Playing G-d: An Introduction to Genetically Modified Foods
Humans love the idea of playing god. We love to build and to create. We even enjoy having the power to destroy. And we think we know best when it comes to everything, including plants and animals. If there’s something we don’t like about them, we want to change it.
In the past, this took the form of selective breeding, so you would find farmers planting the seeds from their very best crops again and again in order to get better quality vegetables, which seems harmless enough. But selective breeding can also bring out certain weaknesses, as we see with many domesticated breeds of animal. Certain types of dogs and cats sport weaknesses that come from generations of selective breeding and inbreeding. German shepherd dogs often have hip problems, for example, and Persian cats often have respiratory issues. You would think that things like this would clue us in that we’re really not meant to be tinkering with such things… but apparently it doesn’t.
Today, humans are tinkering more than ever. Wealthy people are cloning their dead (or even live) pets. And scientists are able to select human embryos based on the desired sex of the baby so that if you don’t want a girl you don’t have to have one – or if you do want one, you’ll be sure to get her – provinces that once were considered to be untouchable, entirely up to G-d. Of course, there is always speculation that scientists will continue to engineer human babies to create “designer” babies, with the “perfect” hair or the “perfect” eyes. If this doesn’t scare you, it should. Just look at what happened when people tried to engineer cats and dogs.
The problem is that when scientists tweak just one little thing in the DNA – whether of a plant, animal, or human – they don’t always know what else it might trigger. In one study, just one foreign gene was inserted into a plant, but when the DNA was examined, that one change had affected the way 5% of the genes in the plant worked. That’s a massive amount of change. And there is no way to predict what will change or how.[i] It is a technique that completely sidesteps any of the safeguards associated with natural breeding, transfers genes across the boundaries of biological kingdoms (merging plants and animals), and has been used commercially for less than 20 years.[ii] Scientists are only just now beginning to understand its full range of effects.
You see, adding genes to plant DNA is not like cutting and pasting a paragraph from one document to another in a word processor, where the results are clean and crisp. DNA, with its thousands of genes and complicated twisted double helix design, is not just something you can snip apart and put back together again. To get new genes in, scientists have to blast cells with a “gene gun” or attack cells with invasive bacteria.[iii] Because these techniques are so imprecise, changing or adding even one gene can alter hundreds or even thousands of other genes in the plant.[iv] It can turn on genes, turn off genes, or cause existing genes to act differently.[v] And in the process of being inserted, the inserted gene itself may change or react differently.[vi] The scientists doing the genetic modification may know what effect they want to have, but they cannot control or predict the full effects their changes will really have.
As a result, scientists are only just beginning to understand the effects of genetic modification on foods we have been consuming for decades. The biggest problem is that scientists just don’t always know what to test for. Just because a test for certain nutrients comes back fine, it doesn’t tell us about all the other components of foods we’re ingesting, from antioxidants to allergens. The GM soy discussed above contains fewer antioxidants, protein, fatty acids, and amino acids, and more allergens. GMOs cause animals to age faster, infertility, problems in immune systems, improper insulin uptake (diabetes), problems with production of cholesterol, and physical changes to the kidney, liver, spleen, and entire gastrointestinal system.[vii] That certainly was not what Monsanto was intending when it engineered it, yet it is not entirely unexpected.
Remember, companies can insert any genes they want into their new plant creation, without knowing the full range of its effects. A company can insert a gene taken from the peanut plant into a corn plant and possibly transfer the peanut allergen, too.[viii] But you, as the consumer, have no way of knowing what changes have been made to a particular plant’s genome, or their source. If you don’t avoid GM foods altogether, you have no way of protecting your children from them.
[i] Smith, JM. Why Schools Should Remove GE-Tainted Foods from Their Cafeterias. Institute for Responsible Technology Newsletter on GM Foods, Spilling the Beans. Available at http://www.wanttoknow.info/050520schooldietchange
[ii] Freese W, Schubert D. Safety testing and regulation of genetically engineered foods. Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews. Nov 2004. 21.
[iii] See for example 233-236, chart of disproved assumptions, in Jeffrey M. Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, Yes! Books, Fairfield, IA 2007.
[iv] J. R. Latham, et al., “The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation,” The Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology 2006, Article ID 25376: 1-7; see also Allison Wilson, et. al., “Transformation-induced mutations in transgenic plants: Analysis and biosafety implications,”Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews – Vol. 23, December 2006.
[v] Srivastava, et al, “Pharmacogenomics of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) and the cystic fibrosis drug CPX using genome microarray analysis,” Mol Med. 5, no. 11(Nov 1999):753–67.
[vi] Latham et al, “The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation, Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology 2006:1-7, article ID 25376, http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jbb/; Draft risk analysis report application A378, Food derived from glyphosate-tolerant sugarbeet line 77 (GTSB77),” ANZFA, March 7, 2001; E. Levine et al., “Molecular Characterization of Insect Protected Corn Line MON 810.” Unpublished study submitted to the EPA by Monsanto, EPA MRID No. 436655-01C (1995); Allison Wilson, PhD, Jonathan Latham, PhD, and Ricarda Steinbrecher, PhD, “Genome Scrambling—Myth or Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants Technical Report—October 2004,” http://www.econexus.info; C. Collonier, G. Berthier, F. Boyer, M. N. Duplan, S. Fernandez, N. Kebdani, A. Kobilinsky, M. Romanuk, Y. Bertheau, “Characterization of commercial GMO inserts: a source of useful material to study genome fluidity,” Poster presented at ICPMB: International Congress for Plant Molecular Biology (n°VII), Barcelona, 23-28th June 2003. Poster courtesy of Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini, Président du Conseil Scientifique du CRII-GEN, http://www.crii-gen.org; also “Transgenic lines proven unstable” by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report, 23 October 2003, http://www.i-sis.org.uk
[vii] Smith, JM. Why Schools Should Remove GE-Tainted Foods from Their Cafeterias. Institute for Responsible Technology Newsletter on GM Foods, Spilling the Beans. Available at http://www.wanttoknow.info/050520schooldietchange
[viii] World Health Organization. Food Safety: 20 questions on genetically modified foods. Available at http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/