By Luke Anderson for the book “Facing Hawaii’s Future” published by Hawaii SEED.
Genetic engineering is a laboratory technique used to make new kinds of plant, animal or other living organisms. It is now possible, using these techniques, to cross natural boundaries and force together DNA from any different species, such as jellyfish genes with corn plants or human genes with rice.
Examples of genetic engineering experiments that have already been done include:
~ Spider/Goat – taking a gene from a spider that leads to the production of spider web and putting it into goats so the goats can then be milked for the spider web protein.
~ Fish/Strawberries – taking a gene from an Arctic flounder and putting it into a strawberry to try to make it frost-resistant.
~ Corn/Human – taking a human gene and putting it into corn so that the corn contains human antibodies that attack sperm. The idea is to develop the corn as a plant-gel contraceptive that kills sperm on contact.
Hawai‘i has the highest recorded number of open-air experiments with genetically engineered plants in the world. Examples include:
~ Corn engineered with human genes (Dow)
~ Sugarcane engineered with human genes (Hawai‘i Agriculture Research Center)
What is a gene?
Every plant and animal is made of cells, each of which has a center called a nucleus. Inside every nucleus there are strings of DNA, half of which is normally inherited from the mother and half from the father. Short sequences of DNA are called genes. These genes operate in complex networks that are finely regulated to enable the processes of living organisms to happen in the right place and at the right time.
~ Corn engineered with jellyfish genes (Stanford University)
~ Tobacco engineered with lettuce genes (University of Hawai‘i)
~ Rice engineered with human genes (Applied Phytologics)
~ Corn engineered with hepatitis virus genes (Prodigene)1
Haven’t we been breeding new plants and animals for thousands of years? Isn’t that just like genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering is completely different from traditional breeding. In traditional breeding it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but it is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile—a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.
How is genetic engineering done?
Because living organisms have natural barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, genetic engineers have to find ways to force the DNA from one organism into another. These methods include:
~ Using viruses or bacteria to “infect” animal or plant cells with the new DNA.
~ Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes.
~ Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle.
~ Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gene gun into a layer of plant cells.
Is genetic engineering precise?
The technology of genetic engineering is currently very crude. It is not possible to insert a new gene with any accuracy, and the transfer of new genes can disrupt the finely controlled network of DNA in an organism.
Current understanding of the way in which DNA works is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point can have side effects that are impossible to predict or control. The new gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value.
For example, when genetically engineered salmon were compared to normal salmon, it was found that the genetic engineering unexpectedly increased the amount of a protein identified as a major food allergen.3 In another case, Australian researchers reported in November 2005 that after 10 years spent developing a genetically engineered pea they had to abandon project after they found out that the altered peas caused lung inflammation and other adverse effects in mice.4 “The reaction of the mice… might reflect something that would happen to humans,” said deputy chief of CSIRO plant industry T. J. Higgins.5
Why do genetically engineered foods have antibiotic resistant genes in them?
The techniques used to transfer genes have a very low success rate, so the genetic engineers attach “marker genes” that are resistant to antibiotics to help them to find out which cells have taken up the new DNA. These marker genes are resistant to antibiotics that are commonly used in human and veterinary medicine. Some scientists believe that eating GE food containing these marker genes could encourage gut bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance.
The British Medical Association6 stated in 1999 that, “Antibiotic resistance, the threat of new allergic reactions and the unknown hazards of transgenic DNA mean that on health grounds alone the impact of GMOs must be fully assessed before they are released. The environmental implications and the long term effects on human health cannot be safely predicted at this stage and caution must therefore prevail.”
Lorrin Pang, MD, and MPH Advisor to the World Health Organization echoes those concerns relative to Hawaii’s genetically engineered papaya. “The genetically engineered papaya contains three antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) genes. I am concerned about the possibility that they might transfer to the human gut bacteria, and then create new disease strains that will be resistant to the three important antibiotics.”
Isn’t genetically engineered food thoroughly safety tested?
The U.S. regulatory agencies such as the FDA have deregulated GMOs. What this means is that in most cases it is left up to the corporations themselves (those who stand to profit from the introduction of genetically engineered crops) to decide whether or not their products are safe. There is no long-term safety testing of genetically engineered food. The genetic engineering corporations sometimes conduct short-term animal feeding trials, but most of this research is kept confidential. Neither the public, farmers, elected officials nor regulatory agencies are given vital information that would be needed to determine safety concerns associated with these experiments.
No evidence from human trials for either toxicity or allergy testing is required. No independent checks of the company’s claims are required. The corporations producing GMOs have also avoided liability that would hold them accountable in case of any hazardous effects.
But nobody’s fallen over dead from eating genetically engineered food, have they?
Proponents of genetic engineering often make comments such as: “We’ve been eating genetically engineered food for years in the United States and there have been no problems. No one has even caught a cold.” Considering that there have been no studies done (following people who have eaten genetically engineered food over years, comparing them with a group of people who have not eaten GE food, taking blood samples, etc.) how would we know if people are being affected? Many scientists feel that an evaluation of genetically engineered food would require studying the cumulative effects of eating it over many years.
“This technology is being promoted, in the face of concerns by respectable scientists and in the face of data to the contrary, by the very agencies which are supposed to be protecting human health and the environment,” says Dr Suzanne Wuerthele, a toxicologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The bottom line in my view is that we are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences.”
Why isn’t genetically engineered food labeled in the U.S.?
Examples from around the world show that when genetically engineered food is labeled, people vote with their wallets and boycott food containing genetically engineered ingredients. The industry has lobbied hard to prevent labeling in the U.S., spending $6 million, for example, to defeat a citizens’ labeling initiative in Oregon.
The fact that GMO foods are not labeled as such eliminates traceability of these products in the food chain, and does not allow for the tracking of food illnesses and allergic reactions.
Countries around the world with labeling of GMOs include Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, all 15 countries of the European Union, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Taiwan and Thailand.
Don’t GMOs reduce the use of pesticides?
A 2003 study which analyzed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own statistics found that pesticide use actually increased by about 50 million pounds with the planting of genetically engineered crops from 1996-2003.9 This is hardly surprising – the corporations selling genetically engineered crops own 60 percent of the global pesticide market.10 These are not corporations that want to see farmers using fewer chemicals; these are corporations that want to profit by selling more of their chemicals.
More than 70 percent of the genetically engineered crops that are grown are crops engineered to be resistant to these corporations’ own- brand chemicals.11 This means that a farmer can spray the field with the chemicals without harming the genetically engineered crop.
Herbicide-resistant genes are being transferred from genetically engineered crops to weeds via cross-pollination, and higher and higher doses of chemicals are being needed to have the desired effect, leading to a rise in herbicide use.
How can GMOs cause pollution?
Genetically engineered organisms are alive. This means that once they are released into the environment, genetically engineered plants and animals can reproduce and contaminate any other plants or animals with which they can breed. In many cases genetically engineered organisms can never be recalled or contained after they have been released, and any problems could then multiply for future generations.
One example is a study at Purdue University in the U.S., where researchers studied the potential effects of the release of a small number of genetically engineered fish into the wild. They estimated that just 60 genetically engineered fish released into a wild population of 60,000 could lead to the extinction of the wild fish within 40 generations.12
“Open-air testing of genetically engineered plants in vulnerable ecosystems presents unacceptable risks to Hawaii’s fragile biodiversity,” says Cha Smith, executive director of KAHEA, an alliance of Hawaiian and environmental activists. “Pollen from plants that are engineered to produce powerful chemicals will assuredly be carried by trade winds and eaten by insects and birds. There is no way to prevent the spread of genetic material to native plants and animals.”13
Luke Anderson is the author of the book “Genetic Engineering, Food and Our Environment.” Since 1997 he has worked with environmental, farming and social justice groups around the world as an advisor on genetic engineering and related issues.
Statistics on field tests for genetically engineered crops available on the website of “Information Systems for Biotechnology” established as part of the National Biological Impact Assessment Program, a program administered by USDA <www.isb. vt.edu/CFDOCS/fieldtests2.cfm>
Quoted in Michael Pollan, “Playing God in the Garden,” New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998.
Hill, J.A., A. Kiessling, R.H. Devlin. 2000. Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) GE for a growth hormone gene construct exhibit increased rates of muscle hyperplasia and detectable levels of gene expression. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 57: 939-50. In “Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada,” The Royal Society of Canada, Ottawa, January 2001, p.182, www.rsc. ca/foodbiotechnology/GMreportEN.pdf.
Lindstrom, C.D., T. van Do, I. Hordvik, C. Endresen, S. Elsayed. 1996. Cloning of two distinct cDNAs encoding parvalbumin, the major allergen of Atlantic salmon salmo salar. Scan. J. Immunol. 44: 335-44.
Vanessa E. Prescott, Peter M. Campbell, Andrew Moore, Joerg Mattes, Marc E. Rothenberg, Paul S. Foster, T. J. V. Higgins, and Simon P. Hogan, “Transgenic Expression of Bean- Amylase Inhibitor in Peas Results in Altered Structure and Immunogenicity,” Agric. Food Chem., 53 (23), 9023 -9030, 2005.
“Australian researchers scrap GM peas after mice fall ill,”AFX News Limited, 17 November 2005
“UK Medical Group Urges Moratorium On GM Crops,” Reuters 18 May 1999.
FDA, “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties,” (GMO Policy), Federal Register, Vol. 57, No. 104 (1992), p. 22991.
Quoted in Michael Pollan, “Playing God in the Garden,” New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998.
Benbrook, CM (2003), “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper No 6, Nov 2003, http://wwww.biotech-info. net/technicalpaper6.html.
“SEEDless in Seattle,” RAFI news release, Rural Advancement Foundation International, 26 November 1999.
C. James, “Global Review of Commercialised Transgenic Crops: 1998,” ISAAA Briefs No. 8. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY, 1998.
Muir, WM, Howard, RD (1999) “Possible ecological risks of GE organism release when transgenes affect mating success: sexual selection and the Trojan gene hypothesis,” PNAS 96:13853- 13856.
“Lawsuit Challenges Open-Air Testing of Genetically Engineered ‘Biopharm’ Crops. USDA Not Adequately Protecting Food Supply,” EarthJustice Press Release, November 12, 2003.