by Dr Ron Epstein
November 23, 1996
What is Genetic Engineering?
Genes are the fundamental chemical codes that determine the physical nature of all living things, from the tiniest single-celled organism to human beings. Genes make up DNA, the cell-level master plan which determines how the organism is going to develop in all ways that are not environmentally influenced.
Genetic engineering is sometimes also called bioengineering or biotechnology (biotech for short). All these terms refer to making artificial changes in the genes of the DNA of a living thing. Its nature and characteristics are then changed, often in ways that could never occur naturally. Some of the effects of genetic engineering are known, but most are not. The effects we may have information about are all short term, specific and physical. The effects that remain unknown are long term, general, and mental.
Genetic engineering of foods involves the insertion of genes from plants, bacteria, insects, fish, animals or humans into the DNA of another plant, fish, or animal to create a new variety. In the case of plants this is usually done either to enhance herbicide resistance, reduce susceptibility to cold or frost damage, or increase rates of growth. Human growth genes have been introduced into food plants, fish and animals to enhance growth rates.
Differences between Genetic Engineering and Breeding
In the breeding of animals and plants, the natural processes of gene selection and mutation that occur in nature are manipulated to develop new varieties that have specific use for humans. In selecting those varieties, breeders both modify the processes of natural selection and are restricted by them. For example, the well-known breeding work of Luther Burbank led to the introduction of many tasty new fruits, but not even Burbank could cross a fruit with an animal. Unlike breeding, the new varieties created by genetic engineering often are the result of crossing species barriers and so could never occur in nature.
When Is It Coming?
Because almost all genetically engineered foods are not labeled, most people are not aware that they are probably already consuming them. Most cheeses contain genetically engineered rennet; milk may contain rBGH, a genetically engineered growth hormone; genetically engineered tomatoes and squashes are already on the market. In addition, the next few months should see an explosion in the numbers of genetically engineered products on supermarket shelves. Monsanto Corporation is flooding the soybean market with soybeans genetically engineered to resist large applications of the herbicide Roundup. Soybeans are found not only in tofu but also in about 60% of all processed foods. Genetically engineered corn and canola are also being widely grown in this country. Scores of new genetically engineered food plants are already in production, and genetically engineered meat and fish will be probably be sold soon.
Potential Health Dangers
So much money is at stake that international corporations which have invested heavily in biotechnology have exerted heavy political pressure on the FDA and USDA, the government agencies responsible for regulating genetic engineering. They have been successful in getting them to decrease their regulation of genetic engineering and to ban required labeling of genetically engineered foods based on scientific claims about problems with it. The FDA now asserts that genetically engineered foods are essentially no different in their nutritional value and health risks from non-genetically engineered foods. Many prominent scientists disagree. There has been no long term testing of their effects. Scientific studies have already shown that in some cases serious allergic reactions can occur, and that antibiotic resistance and toxicity levels may be increased.
The main environmental problem with genetically engineered food plants and animals is that, when they escape into the wild, they permanently disrupt ecosystems which are the products of billions of years of evolution (or, if you prefer, of God's perfect creation). For example, the most recent conservative scientific estimates indicate that genetically engineered plants will probably cross-pollinate with wild relatives, thereby escaping into the wild and permanently disrupting ecosystems at about one percent a year. That means they will probably cause major environmental problems in about ten years.
Another potential problem area is viruses. By their very nature, viruses invade the genetic material of their hosts and often break apart and recombine using part of the host's genetic material to create new viruses. When this happens with genetically engineered plants and animals outside of the laboratory, new viruses will be created that incorporate genetically engineered genetic material. The viruses will then spread and, because they could not have been naturally produced, there may be no natural defenses against them. Depending upon the kind of virus, they may then cause widespread death of certain plants or animals, or even of humans.
Genetic engineering is a totally new kind of science. Previously science concerned itself with understanding how Nature works. For the first time in human history, through genetic engineering techniques, science is changing Nature on the most fundamental level. Rather than considering whether it should be done at all or what kind of wisdom should govern the process, most of the efforts in the field are fueled not by concern for the short or long term benefits for human beings or the planet, but in most cases by corporate pressures for short term profits at almost any cost. Certainly some short-term and rather spectacular benefits will probably occur, particularly in the medical field; however, the long term problems may far outweigh them.
Genetically engineered foods create specific ethical problems for those of various faiths. Religious vegetarians, such as Seventh Day Adventists, Hindus and Buddhists, want to be able to avoid fruits and vegetables with insect, animal or humans genes in them. Jews and Muslims, who have special religious dietary laws, want to be able to make sure that genetically engineered foods do not violate their restrictions; for instance, they won't want pig genes in their carrots. Religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, in this country and throughout the world, object to genetically engineered food because they have serious doctrinal objections to the kind of tampering with the basic patterns of life that occur in most genetic engineering. Many others who are not formally religious wish to avoid genetically engineered foods because they also have serious ethical objections. Under our current laws, meats, vegetables, and fruits can even contain human genes without our knowing it. This kind of cannibalism is repulsive to most people.
Labeling Should Be A Right of Citizens in a Free Society
Current regulations against the labeling of genetically engineered foods blatantly abridge the rights of citizens in a free society to choose what they want to eat and what they do not. You usually cannot rely on looking, tasting or feeling to identify genetically engineered food. Labeling is necessary for its clear identification. Therefore, because labeling is not now required, citizens are effectively denied their fundamental right of free choice. Labeling genetically engineered foods would in no way restrict the rights of those people who do wish to purchase and consume them.
What Can We Do?
We can educate ourselves, our families, friends and community about current and potential problems with genetically engineered foods. On the local level, we can talk to the grocers and store managers where we shop. Most of them have little awareness of the issues involved. We can ask them to label them clearly so that those who wish to avoid them can. On the national level we can let our elected representatives know that we want both stricter government oversight of research and development and also required labeling.
Local officials should enact legislation both to require stores that sell genetically engineered food to post signs to that effect and to recommend strongly that those stores make information available to their customers about which foods are genetically engineered. Local school boards should consider either labeling genetically engineered milk and other foods used in school lunch programs or banning their purchase.
Our natural defense systems against danger are inadequate to warn us of the subtle, technologically produced hazards of genetically engineered foods. Nevertheless, their potential for doing serious and irreversible harm, both to us and our environment, should be taken very seriously. I personally look forward to working with all of you who are interested in requiring both their mandatory labeling and better safeguards for their research and development.