Abstract

Since the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) foods into the United States market in 1994 their sales have grown immeasurably.  In 1996, GE crops were introduced to farmers, and 4.3 million acres were planted in six countries.  Between 1997 and 2005, the total surface area of land cultivated with genetically modified organisms had increased by a factor of 50, from 4.2 million acres to 222 million acres.  Adoption of GE crops by U.S. farmers has grown steadily because it’s cost effective, the ease of operation, and time savings.  The problem with this growth is that industrial sized biotech farms are putting small scale organic family farms out of business.  Currently, labeling of these genetically modified foods in the public market isn’t mandatory.  Recently a position paper from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration opposed labeling for GM foods.  The U.S. claims that letting consumers know whether or not GM/GE products are contained in food is “false, misleading, or deceptive.”  This poses a major threat to human health and the environment because of allergencity, the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes, outcrossing, and the heavy use of toxic herbicides.  The growth of GE crops and foods will continue, but public acceptance in the marketplace will decline as people see their effect on health and the economy.

What Are Genetically Modified Foods And Organisms?

Although biotechnology and genetic modification commonly are used interchangeably, genetic modification is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology, a more general term, refers to using organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt.  Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." Genetically modified products, current or those in development, include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers (Phillips 2010).


Figure 4. Genetically Modified Organism's (GMAC 2007)

How Does Genetic Modification Work?

Genetically modified organisms can be produced by gene cloning methods in which a non-native gene is introduced and expressed in a new organism.  Typically, the new gene has been modified, or engineered, for proper expression in the new host. Most importantly, the differences between microorganisms and eukaryotic cells must be overcome, such as introns being present or absent, occurrence of DNA chemical modification and certain post-translational modifications to the protein itself for proper transport within or between cells (Phillips 2010). Many other technological innovations within the industry have opened doors to many manipulative techniques for changing the structure of proteins through genetic alterations.

Genetic modification is being applied to develop many new benefits, such as enhancing the nutritional values, shorten growing time, and increase the resistance to pests and diseases.

In working with transgenic plants, one or more genes are artificially inserted into the DNA of the plant's chromosomes. The gene can come from the same type of plant, but sometimes it can come from another type of plant or even another type of organism (PBS 2001). Before recombinant DNA technology came about, cross-fertilization and selective breeding were a few of the first attempts at creating a new altered plant.

A representation of how a originally pest susceptible plant such as corn, can be genetically modified to carry a bacterial gene which makes it pest resistant (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Creation of a genetically modified drought resistant plant (GMAC 2007)

Click Here to genetically modify your own transgenic plant.

What Are The Benefits?

Many will argue there are no benefits, but there are some benefits to genetically modified products. The problem is that the majority of American people aren't concerned with what's in their food or may not even be educated on biotechnology and  the first thing on their mind is cost. Genetically engineered crops are the cheapest and have flooded the United States agricultural market because of it.

 

Crops

  • Enhanced taste and quality
  • Reduced maturation time
  • Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
  • Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides
  • New products and growing techniques

Animals

  • Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency
  • Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk
  • Improved animal health and diagnostic methods

Environment

  • "Friendly" bioherbicides and bioinsecticides
  • Conservation of soil, water, and energy
  • Bioprocessing for forestry products
  • Better natural waste management
  • More efficient processing

Society

  • Increased food security for growing populations

 

Benefits of genetically modified products in reference to crops, animals, the environment, and society (HGP 2008).

What Are the Issues for Human Health?

Since genetically modified foods have been introduced into the global food market there have been many concerns about the risks and dangers that these genetically modified foods might pose. While theoretical discussions have covered a broad range of aspects, the three main issues debated are tendencies to provoke allergic reaction, gene transfer and outcrossing.

Allergic Reaction. People are allergic to many different things, and when you use genetic modification with crops it might add certain traits from one organism to another that could cause a allergic reaction.  Some crops that are grown could be crossed with DNA from another organism that in nature would have never been combined.  It's not natural and the allergic reaction could be fatal (Dale 2009). One example that geneticists have created is a frost resistant tomato plant by adding an antifreeze gene from a cold-water fish. The antifreeze gene comes from the cold-water flounder, a fish that can survive in very cold conditions (BBCI 2003).

Gene Transfer. Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred. Although the probability of transfer is low, the use of technology without antibiotic resistance genes has been encouraged by a recent World Health Organization expert panel (Pusztai 2001).

Outcrossing. The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild (referred to as outcrossing), as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security (Pusztai 2001). This risk is real, as was shown when traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States of America.

 Environmental Impact

The environmental safety of the genetically modified crops depends heavily on the local conditions. Some of the concerns include: the capability of the genetically modified organism (GMO) to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations; the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested; the susceptibility of non-target organisms, for an example insects which are not pests, to the gene product; the stability of the gene; the reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity; and increased use of chemicals in agriculture (Dale 2009).

Growth and Trends

Genetic engineering began in the early 1900's when it was believed that newly emerging genetic techniques could result in genetically engineered microorganisms, or "super bugs", for bioremediation, that would withstand extreme conditions and rapidly break down resistant chemicals that polluted waste sites and brownfields (Phillips 2010).  Issues began to rise on how the superbugs would be controlled and how an ecological upset would be prevented and therefore hindered further development.

In 1996, genetically engineered crops were introduced to farmers, and 4.3 million acres were planted in six countries (Figure 7) (Global Review 2003). Genetically engineered crops continued to grow and in 2003, the numbers had grown to 167.2 million acres in 18 countries on six continents, this shows a 40 fold increase in just eight years.


Figure 7. Increase in global area of biotechnology crops 1996 to 2003 (Global Review 2003)

In 2004 there were 81 million hectares of land producing genetically modified crops globally, with the United States leading the world. Four main crops were grown on almost a 100% of the total area of the genetically modified crop production (Figure 8) (Dale 2009).


Figure 8. Global Status of Transgenic Crops (Dale 2009)

United States Growth Continues

The United States accounts for nearly two-thirds of all biotechnology crops planted globally. GM food crops grown by United States farmers include corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash, and papaya. Although soybeans and cotton genetically engineered with herbicide-tolerant traits have been the most widely and rapidly adopted GE crops in the United States, followed by insect-resistant cotton and corn (Figure 9)(USDA 2009).


The United States Department of Agriculture Statistics Service recorded data from 2000 to 2009 showing the growth in acres in genetically engineered crops by states. Farmers were randomly selected across the United States and were asked if they planted corn, soybeans, or upland cotton seed that, through biotechnology, is resistant to herbicides, insects, or both. Conventionally bred herbicide-tolerant varieties were excluded (USDA 2009). Stacked gene varieties are those containing GE traits for both herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance (Bt) (Figure 9).


Figure 9. Rapid growth in adoption of genetically engineered crops continues in the United States (USDA 2009)

In 2001, 68 percent of U.S. soybeans were genetically engineered, covering 50.4 million acres. Biotechnology varieties (which included herbicide and insect resistant types) accounted for about 26 percent (19.7 million acres) of the corn and 69 percent (10.9 million acres) of the upland cotton planted in the U.S. during 2001 (Figure 9) (Global Review 2003).

In 2002, genetically engineered varieties of soybeans planted in the U.S. rose to 75 percent of the total soybeans sown – an increase of 3.5 million acres which gave a total of 54 million acres. GM corn plantings increased 5.6 million acres to a total of 25.3 million acres – which represented 32 percent of all U.S. corn planted. While GM cotton increased its share of the total cotton crop planted in the U.S. in 2002 to 71 percent, the total acreage of all cotton as well as that of GM cotton planted decreased by six percent and five percent respectively in 2002(Figure 9) (USDA 2009).

In 2003, U.S. farmers increased GM soy plantings to total 59.7 million acres or 81 percent of all soy planted in the U.S. GM corn plantings also increased to 40 percent (31.6 million acres) of the U.S. crop. As was the case in 2002, acres dedicated to cotton farming as a whole as well as to GM varieties in particular both declined in the U.S. (13.9 million and 10.2 million acres respectively) (USDA 2009). GM varieties accounted for 73 percent of all cotton grown which is, despite the decline in actual acreage, an increase in the percentage of cotton planted with GM varieties from the previous year.

GM crops have continued to grow over the years and the number of farmers planting GM crops has also increased as you can see in Figure 9 above. Below is another representation of the quick growth of GM crops and acreage expansion from 2001 to 2004.

Major United States GM Crops

Crop:

2001 Total Acres

2002 Total Acres

2003 Total Acres

2004 Total Acres

Corn

75,000 (26%)

79,000 (34%)

79,066 (40%)

81,100 (45%)

Soybean

74,105 (68%)

72,993 (75%)

73,653 (81%)

74,724 (85%)

Cotton

15,499 (69%)

14,151 (71%)

13,924 (73%)

13,947 (76%)

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Global Review of Transgenic Crops 2003.

 

President Obama's Policies and Actions

President Barack Obama
Figure 10. President Obama (US Defense 2009)

There are no clear statements or information online which emphasize President Obama's stance on genetically modified foods.  But in a September 2008 Science Debate, a non-partisan political education group, posed science questions to the presidential candidates. When asked about the concerns of the effects of genetic modification both in humans and agriculture, Obama´s partial response was:

"Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods."  Obama´s statements on genetically engineered food tell us that he is either uninformed about GE food or is choosing to propagate the biotech façade due to industry influence.

Obama's top scientific advisers during his campaign included Sharon Long, a former board member of the biotech giant Monsanto Corporation, and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who co-chaired a key study of genetically engineered crops by the National Academy of Sciences back in 2000.

Obama may have a sense of how weak the United States genetically modified organism regulations are, since he indicated that he wants "stringent tests for environmental and health effects" and "stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice."
 

Obama is in the process of formulating policy, assembling his transition team, and considering nominees for Secretary of Agriculture, among other important positions. The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for directing the United States Department of Agriculture and its $90 billion annual budget, including the National Organic Program, food stamp and nutrition programs, and agriculture subsidies.

 

Click Here to View Recent Acts of Congress That Represent Obama's Policy

Conclusion

The major problem with genetically modified foods is that it's such a new technology that people are unsure about its potential effects to their health and the environment.  Some studies, which I have mentioned show its already detrimental impacts. The United States and world food markets are continuing to carry genetically modified foods because of the low cost and industrial farmers benefit.  Although these foods are cheaper, people will begin to see the effects they have on small scale family farming operations, environmental, and human health and therefore will not meet the needs of current market places.  As citizens of the United States and the world, we need to educate ourselves on these new foods and become aware of what is healthy for our bodies, mind and soul.

Take Action

STOP MONSANTO: If you are interested in trying to influence Monsanto the world’s largest conventional engineered seed company to stop selling genetically engineered seeds to large scale farmers, as well as stop the use and sale of Roundup® herbicide, click STOP MONSANTO below and send the letter to the following addresses:

TO CONGRESS: If you oppose putting small scale family farms out of business and replacing them with genetically engineered industrial farms then send the letter below to Congress. The letter outlines the current Food Safety Act, which has two bills, H.R. 2749 and H.R. 759 that if signed will continue to import genetically engineered foods into the marketplace as well as putting small scale farmers out of business.

 

Stop Monsanto

Dr. Robert T. Fraley
Monsanto Company
800 N. Lindbergh Blvd,
St. Louis, MO 63167

 

To Congress

Peter Welch Vermont Representative
United States House of Representatives
111th Congress, 2nd Session
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 224-3121

 

 

 Back To Top

References

BBCI, 2003. Genetically Modified Science Stories; Fish Genes in Tomatoes. Retrieved on March 9th, 2010 from http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~brownk4/BBC_GMfood.pdf.

Dale, P.J., Clarke, B. Potential for the environmental impact of transgenic crops. Nature Biotechnology, 20. 2009, 567-574.

Genetic Modification Advisory Commitee, 2007. Creation of a Genetically Modified Drought Resistant Plant. Retrieved on February 4th, 2010 from http://www.gmac.gov.sg/Index_FAQs_Genetically_Modified_Organisms.html.

Green House Healing, 2010. GMO Crops in Australia. Retrieved on February 4th, 2010 from http://www.green-house-healing.com/gmo-crops.html.

Global Review of Transgenic Crops, 2003.  Increase in Global Area of Biotechnology Crops.  Retrieved on February 11th, 2010 from http://www.isaaa.org/.

Human Genome Project, 2008. GM Products: Benefits and Controversies. Retrieved on March 9th, 2010 from http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml.

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, 2003. (ISAAA). Major United States GM Crops 2003. Retrieved on March 30th, 2010 from http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/default.asp.

PBS: Engineer A Crop, 2001.  Transgenic Manipulation.  Retrieved on March 9th, 2010 from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/engineer/transgen.html.

Perry, Amy, 2009. Biting Into GMO's. Retrieved on February 4th, 2010 from http://chicagoist.com/2009/11/18/biting_into_gmos.php.

Phillips, Theresa, 2010. What Are GMOs?. Retrieved on February 6th, 2010 from http://biotech.about.com/od/faq/f/GMOs.htm.

Politicol News, 2009. GMO's Are Harmful. Retrieved on February 9th, 2010 from http://politicolnews.com/health-reform-fda-power/.

Providing the Light. West Midlands Regional Consortium. Crops. Retrieved on February 4th, 2010 from http://www.wmnet.org.uk/resources/stern/stern/commonimages/crops.jpg.

Pusztai, Arpad, 2001. GMO's: Are They A Risk To Human and Animal Health? Retrieved on March 10th, 2010 from http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/pusztai.html.

United States Department of Agriculture, 2009. Genetically Engineered Crops; Data Sets. Retrieved on February 9th from  http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/biotechcrops/.

United States Department of Defense, 2009. Official Portrait of President Barack Obama. Retrieved on March 10th, 2010 from http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2009/0109_obama-portrait/.