Genetic Engineering IS NOT Breeding

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Biotech News, by R. Wolfson, Ph.D.

(published in the Feb. 1997 issue of Alive magazine)

The biotech industry and our departments of agriculture claim that genetic engineering is a natural extension of traditional breeding. However, traditional agriculture methods, such as cross-pollination or selective breeding, are based on natural reproductive mechanisms. These traditional methods will cross only one kind of plant or animal with a similar species.

Genetic engineering crosses the coded DNA barrier and utilizes very powerful (and unnatural) laboratory techniques for transferring genetic material directly between plants and animals. Using these techniques, genes from any plant, animal, virus, or other organism, including a human, can be inserted into any other organism. Using the traditional methods, one could never mate a tomato and a fish, or a canola plant with a human. Yet genetic engineers have done this.

Biotechnology supporters say genetic engineering is precise and safe. It is true that isolating a gene in a test tube can be precise. But when the genetic material is inserted into a new host, there is always some uncertainty. For instance, one technique involves using a "gene gun" to shoot genes into the host. Once in the host, the gene could attach in the middle of another gene and interfere with its functioning. Or it may damage the host DNA in another unpredictable way. Because of the immense complexity of living organisms and our very limited knowledge of gene interactions, unexpected side-effects are inevitable. This unpredictability is amplified since genetic engineers combine together genes from widely divergent species.

Many crops on the market (e.g. soybeans, canola oil, corn) are genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides, allowing more herbicide use. The herbicides involved are meant to break down more quickly, but the actual rates are highly dependent on local conditions, and soil and water pollution do occur. In addition, studies show that these herbicides are more acutely toxic to humans. Also, herbicide-resistant crops in the fields can cross-pollinate with wild species, producing herbicide-resistant superweeds that create ecological havoc.

Genetically engineered insect-resistant crops create different environmental problems. These crops include potatoes, cotton, maize, and corn. They are already on the market and contain their own pesticide (Bt toxin) genetically inserted into the plant to kill insects. Agronomists and environmentalists are concerned that if even a few insects survive, they can breed with each other and produce strains of superbugs resistant to pesticides that destroy crops and also interfere with organic production.

Ideally, expression of the poison would be localized to the leaves or roots. But because current techniques are not that selective, the toxin becomes expressed in varying concentrations throughout the entire plant, including in the parts we eat! Also, the actual concentration of the toxin is not so important because only a tiny amount of a potent allergen is needed to elicit a powerful response.

Our biggest consumer concern is that these foods are not fully tested for safety and not labeled. Because industry is continually pressuring regulatory agencies to allow these products through the system more quickly, they are coming into the stores without adequate testing. Extensive tests for long-term side-effects, possible allergenicities, and other toxic reactions are simply not being done.

Biotech News will be a regular feature in Alive Magazine. Nest month we will tell you how to shop to avoid genetically engineering foods. See also articles on page 75 and page 77 in the November issue of Alive.

Richard Wolfson is Health Advisor to the Natural Law Party of Canada

Richard Wolfson, PhD
Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food
Natural Law Party
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
Tel. 613-565-8517 Fax. 613-565-6546

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