by OCI Culinary Management Student James Bonanno

Author James Bonanno

What is genetic engineering? Is it the science of creating mutant super-heroes? Killer tomatoes? The walking dead? These questions are posed to us, the consumer, because it is a very scary science. It may not re-animate the dead or create super-heroes, but the science of genetic engineering is a somewhat new and unknown technology, and can be just as scary as that fore-mentioned. Genetic engineering is a technology that alters genetic make-up of a said organism to produce the desired effects for the manufacturer. This technology has been pushed upon the civilians of this planet without full understanding of the consequences it may have on earth’s inhabitants. In my opinion, GMO’s have not been tested nor studied for the long term and should not be used for human consumption.

Genetically Modified Organics have many agricultural applications such as pest/drought/frost resistant plants, novelty foods, livestock medications, crop yields, and pesticides. With minimal long-term studies being done on Genetically Modified Organics there is no doubt in my mind that we should be questioning the prevalent use of this little-understood technology in our environment.

Genetically Modified Organic is a somewhat self-explanatory term, which simply means the insertion of a new gene or enzyme into the DNA structure of a plant, animal, or bacteria to achieve a desired result such as larger fruit, pest-resistant plants, animals that create cancer-fighting enzymes and higher crop yields.
The catalyst for many researchers and geneticists today was Darwin’s book The Origin of Species, published in 1859, describing how evolution results from natural selection. Today scientists subvert this natural selection by altering plant and animal DNA, in essence acting as a laboratory god to create animals and plants with a higher tolerance to common ailments and environmental factors.

The idea of genetic engineering has been around for thousands of years. Many early civilizations used selective breeding in livestock to produce larger, healthier animals. Early civilizations also used cross-pollination to produce a larger variety of edible vegetables and fruits. With early practices of hybridization and cross-pollination, there were no environmental, nor physical damage done to the animal, human, or plant. Within the last forty years the scientific community has taken leaps and bounds with mapping out the genetic make-up of many plants and animals we use in our everyday life.

The first successful genetic engineered experiment came in 1973, when a gene from an African clawed toad was inserted into bacterial DNA, heralding the era of Recombinant DNA technology. (Recombinant DNA [rDNA] is a form of artificial DNA that is created by combining two or more sequences that would not normally occur together.). Scientists are cloning mammals resistant to disease, plants resistant to pests, and pets that are exact replicas of the animal their DNA was originally taken from. With this technology there have been many follies and risks to the animals’ and plants’ health. For example, in 1988 the USDA inserted human growth hormones into a pig’s genes, resulting in a hairy, lethargic animal so arthritic it can barely stand. Today, we as consumers come in contact with GMO’s on a daily basis.

Our food sources have been saturated with plant and animal material that has been directly or indirectly affected by Genetically Modified Organics. The development of techniques in genetic modification which include recombinant DNA technology and cellular techniques of introducing DNA into an organism have resulted in tremendous advances in agriculture, human health and the processing industry.

The emergence of genetically modified plants, animals and microorganisms with superior genetic traits and their subsequent release into the environment have currently raised concern among the public at large and highlighted issues regarding safety.

One directly affected food product that we consume is BT corn, which is a corn that has been genetically combined with BT, a naturally occurring pesticide in our soil. Although BT is naturally occurring in soil, it is still unsafe for human consumption. Today 45% of all corn grown in the US is genetically modified, and has been deened safe by the USDA for human consumption. Another crop that is directly affected is soy. Ninety-one percent of soy crop in the US is genetically modified with a Monsanto Round-Up Ready herbicide. Recent tests have shown that GM soy has adverse affects on lab rats. When the test rats were rationed genetic soy some of the rats became sterile, infertile, and otherwise suffered detrimental effects on their reproductive organs. It is estimated that 85 % of processed foods in the US today contain Genetically Modified Organics.

In 1996 there was a UCS-authored report titled The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops. In this report they described six kinds of potential risks genetically modified crops pose in our environment.

• Genetically engineered crops could become weeds. By definition, a weed is categorized as any plant that causes undesirable effects.
• Cross-pollination of genetically engineered crops with wild plants, which in turn will cause genetic pollution in an environment that is not controlled.
• Crops that are engineered to harvest viruses for human health research in the plant cells can facilitate the creation of new viruses that are more virulent and easier contracted by the masses.
• Crops that are engineered to express potentially toxic substances may pose risk to other organisms like birds, deer and humans.
• Crops that have been genetically engineered can possibly agitate the natural order of the eco-system and cause ripple effects through our environment.
• Last, genetically engineering crops with terminator gene (which renders a plant’s seeds infertile) can cause undesirable effects through cross-pollination that might threaten plant and crop diversity. These potential risks described above will not be evident immediately, but with no long-term studies done on genetically engineered crops we can expect genetic pollution as a very real threat to our livelihood in the future.

Nor can we say that there have been no adverse effects on our environment because there may be subtle effects taking place with other plant species and animals that we have not yet noticed. The only monitoring systems that are in place right now for these genetically modified crops are insect and weed resistance. (http://www.ucsusa.org/)

Genetically Modified Foods should not be deemed safe for human consumption due to these four factors:
• There have been no long term studies done on human consumption of genetically engineered foods.
• As many new genes are introduced into plants that do not normally carry allergenic genes the threat of higher allergic reactions looms. For instance, if a biotech company introduced peanut genes into a soy product, mortality rates could soar. Allergenicity, as a matter of principle, the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods, is discouraged unless it can be demonstrated that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic.
• Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred.
• Another problem we face with genetically engineered crops is the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild (referred to as “outcrossing”), as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. (WHO.int)

Well how did this all get started? In 1973, Cohen and Boyer perform the first successful recombinant DNA experiment, using bacterial genes. Essentially, these two scientists were the godfathers of genetic engineering.. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that the first field tests of genetically engineered plants, specifically tobacco, were conducted. Within a year, Advanced Genetic Sciences’ Frostban, a genetically altered bacterium that inhibits frost formation, was field-tested on strawberry and potato plants in California. These were the first authorized outdoor tests of an engineered bacterium. After six years of field tests, the FDA declared GMO foods are “not inherently dangerous” and did not require special regulation.

In 1994, Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato was introduced to the world. With this genetically modified tomato, Calgene hoped to slow the ripening process and prevent it from softening while maintaining it’s normal color and flavor. It was not long after that tomatoes introduction that the genetic boom started to take hold. Genetically Modified soy and corn were both planted in 1995. Only one short year later, these crops hit the supermarket shelves and were deemed safe without being tested. The following year, the GM soy crops jumped drastically to seven percent of the total soy grown in the United States and GM corn was nearly two percent of the total national corn grown.

While geneticists were working on genetically engineering plant matter in the US, something more sinister was brewing across the pond. In February 1997, the Roslin Institute and PPL Therapeutics plc announced the first production of Dolly, the cloned sheep who was the first mammal to be cloned from the somatic tissue of an adult. Dolly was of almost the same genetic composition as the sheep from whose cells she was developed, but she was not genetically engineered as such.

Five months later, on July 24th, PPL announced that Polly, a genetically engineered lamb, had been produced by the same method of nuclear transfer that had produced Dolly. In addition to her usual complement of sheep genes, she also contained a human gene which had been added to the cells while they were still a cell culture.

It was in 1999 that European nations became more aware of Genetically Modified Foods, and thus began to for a negative opinion of them. This helped bring GMOs into the world’s spotlight. Many Europeans believed that the use of bacteria, or human DNA in our food supply was ethically, morally, and socially unacceptable. The year 2000 brought the first known case of GMO corn polluting the human food supply. Starlink GMO corn that was approved solely for animal feed ended up in corn products for human consumption as well. In 2002, another biotech company named Prodigene became the center of attention. Prodigene violated the US Plant Protection Act by allowing experimental biopharmaceutical corn to mix with a commercial soy crop. Next, another biotech giant, Monsanto, developed a GM wheat. They did however, decide against selling the wheat due to negative public perception.

By the end of 2004, 85% of soy and 45% of corn crops grown in the US were genetically modified. Currently in the US we have 92% of the world’s genetically engineered crops, comprising 58% of our national crops. In the last few weeks, genetically engineered salmon has been approved by the USDA for human consumption. And, as I type, Monsanto is experimenting with genetically engineered pigs for human consumption. The Biotech companies are definitely not slowing down in their pursuit of patenting all living animals and plants! (http://www.ncbiotech.org/)

Here are is a study done by Steve Connor showing that there are no real economic benefits to farmers that grow GMOs.

It pays NOT to cultivate GM crops!

The first economic analysis of growing genetically modified crops on a wide scale has found that the biggest winners were the farmers who decided not to grow them. The study, which looked at maize yields in the corn belt of the United States, found that farmers who continued to grow conventional crops actually earned more money over a 14-year period than those who cultivated GM varieties.

All farmers benefited from the significantly lower level of pests that came about after the introduction of GM maize to the US in 1996, but the conventional farmers who continued to cultivate non-GM varieties also benefited financially from not having to pay the extra costs of purchasing GM seeds. Previous studies into the economics of growing GM crops have concentrated on the farmers who have taken up the technology but, latest research looked at a wider area, including non-GM fields that may have benefited from being near fields planted with GM varieties.

Paul Mitchell, an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the work was carried out, said the main corn-growing states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska experienced a total economic benefit of $6.9bn (£4.6bn) over the period from 1996 to 2009 as a result of less maize being lost to the corn-borer pest.

But the non-GM corn areas accounted for 62 per cent of this total economic benefit because, in addition to preventing crop losses resulting from lower levels of pests, these farmers did not have to spend any extra money on the technology fees associated with the purchase of GM maize.

“Previous cost-benefit analyses focused directly on transgenic crop acres. This study is the first to include the value of area-wide pest suppression and the subsequent benefits to growers of non-transgenic crops,” Dr Mitchell said.

“In this case, the value of the indirect yield benefits for non-Bt crops exceeded the net value of direct benefits to the BT corn acres.

“The study, published in the journal Science, found that Wisconsin farmers benefited to the tune of $325m as a result of the overall suppression of the corn borer pest between 1996 and 2009. About 75 per cent of this cumulative economic benefit went to the farmers who cultivated non-GM maize.

William Hutchinson of the University of Minnesota, the study’s lead author, said an analysis showed that the European corn borer moth has declined in the fields neighbouring those of GM crops by between 28 and 73 per cent, depending on the initial level of infection. The scientists were able to make these estimates because of good records of pest populations going back 45 years.

Steve Connor, Science Editor
In Steve Connor’s research, I see without a reasonable doubt that we, as consumers and tax-payers, have no need for these GM products being sold in the United States. He has shown that farmers growing conventionally can make more money without GM crops. When the biotech companies claim that Growing GM crops is more cost efficient, (I say “the results speak for themselves.”) With conventionally grown crops, there is no need to buy seeds every year. You can save seeds and re-use them next season. With GM crops, the plants seeds carry a terminator gene, which causes that plant’s sterility.

With the terminator gene in place, you are obligated to buy seeds year after year from big biotech companies, which cause the farmer to spend more than a conventional grower that saves seeds.
As consumers, we need to be more aware of what we put into our bodies, especially those products that contain Genetically Modified Organics in which we do not yet understand the long term effects. Vandana Shiva, author of, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability and peace, stated “In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.” Let’s not jeopardize our lives or those of innocent plants and animals so that agribusiness corporations can gain an extra buck.

We need food reform in the United States as well as the rest of the world. We the people need to stop the use of genetically modified foods and return to conventional growing methods. Sustainable agriculture is an approach to agriculture that is environmentally, economically, culturally and socially sustainable. Sustainable growing practices emphasizes crop diversity and rotation, conserves natural resources, and favors small and medium-sized farming rather than agribusinesses and large corporations. Moreover, it focuses on food security (ensuring there is enough food for people to eat) and thus prioritizes the production of staple crops (rather than cash crops for export). It is a key livelihood strategy for small organic farmers, who have recognized that their best hope for a sustainable future is to nurture and protect the environment. How can we promote sustainable farming? If we want to make a change from using GM food that we, as consumers, still don’t know that much about, we need to take steps to change the growing practices now in use in our country. First, we need to use aid to maximize the potential of sustainable agriculture to reduce poverty in struggling regions of our country. Next, we need to stop viewing agriculture as an export. We also need to change international trade rules so that they do not force developing countries to ‘liberalize’ their economies – instead, we ought to enable these countries to invest in sustainable agriculture and rural development. I believe the quickest and easiest way to change the climate of GMO’s in our food supply is to re-create victory gardens. During World War II food supplies were in high demand for our soldiers overseas, so American communities all across the US started Victory Gardens. These Victory Gardens were run by communities to feed the people within.

If Americans today were to start Victory Gardens once again as a form of protest we might be able to send a message to these large corporations and biotech firms. We don’t want to eat your pollution! Currently, there are many co-op farms, farmer’s markets, community gardens, and green grocers that we can support. By supporting these small businesses we will not only be eating food that is locally produced, and good for us, we will also be giving money to farms and small companies that believe in farming practices that will not pollute our earth, nor our bodies.