Genetic Engineering of Our Food – Nature vs. Nuture

A Warning About How Insanity Has Taken Over

Most people in the U.S.A. and their children are and have been eating genetically engineered foods, whether they are aware of it or not.  About 18 years ago, more than one-half of the world soybean harvest came from genetically engineered plants (Science, 18 December 1998, p. 2176).  More soybeans are grown in the U.S.A. than any other country except Brazil (motherjones.com).  Nowadays, more than 90% of the soybeans covering U.S.A. farms each year are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, according to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly all of them involving one herbicide called Roundup (motherjones.com).  More than 90% of corn and cotton, also top U.S.A. crops, are now genetically engineered, which is up significantly from 2000 (http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2014/04/11/how-much-of-u-s-crops-are-gmos/).  These commodities find their way into hundreds of foods, such as breakfast cereals, cooking oils, corn syrup (an ingredient found in many processed foods), soft drinks, and candies.  Other foods that have been genetically engineered include potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and canola.

Federal regulators very recently approved a genetically engineered salmon as fit for consumption, making it the first genetically altered animal to be cleared for American supermarkets and dinner tables (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/20/business/genetically-engineered-salmon-approved-for-consumption.html?_r=0).

Most people do not realize they are consuming genetically engineered foods because current laws and policies do not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such.  The food industry does not want to label genetically engineered foods even though most Americans feel that they should have the right to know what they are eating and feeding their families.  In fact, studies show that more than 90% of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered, or modified, foods (http://www.justlabelit.org/right-to-know-center/).

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Since most of us are eating genetically engineered foods, we ought to have a good understanding of what genetic engineering is.  The heart of the matter is DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  We all know that Watson and Crick elucidated the famous double helical structure of DNA in 1953 and that President Clinton was implicated in impeachment charges in part due to evidence found on Monica Lewinsky’s dress.  But what we may not have grasped entirely is that DNA is the molecule of heredity.  Furthermore, Rosalind Franklin was an X-ray crystallographer who contributed to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite (Wikipedia).  Her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognized posthumously (Wikipedia).  At least there is a medical school named after her.

It is DNA that is physically passed from parent to offspring, giving a child his father’s nose or his mother’s eyes.  Your DNA determines your traits through genes which are sections of a long DNA molecule.  Genes are the blueprints for construction of proteins, and proteins do work that gets done in the cells that make up your body.  The same is true for animals and plants.  Their cells are very similar to ours.  In fact, parts of their DNA are the same as ours.

It may surprise you to learn that ape DNA differs from human DNA by less than 2% (Time, 11 January 1999, p.43).  The DNA of chimps, bonobos, and humans is 99% the same, while the DNA of gorillas and humans shares 98% identity (Scientific American, 1 September 2014).  The bottom line is that what can affect a plant or a cow can affect you, too.  We all interact and are all part of a larger ecological system, a bigger picture.

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Once you appreciate what DNA is, it is not difficult to understand what genetic engineering is.  The modern definition of genetic engineering is making changes to DNA or genes.  This includes cutting genes out, replacing genes with others, and inserting genes that were never there before, such as genes from another species.  Thus, genetic engineering differs radically from traditional crossbreeding which encompasses only the interbreeding of traits from the same or closely related species.  Genetically engineered changes are irreversible.  Furthermore, the process of putting genes into living organisms is extremely imprecise, inaccurate, and uncontrolled.  Once the DNA of a seed is changed, the seed will grow into something different from what it would have become if it were not manipulated by humans.  It could be something better or worse.

Change happens in nature, too.  It happens in response to environmental factors that we do not fully understand.  For example, in the 5 million years since humans diverged from apes, our DNA has evolved or changed less than 2%.  In contrast, genetic engineering is making radical changes quickly, abruptly, and artificially.  It is making changes that would never occur naturally, such as inserting a fish gene into a tomato plant.  One experiment gone wrong could cause a lot of harm because manipulating the rate of change of a species has the potential to destabilize the entire ecosystem.

The big picture is so complex that accurate assessment of the risk associated with a new technology is impossible.  Science has moved so fast recently that neither politics nor the law can keep up with it, and neither can research into unforeseen consequences.  The drive to push ahead is fueled by money.  Genetic modification is very big business today.  It is a domestic as well as an export earner.  The end result of this scientific process has often been that technologies that were new and thought to be harmless were later found to cause permanent damage to the environment and human health.  Examples include fossil fuels, x-rays, high dose estrogen replacement therapy, and chemicals such as CfCs (chlorinated fluorocarbons).

Roundup herbicide exposure leads to neurotoxicity (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24636977).  Concurrent with usage of ever-increasing amounts of herbicides, we are experiencing an epidemic in executive function disorders.

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Another example is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).  Bacteria are first genetically engineered (I used to do this kind of work!) such that they produce large amounts of rBGH.  The rBGH must then be strained out of the bacteria before it can be injected into cows.  Obviously, rBGH is difficult and expensive to produce.  Cows injected with rBGH produce at best 15% more milk, but they have shorter life expectancies and increased incidence of disease.  Perhaps most importantly, the milk produced by cows injected with rBGH differs from that produced by uninjected cows in that it contains higher levels of insulin like growth factor (IGF-1).  High levels of IGF-1 have been linked to increased risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancers.  The rBGH story is just one example demonstrating that science pronounces things innocuous in the absence of proof that they are harmful.  This can be misleading.

One of the most worrisome developments in the field of genetic engineering of food is called the Terminator Technology.  This technology was developed with U.S.A. taxpayer dollars by the USDA in collaboration with Monsanto, a large company that sells pesticides and seeds.  The Terminator Technology is a seed sterilization technique that is introduced into plants.  It renders farm-saved seed sterile.  The Terminator gene codes for a protein that kills the embryo in the seed.  This would allow Monsanto to protect its massive investment in bioengineered crops.

The Terminator Technology has no agronomic benefit to farmers because they need seeds to grow more plants and propagate our food supply.  In fact, this technology would prohibit farmers from saving seed from their harvest and would force them to return to the commercial seed market every year.

But what if the seed manufacturing companies have a bad year?  What if seeds become very expensive?

The Terminator Technology has no benefit to consumers either.  In many cases, it is the seed of the plant that is used for food.  Examples include corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Are there any risks associated with consumption of seeds containing the Terminator gene?  There probably isn’t an answer to this question because FDA regulations do not require any long-term safety testing on genetically engineered foods.

The biggest risk of all associated with the Terminator Technology is that the Terminator gene could spread.  It could spread to similar plants by cross-pollination.  It could even spread to unrelated plants by bacteria, viruses, insects, birds, and even wind.  Introduction of the Terminator gene into the environment has the potential to wipe out all kinds of seeds, and we could never get back to where we were.  In short, the one way of making food that has, until today, functioned in a sustainable manner could, through genetic engineering, be changed into a way that doesn’t assure sustainability.

There are at least two things you can do that will have a positive impact.  You can support organizations that promote consumers’ right to know the composition of their food.  You can also buy locally grown, organic food.  Many organic farms have annual events allowing consumers to visit and see for themselves how their food is produced.  Meanwhile, big agriculture has only become less transparent about their process.

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