that although they needed 25% less chemicals during the first three years, they needed more afterwards.

Pesticides have had a devastating effect on the environment and biotechnology is now seen as the new quick fix that will save monoculture. Unless agribusiness recognises the problem with monoculture and stops trying to postpone its demise with a new fix, then there may be severe irreversible consequences.

Initially, biotechnology will probably increase yields, but within a few years, new varieties of insects will evolve which will have resistance to the pesticides within GMOs, and nature will once again gain the upper hand.

Genes from GMOs may end up in a related plant and give it an evolutionary advantage over another species. The term 'biological pollution' is used to describe a future where genes from a GMO jump species and create a superweed, or an insect resistant to the chemically - and genetically - introduced pesticides. Superweeds already occur as a result of crosses between normal domestic crops and other plants. For example, a superweed was created in France when sugar-beets crossed with a wild relative. GM crops generally will work with only one type of herbicide. Dependence on a single herbicide will make it easier for the transfer of a herbicide-resistant gene from GM plants to weeds. The question is not so much about if resistance will occur, as when it will occur with GM crops. Some resistance has already happened in the US, Malaysia and Australia and cases are expected to increase over the next few years.

Organic farmers are particularly worried about genetically grown crops affecting insect resistance to some of their best pesticides. The same Bt genes that biotechnology companies are putting into various plants have been used as a natural pesticide by farmers since 1958. Bt spray only affects targeted insect pests, is biodegradable and non-toxic to humans. The sprays are highly effective for a while, but after a few years, insects develop resistance to them. Organic farmers fear the natural potency of Bt sprays will diminish even faster as more GMOs with the Bt gene are introduced. As insects mutate and become tolerant to the GMOs, they may also become tolerant to the Bt spray. Although many different types of Bt toxins are produced by many different bacteria, organic farmers do not wish to have to change sprays frequently to keep up with an ever increasing speed of insect resistance.

Some genetically engineered crops are able to resist applications of a particular herbicide. This means that farmers who buy these GMOs can now spray much more herbicide without damaging their crop. Biotechnology companies say less will be used, but what is to stop some farmers using more as insurance, resulting in greater residues of it in our food and more runoff into the environment. It will also mean farmers will be forced to use the manufacturers' herbicide instead of a cheaper or safer herbicide, produced by competitors.

Genetically engineered crops can survive up to twenty times the level of herbicide application used on normal crops. Overuse of herbicide may also mean herbicide resistance will cross to the very weeds the chemical is designed to kill.

The Unknown

There is a lot of uncertainty about GMOs. We do not understand how genes express themselves. We do not understand what influences genes.

Genes are part of a complex cellular system. A gene does not work in isolation. We do not know how a new gene relates to other genes when placed with them in the DNA of a cell. Some GMO experiments have resulted in horrific deformities.

Genes are part of a complex ecological system. We still do not know how they behave in the laboratory, let alone the environment. We do not know how GMOs will affect the environment. They have never existed in nature before.

Many scientists and environmentalists believe introducing something new into the environment and the food chain is dangerous.

Plant characteristics introduced by genetic engineering may escape into the wild. Wind and insects can mix genetic information between species. Gene flow occurs in nature between closely related species. We just do not know the ecological consequences of cross pollination between genetically engineered, chemically grown, organically grown and wild plants of a similar species. There may be leakage of characteristics from one organism to another. GMOs may be excessively competitive like the rabbit in Australia or the grey squirrel in Britain.

Contamination may be cumulative. Organic farmers save their seeds and over several generations a small contamination may become very large.

We do not know the effects of feeding GMOs to animals and humans over months or years. Many scientists say that the DNA in food is broken down in digestion and cannot remain in our bodies but, recent research at the University of Cologne suggests otherwise. It may be possible for DNA to survive digestion and interfere with cellular processes.

Information For Action does not oppose the creation of GMOs. Genetic engineering offers exciting possibilities for the future. There are so many unknown elements associated with GMOs that caution would seem the wisest approach.

Link to:BBC Report 1999: Food under the microscope.

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