Possibly the greatest biological debate of the 21st century relates to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production. Ever since the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel used fruit flies and pea plants to document how genetic diversity arises in nature, human scientific thought and ambition have centred around the concept of us humans acquiring the ability to actively change our environment, by harnessing the power of genetics.
It all came to a crux when Craig Venter and Human Genome Science in the US managed to elucidate and map the full human genome back in 2000. Ever since then, a barrage of corporations have jumped on the DNA bandwagon – hoping to cut huge profits from exploiting the ever growing knowledge base of genetics and transgenetics.
Not from this Earth
Transgenetics (genetically modifying existing DNA strands) works by introducing foreign genes into organisms that would never have come into contact with these particular gene sequences via natural means. Here, genetic engineers splice (fancy word for ‘remove') certain beneficial gene sequences out of a variety of organisms such as plants, bacteria and viruses and insert these into a plant genome to confer some form of genetic advantage to the new crop; such as the ability to deal with heat better (heat resistance), lack of water (drought resistance) or with potential parasites (pest resistance).
What these engineers don’t know, is whether or not the newly spliced sequence will be stable and stay in the new host’s genome. Without knowing this, these engineers instruct farmers to go ahead and plant these crops in large monocultures, hereby inadvertently affecting the genomic integrity of nearby crops.
Usurping The Seed’s Natural Life Cycle
Whilst the tragedy for small scale farmers is becoming ever so apparent (with many farmers whose crops have been cross contaminated by GM crops now getting sued by major corporations for allegedly “stealing” their seeds) the real tragedy is playing out in our digestive tracts, the small intestine in particular.
One of the worst parts about GM technology is that many of these seeds are engineered with a deliberate stop coding that allows the crop to only flower once, inhibiting the natural progression of reproduction by placing in a precautionary gene that stops the F1 hybrid generation from making any more crops after the first generation dies out.
There is no scientific reasoning behind this type of engineering – it is merely done for a profit motive (so that farmers have to keep coming back to the manufacturer for more seeds).
No One Is ‘Playing’ God
The problem is that these companies are operating under their legally mandated status quo of: “Profit at all costs” – without any further government input or policy regulating these novel activities. In fact the opposite is occurring; recently President Obama signed the “Monsanto Protection Act” which essentially prohibits any future lawsuits against that company or any of its products. This act is a ‘carte blanche’ of sorts – unprecedented in its scope and ability to confer a form of diplomatic immunity on a private organisation.
The real ramifications of what these manipulated genomes will have on the worlds seed reserves or worse, our health – is up for anyone to guess. As no one really knows what will happen.
It’s the largest and possibly most dangerous science experiment ever to be undertaken – and worst of all, it involves the entire human species – no, let’s re-phrase that: it involves all species currently living on planet Earth!
When these DNA cowboys scoping out new frontiers are not looking for the next billion dollar technology, they are acting out of hubris – summed up nicely when a New York Times reporter recently asked Craig Venter the following question, in relation to his company’s tinkering with the genome of microorganisms:
“Don’t you think you are playing God?”
To which Dr Venter smugly replied:
The argument for GM is clear and obvious – at least according to evangelists from Monsanto to Syngenta to Bayer, who are arguing for the need for GM crops, due to the realities of climate change – the ‘scientists’ there argue that the Earth’s climate has changed so rapidly (over the last decades in particular) that most standard seed crops are incapable of dealing with the extreme weather and climate (temperature, drought, novel pathogens) fluctuations that result from this dramatic shift in climate.
The real kicker here is though, even if we lost 50% of our industrialised food production capabilities as a species, the population would not starve as smaller farms and even amateur gardeners, can produce enough food to feed the world twice over.
And that fact, is the real elephant in the room.
Everyone Plants A Garden: Problem Solved?
If we taught everyone on Earth the principles of biodynamic gardening and even more ambitious techniques such as permaculture, then we really wouldn’t have a problem with these extreme weather fluctuations as these gardens would be micro managed. The problem with industrialised farming methods, is that the plants are viewed as a commodity and not as a living entity.
The individual plant is often overlooked because the monocultures take over 20 hectares and as such have to be managed on a massive scale (where little infections by parasitic organisms or viruses are often overlooked because the crop is just too big to handle for the farmer).
Enter Pesticides & Say Goodbye To The Honey Bee?
Not many people know this, but pesticides were initially produced as chemical weapons during World War II. Once the war was over the chemical companies responsible for their production, used the exact same chemical processes and compounds to make pesticides. Literally in the same laboratories.
The chemicals went from the battlefields to the dinner tables of the world within ten years.
This chemical warfare was extended to the animal kingdom and the bioaccumulation of these toxins in animal species is causing an environmental catastrophe on a scale never witnessed before in history. Over 50% of all species of animals are on the decline or going extinct.
It’s not only the flora and fauna that is being affected, we are all eating these toxins every day, they are in our food chain. The bizarre and slightly surreal part is that we don’t have this technology because we have to use pesticides to sustain farming, no; we needed pesticides in order to do farming on an industrial scale. And the biggest irony of all is that many of these pesticides are now causing bee colonies around the world to collapse – the one animal that is responsible for nearly 80% of all cross pollination on the planet!
No communal farmer uses these products. Only the giant food companies use them because it increases their crop yield and in turn their cash flow. No one talks about the fact that over 50% of all this food produced from this type of farming gets thrown away before it even reaches any dinner plate.
This scale of farming brings production price down and profits up. Nothing else.
The seeds which have been reared to be able to grow in large plots of land contaminated with pesticide like glyphosate (Roundup) are treated with these chemicals before even being planted. Another little known fact is that the active ingredient in Roundup (glyphosate) was initially used as an experimental chemotherapy drug during the 1960s – but was shelved due to it being “too toxic” even for late stage cancer patients.
No One Is Exempt
In contrast to the US, New Zealand does not really employ industrial farming or monocultures, but our local farmers are still allowed to pollute the environment by using the toxic pesticides banned in most of Europe. The push has to come from somewhere as these pesticides have an environmental impact over and above affecting bee populations, their neurotoxic qualities affect our food supply and whilst mammals do not get affected as extremely as insects, these chemicals do exhibit certain neurodegenerative effects in mammals, including humans, too.
This alone should cause enough concern for people to act.
GM Foods & Pesticides Spell Trouble For Our Gut
As mentioned in previous articles, our gut is home to nearly 70-80% of all immune cells in the body, on top of this the endocrine system in our intestines uses over 20 hormones and is home to nearly a billion nerve cells. The bacterial colonies in our gut play an important role in this elaborate intestinal detection and maintenance system and as such maintaining a healthy and balanced bacterial population in the gut will have a positive impact on all the tissues in our body.
Ok so we have now established that farmers the world over are using GM seeds that have been pre-treated with pesticides – so what is the result on our body. Well for starters, the chemicals in the pesticides affect our gut in more ways than one; they cause chronic inflammation in the gut lining resulting in a rise in “leaky gut” syndrome, they also interfere with the digestive enzymes which leads to improper digestion of food and results in malnutrition.
Allergies have also skyrocketed all over the world since the introduction of GM foods – this correlation is no coincidence as the increased inflammation alone could account for the rise of these allergies.
On top of the damage from food borne pesticides, the most shocking discovery of recent years was the fact that the transgenes in GM crops are now being transferred horizontally (from one species to another) to the genomes of the beneficial bacteria that line our gut. This transfer of genetic material to the genome of ‘friendly’ bacteria results in the establishment of more hostile bacterial species in our gut – leading to more inflammation and damage through toxins released by these novel bacteria.
One clinical trial in individuals who have had their terminal ileum (part of the digestive tract) resected (removed), thus requiring the assistance of a colostomy bag; have shown that GM soy transgenes are passing from the plant’s DNA to bacterial DNA in the gut. This is the only such trial to have ever taken place on Earth.
It has now also been shown that the transgenes remain in our gut even well after the consumption of GM foods has ceased.
Transgenes Affect Mothers And Babies
The problem with transgenes (even when they are placed into the plant crop DNA) is that the isolated DNA sequence inserts itself non-specifically (i.e. is not targeted at a specific place in the gene sequence) – meaning that depending on where it inserts itself, it can potentially have devastating knock-on effects to the plant and in turn the bacterial genome that gets ‘infected’ with the artifical sequence.
Which means that the total impact could be a lot worse than initially expected and as such we are blindly running into what amounts to be the biggest genetic experiment ever to unfold on the planet – and to think that it is for profit and not human health is very worrying. But the next truth reveals what is possibly in stall for the human species in the long term:
The DNA encoding for certain bacterial toxins added to GM food crops are reaching the blood stream of 93% of pregnant women tested and 80% of unborn babies. One of the genes in question is called Bt and encodes for a toxin from Bacillus thuringensis; Bt is added to GM corn which is then fed to livestock. This means that even if you don’t eat any GM crops, you can still be affected by eating milk, eggs and any form of livestock that has been fed this type of GM corn.
What Can We Do?
Aside from lobbying your local electorate to get political muscle behind the issue, you need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to sourcing food. Firstly try to source all your food from organic farms (we are lucky here in NZ because we have a plethora of organic farms that offer their produce for purchase) and secondly reduce your meat consumption.
Make sure that the meat you do eat, comes from a farmer that doesn’t feed his livestock with GM crop plants. this isn’t always easy because it is not mandatory for GM products to be labelled and as such, the farmers may be unaware of what they are feeding their animals.
Ultimately growing your own food is probably a very good idea. In the case of damage to the intestinal bacterial flora, you can try supplementing with probiotics regularly, to replace old bacterial colonies with new ones that have not had any exposure to transgenes from GMOs.
Genetic Engineering Of Life: Leave It To Nature, She Knows Best
Genetic engineering of the very food that we eat has lead us into a complex and slightly alarming situation where our future is unclear. Antibiotic resistance transferred from these transgenes to humans could result in a plague of epic proportions should these genes assert themselves in the human genome.
Our DNA is not static, it evolves over time due to environmental pressure and lifestyle – this is how we evolved to grow thumbs, developed spinal chords strong enough to support us walking upright and grew vocal chords allowing us to communicate complex thoughts – this all due to beneficial mutations that occurred randomly thousands of years ago conferring us with a selective advantage over other animals. In turn these natural mutations have also enhanced the cranial capacity in our heads, perhaps too much – to the point where we are now actively trying to be (not play, remember) gods by tinkering with the very material that has given us life.
Let DNA do what it does best, naturally – namely mutate at its own pace in conjunction with the natural environment that surrounds us. Anything else is just plain crazy.
Wherever possible, try to say “NO” to GMO.
Click here for a comprehensive infographic on GM Food.
by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology
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