The Call and Times, Column 4 – Agricultural Genetic Engineering

18 02 2014

(January 3, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Do These Genes Fit?

            How would you feel if you learned that much of the food you eat is genetically modified? Most people are completely unaware of that fact, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that this widespread unawareness isn’t exactly the intention of the companies and politicians that have stood to benefit from this technology.

One of the defining characteristics of an urban farmer is a concern for the quality of the food that he eats, and a working knowledge of the many problems with modern agricultural production. It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to temporarily shift gears this month, and discuss the issue of genetically modified (GMO) food. Given the many political, environmental, economic, and health-related concerns surrounding this issue, I hope that this discussion will leave you skeptical of the purported benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture, and motivated to further investigate this topic.

Before I move on, here’s a little primer. Genetic modification is when DNA fragments are taken from one organism and inserted into the DNA of another, ignoring the natural limitations of biological reproduction. This is done with the hope that the second organism will have specific, desired characteristics. In plant biotechnology, this usually means the combination of plant DNA with that of animals or bacteria, a process that would not otherwise occur in nature. This is often done so that cash crops will fit more readily into the processes of industrial agriculture – so they will resist pests or the application of herbicide, show fewer visible signs of being past their prime, and produce bigger yields at the expense of taste and nutrition.

Genetically modified crops were first grown commercially in the United States in 1994. As of this writing, upwards of 85% of the major cash crops grown here – corn, soybeans, canola, cotton/cottonseed, and sugar beets – are genetically modified. In the U.S., we dedicate more of our farmland to GMO crops than anywhere else, and unlike our government, much of the rest of the world heavily regulates, or outright bans, the growing or importing of these crops.

People and governments are wary of the technology for a variety of reasons, but most involve issues of health and environmental protection. From the perspective of the environment, GMO crops often exacerbate the negative effects of industrial agriculture – the depletion of topsoil, the use of herbicide and pesticide, and the growth of massive monocultures. There is also concern about a process called genetic drift, in which the pollen of genetically modified crops can (and does) escape into the environment, raising issues of biodiversity and patent infringement.

In terms of health, GMO foods have been implicated in new allergies and allergenic chemicals, and more disturbingly, an uptick in cancers. To this point, a research study was published last year by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French professor of molecular biology. The study found a significant increase in cancer generation, hormone imbalance, and other health defects in rats which were exposed to genetically modified corn. Though there are detractors, this is one of the few independent safety studies that has been conducted, and it adheres more strictly to the scientific method than almost all others – and its findings are concerning, to say the least.

There is a single company that is often seen as the face of genetically modified seed in the United States – Monsanto. Monsanto started off as a chemical company, and was responsible for saccharine and aspartame (artificial sweeteners), Agent Orange (a defoliant used in the Vietnam War), DDT (a once widely-used pesticide), dioxin and PCB (highly carcinogenic industrial chemicals), and rBGH/rBST (a hormone for dairy cows). All of these products have negative human health implications, and the artificial sweeteners and rBGH/rBST are still widely used. Early in the 1980s, Monsanto was the first company to genetically modify a plant cell, and has since become primarily an agricultural biotechnology company. Now, they produce genetically modified seeds for two major varieties of crops: RoundUp Ready crops, which can survive being sprayed with the company’s signature weed-killer, RoundUp, and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) crops, which create their own pesticide. These products are created entirely to fit the mold industrial agriculture, with little regard for the health of their customers or the environment.

As if the problems of genetically modified seed weren’t enough, Monsanto’s involvement makes it an issue of law and politics. To start, a series of Intellectual Property laws, beginning with the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, have made it possible for biotechnology companies to obtain patents on DNA – as some have put it, Monsanto and its fellows are now allowed to own life. These patents give Monsanto the right to stop farmers from saving and replanting seed, a practice as old as agriculture itself. In addition, there have been cases in which Monsanto has sued farmers after their fields are unintentionally contaminated with patented seed.

With their lax standards and regulatory loopholes, our FDA has been useless in preventing the issues discussed above. On the contrary, they have been unwaveringly supportive of genetically engineered crops. There are many people in these agencies and the rest of the government, including the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, who have ties to Monsanto and other biotechnology firms. Many believe that these regulatory agencies are unduly influenced by the corporate interests of Monsanto and its fellows, whose products they are supposed to be regulating. These conflicted interests result in regulatory policies that benefit companies like Monsanto, rather than protecting the American people as intended. To date, little has been done to hinder what is being called this “Revolving Door” between the agricultural biotechnology industry and the government.

With all of this, you are probably asking yourself – what can I do to help fix this?

My first suggestion is to educate yourself. The internet is a great resource for research on this issue, as are books like “The World According to Monsanto” by Marie-Monique Robin.

Next, get involved with the growing movement. There are public protest events, online forums, and various forms of multimedia with which you can get involved. As an example, last May, I attended a March Against Monsanto in Providence, with my family and Yvette Ayotte, who are also concerned about this issue. The next March is scheduled for May 24th, 2014.

Finally, change what you eat. For any products that there is a high chance of contamination by genetic modification, opt for organic or non-GMO certification (like the Non-GMO Project). Better yet, and this is where your urban green thumb comes in, grow it yourself. When you grow your food, you have the ultimate control over what does and doesn’t go into it. There are quite a few specifically non-GMO seed sources, like Fedco Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, and any other company that has signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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