This is the second of a two part series which explores the biotech industry’s defense of GMOs. Read Part I: GMOs Uses Identified where I identify the common application of genetic technology today. The article below explores these uses in greater detail.
1. Forcing Expression or Suppression of Traits
One example in which geneticists try to manipulate genetic materials to force the expression or suppression of different traits was the genetically engineered FLAVR SAVR tomato that Calgene, Inc. (now controlled by Monsanto) created in an attempt to extend the shelf life and supposedly improve the flavor of tomato.The Calgene scientists isolated a gene associated with an enzyme involved in the ripening of the tomato plant. They reversed the gene, blocking the expression of the enzyme and extending the time it took before picked tomato became soft. The goal of such tomatoes was to allow extended shelf life, and easier transportation, as tomatoes could be picked while they were still hard. Although FLAVR SAVR was a commercial failure, the model – gene isolation and insertion into another species to affect some trait or process – is still used by genetic engineers.
A subset of this category is the use of GMO seeds in “revolutionizing” food production and improvement of health of populations in developing nations. Indira Nath, for example, sees biofortification of seeds as a viable solution to health problems related to vitamin deficiencies in developing nations. GMO proponents often use Vitamin A deficiency in populations around the world to support the development and use of GMO seeds.
Vitamin A deficiency, when left untreated, can lead to blindness and affects millions of people in mostly the developing worlds. Similarly, anemia caused by iron deficiency is another common condition in the undernourished population that affects millions. Biotech industry’s response to these problems is creating plants that are ‘fortified’ with vitamin A, iron, micronutrients, proteins and antioxidants. The golden child of this effort was the creation of “golden rice.” This vitamin A enriched rice was first developed in 2000 and promised to deliver the much needed beta-carotene to impoverished populations. Although golden rice is currently not available for human consumption, this argument of creating bio-fortified GMOs to cure world hunger and make people healthy is still viable.
2. Pesticide Resistance
Another popular use for genetic engineering in plants is pesticide resistance. Organic farmers and scientists discovered that naturally-occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), produced proteins that acted as a natural insecticide, killing caterpillars as well as beetle and fly larvae. Although organic farmers had been spraying B.t. on crops with success for over 50 years, genetic engineers wanted to insert the genetic material that triggered B.t. production into crops.
The goal was to induce production of an internalized insecticide in plants, throughout the plant’s life cycle, in all parts of the plant. That has now been achieved. In transgenic crops B.t. toxin is continuously produced and is protected from the elements, thereby retaining its ability to kill insect pests during the entire growing season. The toxin is expressed in every part of the plant, including internal tissues.
The toxin that was previously applied topically, where it was still possible to wash it off before consumption, is now an integral part of the plant. As an integral part of the plant it becomes an integral part of anyone or anything that consumes it. The unanswered question is if it is toxic to insects, is it safe for human consumption? That remains to be seen.
3. Herbicide Resistance
Herbicides are powerful toxic chemicals used to kill unwanted plants, i.e., weeds. Traditionally farmers had to be extremely careful when applying herbicides to their plants because the herbicide would kill weeds and the plant indiscriminately.
The most widely used herbicide in the United States is glyphosate, known commercially as “Roundup.”Monsanto, the company that produces Roundup has created “Roundup-Ready” crops that are genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate. Genetically engineered crops that are herbicide resistant include oil producing canola (rape seed), corn, soy, flax, papaya, and cotton.
An increasing popular use of genetically modified plants is in pharmacology. Over three hundred USDA approved open-field trials of biopharmaceutical crops have been conducted in dozens of states across the nation. The crops are often entirely experimental, producing substances not yet approved for human exposure or consumption.Many of the crops are bioactive and/or toxic.
4. Pharma Crops
Crops engineered for pharmacology included the following purposes
- proteins for healing wounds and conditions such as anemia, liver cirrhosis, and cystic fibrosis; anticoagulants; blood substitutes; hormones; and enzymes to treat Fabry’s and Gaucher’s disease;
- antibodies to fight cancer and tooth decay;
- vaccines against rabies, cholera, piglet diarrhea, and foot-and-mouth disease;
- industrial chemicals, such as compounds used in the manufacture of plastics, personal care items, and laundry detergents; and
- research chemicals used in investigative and diagnostic laboratories, such as avidin and beta-glucuronidase.
5. Tolerance to Soil and Temperature
Another potential benefit touted by the biotech industry is the development of GMOs that can withstand drought conditions. The supporters thus advocate that such crops would grow under conditions requiring much less water than non-GM crops. For example, researchers in Egypt are field testing a variety of wheat containing a gene from barley. This genetically engineered (GE) wheat cultivar requires one eighth as much water as its conventional counterpart. The argument certainly has its appeal, considering that the current state of our water supply is rapidly diminishingand global warming is expected to raise the earth’s temperature by at least 1-2 degrees Celsius. Additionally, biotech proponents also emphasize this benefit of GMOs in its ability to be grown in many impoverished areas of the world many of which are arid.
Undeniably, the biotech industry’s arguments in support of GMOs are strong and have an intellectual and humanitarian appeal. The unanswered question, however, is whether in developing the GMOs and integrating them into many phases of our lives (animal feed, pharmacology, food, soil, etc.) we are creating a Frankenstein of sorts. In the words of an Enigma song, are we knocking on forbidden doors?