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Transgenics or Genetic Engineering

Transgenics is all about genetic engineering. It refers to a collection of techniques used to isolate genes from one species and transfer them to another. The result is a new life form whose altered genetic material expresses a particular characteristic that originated from the 'donor' species. Often referred to as recombinant DNA technology, the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified,"(GM) "genetically engineered,"(GE) or "transgenic." GM products include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

While the technology has been around since the 1970s, the whole idea of transgenics is contentious. Slowly creeping up the tree of life, it has now been applied to almost all forms of life, from pets that glow under UV light to bacteria which form HIV blocking "living condoms", to pigs bearing spinach genes and goats that produce spider silk. But some argue that crossing species boundaries is unnatural, immoral and a violation of spiritual belief or ethical views. Others take the stand that we do not yet fully understand what we are dealing with and until we do we should leave transgenics alone.

Unknown to consumers, genetically modified (GM) ingredients suddenly appeared in 2/3rds of all processed foods in the '90s. This food alteration was fueled by a single Supreme Court ruling in the USA. An appointee to the high court, Clarence Brown, was a former lawyer for Monsanto, the largest bioseed company in North America. He crafted the argument that allowed, for the first time in history, the patenting of life forms for commercialization. Since then thousands of applications for experimental GM organisms have been filed with the US Patent Office alone, and many more have been granted abroad.

The transgenic food industry claims only industrialized genetically engineered food can radically reduce the price of food through efficiency and provide consumers with a wide variety of food choices that are nutritious. They also claim studies published to date show no adverse health effects resulting from humans eating genetically modified foods. However, reality presents a very different scenario.

While international commercial seed and feed operators are making billions in profits, the price of food is skyrocketing fueled in part by commodity brokers. There is no independent scientific research that supports the GMO position that engineered food is more nutritious. The studies the transgenic food industry cite are corporate sponsored studies that are cleverly disguised to conceal vested interest under a cloak of marketing, advertising blitzes and public relations campaigns. There is evidence, however, that some large bioseed companies have been less than open about the studies they cited to officials in order to gain government sanctions to commercialize their products.

Death of Diversity

In an effort to standardize all aspects of global food trade, the corporate takeover of gmo agriculture targeted seed and crop diversity. Today, plants that were developed and optimized for specific micro-climates and soil conditions over thousands of years have vanished. Systematically they are replaced by crops that allow efficient harvesting, processing and packaging.

While this may sound like a good thing, the problem arises when that single crop becomes susceptible to devastation by pests and blight. The risks rise exponentially when much of the entire planet's arable land is planted in virtually identical strains. In 1970, for example, 80 per cent of the corn planted in the US shared a common genetic heritage. When a maze (corn) blight struck, it quickly destroyed more than 10 million acres of corn. The monoculture practices of industrial agriculture has reduced the natural diversity of nearly every major food crop in terms of varieties grown, color, size, and flavor because the sector only utilizes only high-yield, high-profit varieties. Astonishingly, a full 95 percent of the calories we eat come from only 30 varieties of plants, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This is an environmental disaster in the making and particularly dangerous at a time when climate change is rapidly affecting our food supply.

Further, the impact on our natural environment has been devastating. The specific herbicides and pesticides manufactured and sold by these large bio-tech companies are creating new generations of superweeds and superbugs that have grown resistance to the petro-chemicals that supposedly protect the biocrops. The farm lands which have planted GMO seeds are losing the soil’s natural nutrient base and the fertilizers needed to nourish the test tube crops are polluting our waterways. The chemical runoff runs down rivers and streams ultimately collecting in oceanic water basins. Here they accumulate causing 'dead zones' which kill marine life. Pollinating species such as butterflies, bats and in particular honeybees are disappearing by the billions and fresh water fish have evolved into intersex species. And now, in the last three decades human children have developed diseases indicative of a much older generation.

Undoubtedly this biotechnology has the potential to solve many of the world’s food and health issues. However, the weight of evidence is indicating that something has gone wrong and the potential danger to humanity is very real. Supporting local farms, particularly those that concentrate on crop diversity and soil health, is one way you can help reverse this trend. The value of what we are losing cannot be measured.

From the Ground Up. Rethinking Industrial Agriculture , p. xvii - xviii, by Helena Norberg-Hodge/Peter Goering/John Page

The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture, compiled by the editors of Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Distributed by Island Press.