WHAT ARE WE EATING? Consumers Hungry-For More Information about GM Food
Bobier, Paul, CCPA Monitor
For thousands of years, plants and animals have been cross-bred to create organisms with specified desired traits. This is called "classical" or "traditional" breeding. Genetically modified (GM) food, however-also called genetically engineered or trans-genetic food-is a recent development, in which genes are transferred between unrelated species. The genes of a chicken, for example, have been inserted into the genetic code of a potato to increase its resistance to disease.
GM crops are grown in Canada, the United States, Argentina, and China. Supporters of GM food claim it could increase plant yields to produce more food for the growing population of a planet with limited agricultural space. But most GM applications are for other purposes, such as resistance to disease and to certain herbicides and pesticides. According to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, any yield improvements in plants from GM technology are minimal at best, if they happen at all.
When a biotechnology company develops a new GM plant, that plant is unique, and a patent is taken out on it. The biotech company can then prohibit farmers from growing it unless they pay a price for the seeds from the new strain and agree to other conditions set by the company.
With traditional crops, seed improvements are less costly and more accessible to farmers because there are no GM patents on the seeds farmers are able to save from crop to crop.
One of the changes made through biotechnology is the "Terminator" seed, which comes from a GM plant whose seeds are sterile and can be used for only one crop. So farmers have to buy fresh seeds from the biotech company every year to grow the same crop. Such "Terminator" seeds were developed to increase the biotech company's seed sales and profits, not for the benefit of farmers or starving people around the world. So far, opposition from farmers and consumers-and some governments-has delayed the widespread commercial use of these GM seeds.
"The ownership and control of the seeds of life through exclusive proprietary patents shielded by corporate privileges and immunities," says consumer advocate Ralph Nader, "cannot be permitted in a democracy."
GM food raises concerns that go beyond the intended benefit a gene splice may give to a plant. Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Biotech Century, cautions that "ecologists are unsure of the impacts of bypassing natural species boundaries by introducing genes into crops from wholly unrelated plant and animal species.
"There's little or no precedent," he says, "for what might occur in the wake of a global experiment to redefine the fundamental rules of biological development to suit the needs of market-driven forces. Might the introduction of novel genes into the genomes of traditional food crops create new characteristics that are unpredictable or uncontrollable?"
There is the risk of genetic pollution, where a gene is transferred unintentionally to other species, with undesirable and unforeseen results. Could herbicide-resistant genes in a GM plant, for example, be accidentally transferred to weeds, turning them into super-weeds? If so, it would be harder to stop them once they start growing in or near farmers' fields.
David Suzuki, a geneticist, broadcaster, and environmentalist, has noted that Canadians may have been eating GM food for several years without being told in advance or notified by food package labels.
GM foods have been barred from Europe, which has applied the "precautionary principle" that requires proof such foods are safe before allowing them to be marketed. In Britain, GM foods are required by law to be labelled as such. …