Monday, May 16, 2011

Genetically Modified Foods; Friends or Foes

      So the last time I posted, I thought I would have another post up within 24 hrs. Yeah not so much. Sorry but time was not on my side.I finally determined what/where I will be doing a research project next year for my masters degree, and the I started my job milking on a small dairy this week.On Saturday I took a trip back to Chicago to find an apartment and listen to Jeffrey Smith give a presentation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Anyways today I would like to do a post GMOs myself.

     First off I want to say that I am not against the idea of genetically altering foods. Plant and animal breeding has taken place since the advent of horticulture. However this form of genetic manipulation is what one would call vertical gene transfer.The desired genes are transferred down from the parent organisms to the offspring. For example, a cattleman and dairy farmer might cross breed their herds to yield a breed that is both productive for producing milk and well muscled for meat production. An example of this would be the breed known as the American Milking Shorthorn (productive milk and beef producer). Similar means are used to produce desirable plants and flowers. Most of us probably remember learning a bit about this back in Middle School or High School science classes with Gregor Mendel and his pea plants (see more here). GMOs, however, are not achieved via vertical gene transfer. The technology utilized involves the use of horizontal gene transfer.
American Milking Shorthorn
The production of GMOs relies on a form of horizontal gene alteration known as transformation.For a thorough description of this process, you may want to refer to this article by Michael Peel, of the agriculture extension agency at North Dakota State University (here). The shortened version is something like this; a desirable gene is identified and isolated, and transferred to a bacterial plasmid (a small circular piece of DNA) for protection. The plasmid is then inserted into the cells of the plant the scientists seek to alter, with the hope that the gene on the plasmid will teansfer to the target cell. The other, more common means of transfer is coating particles of metals such as gold with the genes of interest and shooting them into the target cells with a gene gun (sounds sci-fi right?)  The scientists can then use certain markers to identify if the gene transfer has taken place between the plasmid (remember its carrying the desirable genes) or the gene carrying particles and the target plant cells.

Diagram of the described horizontal gene transfer for the visual learners out there.
      Now that we've discussed how GMOs are made, lets take a look at the implications. Genetic modification is not only used in foods. This technology can also be used to produce pharmaceutical drugs, and supplements. It is used in industry to produce useful chemical agents, and can also be used for genetic mapping purposes. To the best of my knowledge, the technology used for artifical genetic modification has only been in use since the early 1970's coincident with the Green Revolution (discussion on green revolution). There first study I could find on the use of genetic modification dates back to '73 and was done by Stanley Cohen and colleagues at UC-San Francisco (1).

  In my opinion, the discoveries of Cohen and others during the green revolution were beneficial to the quality of life for mankind, with the increased production of  high quality food (although I cant say the same for the earth as a whole due to increased population pressure and environmental degradation). Contrary to others, I dont think the green revolution was spurred by malice. The occurence of the Green Revolution is a major reason the population has ballooned from 3.7 in 1970 roughly 7 billion today. In the words of Cohen et al,
   " Here is potentially useful for insertion of specific sequences from prokaryotic or eukaryotic chromosomes or extrachromosomal DNA into independently replicating bacterial plasmids."

    I believe the intent was great, but unfortunately overzealous corporations and policy makers have been too quick to allow the rapid proliferation of genetically modified crops into our food system and business practices have been less than scrupulous to say the least. In theory drought resisatant rice in sub saharan Africa sounds great to alleviate hunger in the region. I would love to see cold tolerant banana & cashew treeshere in my native midwest, but there are several catches to be considered.

   To begin with, the production of GMOs is most often carried out large corporations with profits in mind, more so than the greater good of man. Four companies, Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer, and Monsanto are thought to control more than half of the world's seeds (2) Monsanto alone holds over 650 seed patents! In addition to owning a lion's share of these market these companies do not have trhe greatest track record. For example it has been well reported in documentaries such as Unatural Selection the foreign media such as The Dailymail and The Telegraph across the pond in the UK that the practices of Monsanto led to massive suicide numbers by indian farmers. Anecdotally I have discussed with many India natives over the years as well. This 2008 article in The Dailymail by Andrew Malone describes the situation (3).

   The gist of it is that in India for millenia, farmers have farmed using heirloom seeds and re-collected the native seeds every year at no cost. In recent years, Monsanto has marketed their seeds to farmers promising higher yield. The farmers pay the premium for Monsanto's patented seeds and chemicals (Roundup anyone?) with loans expecting high yields to pay back their loans. Unfortunately the promised high yields have not come to fruition in many cases, leading the farmers to yield net loss rather than financial gain. Furthermore, since the seeds are Monsantos they cannot recollect them. They must but more seeds. Several farmers have been driven so far into debt that they are forced to relinquish their familt land, which has often been passed generation to generation for several genearations. The circumstances have led many to commit suicide. Fortunately activists such as Vandana Shiva are doing their part to educate the Indianfarmers and reclaim Indias farming sovereignity. Farming in smaller, "less developed" nations is less of a business and small farms can not afford to risk their financial livlihoods on promises of companies such as the four listed above. On another positive note, farmers in other nations have got the message as well.
    Coverage of the Haiti earthquake aftermath by the mainstream media died down pretty quickly, but the Huffington Post reported that Haitian farmers actually burned seeds "donated" by Monsanto. The article reported that  peasant farmer leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) called for the immediate burning the of 60,000 seed sacks to be donated  by Monsanto, thus saving the farmers from having to continually purchase Monsanto seeds and the pesticides that often accompany the seeds. The farmers may or maynot have given up higher yileds by burning the seeds, but I have to agree with there decision, in that I would not want to play financial russian roulette with the Monsanto seeds either.

     Well its getting past my blogging time limit, and I have some gardening to do, so let me try to top this post off. Tomorrow I plan to discuss the health implications of GMOs. As I said I am not completely against the idea of gene modification and the improvement of plant characteristics, but as noted earlier the technology is extremely recent, relatively speaking, and I don't think these plants should have been introduced to our food system without thorough inspection on health implicationsfirst. Unfortunately that is not the case. Animal studies have been mixed in regardes to health findings in animal feeding models. Negative findings have included organ damage and sterility within 3 generations of feeding aniamls GMO feed! I plan to discuss this tomorrow.

   As I stated above, our media has not done a great job of informing the public on GMOs, the possible associated risks, and the bad business practices taking place. Below is the story of two respected journalists, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre who were censored from reporitng an unflattering news piece on a local Florida Fox station. No conspiracy here, as it makes perfect financial sense for media mogul Rupert Murdoch not to risk losing millions in advertising dollars from Monsanto for his Fox empire (see Murdoch wiki).

     In conclusion let me finish this up with a little positive news and a couple of resources. The knowledge on GMOs is finally going a little more mainstream. Prince Charles has actually been calling for cessation on the use of GMO and even spoke against factory farming just days after the recent royal wedding (45). Jeffrey Smith, one of the worlds leading advocates made a recent appearance on the Dr. Oz show to discuss GMOs (here). The Huffington Post   recently reported that 9 out of 10 Americans would like to see GMOs labeled (which they currently are not) and 53% of those polled stated they would make a conscious effort NOT to buy GMOs if they knew what foods they were found in (here).

I really have not discussed the health findings that may lead many to want to forfeit GMOs quite yet but for those interested in learning more I suggest navigating the Institute for Responsible Technology. There you can find non GMO shopping guides, as well as read the blog solely dedicated to GMOs, and download other resources such as audio CDs you can use for your own further education and to give to friends , family, etc.
Heres the link....

Lastly (no really), a quick tip I often reccomend to avoid GMOs is to just avoid processed foods (as you should be doing anyway) and read your PLU's when you buy produce. If it begins with 4, it's conventional. If it begins with 9, it's organic and if the PLU begins with 8, the product is GMO. In the 3-4 years I have known to do this, I have never seen a PLU beginning with an 8. Heres an example just in case; 4060 = broccoli, 94060 = organic broccoli, 84060 = GMO broccoli. Again just an example, Ive never seen GMO broccoli. A mnemonic my mom came up with is 8 is evil, 9 is nice.

Alright that's it for today.



  1. If you want to know about what are genetically modified foods are, Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes (genes from other plants or animals) inserted into their genetic codes.Genetic engineering can be done with plants, animals, or microorganisms. Historically, farmers bred plants and animals for thousands of years to produce the desired traits. For example, they produced dogs ranging from poodles to Great Danes, and roses from sweet-smelling miniatures to today's long-lasting, but scent-free reds. May be you are find a clear concept about what are genetically modified foods are ....

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