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Our 53rd Year

Genetic Modification (GM) – Seeds of Controversy By John Tarleton

Genetically-modified (GM) foods were first introduced on a commercial basis in the United States in the mid-1990’s. The new technology made it possible to splice desirable qualities from one species into another – such as inserting the gene that keeps a flounder from freezing in cold water into a tomato for longer cold temperature storage. The use of GM crops in the United States grew rapidly in the following years with minimal public debate. Today, more than 70 per cent of the food in U.S. supermarkets have GM derivatives, including virtually all processed foods, though the FDA has ruled that no special labeling is required.

Americans are finally waking up to the dangers posed by this incredible proliferation of genetically altered foods, as ballot initiatives demanding labeling are spreading to many states. But GM technology has been and continues to be controversial in other parts of the world, especially in Europe and Africa. Here are some of the reasons why:

Human Health. The process of genetic engineering can introduce dangerous new allergens and toxins into foods, such as when Starlink, a gene-altered animal feed corn containing a potential allergen, was found in corn chips and taco shells. Questions have also been raised about the potential impact of gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.

Patented Seeds. Farmers have saved harvested seeds for replanting since the dawn of human agriculture 11,000 years ago. But farmers who carry on this practice with GM crops can be charged with violating intellectual property rights in much the same way that people who share music files online without paying can be hauled into court. Biotech giant Monsanto has also explored the use of Terminator technology that would render harvested seeds sterile and unusable, but, to date, this technology has not been commercialized due to intense opposition around the world.

Contamination of Non-GM Crops. As the planting of genetically-modified crops becomes more widespread, the number of incidents in which their pollen contaminates traditional or organic varieties increases. Such contamination can cost organic growers their certification and their consumers access too non-GM food. It can also lead to a lawsuit from corporations like Monsanto, which aggressively litigates against farmers whose fields have been contaminated, claiming – of all things – patent infringement! Many non-GM farmers will refrain from growing certain crops in order to avoid the risk of being sued. The problems associated with crop contamination could get worse – for both humans and wildlife – as biotech companies prepare a second generation of GM crops that will produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.

Increased Pesticide Use. Many of Monsanto’s GM crops are designed to withstand much higher doses of Roundup, Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide. A study by the Organic Center found that the planting of GM crops in the US from 1996-2008 increased the average use of active ingredient pesticides by a quarter pound per planted acre, or a total of 318.4 millions pounds over the time of the study. The largest increases in pesticides occurred in 2007 and 2008 as heavy usage of Roundup spawned Roundup- resistant weeds.

Cost. From higher seed prices to increased pesticide and fertilizer usage, planting GM crops is more expensive and favors agribusinesses that can operate on large economies of scale. For small farmers in the Global South, the extra expenses can quickly lead to crushing debt burdens and loss of their land, especially when GM crops don’t deliver their expected results.

Unforseen Consequences. After 4.5 billion years of natural evolution, the advent of genetically-modified organisms represents a “second genesis” in which the planet is being repopulated by commercially patented life forms, says Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century. The potential long-term impact of these laboratory creations – from the emergence of new super-pests to the loss of genetic diversity in the natural world – is not known yet. For many skeptics, that is reason enough to proceed with extreme caution.

As we move forward with this genetic manipulation, we’ll start seeing pieces of DNA reacting with each other in ways that are totally unpredictable. This is probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into. – Dr. Ignacio Chapela, Microbial Ecologist, University of California Berkeley

For more information:

Watch this video: GM Foods Explained: How is Genetically Modified Food made?
Explained: What are GMO’s? by Priya Advani
Get involved: Organic Consumers Association