It is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, plant geneticists can isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a different plant. The new genetically-modified plant will gain drought tolerance as well. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms also can be used. 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 lethal 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.
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. Some examples of these plants include tomatoes and cantaloupe, that have modified ripening characteristics, soybeans and sugar-beets that are resistant to herbicides, and corn and cotton plants with increased resistance to insect pests. Not all these products are available in supermarkets yet; however, the prevalence of GM foods in U.S. grocery stores is more widespread than is commonly thought. While there are very, very few genetically-modified whole fruits and vegetables available on produce stands, highly processed foods, such as vegetable oils or breakfast cereals, most likely contain some tiny percentage of genetically-modified ingredients because the raw ingredients have been pooled into one processing stream from many different sources. Also, the ubiquity of soybean derivatives as food additives in the modern American diet virtually ensures that all U.S. consumers have been exposed to GM food products.
Soybeans and corn are the top two most widely grown crops (82% of all GM crops harvested in 2000), with cotton, rapeseed (or canola) and potatoes trailing behind. 74% of these GM crops were modified for herbicide tolerance, 19% were modified for insect pest resistance, and 7% were modified for both herbicide tolerance and pest tolerance. Globally, acreage of GM crops has increased 25-fold in just 5 years, from approximately 4.3 million acres in 1996 to 109 million acres in 2000 - almost twice the area of the United Kingdom. Approximately 99 million acres were devoted to GM crops in the U.S. and Argentina alone. Governments around the world are hard at work to establish a regulatory process to monitor the effects of and approve new varieties of GM plants. Yet depending on the political, social and economic climate within a region or country, different governments are responding in different ways. In Japan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has announced that health testing of GM foods will be mandatory as of April 2001. Currently, testing of GM foods is voluntary. Japanese supermarkets are offering both GM foods and unmodified foods, and customers are beginning to show a strong preference for unmodified fruits and vegetables.
India's government has not yet announced a policy on GM foods because no GM crops are grown in India and no products are commercially available in supermarkets yet. India is, however, very supportive of transgenic plant research. It is highly likely that India will decide that the benefits of GM foods outweigh the risks because Indian agriculture will need to adopt drastic new measures to counteract the country's endemic poverty and feed its exploding population.
Some states in Brazil have banned GM crops entirely, and the Brazilian Institute for the Defense of Consumers, in collaboration with Greenpeace, has filed suit to prevent the importation of GM crop's. Brazilian farmers, however, have resorted to smuggling GM soybean seeds into the country because they fear economic harm if they are unable to compete in the global marketplace with other grain-exporting countries.
In Europe, anti-GM food protestors have been especially active. In the last few years Europe has experienced two major foods scares: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in Great Britain and dioxin-tainted foods originating from Belgium. These food scares have undermined consumer confidence about the European food supply, and citizens are disinclined to trust government information about GM foods. In response to the public outcry, Europe now requires mandatory food labeling of GM foods in stores, and the European Commission (EC) has established a 1% threshold for contamination of unmodified foods with GM food products.
In the United States, the regulatory process is confused because there are three different government agencies that have jurisdiction over GM foods. To put it very simply, the EPA evaluates GM plants for environmental safety, the USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to eat. The EPA is responsible for regulating substances such as pesticides or toxins that may cause harm to the environment. GM crops such as B.t. pesticide-laced corn or herbicide-tolerant crops but not foods modified for their nutritional value fall under the purview of the EPA. The USDA is responsible for GM crops that do not fall under the umbrella of the EPA such as drought-tolerant or disease-tolerant crops, crops grown for animal feeds, or whole fruits, vegetables and grains for human consumption. The FDA historically has been concerned with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food products and additives, not whole foods. Under current guidelines, a genetically-modified ear of corn sold at a produce stand is not regulated by the FDA because it is a whole food, but a box of cornflakes is regulated because it is a food product. The FDA's stance is that GM foods are substantially equivalent to unmodified, "natural" foods, and therefore not subject to FDA regulation.
The EPA conducts risk assessment studies on pesticides that could potentially cause harm to human health and the environment, and establishes tolerance and residue levels for pesticides. There are strict limits on the amount of pesticides that may be applied to crops during growth and production, as well as the amount that remains in the food after processing. Growers using pesticides must have a license for each pesticide and must follow the directions on the label to accord with the EPA's safety standards. Government inspectors may periodically visit farms and conduct investigations to ensure compliance. Violation of government regulations may result in steep fines, loss of license and even jail sentences.
As an example the EPA regulatory approach, consider B.t. corn. The EPA has not established limits on residue levels in B.t corn because the B.t. in the corn is not sprayed as a chemical pesticide but is a gene that is integrated into the genetic material of the corn itself. Growers must have a license from the EPA for B.t corn, and the EPA has issued a letter for the 2000 growing season requiring farmers to plant 20% unmodified corn, and up to 50% unmodified corn in regions where cotton is also cultivated. This planting strategy may help prevent insects from developing resistance to the B.t. pesticides as well as provide a refuge for non-target insects such as Monarch butterflies.
The USDA has many internal divisions that share responsibility for assessing GM foods. Among these divisions are APHIS, the Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service, which conducts field tests and issues permits to grow GM crops, the Agricultural Research Service which performs in-house GM food research, and the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service which oversees the USDA risk assessment program. The USDA is concerned with potential hazards of the plant itself. Does it harbor insect pests? Is it a noxious weed? Will it cause harm to indigenous species if it escapes from farmer's fields? The USDA has the power to impose quarantines on problem regions to prevent movement of suspected plants, restrict import or export of suspected plants, and can even destroy plants cultivated in violation of USDA regulations. Many GM plants do not require USDA permits from APHIS. A GM plant does not require a permit if it meets these 6 criteria: 1) the plant is not a noxious weed; 2) the genetic material introduced into the GM plant is stably integrated into the plant's own genome; 3) the function of the introduced gene is known and does not cause plant disease; 4) the GM plant is not toxic to non-target organisms; 5) the introduced gene will not cause the creation of new plant viruses; and 6) the GM plant cannot contain genetic material from animal or human pathogens (see http://www.aphis.usda.gov:80/bbep/bp/7cfr340 ).
The current FDA policy was developed in 1992 (Federal Register Docket No. 92N-0139) and states that agri-biotech companies may voluntarily ask the FDA for a consultation. Companies working to create new GM foods are not required to consult the FDA, nor are they required to follow the FDA's recommendations after the consultation. Consumer interest groups wish this process to be mandatory, so that all GM food products, whole foods or otherwise, must be approved by the FDA before being released for commercialization. The FDA counters that the agency currently does not have the time, money, or resources to carry out exhaustive health and safety studies of every proposed GM food product. Moreover, the FDA policy as it exists today does not allow for this type of intervention.
The FDA's current position on food labeling is governed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered "GRAS" - generally recognized as safe. The FDA contends that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods, and therefore not subject to more stringent labeling. If all GM foods and food products are to be labeled, Congress must enact sweeping changes in the existing food labeling policy. What are the acceptable limits of GM contamination in non-GM products? The EC has determined that 1% is an acceptable limit of cross-contamination, yet many consumer interest groups argue that only 0% is acceptable. Some companies such as Gerber baby foods and Frito-Lay have pledged to avoid use of GM foods in any of their products. But who is going to monitor these companies for compliance and what is the penalty if they fail? Once again, the FDA does not have the resources to carry out testing to ensure compliance.
The fact is, genetic engineering is crude, imprecise and insidious. The process itself alters DNA and mutates genes. It’s a game of genetic roulette that can’t be won, and is ultimately dangerous.
It has been proven GM crops do not fulfill their stated purpose. They have not influenced the escalating rates of hunger, poverty, food prices and environmental disasters.
The solution is a fundamental change in farming practices that does away with GM crops and promotes small-scale organic farming. According to Jeffrey Smith's research, between 1994 and 2001 - a period during which GM foods flooded the market - food related illnesses doubled.
GMO foods can be:
Smith addresses recent GMO-related health problems in both animals and people in his video. GM foods can also:
- Cause cancer
- Contribute to food allergies
- Possibly cause damage to your immune system
- Create super-viruses
- Potentially cause outbreaks of Morgellons Disease
The traits of GM crops can get passed on to other non-GM crops. This means that a crop engineered to contain a vaccine, or to be sterile, could easily taint an entire region, and eventually the entire world. As Smith points out in the video, the environmental impact of GMOs is potentially much greater even than the health impact. The offspring of these products include products such as maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and high fructose corn syrup. Other GMO products include
- Some varieties of zucchini, crookneck squash, and papayas from Hawaii
- Milk containing rbGH
- Rennet (containing genetically modified enzymes) used to make hard cheeses
- Aspartame (NutraSweet)
Now, with everything negative I've brought to light with this post about GMO's I don't think we can afford to ignore a technology that has such enormous potential benefits. However, I believe we must SLOWLY proceed, with caution to avoid causing unintended harm to human health and the environment as a result of our enthusiasm for this powerful technology. Also I believe we should let men of science police the technology, not Monsanto executives trying to make a quick buck for investors using the whole human race as guinea pigs. Good Luck...
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