The new millennium will be ushered in by the biotech century.
The earlier we prepare the better. In the short term, we will
be affected in these main areas: medical treatment; industrial,
agricultural, and forest use; and food. First, let us take a brief
look at some problems with the use of genetic engineering in agriculture
and in our food. Then I would like to make some simple suggestions
about steps we can take to assess the situation here in Mendocino
I don't think anyone knows the extent to which genetically engineered plants are currently being grown, either commercially or in home gardens, in Mendocino County. The dangers to agriculture include new and lethal plant viruses, super-weeds, super-pests, greater use of herbicides with herbicide resistant plants, loss of soil fertility, threats to non-target species and biodiversity, and the unknown effects of releasing new and unnatural forms of life in the environment. Genetically engineered trees are rapidly being developed and planted, despite the almost complete lack of knowledge about their effect on forest ecosystems.
When genetically engineered crops are grown for a specific purpose,
they cannot be easily isolated both from spreading into the wild
and from cross-pollinating with wild relatives. Cross-pollination
can take place almost a mile away from the genetically engineered
plantings and can also threaten neighboring organic plantings.
Human beings, animals and birds may accidentally carry the seeds
far vaster distances. Spillage in transport and at processing
factories is also inevitable. The genetically engineered plants
can then force out plant competitors and then radically change
the balance of ecosystems or even destroy them.
Under current United States government regulations, companies
that are doing field-testing of genetically engineered organisms
need not inform the public of what genes have been added to the
organisms they are testing. They can be declared trade secrets,
so that the public safety is left to the judgment of corporate
scientists and government regulators many of whom switch back
and forth between working for the government and working for the
corporations they supposedly regulate. Those who come from academic
positions often have large financial stakes in biotech companies.
Scientists have already demonstrated the transfer of transgenes and marker genes to both bacterial pathogens and to soil fungi. That means genetically engineered organisms are going to enter the soil an spread to whatever grows in it. Genetically engineered material can migrate from the roots of plants into soil bacteria, in at least one case radically inhibiting the ability of the soil to grow plants. Once the bacteria are free in the soil, no natural barriers inhibit their spread. With ordinary soil pollution, the pollution can be confined and removed (unless it reaches the ground-water). If genetically engineered soil
bacteria spreads into the wild, the ability of the soil to support
plant life may seriously diminish. It does not take much imagination
to see what the disastrous consequences might be.
The development of new genetically engineered crops with herbicide
resistance will affect the environment through the increased use
of chemical herbicides. Monsanto and other major international
chemical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural corporations have staked
their financial futures on genetically engineered herbicide resistant
Recently scientists have found a way to genetically engineer plants
so that their seeds lose their viability unless sprayed with patented
formulae, most of which turn out to have antibiotics as their
primary ingredient. The idea is to keep farmers from collecting
genetically engineered seed and force them to buy it every year.
The corporations involved are unconcerned about the gene escaping
into the wild, with obvious disastrous results, even though that
is a clear scientific possibility. Nor do they seem to care about
exacerbation of the problem of antibiotic resistance.
Soon the majority of the food in the supermarket will be genetically
engineered. A large quantity is already in the stores, though
most people are unaware because the food is unlabeled. Included
are processed foods, fish, grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy
products. Major risks of eating genetically engineered food include
exposure to unknown allergens or toxins, loss of nutritional value,
genetic danger from mutations, and unknown effects on our body
cells and metabolism.
Many scientists have claimed that the ingestion of genetically engineered food is harmless because the genetically engineered materials are destroyed by stomach acids. Recent research suggests that genetically engineered materials are not completely destroyed by stomach acids and that significant portions reach the bloodstream and also the brain-cells.
Furthermore, the natural defense mechanisms of body's cells are
not entirely effective in keeping the genetically engineered substances
out of the cells.
Some dangers of eating genetically engineered foods are already
documented. Risks to human health include the probable increase
in the level of toxins in foods and in the number of disease-causing
organisms that are resistant to antibiotics. The purposeful increase
in toxins in foods to make them insect-resistant is the reversal
of thousands of years of selective breeding of food-plants, which
were originally developed by breeding out toxins and strong flavors
from wild plants. Furthermore, when plants are genetically engineered
to resist predators, often the plant defense systems involve the
synthesis of natural carcinogens.
For vegans and vegetarians, genetically engineered food poses
special problems. It can contain insect, animal, and even human
genes, making it unsuitable for consumption. Since genetically
engineered food is currently not labeled as such in the United
States and most other countries, those who do not wish to eat
food containing specific genes have no recourse.
Basically what we have at present is a situation in which genetically
engineered foods are beginning to flood the market, and no one
knows what all their effects on humans will be. We are all becoming
guinea pigs. Because genetically engineered food remains unlabeled,
should serious problems arise, it will be extremely difficult
to trace them to their source. Lack of labeling will also help
to shield the corporations responsible from liability.
What We Can Do
We can educate ourselves further about the topic. Information
about both the dangers of genetic engineering and organizations
trying to combat them is available on my website "Genetic
Engineering and Its Dangers" <http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/gedanger.htm>.
Here in the county an excellent resource is the Center for Ethics
and Toxics (CETOS) in Gualala, which has recently published a
fine book by Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey entitled Against the
Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food.
Locally the most important first step that we can take is to do
an assessment of the use genetic engineering on the county level.
Since the biotech industry claims that genetic engineering is
both safe and the wave of the future, it should be happy to cooperate
with efforts to document local applications. We should urge our
new board of supervisors to take the lead. It can direct the appropriate
county departments to collect the appropriate information about
agricultural and forest use of genetic engineering on a voluntary
basis and to make it available to the public and to related businesses,
such as nurseries and farm suppliers. Information about possible
risks should also be disseminated. The county departments of agriculture
and of public health, along with the UC agricultural extension
office, could all play important roles. With information available,
then the citizens of our county can all make their own informed
decisions about genetic engineering in their own lives. Isn't
that what democracy is all about?
Ron Epstein teaches environmental ethics at San Francisco State University and has written and lectured on ethical problems with genetic engineering. He lives in the greater Ukiah area.