Agribusiness is working to cash in on new technology that allows specialized organisms combining the "best" parts of many natural life forms to be created: the ability to tolerate cold in fish, to strawberries which must be transported to markets far away; the ability to resist herbicides for crops in fields that need to be heavily sprayed to eradicate weeds. How is this possible? All organisms contain a unique set of long “blueprint” molecules in their cells called DNA, which determine how they will develop and grow. Particular traits (fragrance etc.) can be isolated by splitting DNA strands into sections, or “genes.” Genetic engineers cut up DNA strands and artificially introduce genes from one organism to another. Unfortunately our knowledge of genes and their interactions is limited. Most genetic engineering comes down to a dangerous game of chance: genes are mixed and injected into organisms without a concrete understanding of where the injected gene will manifest and how it will interact with its surroundings.
what are the risks?
Early indications show that when we alter the structure of our food, we may unwittingly place human health in peril. GM plants commonly contain "marker" antibiotic resistance genes that help engineers determine how implanted genes have been taken up by the plant. However, the use of these genes may undermine our ability to fight disease. Bacteria are able to absorb genetic information from their surroundings, raising concerns that antibiotic resistance genes will be transferred to bacteria (in the guts of animals or humans or the environment in general through soil), stripping us of our ability to use these antibiotics to save lives. Health officials are also concerned about direct effects from consuming GM plants, such as increased food allergies.
threats to biodiversity:
Biodiversity is also threatened by GM crops. Special herbicide resistant crops (such as maize, oilseed rape, sugar beet and fodder beet) are now being created so that weeds may be eradicated from fields without harming the product. Farmland is one of the last refuges for native fauna; many “weeds” have already been so successfully treated by herbicides that they are on the endangered species list (as are many of the birds and other wildlife they supported). GM crops threaten to push these vulnerable species over the edge. Once new genes are introduced they cannot be recalled. Research shows that GM plants are able to cross-pollinate with related wild plants; potentially passing on their herbicide resistant genes. Experts fear that this may create a new breed of “super-weed” which would require the use of even heavier chemicals and further imperil wildlife. Similar threats are posed by new insect resistant strains, whose introduction may cause the destruction of helper and benign species of insects such as ladybugs and Monarch butterflies.
the right to choose:
Given all the uncertainty about GMOs, how will producers and consumers maintain their right to choose what they grow and eat? Once GM crops are grown on a large scale it will be nearly impossible for farmers to guarantee their crops are GM-free. The distance each type of pollen can travel is unknown, but sugar beet has already been documented to travel over 3km and maize over 8 km. Organic producers are particularly at risk; if their fields are contaminated by neighboring farmers they will lose their designation as organic producers. Consumers are similarly constricted. There are no international labeling standards, and regional laws are full of loopholes. EU law requires labeling of GM foods, but excludes products that contain GM derivatives (oil, additives) and processed foods. International trade rules are lax: currently beans and maize imported to Europe from the US are not separated from normal crops, making it impossible for consumers to know whether their foods contain GM material.
who will benefit?
The main beneficiaries of GM will be the large agribusiness companies which promote it. GM food has not been found to be more nutritious or better tasting, and it seems unlikely that it will help assuage global hunger. Research and development has focused on commodity crops for animal feed and processed foods such as soya and maize, designed for intensive farming systems used by farmers in the west. Technologies such as the “terminator seed” which are engineered to respond to particular fertilizers patented by companies and do not produce fertile seeds (ending the ancient practice of saving seeds for replanting) threaten the autonomy of small farmers by forcing them to spend more money on seeds and pushing them into debt. FoE groups maintain that the question of hunger is not question of production capacity: producers today battle surpluses so great they receive subsidies not to produce at capacity and still have silos full of product leftover to rot. The question is one of economics and political will, something GMOs cannot change.
who is monitoring?
GM products have not undergone rigorous testing. Most tests have been carried out by GM manufacturers and have been limited to short term animal feeding trials. Government tests have focused on post-release monitoring, making the general public the testing ground for potentially harmful technologies. Independent research on Monarch butterflies and rats fed with GM potatoes confirms fears that GM products may not be as safe as they are purported to be, but the few government tests that do look at GM crops before release focus on production rather than health or environmental issues.
what does foei want?
- A 5 year moratorium on GM commercial crops, pending rigorous scientific analysis
- Strict and clear labeling of all GM products, including derivatives and additives to food processing
- Segregation and labeling of imported GM foods from harvest; with clear tracking from the field to the supermarket shelf
- An international ban on the use of antibiotic resistant gene markers
- Public participation in GM decisions, including when and where testing and trials may take place
- Stricter regulation of the release of GMOs
- A global ban on "Terminator" seed technology
- Comprehensive and culturally sensitive review of patent laws to prevent biopiracy