GE Primer

GE Primer

by Nate Furler, Marketing Specialist

Natural hybridization has been around for thousands of years.  This process involves breeding two strains of the same species of plant or animal together to get a certain desired outcome.  Think of Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie (two humans) crossing to get offspring with the desired chiseled physique and great eyes.  However, you wouldn’t imagine crossing either one of them with a Labrador retriever, even if you did want someone good looking that would follow you wherever you might lead them.  The former process, natural hybridization is often confused with the latter, Genetic Engineering (GE).  However, there is a dramatic difference between the creation of GE plants and animals compared to their natural counterparts.

Genetic Engineering, also known as “biotechnology” or “recombinant DNA technology,” involves taking a DNA fragment from one organism and combining it with another organism.  Most notably, these two species have no ability to otherwise reproduce with each other in the natural world.  So as hybridization could occur naturally under the right conditions, genetically engineered plants could not, and do not exist without the help of mankind.

Let’s look at one genetically engineered species, Bt corn.  A gene to produce the pesticide Cry1Ab protein (commonly known as Bt toxin) is inserted randomly into the DNA of corn.  Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is the soil bacteria from which the gene originates.  This protein has insecticidal properties.  Once parts of the plant are ingested by susceptible insects, the insect dies.

It is particularly interesting to note that both the location of the transferred gene sequence in the resulting corn DNA and the consequences of the insertion subtly differ with each insertion.  “GE crop technology abrogates (does away with) natural reproductive processes, selection occurs at the single cell level, the procedure is highly mutagenic and routinely breeches genera (breed) barriers, and the technique has only been used commercially for 10 years.” (Freese W. Schubert D. “Safety testing and regulation of genetically engineered foods.”  Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews. Nov 2004, 21).

In other instances, genes are spliced into the DNA of plants to make them more resistant to certain herbicides.  In the case of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready HT corn, this gene makes the plant less susceptible to the Roundup Ready herbicide (glyphosate).  The sprayed herbicide consequently kills other weeds in the field, but leaves the GE corn plant unaffected.  The original intention of this system was to increase the potency of the herbicide, and therefore, decrease the amount of the chemical sprayed on crops.  However, the opposite has proven to be the case with higher amounts of chemicals being sprayed on average.  In addition, the evolution of “super weeds” has occurred, and they are less affected by one chemical which means the application of multiple chemicals is necessary.  This reality has proved a boon for the industry and a bust for farmers since farmers are paying for an increased amount of chemicals.

The safety and viability debate of GE crops has raged on for over fifteen years.  Although cautionary studies exist, pertaining to animal and human consumption of GE containing foods, as well as warning against widespread and unstoppable environmental contamination by GE genetic traits, the world of GE plants is ever expanding.  Currently the total percentage of acres planted with GE soy, cotton, and corn are as follows: 93% of soybeans, 78% of herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton, 73% insect resistant (Bt) cotton, 64% Bt corn, and 70% HT corn. (As of July 1, 2010, USDA Economic Research Service, Data Sheets)

Recalling the idea of profitability, the picture of big agricultural corporations comes to mind.  Not only are these companies funding the research that is widely circulated, they are also protecting their assets with legal contracts.  One must carefully consider that these genetically modified seeds have patents on their designs (DNA) which are owned by the seed and chemical companies.  It is only necessary for that genetic marker to be transferred to or exist as a residual on the neighboring farmer’s seed in order for the corporation to sue that farmer (and win) on the grounds of patent infringement.  Considering the little effort it takes to spread genetic markers, farmers interested in maintaining their organic and conventional non-GE crops will have to somehow control the wind, the insects and the animals that cross pollinate them.

Where does that leave you and me? For every argument and study in favor of genetic engineering, there is a counter argument with equally convincing proof behind it.  We are left, most certainly, with the power to influence decisions with our shopping dollars.  This may seem like a small influence; however, it should not be discounted.  After all, the GE industry has worked hard against labeling GE ingredients in the food we eat.  They are fearful that the public won’t buy their foods if we know there are GE ingredients in the mix.  So, on the grounds of decreased sales, GE ingredients have proliferated, especially in the processed foods we are eating.

Fortunately, an organization called the NON-GMO Project is working with companies that are interested in maintaining clean products that are free of genetic contamination.  They offer the only third-party verification process for companies, many of which we carry, that are interested in letting consumers know their commitment to clean products.  To learn more about this organization, check out http://www.nongmoproject.org/.

With all the potential risks, I would like to know what the leaders of these large corporations, their scientists, and members of government are feeding their families?  Are they eating organic?