Genetic Engineering and us

Note to Generation Farmers at the end

The Issues: Genetic Engineering

rows of fresh food growing in a nearby field

rows of fresh food growing in a nearby field- this is an organic farm

Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of transferring specific traits, or genes, from one organism into a different plant or animal. The resulting organism is called transgenic or a GMO (genetically modified organism). 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain genetically modified ingredients.i

Genetic engineering is different from traditional cross breeding, where genes can only be exchanged between closely-related species. With genetic engineering, genes from completely different species can be inserted into each other. For example, scientists in Taiwan have succeeded at inserting jellyfish genes into pigs in order to make them glow in the dark. ii

GE Crops
About 200 million acres of farmland worldwide are now used to grow GE crops such as cotton, corn, soybeans and rice.iii The most common GE crops are Soybeans, which represent 63% of all GE crops, Corn (19%), Transgenic Cotton (13%) and Canola (5%).iv The majority of genetically modified crops grown today are engineered to be resistant to pesticides and/or herbicides so that they can withstand being sprayed with weed killer while the rest of the plants in the field die.

GE proponents claim genetically modified crops use fewer pesticides than non-GE crops, when in reality GE plants can require even more chemicals.v This is because weeds grow resistant to pesticides, leading farmers to spray even more on their crops.vi This causes environmental pollution, exposes food to higher levels of toxins, and creates greater safety concerns for farmers and farm workers.

Some GE crops are actually classified as pesticides.

The New Leaf potato, which has since been taken off grocery shelves, was genetically engineered to produce the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in order to kill any pests that attempted to eat it. The actual potato was designated as a pesticide and so was regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), instead of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates food. Because of this, safety testing for these potatoes was not as strict as with food, since the EPA regulations had never anticipated that people would intentionally consume pesticides as food.vii

Adequate research has not yet been carried out to identify the effects of eating animals that have been fed genetically-engineered grain, nor have sufficient studies been conducted on the effects of directly consuming genetically-engineered crops like corn and soy.

Despite our lack of knowledge, GE crops are widely used throughout the world as both human and animal food. 

Recent reports of experimental and unapproved GE rice contaminating conventional rice crops have motivated Japan and Ireland to ban imports of US rice. Read more….

GE Animals
Scientists are currently working on ways to genetically engineer farm animals. Salmon have been bioengineered to grow five times faster than wild breeds, hens have been genetically modified to lay low-cholesterol eggs, and chickens have been altered to produce anti-cancer drugs.viii At this point in time, no GE animals have been approved by the FDA to enter the food supply.ix Genetic engineering experiments on animals do, however, pose potential risks to food safety and the environment. 

In 2003, scientists at the University of Illinois were conducting an experiment that involved inserting cow genes into female pigs in order to increase their milk production. They also inserted a synthetic gene to make milk digestion easier for the piglets. The experimental pigs were supposed to be destroyed, as instructed by the FDA. However, 386 offspring of the experimental pigs were sold to livestock brokers, who sold them to slaughterhouses. They were processed and sent to grocery stores as pork chops, sausage, and bacon.x

Although University of Illinois representatives claimed that the piglets did not inherit the genetic modifications made to their mothers, there was still a clear risk to the people who purchased products made from the 386 piglets. Since no genetically modified animal products have ever been approved by the FDA, the pork products that reached supermarket shelves were technically unsuitable for human consumption. Because of the accident, the FDA sent letters in May 2003 to all land-grant universities, reminding researchers that their work “may require” licensing under the animal drug law.xi

What are genes?

  • All life is made up of millions of cells.
  • Each cell contains a nucleus, and inside each nucleus are strings of molecules called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
  • Each strand of DNA is divided into small sections called genes.
  • These genes contain a unique set of instructions that determine how the organism grows, develops, looks, and lives.

During genetic engineering processes, specific genes are removed from one organism and inserted into another plant or animal, thus transferring specific traits.

What are the concerns over GE Food?

Many concerns have been raised over the inadequate testing of the effects of genetic engineering on humans and the environment.

Genetic engineering is still an emerging field, and scientists do not know exactly what can result from putting the DNA of one species into another.

  • The introduction of foreign DNA into an organism could trigger other DNA in the plant or animal to mutate and change.xii
  • In addition, researchers do not know if there are any long-term or unintended side effects from eating GE foods.xiii

Opponents to genetic engineering state that GE foods must be proven safe before they are sold to the public because their safety has not yet been proven.

Specific concerns over genetic engineering include:xiv

• Allergic reactions. There are two concerns regarding allergic reactions.

The first is with known allergens. For example, if genes from nuts are inserted into other, widely consumed foods, it could provoke severe reactions in people with nut allergies. Therefore, there is concern that people with known allergies will not be aware that the genetically engineered food they are eating contains substances to which they are allergic.

The second concern is over the possibility of creating new allergies. The new combinations of genes and traits have the potential to create allergic reactions that have never existed before.

Gene mutation. Scientists do not know if the forced insertion of one gene into another gene could destabilize the entire organism, and encourage mutations and abnormalities. Likewise, no one knows if or how eating mutated food could affect people’s own DNA.

(Now, after reading this, this is one of my concerns.)

• Antibiotic resistance. Almost all GE food contains antibiotic resistance marker genes that help producers know whether the new genetic material was transferred to the host plant or animal. GE food could make disease-causing bacteria even more resistant to antibiotics, which could increase the spread of disease throughout the world.

• Loss of nutrition. Genetic engineering may change the nutritional value of food. xv

(This is one of my concerns.)

• Damage to the environment. Insects, birds and wind might carry genetically altered pollen to other fields and forests, pollinating plants and randomly creating new species that would carry on the genetic modifications.  

(This is one of my concerns.)

Gene pollution can not be cleaned up

Once released into the environment, genetically engineered organisms cannot be cleaned up or recalled. So, unlike chemical and nuclear contamination which can at least be contained, genetic pollution cannot be isolated and separated from the environment in which it is spreading. 

Superweeds
GE crops can cross-pollinate with weeds, potentially creating superweeds that could become difficult to control. (Really???!!! Is this true?)

Terminator seeds
Some GE seeds are engineered so that plants cannot reproduce seeds. (True!!!)

In many parts of the world, saving seeds from season to season is the only way farmers are able to survive and continue growing food. However, with GE technology, seeds can be sterile, forcing farmers to rely on seed companies for their livelihood, an expense they may not be able to bear. (This part also bothers me. In this case, if nothing else, it becomes a moral issue.)

What genetically engineered foods have been approved for commercial use?

• Alfalfa

• Cherry Tomato

• Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

• Corn

• Cotton

• Flax

• Papaya

• Potato

• Rapeseed (Canola)

• Rice

• Soybean

• Squash

• Sugarbeet

• Tomato

See footnote xv

What You Can Do

Look for foods that are labeled GMO free. Today, almost all major brands have GMO ingredients. Visit the True Food Network to find out what brands you can eat and what you should avoid.

Eat organic foods. The USDA regulations governing organic food do not permit genetically-modified fruits and vegetables, and organic meats cannot come from animals that were fed GE crops. So eating organic is a surefire way to avoid GE foods.

• Read “GE Fish” to learn about the risks involved with genetically engineering fish. 

Did You Know?

4 countries have 99% of the world’s GE acreage, they include:xvi

◦ US (68%)

◦ Argentina (22%)

◦ Canada (6%)

◦ China (3%)

• More than 75% of soybeans grown in the US in 2003 were bioengineered.xvii

• Herbicide tolerant GE crops have created weed resistance, causing pesticide use to increase by 70 million pounds between 1996 and 2003.xviii

• In January of 2006, a groupd of Taiwanese scientists succeeded in creating a new breed of glow-in-the-dark pigs by inserting genes from jellyfish into the pigs’ embryos.xix (How much of this is true???)

For More Information

Agricultural Biotechnology: Will it Help?
This web site from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is devoted to biotechnology, and lists both its pros and cons. ( I might be more apt to trust this website.)

True Food Network
This network aims to educate consumers about the dangers of genetically engineered food. Their True Food Shopper’s Guide lists brand name foods that contain GMO’s and those that are GE free.

The Institute for Responsible Technology This organization works to educate consumers about GE foods, and encourage the responsible use of new technologies.

Reports and Articles

The Case for a GM-Free, Sustainable World
Review of scientific literature that shows the dangers of genetically modified crops as well as the benefits of sustainable and organic agriculture. (Independent Science Panel, June 2003)

Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops: Why We Need A Global Moratorium (Ronnie Cummins, 1999)

Genetically Modified Crops and Food (Friends of the Earth, 2003)

• The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Glossary of Biotechnology for Food and Agriculture (FAO, 2001).

Sources

• California Department of Food and Agriculture. “A Food Foresight Analysis of Agricultural Biotechnology: A Report to the Legislature,” January 1, 2003. (This might be worth finding.)✔

• Hogg, Chris, “Taiwan breeds green-glowing pigs.” BBC News, January 12, 2006.                  (I need to see that article.)✔

• Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge; Margriet Caswell, “The First Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States.” USDA, 2006.    

• California Department of Food and Agriculture. A Food Foresight Analysis of Agricultural Biotechnology: A Report to the Legislature. January 1, 2003.

• Benbrook, Charles M., “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” BioTech InfoNet, November 2003.

• Ibid.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Biotechnology Consultation, Note to the File, BNF No. 000033, March 25th, 1996.

• Smithson, Shelley, “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary”.  Grist Magazine, July 30, 2003 (accessed August 8, 2006).

• Lewis, Carol, “A New Kind of Fish Story: The Coming of Biotech Animals.” FDA, 2001.

• Smithson, Shelley, “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary”.  Grist Magazine, July 30, 2003 (accessed August 8, 2006).

• Smithson, Shelley, “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary”.  Grist Magazine, July 30, 2003 (accessed August 8, 2006). ( I am simply not familiar with Grist Magazine yet.)

• Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Weighing the GMO Arguments.” March 2003.

• Center for Food Safety, “The Hidden Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods.Food Safety Review, Spring 2000.

• Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Weighing the GMO Arguments.” March 2003.

• Center for Food Safety, “The Hidden Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods.Food Safety Review, Spring 2000

• Union of Concerned Scientists. “Genetically Engineered Foods Allowed on the Market” February 16, 2006 (accessed August 1, 2006). 

• California Department of Food and Agriculture. A Food Foresight Analysis of Agricultural Biotechnology: A Report to the Legislature. January 1, 2003.

• Ibid.

• Benbrook, Charles M. “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” BioTech InfoNet, November 2003.

• Hogg, Chris, “Taiwan breeds green-glowing pigs.” BBC News, January 12, 2006.

http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/ge/

***If you can find original sources to cross check information, that information may be more valid. I put a by some resources that looked promising above and which I had heard of previously. You may find many more resources when you do your own search.***

Iowa Beef Cattle in a field

Iowa Beef Cattle in a field - these cattle are fed an organic diet

*****

Generation Farmers of Southwest Iowa:

    • It doesn’t matter if you agree with all of these topics, but that you are aware of them from many perspectives.
    • Lets talk about “genetic engineering” sometime when we meet face to face.
    • The more you know…. the more you know
Please join us in April 2012 for our next face to face meeting in southwest Iowa.

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