Friday, May 10, 2013

Problems With Genetic Engineering & Genetically Modified Organisms (A Basic Overview Of The Issues)

Public Relations & Political Influence

The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms has persisted as the agricultural biotech industry has continued to promote its creations around the world. Unfortunately, many people still do not understand the issues relating to genetic engineering and the products of that process. The ignorance surrounding this subject can largely be credited to the PR efforts of corporate agribusiness. These PR efforts have been so successful that at this point in time it can very difficult to engage in honest civil discussion about the issues related to genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms.

A popular accusation used against the opponents of GMO technology is that they are the “climate change deniers of the left.” This dismissive accusation, while quite cleverly crafted, entirely misses the substance and reality of the issues at hand. For one thing, it serves to inaccurately classify the opponents of GMO technology as leftists. This serves to marginalize them along the arbitrary lines of a left/right political dichotomy and casts the issue in a political light which is largely irrelevant. But suffice it say that it's not just leftists who oppose this technology. The next attribute of this phrase, equating them to “climate change deniers,” also serves to create another false parallel which can potentially serve to divide people. People on the right side of the political spectrum don't want to be seen as sympathizing with an issue of “the left” and informed people of any political persuasion do not want to be equated with any sort of climate change denial. But the reality of this accusation is that it obfuscates the real issues at hand.

Unlike the fossil fuel industry (which has funded climate change deniers and which sponsors PR campaigns along those lines), the agricultural biotech industry has been very successful with its PR campaign. This is partly because the separation between fossil fuel extraction and the science of climatology is very distinct at the academic level. Corporate agribusiness, on the other hand, has long played a direct role in the financing of agricultural science departments on university campuses around the world. Because of this, any criticism of corporate biotech can limit access to scholarships, internships, and the general funding behind any agricultural department. And this conflict of interest will naturally effect the general attitude in such departments about any criticism of GMO technology.

Beyond the direct funding of agricultural departments at various universities, and the consequential influence gained thereby, is the issue of scientific obstruction promoted by corporate agribusiness. Because the biotech industry has been allowed to patent the gene sequence of its GMO creations, it is legally allowed to restrict any and all 3rd party testing of those creations. This not only limits the ability to conduct third party tests (under the penalty of resulting lawsuits), but it also serves to delegitimize critical 3rd party testing as being not only illegal but, thereby, somehow unethical. Mind you, this restriction is on top of the limited focus likely to be found in tests conducted by universities sponsored by corporate agribusiness.

The commodification of food is a profitable endeavor. The profits derived thereby are what allow the biotech industry to wield influence over the university system. But these profits also afford corporate agribusiness great influence over the government – which is why these corporations were allowed to patent living organisms in the first place (and why they are allowed to legally limit testing of those organisms). In addition to making large donations to the campaigns of prominent politicians, corporate agribusiness has also facilitated the appointment of high level officials who are sympathetic to their goals. This influence over the government can also be considered part of their PR campaign which serves to legitimize their activities.

All said... corporate agribusiness has a firm hold over the university system and the poltical/legal system. And this powerful influence is in addition to high-powered PR campaign which is used to dismiss the notion of any problems related to the creation and implementation of genetically modified organisms.

The Scientific Issues Related to Genetic Engineering

Another notion which has been popularized by proponents of genetic engineering is that the process used to create genetically modified organisms is equivalent to natural selection and selective breeding. This is a simplistic falsehood which appeals to members of the lay public who do not understand the process of genetic engineering. The relatively slow evolutionary process used by selective breeding (which farmers and gardeners have used for centuries) is not at all the same as the process of genetic engineering (which can create organisms that would never naturally occur without the process of genetic engineering). Cross-pollinating slightly different breeds of tomatoes, for instance, is not the same thing as introducing gene sequences from bacteria or other species into those tomatoes. The latter can create an organism which would otherwise never manifest in the natural world and usually genes from several different species are used in the process.

Arguably, the creation of any particular GMO isn't necessarily problematic in itself. However, it is impossible to know how a GMO crop with traits from another species will interact with the natural world. For example, corn engineered with genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (BT corn) will not necessarily behave in the same was as corn which is merely grown in the presence of Bacillus thuringiensis (which serves as a naturally occurring pesticide). When this GMO corn is released into the wild it serves as a new source of Bacillus thuringiensis which is delivered to pests in a different way and which spreads in a different manner. In this case we are looking at GMO which may cause pests to develop a higher resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis or may cause an imbalance in the ecosystem when the number of pests vulnerable to Bacillus thuringiensis is reduced. Essentially we are talking about the creation and dissemmination of an invasive species.

Because limited laboratory testing (or isolated testing in study fields) can not, by definition, replicate the conditions of the broader natural world... it is unknown what effect any particular GMO will have upon the biosphere until it is released and starts cross-pollinating with naturally occurring species. On a related note, because a gene sequence can effect very many different attributes, it is often unclear precisely what effect a paticular gene will have (if it is expressed at all) when introduced into a species which is very different from the species from which it was taken.

Biological Dangers Posed To Mammalian Health

For some of the reasons already mentioned, implentation of a “precautionary principle” (which is already required in some places) is advisable. This principle is related to issues of public health and is described as follows:

“The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. But in some legal systems, as the European Union Law, the precautionary principle is also a general principle of law. This means that it is compulsory. The principle aims to provide guidance for protecting public health and the environment in the face of uncertain risks, stating that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment."

With that in mind, it should be pointed out that some evidence has already suggested that GMO products have posed a health risk to mammalian health. This should be understood at a basic level since organisms can be manipulated by genetic engineering to have a wide variety of traits (positive or negative). Were someone so inclined, they could even genetically engineer an intentionally destructive organism. But before issues of such malicious intent is the issue of potential mistakes and the inherent limits of laboratory testing for an organism which will be released and interact with the natural world.

In 1989 a dietary supplement genetically engineered by the Japanese corporation Showa Denko killed 37 people (at least) and seriously disabled thousands of others. It is widely believed by many researchers that the recombinant DNA process produced dangerous enzymes which were not noticed in pre-market testing. Showa Denko eventually paid out over $2 billion in damages because of this incident.

In 1996 it was discovered that a gene from Brazil nuts was introduced into soybeans via genetic engineering. Subsequent consumption of those soybeans could have proven fatal to people with allergies to Brazil nuts. This risk was not initially noticed in animal testing. While this particular project was fortunately terminated in time, it should be pointed out that, if a GMO allergen like the one just mentioned was released into the environment, cross-contamination of related plants becomes a risk. Since a wide variety of genes from a wide variety of species are utilized in the genetic engineering process, this is part of the reason that many people want GMO foods labeled as such.

Various studies have suggested other health risks posed by the introduction and consumption of GMO products. Unfortunately, the aforementioned restrictions upon testing and the control of academia by the agricultural bio-tech industry limits their scope and criticizes fiercely any health risks presented by independent researchers.

In 2012 Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini did an extensive study upon “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize” which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (Volume 50, Issue 11, November 2012, Pages 4221–4231). This study, found that (from the abstract):

"The health effects of a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize (from 11% in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup, and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb in water), were studied 2 years in rats. In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly. This difference was visible in 3 male groups fed GMOs. All results were hormone and sex dependent, and the pathological profiles were comparable. Females developed large mammary tumors almost always more often than and before controls, the pituitary was the second most disabled organ; the sex hormonal balance was modified by GMO and Roundup treatments. In treated males, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5–5.5 times higher. This pathology was confirmed by optic and transmission electron microscopy. Marked and severe kidney nephropathies were also generally 1.3–2.3 greater. Males presented 4 times more large palpable tumors than controls which occurred up to 600 days earlier. Biochemistry data confirmed very significant kidney chronic deficiencies; for all treatments and both sexes, 76% of the altered parameters were kidney related. These results can be explained by the non linear endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup, but also by the overexpression of the transgene in the GMO and its metabolic consequences."

Despite using a methodology which exceeded the requirements used by the government to approve GM crops for public consumption, the study was broadly and aggressively attacked. Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini had his academic reputation slandered and actually won a court case against some individuals who attempted to discredit his research. Despite contradicting an academic and regulatory monolith, Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini responded fully to the criticism leveled at his study.

Another problematic issue related to genetically modified organisms is the potentially degraded nutritional value of these creations. GMO crops are generally not designed for increased nutritional content (despite marketing propaganda to the contrary). Rather, they are primarily designed to be resistant to various herbicides and pesticides which are sold by the same corporations which sell GMO seeds. Because of this, any potentially inferior nutritional quality of these GMOs (which are mass marketed and sown broadly) can have a generally negative effect on human populations. Combined with the fact that these GMOs may cross-pollinate with other plants and possibly prove to be invasive... and we could potentially have a very serious problem as the majority of many staple crops become less nutritious.

The aforementioned complications are but a short list of problems related to the impact of genetically modified organisms upon mammalian health. More extensive lists are made available by organizations which are strictly focused upon these issues.

Environmental Dangers

Sadly, many people still do not seem to grasp the notion that environmental degradation poses a harm to human health and society. But any ill effects upon the environment do potentially present very serious problems to humans. And the notion that a certain amount of symbiosis between eco-systems and the various lifeforms which comprise the biosphere should not be overlooked or dismissed.

Since GMO crops are sometimes designed to be resistant to certain herbicides, the potential for them to cross pollinate with genetically similar wild plants can bring about the manifestation of “superweeds” which are immune to certain herbicides. This can be problematic for all farmers – whether they are growing GMO crops or not – and may cause them to use more and stronger herbicides to protect their fields. The increased use of herbicides (which is already associated with the use of GMO crops) is potentially harmful to the environment as the chemicals get dispersed by runoff and effect areas outside the field in which they were initially used.

Similarly, because some GMO crops are sometimes designed with a built-in pesticide (which is thereby presented to insects in a new manner and differing quantities) the potential for certain insects to evolve into “superpests” which can no longer be managed by lower doses of pesticides in fields which are not growing the GMO variety. Equally problematic is the potential effects upon the whole of a “pest” species which may actually serve a broader purpose in the biosphere (by providing food to birds and other animals, for example). A pest species which was already somewhat resistant to the pesticide may also become more dominant and bring about ecological imbalance as it flourishes to levels which were previously kept in check by other “pests”.

These “superweeds” and “superpests,” by themselves, present very serious problems to the environment. Factor in the increased use of agriculutral petro-chemicals frequently used in coordination with GMO crops and more serious problems are presented. For example, a link was recently established between the mostly widely used class of pesticides, “neonicotinoids,” and colony collapse disorder within bee populations. This inspired an EU ban upon that class of pesticides which is primarily used on GMO corn.

Promises, Socioeconomics, and The Marketing of Genetically Modified Organisms

Earlier in this article I wrote about the public relations campaign and the political control wielded by biotech corporations. However, more needs to be said about this. The influence of these corporations extends beyond mere control of the regulating bodies within the United States, control over American universities, and their astro-turfing efforts using social media.

The corporations promoting the use of genetically modified organisms are very wealthy and they have a huge portion of the market share in regard to all things related to modern agriculture. And, beyond the aforementioned methods of influence, they make use of simple marketing to sell their products around the world. Unfortunately, despite their carefully cultivated brand images, these large corporations are not always the most ethical.

Bio-tech corporations present their creations as necessary to feed a growing population. And, therefore, they present themselves as the preeminent humanitarians of our day. However, their humanitarian claims ring hollow for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the diversity of natural/organic crops that already exists is more than capable of thriving in broad range of climates and provide at least as much nutritional value as the genetically engineered varieties. But as many people know, the primary cause of malnourishment in this world has nothing to do with a lack of nutrition in organic crops but, rather, with the logistics surrounding distribution and control over food supplies.

Biotech corporations exacerbate these latter issues by patenting their GMO seeds and prohibiting farmers from saving seeds from the current crop to plant again next year (a practice as old as agriculture itself). This is all above and beyond these corporations suing farmers whose fields have been contaminated by GMO crops (either through spillage or cross-pollination).

Beyond all of that, the GMO crops being promoted have often failed to achieve promised yields. So when farmers are locked into buying GMO seed (either because of cross contamination or monopolized private markets) they are in a serious economic and legal bind if future yields fall, if herbicides and pesticides cease being as effective, or if other environmental conditions change. In India this has created the situation in which over 270,000 farmers have committed suicide during the last 15 years – after their GMO crops have failed or they were unable to purchase new seed for the coming year.

In regard to claims about increased yields associated with GMO crops, it should be pointed out that record-breaking yields have recently been achieved using organic crops and farming methods. The whole promise of the “green revolution,” which involves heavy use of chemical herbicides & pesticides (along with monoculture planting), ought to be seriously questioned. While the broader issue of the “green revolution” is slightly beyond the intended scope of this article, it is strongly related in terms of agribusiness influence, and it's problems are exacerbated by the implementation of GMO technology. (As with many of the issues and problems discussed in this article, I'd recommend studying the works of Vandana Shiva for information about all these subjects.)

The Big Picture

Biotech corporations have made very effective use of their power and influence. Many people remain ignorant of the basic issues surrounding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms. Part of the problem is the complexity of these issues. People do not understand the basic difference between genetic engineering and traditional breeding programs. People do not consider that a GMO with a built-in pesticide may create problems down the line – even if the pesticide initially works to protect a particular crop. People are unaware about the limitations of controlled laboratory testing as opposed to real world application. People are even unaware about the generally low standards required to have a particular GMO crop formally approved for the market. And these are but the simplest and most recognizable problems associated with this technology. When we to start discussing deeper, more problematic issues associated with genetic engineering... the ignorance becomes almost palpable. Most people, for example, are unaware that this technology can be used maliciously and effectively weaponized.

For any claim about anything (scientific, spiritual, or otherwise) you can find people disputing those claims – and all the moreso if there is a source of funding for anyone disputing those claims (or if there is some other personal interest for an idividual to do so). But just because a subject may seem to have many proponents in favor of it, even seemingly impartial academic proponents, does not mean all arguments are equal, apply critical thought, or get presented earnestly. Anyone can can cherrypick studies, buy off universities, the government, and the media – but that does not mean their position is justified, well informed, or presented for reasons other than personal gain and profit. Nor does any amount of parroting by the lay public prove otherwise.

The issues in regard to genetic engineering must be looked at individually, collectively, and critically. And they must not be looked at myopically but, rather, with the broader long term implications in mind.

But, recently, attempts to merely have GMO foods labeled as such have been shut down with millions of dollars coming in from the biotech corporations to oppose that action. Even the right to know what you are eating is denied to many people. They don't know if they are eating an apple or if they are eating a GMO apple engineered with genes from a bacteria and a pig. At the very least... Hindus, Jews and Muslims might want to know about such a thing – not to mention vegetarians. And, of course, all the people who have other issues with GMO crops might want to know as well. The right to know what you are eating should be fundamental.

Really though... the issues related to GMO crops extend far beyond merely knowing if the food you are eating is genetically engineered or not. And this is why protest movements have risen in opposition to this technology and the corporations which promote it. (In fact, an international day of protest against Monsanto has been organized for May 25th, 2013 at locations around the world – including most state capitols in the United States.) I encourage everyone to get involved with the protest movement against GMO crops and biotech corporations. Do your own research on this topic, spread the useful information that you find, and help counter the incessant propaganda and misinformation spewed forth by the agricultural biotech corporations.

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