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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
On Serendip

Is this really a tomato?

The Controversy of Genetically Engineered Foods

Promise Partner

Sometimes as I wait in line in the dining hall, I glance at the cucumbers or apples and wonder exactly what they are. With all the hype these days about genetically engineered foods, I cannot be too sure that the tomato in my salad has not been spliced with fish genes or that the cream in my tea is not laden with hormones. I am frightened by the prospect that the tofu I consume could be from soybeans inserted with the genes of unrelated organisms to create some 'ideal' species.

I have heard terms like "Frankenfoods" and "Superweeds," used by the opposition of this biotechnology. I have also read about scientists who support genetical engineering, asserting these revolutionary crops will make farming more sustainable, foods better tasting, and even bring an end to world hunger. So what is this new technology? How does it work? What are its benefits and shortcomings? What is the controversy behind the seemingly innocent tomato?

Biotechnology, or genetical engineering, utilizes the interchangeability of DNA to combine genes of one species with that of another. A leading biotechnology corporation, Monsanto, uses the analogy of a pair of scissors cutting and pasting to describe how specific genetic codes are transferred between DNA strands (1). Articles against genetically engineered foods use another vocabulary to describe the process, quite frequently using the word "randomly" to explain methods of "snipping, inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and programming genetic material" (2). Both perspectives express that biotechnology allows certain genes, determined 'desirable' by the engineering corporation, to be relocated from one organism to another.

The purpose of genetical engineering is to create an ideal crop, one with more resistance to insects and viruses, more tolerance to herbicides, a better taste, and a longer growing season. For example, biotechnology can alter a corn plant to self-produce a protein that resists the European corn borer; it can make a tomato species able to ripen longer on the vine before having to be shipped (3). Monsanto promises that through biotechnology they will be able to offer "potatoes that will absorb less oil when fried, corn and soybeans with an increased protein content, tomatoes with a fresher flavor and strawberries that retain their natural sweetness" (1). According to its creators, genetical engineering can increase the global food supply, reduce the amounts of herbicides and pesticides used on crops, and provide the average American with a redder, tastier, and larger apple for his lunch break.

Opposition to biotechnology, however, has intensified in the last few years, contradicting viewpoint of corporations. Many scientists warn that genetic manipulation increases the levels of natural plant toxins and creates new toxins unexpectedly. Thus, "consumers have now become involuntary guinea pigs in a vast genetic experiment" (2). For instance, Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, a product sold commercially to increase milk production in dairy cows, has caused concern about increased cancer risks. Banned in Canada and by the European Union and currently given to 5% of U.S. dairy cows, rBGH was first approved by the FDA in 1993. Tests on rats, by injecting rBGH into their prostates and thyroid cysts, indicate cancer hazards due to exposure to the drug (2).

There are also many environmental objections to biotechnology. Though Monsanto claims that biotechnology benefits the environment by increasing a crop's own ability to fight pests and diseases and therefore creating crops that need fewer pesticides (1), others propose the conflicting hypothesis. Recent studies show that farmers growing genetically altered crops use as much or more toxic pesticides and herbicides than traditional farmers because they can destroy any unwelcome weeds through chemicals without risk of killing the crop itself. Another concern is genetic pollution, when wind, rain, birds, bees, and other pollinators carry genetically altered DNA to nearby fields, thereby contaminating otherwise organic or non-engineered crops. It is also anticipated that pesticide-resistant insects and herbicide-resistant weeds will emerge to counteract this movement and thus stronger and more toxic chemicals will be needed to achieve the same result (2).

A third protest to biotechnology is on the basis of socioeconomics. Monsanto insists that "these farming techniques will also provide an increase in food production with our limited farmlands" (1), but critics maintain that biotechnology and its engineered products will benefit the rich and hurt the poor. They predict that biotech companies will sell out small time farmers through the high prices of their technology. By forcing millions of traditional farmers to purchase expensive engineered seeds from a few corporations, biotechnology is creating a monopoly on agriculture, excluding the lower classes of the world and dominating the agricultural economy (4).

The controversy of genetical engineering stems from the intricacies of the concept of life, which we are still struggling with in class. As Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association says, "For the first time in history, transnational biotechnology corporations are becoming the architects and 'owners' of life" (2). New life has been conceived outside the limits of nature. Corporations like Monsanto create organisms in the laboratory that have never before existed in the five-million-year history of life on earth and release them into the world untested by the age-old exam of evolution.

In class we decided that by biological standards success and superiority is determined simply by survival. Humans, therefore, are on the same level as corn, for we have both made in thus far in the crazy history of the earth. But while humans are splicing away to create corn that resists all viruses and pests and is larger, yellower, and tastier, corn surely does not mess with us to better us according to their values. We as humans have taken our survival to signify our right to dictate the fate of earth's life forms. Instead of being engineers, manipulating organisms for the sake of our species alone, we could be caretakers, encouraging the natural sustenance of all life forms for the benefit of the living earth as a whole.

I bet tomatoes would taste even better then.

WWW Sources

1)Biotech Basics, food biotechnology according to biotech corporation Monsanto

2)Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops: Why We Need a Global Moratorium, a critical discussion by the Organic Consumers Association

3)Regulation of Genetically Engineered Organisms and Products, relatively unbiased information from Iowa State University

4)Food For All, an article from the October 1998 edition of "New Scientist"

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