GMO's - Plague or Promise?

by Les Saidel - March, 2014

Almost everyone has heard by now of the term GMO or genetic engineering. Most people unfortunately have only a vague understanding of what this is and how it affects their lives. They know it involves somehow playing around with the genetic material of living organisms, but that is as far as their understanding extends.

So let us firstly define what genetic engineering is and then launch into a discussion of whether it is good for humanity or not.

Genetic engineering involves taking genetic information (DNA) from one living organism (donor) and combining it into the DNA of another living organism (recipient) so that the recipient attains the attributes of the donor. The process of combining can be simply adding the donor DNA into the recipient or may involve first erasing DNA from the recipient before the donor DNA is inserted.

Basically, in layman's terms genetic engineering allows us to "program" living organisms. We identify the behavior or attributes we want our recipient organism to have and we copy these attributes from other organisms that have them (the donor) to our recipient organism.

Actually genetic engineering is nothing new. Genetic engineering even occurs without human intervention in nature and has since the world was created. Ever heard of cross pollination? In order for most plants to become fertilized and reproduce (bear fruit), they need to be pollinated. We can think of the pollen as "male" sperm (from the anther) coming into contact with the "female" organ of the plant (the pistil). Pollination occurs by wind or by insects (like bees) carrying pollen from one part of the plant to the other or even to another plant. What happens when pollen from one plant is combined on the pistil of a completely different plant? In some plants (not all), the DNA from the two combine to create a hybrid species.

In fact this phenomenon was already recognized thousands of years ago when our sages in the Torah instructed us to geographically separate plantings of different species (such as grains and fruit trees for example) to avoid this mingling and creation of a hybrid species (kil'ayim).

Man for centuries has combined different plants by grafting, taking a rootstock from one type of fruit and joining it with the scion of another, to combine the attributes of both. Think of grapefruit (a cross between a pomelo and an orange).

So genetic engineering, even genetic engineering caused by human intervention, is not a new kid on the block.

What is new, in the last 40 or so years, is a technique called Transgenesis which allows scientists to take DNA from one species and combine it with a completely different, unrelated species. For example transplanting spider DNA into a goat so that the goat would produce milk containing the same protein that spider's webs are made of. Spider silk is a very valuable commodity. It is used in industry to manufacture things like parachute cords and artificial ligaments, due to its high tensile strength and light weight. This genetic engineering allows spiders silk to be produced on a much larger scale using goats, rather than harvesting it from spiders.

Now that we have explored to some degree what genetic engineering really is, we can begin our discussion of whether genetic engineering is a good thing or not.

Before I became a professional baker, I was a computer programmer (for over 25 years), so perhaps I am better equipped to grasp the possibilities that genetic engineering has to offer mankind. Being able to "program" something, like a computer for example gives enormous power, limited only by the imagination. Even though a computer, a concoction of wires, circuits, silicon and magnetized plates is not a living organism, you can program it to do incredible things, things that even a human being cannot do, for example, sort a list of 1 million items in 2 seconds. This ability provides mankind with an amazing tool to help understand and master the universe. The scope of what it is possible to program on a computer is literally limited only by the imagination and human intelligence.

What if it was possible to extend this programming capability, not just to your laptop, a collection of widgets and gadgets, but to a living organism, if you could program a living organism to do things limited only by your imagination? This is the promise of genetic engineering.

Imagine being able to program a virus to attack and kill only cancer cells, or cells infected by another virus, like AIDS, influenza. Genetic engineering holds the promise to this and equally mind-altering breakthroughs that can change the face of humanity as we know it. It is my opinion that it is a gift to mankind and will eventually achieve wonderful things for humanity.

Unfortunately in reality the previous statement is highly simplistic and naive.

As with any powerful secret, there are also an equal amount of dangers involved with transgenesis. Humanity has not yet begun to grasp the power of this new technology and can be compared to a child playing with a box of matches.

For all the hope and promise that is embedded in genetic engineering technology, there is an equal and perhaps even greater danger of disaster and destruction. If used correctly, genetic engineering could be used to cure things like cancer. If used incorrectly it can create a Frankenstein monster.

We can already see this tendency developing. Whenever some new technology presents itself, it produces a "slot machine effect" - corporate executives start seeing dollar bills rolling before their eyes. They lose no time finding ways to capitalize on this and make more money!

Take for example a company like Monsanto in Missouri, USA. Monsanto essentially began as a chemicals company. They developed products like saccharin, DDT, Agent Orange, Roundup pesticide, amongst others and pioneered LED technology. Whilst developing their weed killer RoundUp, Monsanto scientists noticed that while most plants were killed by the weed killer certain bacteria seemed immune to its effects. They then used genetic engineering technology to combine the DNA of these RoundUp resistant bacteria with wheat grains, to create a wheat plant that was resistant to the RoundUp weed killer. They began selling this as "RoundUp Ready" crops with the sales pitch that farmers could now spray their wheat crops with RoundUp weed killer. All the weeds in the field would be destroyed, but the wheat would not. This would increase the yield, due to less weeds and more wheat being grown in the same field.

So now Monsanto is successfully marketing their RoundUp ready crops. Their sales of RoundUp weed killer are booming, because if you buy the seeds you need the weed killer to complement it. Not only are they making money off people who actually buy their seeds and the weed killer, they are also suing thousands of farmers whose fields lie in proximity to farmers growing Monsanto seeds and have been contaminated by wind pollination. These farmers don't want Monsanto wheat - they want to be able to grow wheat as they have been for thousands of years, by perpetuating their own seeds each year, but as soon as a Monsanto seed contaminates their field they are done for. Monsanto holds a "patent" on its "RoundUp Ready" seeds and use of them, even unwittingly is patent infringement. Instead of being self sufficient these unfortunate farmers they are now becoming "slaves" to Monsanto, its seeds and its pesticides, because there is no escaping them.

What a great economic model! You can make money across the board even from people who do not want to buy your products.

Monsanto is an expert at marketing its new genetically engineered seeds. It paints a utopian future in a world of over population, increased soil salinity and depletion of water resources, promising increased yields, food for the Third World and other enticing things.

What they are not telling you is that another, less damaging way to increase yield is to encourage more people to farm - more farmers, more crops. There are other ecological ways of dealing with pests and weeds. The world has existed until very recently growing crops without pesticides and weed killers.

This is what I mean by the "slot machine effect". Corporate execs see a new technology, they look at their own products and think how they can use that new technology to maximize profit. Today Monsanto is the world leading producer of genetically modified seeds. Interestingly enough, the other major players in the genetic crop market are also chemical companies like Bayer and Dupont. They are not companies with a history in agriculture and farming.

This would all be fine and dandy if Monsanto (or someone else) actually checked what would happen to the people who ate this genetically modified wheat (or resulting products from the wheat - flour, bread, pasta, etc.) What effect does altering the wheat DNA have on our digestive systems. What effect does a higher concentration of glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) have on our bodies when we eat this wheat that has been sprayed with RoundUp.

Monsanto is not researching this. They say it is not their responsibility. They pass the buck to organizations like the FDA, but they then tie the FDA's hands with political lobbying to underplay the possible dangers of the genetic engineering or the chemicals in the weed killer. The FDA does not research long term effects of any substance. Their approval process is less than two years. There is no funding to study the long term effects of Monsanto products. The major funding for university research comes FROM companies like Monsanto. Any independent undertaking research into this area will very likely be disowned by their educational institution that does not want to risk loss of research grants. Those intrepid researchers who actually do go the whole nine yards find themselves branded as "quacks" and unaffiliated with any recognized institution.

The end result is that almost every American is currently eating some by product of Monsanto crops and NOBODY has yet studied or understood the long term effects it has on our health! It could be perfectly fine, but by equal measure it could also be disastrous.

In effect Monsanto is using the entire US population (and much of the developed world as well) as human guinea pigs. Do you want to be some big corporation's guinea pig? I certainly do not!

Whatever Monsanto (and other genetic engineering companies) can do to underplay the fact that their products are genetically engineered they are doing. For example, in the USA (as of February 2014) it's not necessary to label a product to indicate it contains GMO's (genetically modified organisms). The FDA says it is not necessary to label GMO products because they are NO DIFFERENT from regular, non GMO products in their chemical makeup. As of February 2014, Israel also has the same policy. We cannot know which foods we are eating are genetically modified and which are not. Do we not at least deserve the right to choose? The big corporations do not want us to choose, because the choice would not be in their favor. So they influence government by lobbying to formulate legislation for their benefit, not the consumer.

Fortunately for those living in the EU (they seem less gullible than the American or Israeli public), law forbids manufacture or sale of GMO foodstuffs.

Let's take another example. In the UK, Rothamsted Research is developing wheat crops that are resistant to aphid infestation by genetically modifying them with the substance E-Beta-Farnesene secreted by certain aphids to warn off other aphids. The resultant crops will release the same warning mechanism and repel aphid infestation, one of the major problems of wheat farming. That is great news for wheat farmers.

However a brief perusal of the Material Data Safety Sheet of the E-Beta-Farnesene compound reveals the following disclaimer "The toxicological properties of this material have not been investigated."

And so it goes. With every genetically engineered food, the company who produces the GMO product will clearly list the benefits the genetic engineering provides - larger tomatoes, juicier, sweeter, aphid resistant, etc. etc. but none of the possible side effects that may result of the genetic engineering are listed, because they do not know what they are - they have simply "not been investigated."

I honestly do not know what effect genetically modified food will have on our health in the long term, perhaps it will have none. What I cannot tolerate is the fact that the keys to the kingdom for this new, powerful technology have been placed in the hands of the huge corporations with powerful governmental lobbies.

This unfortunately means that the prime motivator currently directing the use of this technology is money and not just money, but BIG MONEY!

There are none of the checks and balances that are essential to ensure that a technology as powerful as this is applied in a balanced and well researched way. It is literally like giving a box of matches to child. All the ethical issues of genetic engineering, the environmental issues, the health issues - they are all being suppressed by the greedy and the powerful. How is that for a Frankenstein monster?

Will this not change until some disaster occurs? 50 years down the road will we destroy world agriculture irreparably or cause some ecological or human disaster that will make the world wake up?

When people ask me if I am against genetic engineering I therefore tell them I am not. I think genetic engineering has the promise of great benefits for mankind, but until it is applied wisely and not greedily, we will probably suffer more from the harms it inflicts than the benefits it bestows.

This is a call to action! Anyone with a conscience should join the many consumer groups who are trying to pressure the powers that be to at least label GMO containing food products so that we can make our own choices. Perhaps by doing that, we will somehow influence the blind, headlong rush into the abyss and bring about clearer thinking, a system of checks and balances and a different legacy for our children.

Les Saidel


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