The Curse of Transgenic Plants

  • SumoMe

Transgenic Organisms. Most of us are unaware of this term. The knowledge of this term is strictly restricted to the biotech world, while the layman is left with little or no knowledge about things like these which affect him to a large extent, directly and indirectly. Transgenic organisms are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species. In other words, the genes of the organism are modified by genetic modification techniques. They form a subset of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Transgenic plants have been deliberately developed for a variety of reasons: longer shelf life, disease resistance, herbicide resistance, pest resistance, non-biological stress resistances, such as to drought or nitrogen starvation, and nutritional improvement

 

The above definition might lead a lot of us to believe that GMOs are a positive step in scientific development. I beg to differ; just like any other scientific advancement this has more cons than pros. It is about a technology and products that throughout their complete process causing severe repercussions affecting a wide thematic spectrum: health, environment, economy, social and international relations, etc.

 

Applications of GMOs:

 

GMOs have widespread applications. They are used in biological and medical research, production of pharmaceutical drugs, experimental medicine example being gene therapy, and agriculture. However, the broadest application of GMO technology is food crops which are deemed to be resistant to commercial herbicides or are able to produce pesticidal proteins from within the plant, or stacked trait seeds, which do both. Transgenic animals are also becoming useful commercially. One example of the same would be U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved, A-tryn, first human biological drug produced from such an animal, a goat. It is an anticoagulant which reduces the risks of blood clots during surgeries and childbirth and it is obtained from goat’s milk. Tran genesis in fish has resulted in dramatic growth enhancement in several species, including salmonids, carps and tilapias. These fish have been created for use in the aquaculture industry to increase meat production with the aim of reducing fishing pressure on wild stocks. In spite of this, none of these GM fish have yet appeared on the market; reason being the concern expressed amongst the populace of the fish’s potential to affect the ecosystem in the event of them escaping the rearing facilities. Production of the human hormone, Insulin, is another application of GMOs.

 

Nevertheless, given the enormous complexity of the genetic code, even in very simple organisms such as bacteria, the consequences of the introduction of new genes in any organism or plant cannot be predicted. This is because the form of functioning of the transferred gene in the new organism might differ since the original genetic code of the organism is distorted and also there is no way to know a priori the global and long-term consequences for the life of the planet and the effects of the genetically modified products on the agrarian economies of the countries of the so-called Third World.

 

Controversy:

 

First and foremost it is necessary to emphasize that the main interest of those advocating this technology is not bettering or solving of serious health and nutrition problems plaguing humanity, rather their sights are set on monopolizing the entire food chain with a view of minting billions in profit. One such example would be Monsanto, a pesticide producing giant which firmly supports this technology because it controls the major portion of the agricultural industry since the onset of GM seeds. Moreover, Roundup, a glyphosate based pesticide is known to cause cancer with abnormal cell duplication in human beings. Not only this, it severely affects the soil composition, is ineffective on weed and causes damage to aquatic flora and fauna thus affecting the food chain. As if the repercussions did not shake up the US government, USDA passes a suspension on reporting the evils caused by these products. The suspension of reporting is not a result of USDA overwork and understaffing, or even recent agency budget constraints, but the consequence of a recent government policy by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, or FCIC (serving under the aegis of the USDA), which in 2007 began offering various incentives to farmers who planted Monsanto’s GM corn. This goes on to show how money still makes the world spin.

 

Another important controversy is the possibility of unforeseen local and global effects as a result of transgenic organisms proliferating. Activist groups still hold onto their stoic stand that GMOs are artificial and hence unsafe, a fact with which most of us would agree.

 

Effects on the ecosystem and humans:

 

The so-called Frankenstein food catalog grows steadily wider. The multinationals have created science fiction products. There are strawberries enabled to resist cold weather thanks to the introduction of a gene collected from an arctic fish; beetroots can offer diet sugar once interlinked with a Jerusalem artichoke, especially with its harsh resistance to parasites. Tomatoes can be forgotten for even weeks into the fridge, no sign of rotting. Rice turning red because of proteins and vitamin A; plus, it can be planted in brackish water. Cheese with no mould. Milk drank to vaccinate against skin diseases. Garbage and vegetables remain unaffected by the ice. Potatoes, maize, corn, tobacco and a horde of other vegetables immune to attacks of virus and bacteria. Vegetables and cereals before reaching our tables, surface on a genetic engineering lab, where they undergo complex molecular manipulations.
Foodstuffs prepared from plants, bred using genetic engineering, are already being sold in parts of the world and they do not vary from the foodstuff we already consume. Till date the assessment of transgenic crops has focused mostly on capitulation and field performance.

 

The advancement and application of genetic engineering techniques has led to the overture of a number of traits for example, disease resistance, or extended shelf life into several important crops. The tomato is a handy example since it is probably one of the first transgenic crops to be commercialized and integrated into a number of food products such as ketchup, tomato juice, canned tomatoes or concentrates. Appearance and firmness of fruits and vegetable are the scales by which the consumers judge the freshness of fruits. Nevertheless a luscious-looking bright-red tomato could be several weeks old and be of little nutritional value: a consumer becomes gullible since the DNA of the tomato could have been altered for the purpose of giving the consumer a deceptive appearance of freshness.

 

Genetic engineering involves risks such as unintentionally changing the genes of an organism, the risk of harming that organism, the risk of altering and harming the ecosystem in which it evolved, as also the chances of changing or harming any other organism of that species or others, including human beings. In variance with chemical or nuclear contamination, unfortunately, gene pollution is very difficult to reverse, since it engages release of new living organisms, bacteria, and viruses into the environment to reproduce, migrate, and metamorphose. They can easily transfer their new-fangled characteristics to other organisms and can never be revoked or contained resulting in irreversible and irretrievable consequences and effects.

 

Conversely, genes from bacteria, viruses, and insects, which were hitherto not a part of the human diet, get linked into food, thus raising a question on their safety for consumption. Since genetic engineering is not an accurate technology, scientists involuntarily create changes in the genetic make-up of plants that bring unidentified proteins, microbes, plants, insects, and animals, with dangerously unpredictable, lethal effects for mankind. Even if the gene itself is not dangerous or toxic it could alter complex biochemical systems and create new bioactive compounds or modify the concentrations of those which are usually present. Properties of proteins can also change in a new chemical environment, given that they can yield and hold fast to new forms. These foods are deemed to introduce allergens in foodstuff, although Transgenic food supporters argue that introducing such products in our diet cannot raise risks of new allergies, quoting the example of the insertion of a banana gene in tomatoes, without considering the fact – in this case – it is widely consumed food. Here, I would like to bring to light the case of a manipulated bacteria used to produced large quantities of a dietary supplement, triptophane, that caused 27 deaths and 1500 disabilities in the United States (in 1992).

 

An increase in the pollution of food and drinking water will result, as more than 60% of genetic exploration is ordained to the development of plants that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides with the subsequent increase in the absorption of inorganic chemical agents. The potential ecological risks of the application of genetic engineering to agriculture include the likelihood that some transgenic crops can become harmful super weeds, while others could become a viaduct through which new genes are transmitted to wild plants, which in turn become harmful weeds. These new harmful weeds could negatively affect agricultural farming, as also the natural ecosystems. In a similar fashion, fish, mollusks, and insects that are manipulated by genetic engineering are destined to becoming plagues under certain conditions. The possibility that some would reproduce to the point of becoming dominant cannot be denied thus displacing others and therefore reducing the diversity of the reproductive stock.

 

The fact that genetic engineering will hasten the rhythm of loss of global biodiversity of agricultural crops and plants is principally alarming. Transgenic crops pose a threat to wild plants and bucolic varieties of crops that form the principal source of the genetic assortment of the crops.

 

Third World countries are faced with larger environmental risks than the Western countries because, in contrast, they harbor a great quantity of natural relatives of many crops, which makes easier the creation of mutant wild species. On the other hand, almost all global centers of origin and diversification of crops are found in Third World countries, and in effect, the erosion of vegetal biodiversity and the germo plasma of plants (the most important ingredient for a sustainable agriculture) in these countries, increases the risk of a lack of food at global level in the future.

 

Another possible environmental problem derives from the probable chemical pollution of the superficial and subterranean waters by microorganisms or plants with metabolically tainted processes. It can be impossible to convalesce and even more difficult to control, the genetically manipulated organisms that are harmful, especially those agents that controlled or do not enter in contact with the atmosphere.

 

Solutions:

 

In the field of ecological and agricultural consumption, three imperative issues have to be put forth:

 

-How to control and defend biological seed before genetic handling and the control of seed banks by multinationals?

 

-The requirement that the actual normative on agricultural production prohibit the employment of seeds, enzymes and additives handled genetically.

 

-The spoken and commitment by manufacturers and consumers of organic products to reject any genetically handled product, in black and white.

 

A positive reply to the above issues will go a long way in handling the production of GM foods as also their consumption.

 

Before this situation however, the organizations of patrons of ecological and biological products must consider the following proposals:

 

a) The immediate paralysis of production and commercialization of all genetically modified products.

 

b) A complete negation to the patents on all types of living beings and the processes of genetic handling.

 

c) The obligation that all fresh or transformed products, including enzymes and additives that contain any ingredient that is genetically manipulated, be clearly identified in the label. The label should be so designed that it provides complete information to the consumer about modification in the food he is about to devour.

 

d) The participation of organizations of consumers, ecologists and farmers in the organizations dedicated to the authorization, following and control of food products genetically engineered.

 

e) That all human and financial means that are at present invested in the field of genetic handling be destined to the research and defense of biodiversity, respect and the maintenance of traditional crops, the protection of original seeds and aboriginal produce and the development of ecological agriculture.

 

As a consumer cooperative, the products are the most eco-biological possible, considering the following strictures:

 

-that they do no contain additives that are harmful to our health

 

-that they come from natural crops

 

-that their cycle or fabrication process i.e. packaging, transport is as little polluting as possible and lastly

 

-that they come from a geographic area in close vicinity.

 

Life’s at stake. A few years down the line, majority of the food we consume could become genetically engineered and we might just end up as the lab rats in this grand experiment. While powerful multinationals guarantee that it is secure, nutritious and risk free; independent scientists, instead, raise their guard stating we have little or no knowledge of the genetic heritage and caution us: genetic engineering is an imperfect and dangerous technology and one which needs to be eradicated by the roots. Food that is the natural heritage of our ancestors, mother nature and not the dream child of a mad scientist, gone horribly wrong.

 
Anjali Garg

[Image source:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricephotos/367694928/]

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