Modifying the World
The world has come to a point where anything and everything can be customized; yet never could one have foreseen the customization of life forms. The term “genetically-modified organisms” (GMO’s), is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques (Whitman, 2000). GMO’s offer dramatic promise for some of the greatest challenges of the century, however, like all new technologies, they also possess risks more imperative than benefits. Controversies accompanying GMO’s commonly focus on human and environmental safety, economic dependence of farmers and other natural suppliers, and food security in relation to consumers and the world.
The world strives for the safety and protection of the environment and ultimately the people inhabiting it. However, attempting to revise, alter, and hopefully improve the world’s most prominent and widely used products does not come unaccompanied. Genetically modified organisms have numerous effects that have become apparent, and many more that have yet to surface. The unintended relocation of transgenes that occurs through cross-pollination has a great potential to cause harm to other organisms. Those organisms eventually hybridize with close wild relatives, now scientifically enhanced, and produce undesired effects, many of which are still unknown.
When hybrids survive and reproduce in the wild, the spread or introduction of transgenes into wild gene pools will occur and will create new invasive species. This risk is not farfetched: seven of the world’s thirteen major crop plants have mixed their genes with closely related wild species to form new weeds (Wolfenbarger and Phifer, 2000). This has eliminated the genetic uniqueness of some plants and contributed to the extinction of numerous natural resources. Since the recommended distance between GMO crops and regular crops is only three meters, it is reasonable to assume that cross-pollination is nearly guaranteed. The variability among living organisms on earth vanishes when organisms are genetically distorted. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms can also be transmitted. The best-known example of this is the use of B.t. genes in corn and other crops. B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are deadly to insect larvae. B.t. crystal protein genes have been transferred into corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the “European Corn Borer.”
The Corn Borer, significantly affects the production of crops such as corn as well as other products, including cotton and many vegetables. Overall, yield losses and control expenditures associated with the European corn borer cost farmers in the United States more than 1 billion dollars annually (VanDyk, 1996). Introducing the pesticide-like chemical into the corn has saved farmers millions of dollars in that aspect; however, in the long run, the B.t. genes have hurt other organisms. Last year a laboratory study was published in the environmental magazine entitled Nature showing how pollen from B.t. corn causes high mortality rates in Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not corn, however the fear is that if pollen from B.t. corn is blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in neighboring fields, the caterpillars will eat the pollen and perish. Unfortunately, B.t. toxins inadvertently kill many species of insect larvae. It is nearly impossible to design a B.t. toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and remain harmless to all other insects (Whitman, 2000).
Some of the concerns about GMO’s reflect general unease regarding the loss of genetic diversity as well as excessive dependence on a few number of large companies for seeds and other materials. From the viewpoint of geneticists, reduction in genetic diversity of crop plants, for whatever reason, can increase the risk of invasion by a single powerful pathogen (Calow, 1998). When the world begins to depend solely on a widely used product or a large corporation, it can cause a great disorder if ever anything is to happen to that item or company. Consequently, changes to any plant will often alter the soil that is later to be reused for different crops. According to Wolfenbarger and Phifer, GMO’s cause a “decrease of plant decomposition rates and of carbon and nitrogen levels, which could affect soil fertilityand cause lower community diversity and productivity above ground.” With many types of gene manipulation such as “Monsanto’s Terminator gene,” chemicals are bred into crops with the intention that the plants will not create any seeds (Letourneay, 2002).
Additionally, the consequences that cross-pollination between normal and genetically modified plants causes are not easy to predict. The second generation of a modified seed is often so different from the original that it is not consumable and must be discarded. Patent infringement has become a big concern of agribusiness which calls for the removal of seeds from crops. However, it is difficult to enforce exclusive rights to an organism and all imposing rules or laws do have consequences. Previously, a way producers fought possible patent infringement was by introducing a “suicide gene” into GMO’s (Berlingo, 1999). Plants containing that gene are viable for only one growing season and can only produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. Farmers are then forced to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this process is financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season. Bringing a GMO food to market is already a lengthy and costly process, and of course agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment.
Many new genetic-engineering technologies and GMO’s have been patented. Yet consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds. In doing so, prices will be so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GMO’s, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. In addition, prices of the finalized product will also be raised which in turn lowers the demand of and desire for the item. It is hoped that more companies and non-profit organizations will offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations in order to attempt to manage this problem. As well as environmental safety issues and economic difficulties that GMO’s may present, there is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food and plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. Human safety is put at risk by including numerous chemicals in a person’s diet. Extensive testing of GM foods may be required to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with food allergies.
There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. Many times, companies fail to offer warnings to customers who believe they are eating untreated fruits and vegetables. Tests are generally performed on the products to ensure the safety and health of the consumer; however, often the final testing is done as the products are brought to market. An example is the feed intended for cattle consummation, which is in turn eaten by humans. Often the distinction between an animal- and a human-intended product is blurred. Some companies insist that it is nearly impossible to separate GMO’s from regular food because of how they are produced. The most prime example of this is Aventis CropScience modified corn, Starlink, which was intended only as animal feed. Because of “mix-ups” in storage it showed up in many common foods; the most sensational of which was Taco Bell taco shells (Berlingo, 1999). In 1996, four million acres of GMO crops were planted worldwide.
In 1999, that figure had increased to 87 million acres, and the numbers continue to rise. So far, few negative consequences to biodiversity have occurred and despite the hype, few benefits have accrued. Yields and profits have increased modestly and herbicide use has decreased by about one percent. Environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups, professional associations and other scientists and government officials have all raised concerns about genetically modified products. They have criticized agribusinesses for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and the government for failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight. Although genetically modified organisms may initially show promising enhancements to preexisting products, it has been made evident that the negative effects they have on the environment, human health, the economy, and to food security and stability far outweigh the benefits.