GMO’s and Plant Health, what’s the big deal?
“Not one man in a thousand has accuracy of eye and judgment sufficient to become an eminent breeder. If gifted with these qualities , and he studies his subject for years, and devotes his lifetime to it with indomitable perseverance, he will succeed, and will make great improvements; if he wants any of these qualities, he will assuredly fail”
– Charles Darwin
A genetically modified organism (GMO) has had its DNA decoded and manipulated to create something different than what has developed naturally. The technique used is called genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology. Creating GMOs involves taking DNA molecules from inside the cells of different organisms and combining them into one molecule to create a new set of genes. These new genes are then inserted into the cells of a plant or animal to produce characteristics the recipient never had.
For example, scientists can take a trait of a bacterium such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and genetically insert its DNA into another organism to create a new molecule. They then insert that novel gene into living plant cells such as corn and soybeans to create a completely new set of genes and a food plant with modified characteristics.
Why is this a problem worth our concern? We have no idea of where this may lead. Even the strongest supporters of genetic engineering admit there is great uncertainty concerning these processes and their consequences. As the reports of almost all research results in our popular media say, “Further research is needed.”
Besides the unknown consequences, many people are troubled by the ethical problems of “playing God.” When you decode the DNA of a living organism and manipulate it to create a new and unique being, an ethical debate is inevitable. Bioengineering has been called the final frontier. The scientists doing this work, however well intentioned, have been accused of tampering with the natural evolution of all living things on earth. These new plants, sometimes called transgenic plants, are highly valued by many conventional farmers and people in poor, Third World countries, because they require fewer people and less money to produce, are often more durable and disease resistant, and may forestall mass hunger and starvation.
Who could be opposed to all those benefits? No one, but the question is not whether GMOs are good or bad. The problem is the mass distribution and marketing of GMOs when so little is known about their impact on our health and the environment.
Throughout most of human existence, we have evolved alongside the plants we have grown in natural ways. In the 1990’s, genetically modified (GM) foods were introduced to the marketplace. GM foods changed our relationship with plants significantly. GM products typically are those commodity crops such as soybeans, corn, canola and cottonseed. These plants are everywhere, and a plethora of foods now contain some ingredient from GM production.
The real issue is not legality but ethics. Seventy-five percent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain some GM ingredient. Eighty percent of soy and forty percent of corn is genetically modified. GM products are here, but no regulator required anyone to tell us. Food packagers are not required to disclose if a GM ingredient is present in their products. If genetic modification is completely safe, there should be no objection to a labeling requirement. Perhaps only rebellious, resistant consumers can force GM product labeling.
I am not against modifying and improving on what Mother Nature gave us. I love and respect the brilliant work of Luther Burbank, for example, who worked carefully for many years to produce hybrid plants with just the right traits before releasing them to the public for mass consumption. (According to a wikipedia.org entry, Burbank created more than 800 strains and varieties of plants during his 55-year career.) I am sure he would have wanted no part in genetically modifying plants, which I imagine he would consider “cheating” because it avoids the hard work and research usually invested to make a plant best fit for consumption.
I am all for improving a plant’s productivity and health potential provided we do not harm the ecosystem. But genetic modification goes far beyond hybridizing two different plants within a species to create a new and improved variety.
While I support developing and using hybrid varieties, I also believe we must all grow heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables while they are still available to us. An heirloom plant is one grown in earlier periods of human history before large-scale industrial agriculture began the widespread use of hybrid species. (People disagree on the definition of heirloom. Some say 50-100 years old. Some say when hybrids became dominant in U.S. farming after World War II, which ended in 1945, we no longer had true heirloom plants.) We should foster heirloom seeds and plants as good stewards of the environment and to maintain what is left of our food biodiversity.
I enjoy growing several kinds of tomatoes every year. Most are heirlooms, but I experiment with a few hybridized varieties, too. I appreciate the tireless hard work of horticulturists in their efforts to bring new and improved varieties to market. Still, this is simply helping nature create in a shorter time what she might have eventually developed on her own. For example, taking pollen from one plant and using it to manually pollinate another is the breeder’s way of speeding up a natural process to achieve taste, sugar, nutrient content, color, disease resistance or other desirable characteristics. As a gardener, you should always focus on growing heirloom varieties first. However, growing some hybrids is safe for human health.
Biodiversity should concern us all. We can potentially consume about 80,000 different edible plants, yet only 200 to 300 are offered in the supermarket, including the spice rack ingredients. These relatively few plants make up about 90 percent of our food. This lack of diversity makes our food supply vulnerable to even slight changes in our environment. This is another example of giant agribusiness narrowly pursuing high profits at the expense of our health and safety.
The coexistence of GM plants with conventional and organic crops has raised significant concern in many European countries. There is separate legislation for GM crops and a high demand from consumers for the freedom of choice between GM and non-GM foods. There are requirements to separate foods and feed produced from GM plants from conventional and organic foods. European research programs continue to investigate appropriate tools and rules. At the field level, biological containment measures to segregate GM and non-GM agriculture include isolation distances and pollen barriers. I believe there are only a few winners from what I just described, namely, the conglomerate biotech companies, giant agribusinesses and attorneys who represent both. Attempting to regulate and contain genetically modified foods instead of simply banning the process seems to create political confusion when what people want is a delicious, healthy meal at the end of the day.
Normal plant evolution occurs through natural selection. Plants with specific characteristics in their genes can retain nutrients and survive under a variety of environmental pressures like high winds, poor air quality, extreme temperatures and rainfall. Plants that are naturally adapted to the difficult conditions are able to survive. Other plants within a species that lack the traits needed to survive those pressures do not reproduce. Eventually their less-favored traits perish out of the species.
By choosing gene combinations in plants and repeatedly breeding those combinations for crops, we interfere with natural selection and alter natural evolution. The fundamental basis of organic gardening is balance. Living organisms evolve over long time periods as their environmental conditions change. If we throw off the evolution of plants in one environment, everything that interacts with the plants, such as predators or organisms with a symbiotic relationship, may be thrown off balance as well. It might take us thousands of years to know the full environmental impact of “playing God” by tampering with the natural evolution of a plant or animal species.
To understand what practices are best for mankind and the natural world requires knowing many fields of study. Genetic modification and its implications are too new to have been well studied. What we can say with confidence: The effects on plant, animal and human health are largely uncertain. Throwing off the balance of nature carries high risks, although much more research must be done to determine the net effects of GM products. Because of the relentless corporate drive for profits, biotechnology companies spend money on researching how they can bioengineer animal and plant species, not the bioethical or long-term health implications for animals and humans. Therefore, the call and pressure to step back and take the long-range view must come from the organic and environmental communities and health conscious consumers.
Genetically Modified Plants in Agriculture
Among the concerns over GMOs, people worry that genetically modified plants are spreading those genes to their wild relatives outside the agricultural operation. Such spreading genetically modifies all plants. This will continue as more genetically modified acres are planted. Many people are studying how to prevent the gene flow between crops and neighboring relatives. The agribusiness companies say they are working to grow GM plants in areas with neighboring crops from completely different species. They assert these efforts act as a hard control for the spread of GM products into the wild or domesticated crops, but it is not an effective control in many environments.
Another concern arises over neighboring agricultural operations growing the same plants with different strategies. One field may use GM products, while another may not and still another might be organic. What prevents the field with GM products spreading through wind and other natural forces into the traditional field or the organic field?
We need more regulation of genetically modified crops in certain systems that have a high risk of spreading their GM properties. Present regulations include creating buffer zones between crop fields and prohibiting growing GM plants in places where their relatives exist as wild neighbors. Additional containment efforts involve genetic modification to change the plant’s breeding season. This is a scary thought. In order to control the spread of GM plants into the wild or neighboring operations, more modification is made. When does it end? What effects do more and more modifications have on plant health? When does our intervention stop? I suspect “never” as long as genetic engineering and agribusiness firms control both the law-making process and the flow of research money.
Positive Effects of GM Plants
I am not so extreme that I cannot acknowledge the benefits of something I disagree with. GMOs do carry benefits and have value. If they did not, companies would not develop them and farmers would not buy and use them.
For example, improving plant growth and crop yields might mean less land would be needed to produce the same amount of food, leaving more room for the natural ecosystem.
More specifically, GM seeds may enable us to use fewer chemicals. Because synthetic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides have direct negative effects on soil health, ground water, non-targeted insects, birds and wild plant populations, anything that reduces the need or demand for chemicals is a step in the right direction. Making plants resistant to pests or diseases through genetic modification can reduce the need to spray thousands of gallons of harmful chemicals onto the land. Genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops enable the grower to use less toxic herbicide and therefore reduce the detriment caused to living organisms that interact with the plants.
Scientists are also creating GM plants that are more resilient to environmental pressures like nutrient depletion, lack of water or unbalanced pH. This will help plants to survive and provide higher yields for poverty-stricken countries. For example, scientists have created certain nutrients within foods by adding the gene to rice that codes for a precursor to Vitamin A. Half of the world consumes rice, and the resulting crop helps avoid a Vitamin A deficiency in locations where foods rich in Vitamin A are scarce.
In the future, genetic engineers may be able to breed organisms to help restore soil nutrients and structure bioremediation. GM products might improve the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, decreasing waste and increasing the amount of food available. These are some possible net benefits of GM foods.
Negative Effects of GM Plants
GM plants and products present many bioethical questions. The final frontier of God’s divine code has been hidden in the genetic makeup of the DNA double helix molecule. The moment we cracked the genetic code and began altering it, we began to play God. While this is not a book on ethics, a thoughtful person cannot ignore ethical questions.
Using pesticides and GM plants with the Bt gene could lead to an increase in resistant pests through natural selection. We can kill off all but a few insects that carry the resistance to our treatments, but then the survivors may proliferate and create a need for a different treatment. What do we do then? We could genetically modify plants further and run the risk of repeated failure.
Even though we see more GM plants, herbicide sales continue to rise. Increasing use of herbicides adversely affects soil biota, herbivores and birds. These living things interact with the GM plants sprayed with herbicides. A similar problem occurs with using herbicides. We always find a few weeds that are resistant to treatment. This resistance enables the survival and redevelopment of the species. There may be other environmental effects of having all-resistant pests and weeds in the environment. It is completely unnatural for there to be no vulnerable species that eventually die off through natural selection.
The potential negative effects of consuming GM plants fall on many living organisms, from bees eating pollen to rabbits eating wild greens. The inserted genes may destabilize some generation of a GM plant somewhere in its genome, causing a mutation that leads to unhealthy consequences. No one knows what is going to happen in a few years or a few decades to modified plant genes. They could mutate into an uncontrollable form that might be completely unhealthy for human consumption. By inserting a gene into what is thought to be an inactive portion of the genome, we may inadvertently turn on or off another gene, causing long-term destructive effects. It is common knowledge that GM plants have a different protein molecule than their native cousins. How will that molecular difference affect the health of the animals we consume, or even more importantly, our health?
In short, we do not fully understand the net benefit or harm of GMOs to environmental, animal and human health. And that full understanding may be far into the future. Scientists still need to conduct thorough investigation on the effects of each type of genetically modified plant.
I believe financial motives are too strong for most people and companies to resist. If we leave research to the developer or patent owner of a GM crop, the findings will always be skewed in its favor. I do not say there is no place for GM foods or technology, but I do believe we need more testing by independent organizations who have no financial stake in the findings. Many more years of testing will be required before I feel safe.
In the meantime, what should responsible gardeners do? Buy and grow as many heirloom varieties as possible. Keep the gene pool alive with biodiversity. Do not buy foods from the market unless you know they are free of GM ingredients. Stay attuned to developments in GM processes. You can raise and buy food the natural way. We evolved without GM foods, and I am sure we can continue to thrive without them.
Milo Lou Shammas
Founder & Formulator