Fish genes in your tomato

Fish genes in your tomato Share this with your friends

In the 1970's scientists discovered a way to artificially alter or transfer genes from one organism to another. Genes are made of DNA and contain the instructions by which cells produce proteins. These proteins dictate a cell's function in the specific organism. A flounder, for example survives in the cold. Scientists could now take genes from a fish and insert them into a tomato. Why? They wanted to create a tomato that would be more frost resistant.

In the 1980's Biotechnology companies began field-testing GMO (genetically modified organism) crops for large-scale agricultural use. By 1996, GMO grains were mixed with non-GMO grains and sent to food processing plants all over America. Corn, soy and their by-products (from corn syrup to soy's "protein-enriched" additive) are used in hundreds of products. But GMOs are not only found in grains. Various genetically altered products are found in over 60 percent of all processed foods on the U.S. market, and the market continues to expand with each new genetic alteration. Chances are, you have been eating GMOs for years.

But how would you know? GMO products are not labeled. And because they are not labeled, how could we track possible side effects? Environmental and food safety groups are busy fighting for mandatory labeling of all GMO­containing products. Biotech companies claim that these foods are safe and do not need to be labeled. Watchdog groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists believe this technology deserves special scrutiny. Jenny Rissler, former EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) scientist, explains, "The government and the industry have been too eager to assume that these plants, these crops, are substantially equivalent to existing ones. . . . But I don't think that they have done the kind of testing that a lot of us would want, to really establish the substantial equivalence. I can understand why industry and government have taken this route. For many years, they have been successful in reversing the burden of proof. The industry is not forced to prove relative safety. Rather, the burden of proof is on people like us to show that there's some risk."

But what are the risks? Many of the questions raised focus on health and the environment. How could GMOs threaten our health? What is the effect of long-term exposure? Do we want to be ingesting a plant substance that has been genetically modified to also be an herbicide? The Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) has already warned of the decreased effectiveness of antibiotics due to the widespread use of GMO antibiotic-resistant genes on U.S. dairy farms and the UK Ministry of Agriculture cautions of the same potential risks to eight powerful antibiotics used in fighting fatal diseases. But an even greater concern is the FDA warning that GMOs could trigger allergic reactions, for some consumers this is quite dangerous.

For example, one biotech company engineered a soybean with a gene from a Brazil nut, to aid in pest resilience. (Brazil nuts are not prone to bug infestation.) Many people are allergic to Brazil nuts, some to life-threatening levels. As an example, if someone with a severe allergy to Brazil nuts were to eat, say, this specific GMO soy in tofu, they could have an outbreak. Luckily a laboratory test picked up the allergen and the soy never made it to our supermarkets.

But it goes even further. Jeremy Rifkin, author of the controversial book, "The Biotech Century" explains, "We know that 8 percent of children and 2 percent of adults have allergenic reactions to traditional foods. What we're dealing with is the introduction of new genetic foods that have genes that code for proteins that we've never consumed. We just don't know what the reaction's likely to be." A recent study done by the York Nutritional Laboratory in the UK, illustrated a 50% increase in soy allergies during 1998, a time when production of GE soy crops jumped dramatically. This was the first time in seventeen years that soy ranked so high as an allergen. Also in the report, rats that ate the transgenic soy experienced retarded growth and cows fed the same, showed shifted fat levels in their milk.

There are numerous reports raising questions about the safety of GMOs, especially to our heath. One of the most controversial was the published work of Dr. Arpad Pusztai. Dr. Pusztai is a respected Hungarian Biochemist who was working on a three-year project funded by the British government. During his study he was feeding rats genetically engineered and non-GMO potatoes. Pusztai reported and published in the noted medical journal, The Lancet, that GMO-fed rats suffered unusual thickening of the stomach and intestine lining and a weakening of their immune system. Some scientists criticized his methods.

What about the impact of genetic manipulation on the environment? Mainstream media took a good look at this threat when a Cornell University laboratory demonstrated that GE corn crops could be fatal to monarch butterflies. The monarch has now become a symbol of the potential threat to all species on the planet. How is our environment at risk?

Biotechnology is not very precise. During the genetic manipulation process, the location where a gene is inserted into an organism's genetic code is uncontrollable. Also a stable expression of the gene into the new genetically engineered organism is not guaranteed. This is why when scientists tried to clone an animal; they ended up with hundreds of deformities and other mutations before they finally succeeded. Scientists may be able to identify a specific gene, but do they understand the workings of its environment? This may be on a micro scale, but it relates to the concerns on a macro scale as well.

Do we understand all of the possible effects of releasing these altered organisms into our delicate environment and eco-systems? Questions of contamination, genetic erosion, enhanced weed problems, and the reduction or extinction of wild plant and animal populations fill pages and pages of environmental and food advocate websites. Can we predict how GMOs and their offspring will evolve?

Genetic advocates argue that we have already been tampering with nature for a long time, such as in the instance of classical breeding. But traditional breeding crosses only related species, for example when a gardener grafts a red hibiscus onto a white hibiscus. When these two varieties are crossed, thousands of genes at a time are mixed. Genetic scientists move individual genes and do something traditional breeders have never accomplished. They can move genes between different life forms! (Remember the flounder into the tomato?)

What does the organic industry have to say about all of this? When the U.S. government decided to mandate the certification on organic standards, almost 100% of the received public comments demanded GMOs not be allowed in organic food. Furthermore, GMO crops put organic farmers at risk; risk of seed contamination, rendering their natural pesticides useless, introduction of superweeds, destruction of beneficial insects, loss of certificationS. For example, Monsanto (a major GE corporation) has released genetic corn seeds containing genes that produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a natural bacterium used by many organic farmers including farmers here on Kauai. Bt is used by organic farmers to eradicate insect problems, but only a few times a year and for very short periods. The introduction of the Bt corn poses many problems. First, it is in the crop working every hour of every day. Therefore it is killing insects, including non-target species, all of the time. Many insects are beneficial to farmers, like say, the ladybug that eats aphids. And not only is the Bt in the plant, but studies show that Bt remains and accumulates in the soil.

"Another negative impact on organic farming is the expected resistance that insect pests will develop to Bt toxin," states The Hawaii Organic Farmers Association (HOFA), rendering useless a natural pesticide used by organic farmers for years. Also, the pollen from the Bt corn can and has cross-pollinated with organic corn, contaminating the organic corn and its seed, and risking organic certification.

David Vetter of Nebraska owns and operates a 280-acre organic farm. His fields were presumably safe, surrounded by double rows of pines and 60 feet of untilled sod to act as a buffer zone. Sadly, this buffer did not prevent transgenic pollution! Vetter Says, "It's now clear that we won't be able to have both genetically engineered and non-GE crops. As an organic grower, I can no longer guarantee that my crops are GE-free."