Thirteen myths
of genetic engineering

 

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New Zealand's Consumers for Education about Genetic Engineering has prepared this helpful guide to genetic engineering.

Myth No. 1: Genetic engineering (GE) is not new. It is just the same as speeded-up selective breeding.

FACT: Genetic engineering (GE) and conventional breeding are worlds apart. Breeding does not manipulate genes; it involves crossing of selected parents of the same or closely related species. In contrast, GE involves extracting selected genes from one organism (e.g. animals, plants, insects, bacteria) and/or viruses, or synthesising copies, and artificially inserting them into another completely different organism (eg. food crops). GE usually employs virus genes to smuggle in and promote the inserted genes, and antibiotic resistance genes to act as markers. All these inserted genes are present in every cell of the plant.

Myth No. 2: Genetic engineering is precise.

FACT: The function of only a small proportion of the DNA in a higher organism is known. Modern genetics has shown that genes do not operate in isolation. Rather they interact in a complicated way, changing their behaviour in response to influences from other genes. Although a gene can be cut out precisely from the DNA of an organism, its insertion into the DNA of another organism is entirely random. This results in the disruption of the order of the genes on the chromosome and may result in random and unexpected changes in the functioning of the cells. Richard Lewontin, Professor of Genetics at Harvard University, has said of GE: "We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another."

Myth No. 3: GE foods vary from non-GE foods only in the characteristic that has been modified.

FACT: The random insertion of foreign genes into the genetic material may cause unexpected changes in the functioning of other genes. Existing molecules may be manufactured in incorrect quantities, at the wrong times, or new molecules may be produced. GE foods and food products may therefore contain unexpected toxins or allergenic molecules that could harm our health or that of our offspring.

Myth No.4: GE food is extensively tested and the GE food at present on our supermarket shelves is perfectly safe to eat.

FACT: No GE food testing is done in New Zealand. We rely almost entirely on the testing carried out by the GE biotechnology companies that have spent billions of dollars developing the food and intend to make a profit selling it to us. There are serious doubts about the adequacy of the testing and the validity of the conclusions drawn from the results. Independent long-term testing is required before we can be sure that GE food is safe to eat. Another health concern is the possible acceleration of the development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics due to the use of antibiotic resistance genes in the production of GE foods.

Myth No. 5: Genetically engineered food has improved nutritional value.

FACT: No GE food produced to date has been shown to be more nutritious than non-GE food. Most GE crops are only designed to be resistant to specific herbicides, to produce their own insecticides or to have an increased shelf life.

Myth No.6: One can always choose not to eat GE food.

FACT: At present most foods on New Zealand supermarket shelves containing GE ingredients are not labelled, so there is no way of knowing whether we are eating them. GE products are likely to be found in foods containing the following ingredients: Soya flour and oil (in many common foods including breads, sausages, etc.); Lecithin (in chocolate, ice cream etc.); Canola oil and Corn (maize) extracts.

Myth No. 7: Farmers will benefit from growing GE crops.

FACT: Seeds of genetically engineered crops are more expensive than those of conventional crops. Farmers in the UK and USA report that yields are generally no better, the crops are less reliable and overall have not improved profitability. Non-GE crops now receive a premium and as more countries reject GE foods, the opportunities to sell GE produce overseas are diminishing. Because of risks associated with GE crops insurance companies in the USA and UK are now reluctant to insure them. Farmers growing GE crops have to sign binding contracts with the biotechnology producers. These commit them to using only the herbicides produced by that company and prohibit them from the traditional practice of saving seed for the next season. Most third world farmers certainly will not benefit.

Myth No.8: GE crops will reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides.

FACT: Crops engineered to be resistant to specific herbicides may encourage more liberal use of those herbicides. This has been anticipated by one manufacturer, who has applied to ANZFA (Australia & New Zealand Food Authority) to have the allowable residue of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup®) in foods sold in New Zealand increased by 200 times. In areas of the USA where crops engineered to produce their own insecticide are grown, pesticide use has not decreased.

Myth No. 9: There is no evidence that GE crops are harmful to the environment.

FACT: Insects, birds and the wind carry genetically altered pollen and seeds into neighbouring fields and far beyond. Cross-pollination occurs between GE crops and non-GE crops and their wild relatives. In this way resistance to weed killer, for example, might be transmitted to weeds making them more difficult to control. There is evidence that crops engineered to produce their own insecticide can kill beneficial insects.

Myth No. 10: GE crops will save the world from famine.

FACT: A major cause of famine is the unequal global distribution of food. Food mountains exist in much of the western world and food is regularly dumped. Poor people have limited ability to buy either GE or non-GE food. There is no evidence that GE crops produce higher yields than conventional crops or that GE products will be cheaper.

Myth No. 11: You can trust the scientists that GE food is good for you and the world.

FACT: The money for scientific research on GE here and overseas comes from either the biotechnology companies or the government. Both are committed to the promises of biotechnology. This means that even when scientists have concerns about the safety or commercial application of the technology, it is often hard for them to risk their careers by being openly critical. One respected scientist in the UK who spoke up about his experimental results showing damaging effects of feeding rats on a type of genetically engineered potato was immediately fired from his job.

Myth No. 12: You can't stop progress.

FACT: No of course we can't; and why would we want to? Progress implies change for the better. Change for the worse is regression. We must be sure that GE products have benefits for the consumer and are safe if they are to be introduced into our foods. We must not commit ourselves to a dubious technology that cannot be reversed.

Myth No. 13: There are more important things to worry about than GE foods.

FACT: Many scientists don't think so.For example Joseph Rotblat, the British physicist who won a 1995 Nobel Prize says: "My worry is that other advances in science may result in other means of mass destruction, maybe more readily available even than nuclear weapons. Genetic engineering is quite a possible area, because of these dreadful developments that are taking place there."

For more information contact: Consumers for Education about Genetic Engineering

 

OTHER ARTICLES

2008

PRINCE CHARLES BLASTS GM FOOD

Telegraph, UK - In his most outspoken intervention on the issue of GM food, the Prince said that multi-national companies were conducting an experiment with nature which had gone "seriously wrong". The Prince, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph, also expressed the fear that food would run out because of the damage being wreaked on the earth's soil by scientists' research. He accused firms of conducting a "gigantic experiment I think with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong". . . . Relying on "gigantic corporations" for food, he said, would result in "absolute disaster".

"That would be the absolute destruction of everything... and the classic way of ensuring there is no food in the future," he said. Advertisement. What we should be talking about is food security not food production - that is what matters and that is what people will not understand.

"And if they think its somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.". . .

"If they think this is the way to go....we [will] end up with millions of small farmers all over the world being driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness."

2007

JUDGE TELLS USDA IT HAS TO DO A BETTER JOB EXAMINING GENETIC MODIFICATION

CTR FOR FOOD SAFETY - In a decision broadly affecting field trials of genetically engineered crops a federal district judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture must halt approval of all new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted. Citing potential threats to the environment, Judge Harold Kennedy found in favor of the Center for Food Safety that USDA's past approvals of field trials of herbicide tolerant, genetically engineered bentgrass were illegal.

At issue in the lawsuit are novel varieties of creeping bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass manufactured by Scotts and Monsanto that have been genetically engineered to resist Roundup, Monsanto's popular herbicide.

Currently, use of the Roundup weedkiller is limited to spot spraying of weeds in that the herbicide kills any grass with which it comes in contact. The new engineered grass has been altered to be resistant to the weedkiller so that users will be able to spray entire lawns, fields and golf courses with large amounts of the chemical without fear of hurting the grass. Large scale planting of the biotech grass would therefore significantly increase the amounts of herbicide used in home lawns, sports fields, schools and golf courses around the country.

In studies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found multiple instances of the pollen from engineered bentgrass traveling several miles and transferring its traits to native grasses. Last year, EPA researchers found that the engineered grasses had escaped from field trials to contaminate a national grassland.

http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/GTBC_DecisionPR_2_7_07.cfm

2006

GM PLANTS ESCAPING INTO THE WILD

GREGORY M. LAMB, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR - In rice-growing states, traces of an unapproved genetically modified rice have been found mixed in with conventional rice meant for human consumption. In Oregon, genetically engineered creeping bentgrass, being tested for possible use on golf courses, has been found miles outside its test beds, making it the first GM plant known to have escaped into the wild.

In Hawaii, a federal judge has admonished the US Department of Agriculture for displaying "utter disregard" for the state's endangered native plant species. The judge says the USDA failed to conduct research on the environmental effects of fields of experimental corn and sugarcane that had been genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals. Environmental and food-safety groups have asked for a moratorium on all field tests of experimental drug-producing plants until their safety precautions can be reviewed.

Early indications are that in each case little substantial harm has been done. . . But many who closely watch how biotechnology is changing agriculture, including those who see a valuable role for GM crops, are disturbed by what appears to be a series of recent incidents showing lax supervision of experimental plantings by the government and agribusinesses. . .

After the news spread that unapproved GM long-grain rice had been found in US consumer supplies, the European Union announced it would require imports of long-grain rice from the US to be certified as free from the GM strain. Japan has suspended its imports of American long-grain rice pending further review.

http://rss.csmonitor.com/~r/feeds/top/~3/17792398/p15s01-sten.html

HOW BRITAIN BEAT BACK THE GENETIC MODIFIERS

GEOFFREY LEAN INDEPENDENT, UK - Seven short years ago, when The Independent on Sunday began its campaign on GM foods and crops, 60 per cent of the products on our supermarket shelves contained modified ingredients. Now only two GM products are left on sale: Schwartz's Bacon Flavour Bits Salad Topping, and Betty Crocker Bac-Os - neither exactly household names.

Then, too, widespread cultivation of GM crops throughout Britain was thought to be only a year away. No less than 53 of them were confidently awaiting approval. Now not a single GM plant is growing anywhere in any British field, and no one expects any to be sown any time in the foreseeable future.

At the time ours appeared a hopeless cause. The giant biotech companies seemed unstoppable: Monsanto, which led their charge, was poised to make a merger that would have turned it into the world's largest corporation. It had the full backing of the Government, fired by the messianistic determination of Tony Blair to make the country "the European hub" of biotechnology. Both the US administration and the British scientific establishment were urging him on.

The Prime Minister privately dismissed public opposition as "a flash in the pan", and so it appeared. Ranged against the Goliaths of the boardrooms and the cabinet rooms were a motley band of Davids, ranging from Prince Charles to pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.

But we reckoned without the most powerful force of all, the superwomen (and supermen) of the shopping aisles who, informed of the presence of GM products in their foods and the arguments for and against, simply refused to buy them. Thus the public achieved what parliament has repeatedly failed to do - stopping one of Tony Blair's dodgier crusades in its tracks.

http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article1168240.ece