A gene is a small section of DNA in the nucleus of a cell that carries specific instructions which determine how a plant or animal grows, develops, looks and lives. Genetic engineering is the process of transferring specific traits, or genes, from one plant or animal to another. The resulting organism is called transgenic or a GMO (genetically modified organism). Seventy percent of processed foods on American grocery shelves have genetically modified ingredients.
This process of transferring genes is different from traditional cross breeding, which can only be done with members of the same species (such as different breeds of cattle). Cross breeding has been done over the centuries to strengthen breeds by focusing on specific traits such as the ability to survive outdoors in cold or produce more offspring. It is done through mating or artificial insemination, not through gene manipulation.
With genetic engineering, genes can be transferred not just across species but from one species to another – that is, among plants and animals that are unable to breed. For example, genes from an animal can be inserted into a plant, as when genes from a flounder were inserted into tomato plants to try to make them resistant to frost. In Taiwan, scientists have successfully inserted jellyfish genes into pigs to make them glow in the dark. (Who knows why.)
There are many concerns about genetically engineered crops and animals, including the fact that inadequate testing has been done to determine the effects on humans and the environment.
According to the Economic Research Service at the USDA, in 2008 over 90 percent of soybeans, more than 55 percent of corn, and over 60 percent of cotton grown in the United States was from genetically engineered (GE) seeds. Most GE crops were created to withstand pesticide or herbicide application, allowing farmers to heavily spray their fields and kill pests, but not the GE plants.
While those in favor of GE crops claim they require less pesticide use, weeds can develop resistance to the pesticides, leading farmers to spray more. This can lead to more pesticide residues on the food you eat. Increased pesticide use also increases profits for the biggest agribusinesses that sell not only GE seed but the pesticides used on them as well. It also increases water and air pollution as well as costs for the farmer.
One of the most controversial types of GMO is nicknamed the “Terminator Seed.” Terminator seeds have been genetically altered so that the seeds of their crops are sterile. This prevents farmers from saving seed to grow from year to year, a practice as old as agriculture itself. These seeds were designed to force farmers to purchase them each year, making even more money for business and less for farmers. Obviously, this increases costs for farmers and is particularly bad for farmers in poor nations where food is scarce and famine is common.
Scientists are currently working on ways to genetically engineer livestock animals and aquatic creatures. For example, salmon have been genetically altered to grow five times faster than wild breeds, and hens have been modified to lay low-cholesterol eggs. No GE animal has yet been approved for human consumption, but no safety precaution is foolproof. For example, in 2003, scientists at the University of Illinois were experimenting with inserting cow genes into female pigs to try to increase milk production. Almost 400 offspring of these experimental pigs were slaughtered and the meat sent to market.
Concerns about genetic engineering
Concerns about genetic engineering include the inadequate testing of the effects on the environment and human health, including potential long-term effects of eating GE food and eating meat or dairy from animals that were fed GE food.
Opponents of genetic engineering say that GMOs must be proven safe before they’re sold to the public and are specifically concerned about:
Allergic reactions. One question is whether, for example, people with allergies to nuts would have an allergic reaction to a GMO made with DNA from nuts. A second question is whether a GE product might create new allergies in people. The answers to these questions are not known.
Gene mutation. It is not known whether the forced insertion of one gene into another gene might cause an unforeseen change or mutation, creating a dangerous organism such as a new bacterium that might cause illness in crops, animals or people or have other unforeseeable results.
Antibiotic resistance. Almost all GMOs have markers genes that could increase antibiotic resistance, a growing and dangerous problem where the overuse and misuse of antibiotics is creating new strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment.
Environmental damage. Gene pollution cannot be cleaned up. Once a GE organism is released into the environment, it cannot be taken out. This is particularly alarming with crops like corn, which are wind-pollinated, because pollen from GE plants can drift and possibly pollinate other plants, creating new unknown species.
Genetically engineered crops that have been approved for consumption in the United States include corn, cotton, papaya (Hawaiian), potato, rapeseed (canola), rice, soybean, sugar beet and tomato.
What can you do?
Food that is certified “USDA Organic” cannot be genetically engineered or made with GE ingredients, so if you’re concerned about genetically modified food, look for that label. Other organic certifications may have the same requirements, but it pays to find out. If you are buying from a local farmer ask them whether they use GE seeds or GE animal feed. If you’re buying processed food, look for the organic label or call the company that produces it and ask them if they use any GE ingredients. Don’t assume that food purchased in a health food store is GMO-free, unless the store has a no-GMO policy, you will likely find GE ingredients in some products sold there. Thousands of foods labeled “Natural” are made with GMOs, so look for labels that state the food is GMO free, question the company making the product, or buy organic.
(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the 14th installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)