People may believe that this newfound technology is a great source of food for the future: providing food in great amounts to the exponentially increasing population, increasing yields, improving nutritional value, and generally providing the world with a multitude of desirable prospects.
These may very well be the prospects of GM foods for future generations. However, the government’s approach to this debate seems either naive or simply evil. Scientific scrutiny of the possible effects of GM foods on people’s health and the environment is being undermined, consumers’ ability to express their interest or lack of interest in GM products is similarly dismissed, as the decision to label GM foods has been postponed almost indefinitely. Effectively GM foods are slowly seeping into the market and into your stomach, colon…
But let’s be honest here, how significant is this, the government is always making decisions which have an impact on our lives so why pay any greater attention to GM foods? Generally, because the blind adoption of GM foods has many consequences on us: in terms of health, our environment, our freedom, and our economy.
One of the main features advanced by proponents of GM foods is that these foods would be of greater nutritional value. Foods could be given properties that would allow them to avoid allergic reactions and even help prevent the incidence of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Though these benefits are merely speculative for the moment (no such products having been developed), there are already emerging arguments showing that GM foods may, in fact, have effects contrary to what their proponents seem to believe.
By altering the genetic structure of plants and animals, we are also changing the metabolism of the species. This, in turn, can prevent them from producing the very nutrients which make them worth eating. Once consumed, the new foreign compounds created by the genetic modifications, may cause adverse reactions such as allergies and poisonings.
Allergies have been associated with GM foods since the late 1980s when the first disease triggered by genetic modification was identified. A genetically modified organism (GMO) was manipulated to overproduce several enzymes and placed on the market as the amino acid L-tryptophan. The acceleration of L-tryptophan production resulted in a highly toxic amino acid called EBT also being generated. This release claimed the lives of 37 people, with 1500 partially paralyzed and more than 5000 temporarily disabled.
Environment and Pesticides
Another basis for the pro-GM argument is that fewer pesticides will need to be used on crops. Plants could have genes inserted that express toxic products to enable them to repel insects, effectively decreasing the need for pesticides and benefiting the environment as a whole as the chemical will no longer be excessively used.
Much needs to be done in the investigation of these prospects. What are the effects of the presence of chemicals in the core of the plant? How long is it before the insects they are targeting become resistant and new genes need to be discovered to control the pests? Do these affect the toxicity of the soils surrounding them? How does this affect our health when we eat such plants? The investigations of these aspects are being studied but years are needed before reliable data is presented, in order to clearly show the safety or danger of these modifications.
However, current developments being made in GM sectors are actually advancing in the opposite direction from this idea. Instead of developing plants that need fewer pesticides. Monsanto is currently designing plants to be more resistant to pesticides. This is not surprising as Monsanto, one of the main lobbyists for the introduction of GM products, is in fact an agrochemical (i.e. pesticide) company.
The impact of the current approach to GM crops is therefore an obvious pursuit of our recent conception of agriculture; we pump the environment full of chemicals and then provide the fertilizers to compensate for the loss of fertility of the soil we have made toxic. All over the world, we have already seen the consequences of such behavior: low soil fertility, the near extinction of the peregrine falcon in Europe, the increase of algal formations in our water as nitrate concentrations increase, the eventual death of our river systems as algae use up all the available oxygen leaving none for the fish.
Furthermore, insects have always adapted to whatever chemicals they are exposed to and hence chemicals of greater toxicity need to emerge, creating a vicious cycle of ever more potent toxins. This is evident in the diamondback moth that is showing signs of being resistant to four of the Bt toxin genes already inserted into the Bt cotton. This will make the GM cotton obsolete as widespread resistance is likely to take effect in about 5 to 10 years if proper control procedures are not put into place.
Modern agriculture seems to be based on fighting nature. It is absurd really, as we are effectively fighting ourselves. A classic example is the fact that traces of DDT have been acknowledged as existing in our diets for several decades now and yet we still maintain that pumping chemicals into the environment is OK. The current path of GM foods is simply perpetuating this vicious battle against ourselves.
Some genes have been adapted to be able to be grafted into the DNA of completely different species, fish genes being introduced in tomatoes for instance. The transferability of GMO genes allows them the possibility to transfer from one species to the next. This means that GM genes can cross-pollinate into the wild environment. There have already been reports of this occurring with GM genes jumping from British Canola crops to wild turnips.
This puts the whole complex web of interactions existent in an ecosystem under threat. In a harmoniously functioning ecosystem, each species has its own particular role, feeding some species while assuring a balance in the population of others by predating on them. As such, a complex web of interactions emerges. Now GM genes being cross-pollinated into this pristine environment put the whole system at risk, species have new properties and hence put the prior balance in question.
The full impact of this can only be seen, when we begin to regard the example of the terminator gene. This gene was designed so that farmers need to buy seeds every year from the seed manufacturer (we won’t even mention the detestable ethics of contractual agreements involved in GM seed retail). It renders sterile the seeds of all plants it pollinates. In other words, when it starts cross-pollinating with wild species (and we have no guarantee that it won’t as cross-pollination is an accepted possibility), this species begins to produce infertile seeds, effectively reducing the possibility of these species to produce fertile seeds over time reducing the population of these species, possibly to extinction.
GM crops (as they exist to date) may, therefore, change the face of the natural environment. They will do so by increasing the chemical load present in the natural system and distort the balanced state of the ecosystem. Maybe those tales about talking trees in the Middle Ages were just a premonition of things to come.
One of the principal controversies surrounding the release of GM foods onto our markets is the issue of consumer choice. In 2000, over 50% of all corn, 45% of all soy and 40% of all cotton harvested in the USA were genetically engineered. Any food products on our shelves that are manufactured overseas are likely to contain some of the derivatives of these crops as ingredients. Meanwhile, there has been no real advocacy of a stringent labeling system by the Federal Government, which is victim to the food manufacturers’ lobbying. Their rationale is that labeling would scare consumers from purchasing GM foods despite their claim that there is no risk involved.
Yet, this reasoning neglects the fact that we are living in a democracy. In other words, we should be the ones deciding what we consume in line with our own ethics. Our government agencies should be trying to make the information accessible to us so that we can make our own informed choices.