Genetic Engineering: Road to Paradise or Paradise Lost?

This video from the political advocacy group Greenpeace, provides an overview of the contentious issues of biotechnology (genetic engineering) as it applies to food production. In some ways, biotechnology is the equivalent of the abortion rights issue of the agriculture world. Both sides of the debate hold entrenched views. Those in opposition to its use in foods are often referred to as being “anti-science” or “anti-technology”. GMO proponents are often accused of representing the vested interests of a few global conglomerates that derive billions in revenue through license agreements, and interconnected product sales locked in by legal patents. These patent rights are seen as an effective tool to minimize competition, and restrict the rights of the end users (principally the farmers and eaters) in the marketplace. While proponents sometimes propose a harmonious co-existence between conventional, organic, and GE crop producers, for at least some growers, GMO’s are seen as an environmental contamination threat—the notion of co-existence is antithetical to their farming operations.

Some people who view this video may feel that it’s an obvious propaganda piece, and will consider the subject no further. Others may feel that the video message is entirely accurate. Regardless of ones point of view, this video raises a number of important issues that deserve more thoughtful attention, investigation, and wider public discussion. Over the coming weeks, Cooking Up a Story will be taking a closer look at an alternative approach to plant breeding from the perspective of an organic seed breeder, and why the age old debate “genetics vs. environment”, each, at one time, holding sway over the other, may have missed the critical point. Both genetics and the local environment (together) produce specific traits, and specific agricultural results. GE crops (and seeds) produced in a research lab, but not adapted to a particular local environment casts genetics as the predominant factor for producing desirable (plant) characteristics and outcomes, yet, of the two, the local environment may be the stronger determinant.

These are a few of the important questions raised in this video:

  1. Genetic Engineering is a worldwide experiment on people, animals, and nature:
    In the 20 years that this technology has developed, how have the foundations of science that biotechnology is based upon—one gene expressing a single trait—how have recent advances in molecular biology fundamentally changed our understanding of how genetic engineering works (PDF), and thus our original assumptions for the safe use of this technology? Have scientists been freely allowed to do independent testing of GMO plants before and after release into the environment? What peer reviewed scientific studies have examined the long-term potential for environmental damage, and safety from a public health perspective?
  2. Is world hunger largely a problem of producing enough food, hence (as some advocates claim) the vital need for biotechnology to help increase (food) supplies to meet future needs?
    Or, is world hunger more a problem of (affordable) access and distribution, getting the food to those in need, and addressing the underlying issues of poverty that prevent people from being able to afford food? What does the evidence show when it comes to improving crop yields using genetic engineering? How dependent are GMO crops on herbicides, and chemical fertilizers for producing yields? Can the planet sustain greater water consumption, and increased chemical fertilizers and herbicides for the growing of our food? Do GMO crops require more chemical inputs (herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) than alternative farming practices?
  3. Genetically engineered crops once outside can no longer be controlled like they could in the lab. GE crops can self-replicate and pass on their traits to neighboring crops penetrating the fields of farmers who want to cultivate their crops without genetic engineering.
    How readily can a field of genetically engineered crops cross-contaminate a neighboring field growing the same species, but that is not genetically engineered? What environmental problems have occurred to date with open genetically engineered plants?
  4. How do genetically engineered crops effect humans and (livestock) animals?
    Do we know the long-term health effects? Is it fair to say that we are all guinea pigs for this technology because we do not always know what is in our food? Should the government require that all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled, as such? What about meat from animals fed genetically engineered feed?

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