Genetic Engineering will not Benefit Society
July 2018 Preface
This piece was originally a response to an editorial in the Coyote Press student newspaper of the Community College of Southern Nevada (now simply the College of Southern Nevada) titled “Genetic Engineering will Benefit Society.” From our recollection (the piece is not available online) it was an argument for genetic engineering centering around its uses in human medical science, and possibly included reference to technologies like “pharming” (the practice of genetically modifying plants or animals to produce medicinal substances).
In rebuttal, this simplistic piece focuses on an aspect entirely overlooked in the initial editorial: the genetic engineering of plants and animals and its effect on the natural world and human health.
Written prior to discovering social ecology and ecosocialism generally, the author exhibits an early interest in the human-nature relationship, a skepticism (but not rejection) of technology and its socio-ethical directions, radical ecology, and how they intersect and influence a radical and ethical politics (which for the author began with animal liberation philosophy and veganism).
Since this was written, companies in the United States have begun voluntarily labeling GM foods. Unlike the European Union, which requires labeling for genetically modified foods, little regulation or consumer protection exists in the United States. In 2018, Monsanto was purchased by Bayer corporation.
Running inversely to genetic modification is the movement around “organic” foods (which in the U.S. has a legal definition and system of certification). However, we can see the intimate relation between the two within the broader capitalist system: with the degradation of the food supply–through monocultures, genetic modification, application of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers, etc.–a new market arose for “clean,” “natural,” or otherwise unmolested foodstuffs. A premium now exists for such “organic” foods. In this way, so-called “green” capitalism extends the reach of the system, creating new markets (organic food) out of the pollution and degradation of the natural world (industrial agriculture) inherent to capitalism. Further, it creates class divisions around the essential needs of human survival.
Sources cited were accurate when first compiled in 2006. Unfortunately, none of the URLs cited are still in existence, though the content can no doubt be found elsewhere on the Internet or through the WayBack machine at archive.org.
To close: though elementary, this article does bring up several points still applicable to the debate surrounding genetic modification.
NOTE: This article was originally written in response to a CCSN Coyote Press opinion piece titled, “Genetic Engineering will Benefit Society.”
It is important for people to know that there are problems with genetic engineering. If left unchecked, the outcome of the current trend regarding genetically modified (or genetically engineered, abbreviated GMO or GE) organisms will be the extinction of all natural life on this planet. That is not to say that life will necessarily cease to exist – however, there will no longer be such a thing as a “natural” or “organic” ear of corn, or any other plant or animal for that matter.
So what is genetic engineering, and what are its most common uses? Genetic engineering is the process of adding or subtracting genetic traits within organisms that could not be accomplished through traditional, natural methods (such as selective breeding of plants, for example). This means that traits which cannot exist naturally in these organisms are artificially inserted from other sources – sometimes from completely different species (fish material into tomatoes, for example). It’s most common (and potentially most harmful) use is the manipulation of our food supply.
The most famous and widespread examples of genetic engineering in regard to our food can be found at Monsanto, just one of the many multinational, US-based companies wreaking havoc on the planet and its people as you read this.
In 1996, Monsanto introduced a genetically modified Canola plant into Canada. The supposed benefit of this plant was its resistance to pesticide, which would allow farmers to use chemicals on their crop that would otherwise kill it. The catch is that farmers must buy both the seed and the chemical from the same place – Monsanto, often at increased cost. It has been reported that, due to strong-arming by Monsanto and GMO pollination of non-GMO crop (see below), there is now virtually no GMO-free Canola grown in Canada (1).
A common strategy used by Monsanto and others is the patenting of their “Frankenfood” concoctions: a patent on life – a perverse concept to any rational, compassionate person – reducing the most incredible thing on the planet to yet another commodity to be bought and sold. This patenting strategy, which is constantly being fought against (check out the work Vandana Shiva and others are doing – she spoke at CCSN recently, where were you?), allows Monsanto to test the seeds or plants of farmers who refuse to purchase GM seeds, and to sue farmers when patented genetic material is found.
So how does GE product end up in their fields? There are multiple ways this can come about, almost all of which are actually or practically impossible to prevent. Wind can blow Monsanto seed into organic and other farmers’ fields. Birds can spread plants and seeds.
In addition, plant pollination is an unavoidable problem for non-GMO farmers – when a genetically modified plant pollinates a non-GMO plant, the non-GMO plant has been contaminated. Often not confined to just one plant, when this pollination happens, entire non-GMO crops become genetically modified and subject to lawsuit by Monsanto, as well as ineligible for organic certification.
This genetic contamination is one of the main dangers associated with the genetic engineering of plants. Several close calls have already happened involving GE plants when GMOs for experimental, medical, or non-human purposes have infected regular food crops (2).
Genetic modification is not limited only to plants – any type of life can be manipulated. Many animals have been genetically manipulated in some way. These are not just test mice; they are cattle that, along with GMO plants, will one day end up in our food supply – this time in the form of dairy and meat. Other examples include goats that produce spider silk in their milk (3), and pigs that are “humanized” to provide easier organ transplantation into human beings (4).
Now you may be wondering: What are the genetic characteristics that corporations want to put into our food, and from where are they derived? “There are 12 genetically engineered (GE) plant species that have been approved for commercial production in the US, and the traits that have been genetically engineered into them fall into six categories (5).” These species are corn, cotton, potato, tomato, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, rice, flax, squash/zucchini, papaya, and chicory (radicchio) (6). The six genetic sources are: bacteria, tobacco, viruses, tomato, bay, and soybeans (7).
However, those are just what is currently in existence and approved for use – genetic characteristics can come from or be inspired by any living thing, from viruses and bacteria, to plants and animals, to humans, and can even be synthetically produced (that is, completely artificial). For instance, experiments have been done using synthetically created genetic material inspired from traits found in fish and transferring them to tomatoes (8). While this particular experiment was not successful, similar experiments are currently underway and destined for your dinner table.
Another case involved a gene from the Brazil nut being added to soybeans. Concern was generated when it was found that the material being added from the Brazil nut to the soybean could cause a person allergic to Brazil nuts to react to the genetically modified soy (9). This experiment was abandoned as well, but it raises very critical questions for food-related genetic modification – particularly, the question, “What are you allergic to?”
In the near future, there may be no way to tell what food might cause an allergic reaction. That potentially deadly Brazil nut allergy might manifest itself in any number of other plants. Soon, each time you eat soy you may be gambling with your life!
And what of the genes taken from things that we don’t normally eat? Experiments have been done taking genetic material from insects, bacteria (which are already in some products), animals, and even humans and placing them into food-related plants and animals. There is no way to test or predict the reaction of a population the size of the United States to this genetic material, since most of us have probably never been exposed to it.
Making all of this even more dangerous, particularly to us here in U.S., is that there is currently no labeling regarding genetic manipulation being put on food packaging, nor is there a requirement for it. Corporations are not required to state the ways in which they are manipulating our food, and consumers have no way of knowing what they’re actually buying. The issue becomes much grayer when we get away from plain produce and get into things with multiple ingredients – spaghetti sauce and other canned goods, for example. This leaves consumers powerless to know (or find out) what is in their food – a basic right we all have, and one that is becoming increasingly more important, as “estimates suggest that more than 60% of food products on US shelves may contain at least a small quantity of some crop that has been genetically engineered (10).”
The Monsanto model of manipulating and patenting life can and is being spread to all kinds of different areas, from medicine (which they’re trying to get chickens to lay in their eggs (11) – no joke), to human “improvement” (start saving up for Monsanto’s brand-name, designer hearts, lungs, and kidneys). It’s fairly obvious that Monsanto and the other companies are not driven out of a perceived ethical obligation – their motivation is completely profit-based.
One of the most important things to remember about the issue of genetic engineering is that most of the benefits and treatments that this technology is supposed to ease or cure are mainly a result of human activity – that is to say, most of these problems are manufactured by us to begin with. So while some forms of genetic engineering – stem cell research, for instance – look promising, many of the problems we try to find cures for – the massive cancer rates, the diabetes epidemic, the chronic heart problems – stem from the separating of ourselves from nature. In short, we are looking for cures to the artificial problems that we create. Shouldn’t we instead be striving to abolish these core problems – the massive pollution, the urban sprawl, the stress and sleep deprivation from working 40+ hours a week, and especially the manipulation (including genetic) of our food supply? Genetic modification is a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place – if you want to prevent diabetes, lay off the sweets; if you want to decrease your cancer risks, clean up the environment and eat less meat.
While the control of the food supply and its manipulation may rest in the hands of only a few companies which profit off of our hunger (as well as from the solutions to the artificial problems that these companies create), there are ways we can fight back:
1) Buy organic! There is some debate regarding organic labeling (mostly that the federal standards of what is organic is too lenient). However, any product labeled organic cannot be genetically modified (12). That means that produce was developed and grown naturally on this planet, instead of a lab.
2) Become vegan (or lazy vegan, i.e. vegetarian)! One of the main arguments in support of genetic engineering is that without it, we couldn’t produce enough food of high enough nutritional value to feed everyone on the planet. This is false. Especially when applied to the development of genetically engineered animals, profit is really the only motive:
“The requirement to increase food production to feed a growing world population is frequently put forward as a justification for genetic modification. However, although the GM applications being developed could increase productivity in the breeds used in high input intensive agriculture and significantly increase profits in subsections of the food production industry in the developed world, they are highly unlikely to impact on areas of the world currently experiencing food shortages (13).”
If you want to ensure that we can continue to feed everyone, it’s essential to eat less meat and dairy – preferably none at all! This leaves more room to produce fruits and vegetables, and decreases the profit motive for cruel food-related animal GMO experiments. “Twenty times more land is required to feed a meat-eater than to feed a pure vegetarian (14).” This is the diet of the future, and all compassionate people should adopt it. Meat production is also grossly inefficient, pollutes the environment, and wastes precious natural resources.
“Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all the water… [and] more than one-third of all raw materials and fossil fuels used in the United States. It takes 2,500 gallons[!] of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat… Producing a single hamburger patty uses enough fossil fuel to drive a small car 20 miles and enough water for 17 showers (15).”
3) Volunteer! It’s harder to get involved here in Las Vegas than other places, but get in contact with organizations that are actively taking back control of the food supply and protecting the environment (from pollution and destruction of all kinds, including genetic). Such organizations include Earth First!, Food Not Bombs, and Greenpeace. If you want to go the political route, your Green Party of Nevada
(www.nevadagreenparty.org) is where it’s at.
As we have seen, the genetic engineering of our food supply raises many more concerns and poses much more danger than supposed benefits. It’s crucial to remember that as genetic pollution within our food supply becomes more prevalent – its effects cannot be undone. In fact, it may already be too late to protect the genetic makeup of the natural plants and animals of this world.
The solutions to the problems that genetic engineering aims to fix will not be corrected through this technology. We already possess the ability to prevent many of the problems genetic engineering supposedly targets, and the solutions must start first with personal responsibility. I call on everyone to be a part of the solution (starting with the three suggestions above) by holding these corporations responsible for their actions, and reclaiming our food supply from those who would despoil it for the sake of profiteering off of our hunger!
1. CBC News, Indepth: Genetic Modification, “Most of Canada’s canola crop has been modified as well…”
Council for Biotechnology Information, Talking to Farmers about Roundup Ready Wheat “…it’s now impossible for Canada to export GMO-free canola or to ensure pedigreed seed is free of GMOs.”
2. New York Times, Safeway Recalls Taco Shells after Test Questions Corn Origin, October 12, 2000
New York Times, Kraft Recalls Taco Shells with Bioengineered Corn, September 23, 2000
GEO-PIE Project, Experimental Corn Contaminates Soybeans,
Polaris Institute, Unapproved Genetically Engineered Pigs Accidentally Used for Animal Feed… Again
3. Genewatch UK, Genetically Modified and Cloned Animals. All in a Good Cause?, “A US company, Nexia Biotechnologies, has engineered goats to produce spider’s silk in their milk.” Page 7
4. Genewatch UK, Genetically Modified and Cloned Animals. All in a Good Cause?, “By genetically modifying pigs, the aim is to produce ‘humanized’ organs which will not be rejected.” Page 7
5. GEO-PIE Project, What Traits have Been Engineered?
8. GEO-PIE, Fish-Gene Strawberries and Tomatoes,
9. New England Journal of Medicine, Identification of a Brazil-Nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans
10. GEO-PIE Project, GE Foods in the Market
11. Genewatch UK, Genetically Modified and Cloned Animals. All in a Good Cause?, “There are also attempts to modify chickens to produce drugs in eggs.” Page 7
Genewatch UK, Genetically Modified and Cloned Animals. All in a Good Cause?, “A number of researchers around the world have reported success with experimental production of transgenic poultry and some have reported the production of pharmaceutical proteins in eggs.” Page 40
12. Department of Agriculture, National Organics Program, Final Rule with Request for Comments, “The definition for ‘excluded methods’ now reads: A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the position of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology.” Page 7
13. Genewatch UK, Genetically Modified and Cloned Animals. All in a Good Cause? Page 76
14. Go-Veg Flyer, Think you can be a meat-eating environmentalist? Think again!