Health
13 MYTHS OF GENETIC ENGINEERING
(from Acres USA Jan 2000)

Myth Number 1: Genetic Engineering (GE) is not new. It is just the same as speeded up selective breeding.

Fact: Genetic engineering and selective 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 synthesizing copies, and artificially inserting them into another completely different organism (e.g. food crops). GE usually employs virus genes and antibiotic resistance genes to act as markers. All these inserted genes are present in every cell of the plant.

Myth Number 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 behavior in response to influences from other genes. Although a gene can be cut out precisely from the DNA of an organism, its insertion to the DNA of another 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 Lewotin, 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 Number 3: GE foods vary from non-GE foods only in the characteristic that has been modified. The random insertion of foreign genes into the genetic 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 therefor contain unexpected toxins or allergic mollecules that could harm our health or that of our offspring.

Myth Number 4: GE food is extensively tested and the GE food at present in our supermarket shelf is perfectly safe to eat.

Fact: There are serious doubts about the adequacy of GE testing and about 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 abuse of antibiotic resistance genes in the production of GE foods.

Myth Number 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 Number 6: One can always choose not to eat GE foods.

Fact: At present most foods on the supermarket shelf contain GE ingredients. These ingredients are not labeled, 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: soy flower and oil, lecithin, canola oil and corn extracts.

Myth Number 7: Farmers will benefit from growing GE crop.

Fact: Seeds of GE crops are more expensive than those of conventional crops. Farmers in the UK and the US report that yields are generally no better, and the crops are less reliable and less profitable. NON-GE crops now receive a premium, and as more countries reject GE foods, the opportunities to sell GE produce are diminishing. Because of risks associated with GE crops, insurance companies in the UK and the US are 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 of the traditional practice of saving seed for the next season. This will hurt farmers in the third world.

Myth Number 8: GE crops will reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides. 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 the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority to have the allowable residue of the herbicide glyphosate in foods sold in NEW Zealand increase by 200 times. In areas of the US where crops engineered to produce their own insecticide are grown, pesticide use has not decreased.

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

Fact: Insects, birds and the wind carry GE altered pollen and seeds into neighboring fields and far beyond. Cross-pollination occurs between GE and non GE crops and their wild relatives. In this way resistance to weed killer E.g. 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 Number 10: GE crops will save the world from famine.

Fact: A major cause of famine is the unequal global distribution of food. Mountains of food 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 produce will be cheaper.

Myth Number 11: You can trust the scientists that say GE food is god for you and the world.

Fact: The money for scientific research on GE 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 hard for them to risk their careers by being openly critical. One respected scientist I the UK who spoke up about his experimental results showing the damaging effects of feeding rats on a type of genetically engineered potato was immediately fired from his job.

Myth Number 12: You can't stop progress.

Fact: Progress implies change for the better. Change for the worse is regression. We must not commit ourselves, willingly or unwillingly to a dubious technology that cannot be reversed.

Myth Number 13: There are more important tings to worry about than GE foods.

Fact: Many scientist don't think so. E.g. 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. GE is quite a possible area, because of the dreadful developments that are taking place there".

(The scientists who developed this essay can be contacted at 03-489-4020 or 03-476-1345; e-mail: brentmckenzie@clear.net.nz)

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