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Genetic Engineering

fieldAs part of the Guide to Good Food series, I’ll be explaining different issues involved with both industrial and sustainable food and farming. Today we’re going to talk about genetic engineering.

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.

GE Crops
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.

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