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The Low-Down on Genetically Modified Organisms

By Joshua Sandstrom, Oregon, USA

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic material, or DNA, is altered through the insertion or deletion of genes. The genes that are inserted, usually come from a different species. There are many benefits of GMOs such as creating disease resistant plants and greater crop yields, but we are only beginning to learn the overall effects of GMOs in our everyday lives.

GMOs are used in a variety of ways such as biological and medical research, production of pharmaceutical drugs, experimental medicine, and food production. They are responsible for lots of interesting things including papayas that produce their own insecticide, golden rice that contains high amounts of vitamin A, and carrots that contain lots of calcium.

Unfortunately, GMOs also have the potential to cross-pollinate with local species in the area where they are grown. Dispersed by wind, animals, and insects, GMO pollen can travel more than 10 miles in any direction.

One highly controversial GMO technology is the development of ‘patent protected’ food crops that are resistant to commercial herbicides and/or are able to produce pesticidal proteins from within the plant themselves. GMO varieties like this are already used in 80 to 90% of all US corn, soy, and cotton crops. The idea is that if a farmer buys seed that is called ‘Round-Up ready,’ it means that he can then use Round-Up (a weed-killer sold with the seed) on his crops to kill the weeds but not the crop.

A new gene called the ‘Terminator Gene’ has been put in place to render food crops sterile. Saving seed is pointless. The farmer is forced to buy new seed from the seed provider. Consider that 90% of all GMO food crops are currently grown in the developing world, where farmers are economically exploited into using GMO seeds and they can’t save the seed from their GMO crop as they have done for centuries; they have to buy it each year. Worse yet, the ‘Terminator Gene’ can cross pollinate with native food strains and make the local seed strains sterile as well.

An interesting ethical question that is especially relevant for vegetarians is, if a fruit or vegetable contains the genes of an animal, is it still vegetarian? In the USA, if your food is not Certified Organic, then there is a strong likelihood that there are fish genes in your fruit, growth hormones in your milk, insect genes in your vegetables, and tree genes in your grain. Researchers are currently using chicken embryos to make potatoes more disease resistant.

Some people say that we need genetic engineering of our foods to be able to grow enough to feed all the world’s people. This is true if we continue to rely on energy intensive agriculture, large machinery, and central processes. However, if the trend toward organic and local foods continues and people begin to grow fresh foods in their own yards once more, then the need for GMOs becomes less and less.

In Europe, Genetically Modified Foods are required by law to be labeled as such. In the United States there are no labeling requirements and no way to tell if a food has been altered unless it is Certified Organic, and thus, GMO free.

In New Zealand, no genetically modified food is grown and no medicines containing live genetically modified organisms have been approved for use. In 2004, Mendocino County, California, became the first county in the United States to ban the production of GMO crops. Since then, Trinity and Marin counties in California have also imposed bans on GMO crops.

There are many benefits and unseen concerns when it comes to GMOs. I urge you to do more research and see what you can find out. I choose to eat as much organic food as possible and avoid GMOs whenever I can. I see no reason to be a test subject for such an experiment as genetic modification.

Joshua Sandstrom co-founded the Green Team at Summer Solstice in New Mexico and has 8 years of experience working in Fair Trade with his business Circle of the Sun. He is available for further information at Joshua[email protected]