Genetic Roulette – The Gamble of our Lives
Definition: Genetically modified (GM) foods are food items that have had their DNA changed through genetic engineering. Unlike conventional genetic modification that is carried out through time-tested conventional breeding of plants and animals. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.” GM products include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.
Genetic modification of food is not new.
For centuries, food crops and animals have been altered through selective breeding. While genes can be transferred during selective breeding, the scope for exchanging genetic material is much wider using genetic engineering. In theory, genetic engineering allows genetic material to be transferred between any organism, including between plants and animals. For example, the gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas has been inserted into a strawberry, allowing the fruit to be frost-tolerant.
By far the most common genetically modified (GM) organisms are crop plants. But the technology has now been applied to almost all forms of life, from pets that glow under UV light to bacteria which form HIV blocking “living condoms” and from pigs bearing spinach genes to goats that produce spider silk.
When did genetically modified foods originate?
Between 1997 and 1999, gene-modified (GM) ingredients suddenly appeared in 2/3rds of all US processed foods. This food alteration was fueled by a single Supreme Court ruling. It allowed, for the first time, the patenting of life forms for commercialization. Since then thousands of applications for experimental GM organisms have been filed with the US Patent Office alone, and many more abroad.
The first commercially grown genetically modified whole food crop was the tomato (called Flavr Savr), which was made more resistant to rotting by Californian company Calgene. The tomatoes were released into the market in 1994 without any special labeling.
In February 1996, J. Sainsbury and Safeway Stores in the United Kingdom introduced Europe’s first genetically-modified food product. A variant of the Flavr Savr was used by Zeneca to produce tomato paste which was sold in Europe during the summer of 1996. Following GM crops included insect resistant cotton and herbicide-tolerant soybeans both of which were commercially available in 1996.
In 2003, countries that grew 99 % of the global transgenic crops were the United States (63 %), Argentina (21 %), Canada (6 %), Brazil (4 %), China (4 %), and South Africa (1 %) and today the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimate that 75 % of all processed foods in the U.S. contain a GM ingredient.
Between 1995 and 2005, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 50, from 17,000 km² (4.2 million acres) to 900,000 km² (222 million acres), of which 55 percent were in Brazil.
In the US, by 2006 89 % of the planted area of soybeans, 83 % of cotton, and 61 % maize were genetically modified varieties.
Today many Gmod crops are grown in North America. India has also come aboard the bandwagon in 2002 with a rapid and continuing expansion of GM cotton varieties.
“Genetic engineering is inherently dangerous, because it greatly expands the scope for horizontal gene transfer and recombination, precisely the processes that create new viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics, and trigger cancer in cells.” – Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Genetically Modified Food Debates
Genetically modified foods, or GM foods, are often mentioned in the news lately. European environmental organizations and public interest groups have been actively protesting against GM foods since they were first created, and recent controversial studies about the effects of genetically modified corn pollen on monarch butterfly caterpillars have brought the issues of genetic engineering plants and animals to the attention of the public.
The benefits of genetically modified food crops include being able to breed disease resistant crops and herbicide tolerant strains. Genetically modified crops can also be made to include vitamins that may be lacking in some staple varieties.
According to the UK Greenpeace website – The introduction of genetically modified (GM) food and crops has been a disaster. The science of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another was supposed to be a giant leap forward, but instead they pose a serious threat to biodiversity and our own health. In addition, the real reason for their development has not been to end world hunger but to increase the stranglehold multinational biotech companies already have on food production. And – The simple truth is, we don’t need GM technology in order to possess future food security. Using sustainable and organic farming methods will allow us to repair the damage done by industrial farming, reducing the excessive use of fertilizer, herbicides and other man-made chemicals, and making GM crops redundant.
Many scientists argue that there is more than enough food in the world and that the hunger crisis is caused by problems in food distribution and politics, not production, so people should not be offered food that may carry some degree of risk.
Activists are opposed to genetic engineering as with current recombinant technology there is no way to ensure that genetically modified organisms will remain under control, plus the use of this technology outside secure laboratory environments represents multiple unacceptable risks to both farmed and wild ecosystems.
In 1996, Brazil nut genes were spliced into soybeans by a company called Pioneer Hi-Bred. Some individuals, however, are so allergic to this nut, they go into anaphylactic shock (similar to a severe bee sting reaction) which can cause death.
Many opponents of current genetic engineering realize that the increasing use of GM in crops has caused a power shift in agriculture towards Biotechnology companies, which are gaining more control over the production chain of crops and food, and over the farmers that use their products, as well.
In 1989, dozens of Americans died and several thousands were afflicted and impaired by a genetically altered version of the food supplement – L-tryptophan. A settlement of $2 billion dollars was paid by Showa Denko, Japan’s third largest chemical company. (Mayeno and Gleich, 1994).
On August 18, 2006, American exports of rice to Europe were interrupted when much of the U.S. crop was confirmed to be contaminated with unapproved engineered genes, possibly due to accidental cross-pollination with conventional crops.
In 1998, 95-98 percent of about 10 km² planted with canola by Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser were found to contain Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready gene although Schmeiser had never purchased seed from the Monsanto company. Monsanto then sued Schmeiser for piracy. In the past few years more and more crops have started to cross-pollinate which leaves a problem that is yet to be solved.
In 2005 Environmentalists say Australia faced “the most serious genetic contamination event” in its history, after the West Australian government confirmed low levels of genetically modified canola had been found in non-GM canola. Also in 2005 a decade-long project to develop genetically modified peas with built-in pest-resistance has been abandoned after tests showed they caused allergic lung damage in mice.
“They’re now turning those seeds into intellectual property, so they have a virtual lock on the seeds upon which we all depend for our food and survival.” – Jeremy Rifkin
Genetically Modified Food Labels
In America, there’s no need for labeling and this has resulted in a largely uninformed populace that is ingesting “gene-altered” food.
In other parts of the world such as the European Union, Japan, Malaysia and Australia consumers demand labeling so they can exercise choice between foods that have genetically modified, conventional or organic origins. Since its implementation in April 2004, EU Regulation 1829/2003 (labeling of genetically modified food and feed) has caused both food and feed manufacturers in Europe as well as their overseas suppliers a great deal of concern.
All genetically modified foods intended for sale in Australia and New Zealand must undergo a safety evaluation by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), an independent government agency. FSANZ will not approve a GM food unless it is safe to eat. It is mandatory for GM foods to be identified on food labels in Australia and New Zealand. These requirements became law in December 2001 and were put in place by food ministers to assist consumers to purchase or avoid GM foods, depending on their own views and beliefs.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says the industry faces huge losses if mandatory labeling is implemented. The fear is that consumers will see the labels as a warning and avoid these foods, and that food processors will reformulate their products to avoid GM foods rather than place labels. It also says labels will increase the price of foods produced and processed in Canada.
“The fact is, it is virtually impossible to even conceive of a testing procedure to assess the health effects of genetically engineered foods when introduced into the food chain, nor is there any valid nutritional or public interest reason for their introduction.” Richard Lacey: Professor of Food Safety, Leeds University.
List of genetically modified foods:
It’s virtually impossible to provide a complete list of genetically modified food (GM food) in the United States because there aren’t any laws for genetically modified crops!
Some estimates say as many as 30,000 different products on grocery store shelves are “modified.” That’s largely because many processed foods contain soy. Half of North America’s soy crop is genetically engineered!
Rapeseed – Resistance to certain pesticides and improved rapeseed cultivars to be free of erucic acid and glucosinolates. Gluconsinolates, which were found in rapeseed meal leftover from pressing, are toxic and had prevented the use of the meal in animal feed. In Canada, where “double-zero” rapeseed was developed, the crop was renamed “canola” (Canadian oil) to differentiate it from non-edible rapeseed.
Honey – Honey can be produced from GM crops. Some Canadian honey comes from bees collecting nectar from GM canola plants. This has shut down exports of Canadian honey to Europe.
Cotton – Resistant to certain pesticides – considered a food because the oil can be consumed. The introduction of genetically engineered cotton plants has had an unexpectedly effect on Chinese agriculture. The so-called Bt cotton plants that produce a chemical that kills the cotton bollworm have not only reduced the incidence of the pest in cotton fields, but also in neighboring fields of corn, soybeans, and other crops.
Rice – Genetically modified to contain high amounts of Vitamin A. Rice containing human genes is to be grown in the US. Rather than end up on dinner plates, the rice will make human proteins useful for treating infant diarrhoea in the developing world.
Soybean – Genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides – Soy foods including, soy beverages, tofu, soy oil, soy flour, lecithin. Other products may include breads, pastries, snack foods, baked products, fried products, edible oil products and special purpose foods.
Sugar cane – Made resistant to certain pesticides. A large percentage of sweeteners used in processed food actually comes from corn, not sugar cane or beets. Genetically modified sugar cane is regarded so badly by consumers at the present time that it could not be marketed successfully.
Tomatoes – Made for a longer shelf life and to prevent a substance that causes tomatoes to rot and degrade.
Corn – Resistant to certain pesticides – Corn oil, flour, sugar or syrup. May include snack foods, baked goods, fried foods, edible oil products, confectionery, special purpose foods, and soft drinks.
Sweet corn – genetically modified to produces its own insecticide. Officials from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have said that thousands of tons of genetically engineered sweetcorn have made their way into the human food supply chain, even though the produce has been approved only for use in animal feed. Recently Monsanto, a biotechnology food producer, said that about half of the USA’s sweetcorn acreage has been planted with genetically modified seed this year.
Canola – Canola oil. May include edible oil products, fried foods, and baked products, snack foods.
Potatoes – (Atlantic, Russett Burbank, Russet Norkatah, and Shepody) – May include snack foods, processed potato products and other processed foods containing potatoes.
Flax – More and more food products contain flax oil and seed because of their excellent nutritional properties. No genetically modified flax is currently grown. An herbicide-resistant GM flax was introduced in 2001, but was soon taken off the market because European importers refused to buy it.
Papaya – The first virus resistant papayas were commercially grown in Hawaii in 1999. Transgenic papayas now cover about one thousand hectares, or three quarters of the total Hawaiian papaya crop. Monsanto, donated technology to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, for developing a papaya resistant to the ringspot virus in India.
Squash – (yellow crookneck) – Some zucchini and yellow crookneck squash are also GM but they are not popular with farmers.
Red-hearted chicory – (radicchio) – Chicory (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is popular in some regions as a salad green, especially in France and Belgium. Scientists developed a genetically modified line of chicory containing a gene that makes it male sterile, simply facilitating the production of hybrid cultivars. Today there is no genetically modified chicory on the market.
Cotton seed oil – Cottonseed oil and linters. Products may include blended vegetable oils, fried foods, baked foods, snack foods, edible oil products, and small goods casings.
Tobacco -The company Vector has a GMO tobacco being sold under the brand of Quest® cigarettes in the U.S. It is engineered to produce low or no nicotine.
Meat – Meat and dairy products usually come from animals that have eaten GM feed.
Peas – Genetically modified (GM) peas created immune responses in mice, suggesting that they may also create serious allergic reactions in people. The peas had been inserted with a gene from kidney beans, which creates a protein that acts as a pesticide.
Vegetable Oil – Most generic vegetable oils and margarines used in restaurants and in processed foods in North America are made from soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed. Unless these oils specifically say “Non-GMO” or “Organic,” it is probably genetically modified.
Sugarbeets – May include any processed foods containing sugar.
Dairy Products – About 22 percent of cows in the U.S. are injected with recombinant (genetically modified) bovine growth hormone (rbGH).
Vitamins – Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is often made from corn, vitamin E is usually made from soy. Vitamins A, B2, B6, and B12 may be derived from GMOs as well as vitamin D and vitamin K may have “carriers” derived from GM corn sources, such as starch, glucose, and maltodextrin. (Be very cautious on vitamins supplements, check the labels)!!!
How can the public make informed decisions about genetically modified (GM) foods when there is so little information about its safety?
According to the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are over 40 plant varieties that have completed all of the federal requirements for commercialization.
Future planned applications of GMOs are diverse and may include drugs in foods, for example, bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B, metabolically engineered fish that mature more quickly, fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties.
“History has many records of crimes against humanity, which were also justified by dominant commercial interests and governments of the day. Despite protests from citizens, social justice for the common good was eroded in favor of private profits. Today, patenting of life forms and the genetic engineering which it stimulates, is being justified on the grounds that it will benefit society, especially the poor, by providing better and more food and medicine. But in fact, by monopolizing the ‘raw’ biological materials, the development of other options is deliberately blocked. Farmers therefore, become totally dependent on the corporations for seeds.” – Professor Wangari Mathai.
Further Reading: Effects of Genetic Engineering
Disabled World – Disability News for all the Family: http://www.disabled-world.com/fitness/gm-foods.php#ixzz1hBKXDge5
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