The genetic modifications of plants and animals is one of the biggest and most difficult environmental challenges of the 21st century. Did you know that GMOs are found extensively in many food products on the supermarket shelves and the chances are you have already eaten GMOs!!!
What is a genetically modified organism?
The general principal behind GMO is to insert DNA that has been taken from another organism and modified through genetic engineering techniques into an organism's genome to create both new and enhanced traits and phenotypes. By being able to take genetic material from one organism and insert it into the permanent genetic code of another, biotechnologists have engineered numerous creations, such as pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle genes and so on.
What were the first crops?
The first commercially grown genetically modified food crop was the Flavr Savr tomato which was made more resistant to rotting. It was released into the market for sale in 1994. This tomato was found to cause damage to the stomachs of rats and was later taken off the market. This was followed by insect protected cotton and herbicide tolerant soybeans, which both were commercially released in 1996. Today the soybean is by far the world's most cultivated GM plant, followed by corn, cotton and canola.
The world leaders in GM crops
The United States accounts for nearly two thirds of all biotechnology crops planted globally. The GM food crops grown by US farmers include corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash and papaya. Other major producers of GM crops are Argentina, which plants primary biotech soybean; Canada, whose principal biotech crop is canola; Brazil, which has recently legalized the planting of GM soybean; China, where the acreage of GM cotton continues to increase; and South Africa, where cotton is also the principal biotech crop. Worldwide, about 672 million acres of land are under cultivation of which 25% or 167.2 million acres - an area twice the size of the UK- consists of GM crops.
Why GM crops?
Crops can destroyed by many different factors including insects, weeds and disease. GMO's are used to make crops herbicide tolerant and pesticide resistant, to increase their nutritional content, to make them taste better and to reduce their growing time and increase their tolerance to fluctuating temperatures.
Foods that have been genetically modified
GM foods have been available to the public since the1990s, so the invasion of GMOs will continue in our grocery stores and in our kitchen pantries. The most common crops which have been modified and to watch for include:
Affects to human health and the environment
- Maize.Soybean (Soy flour, soy oil, lecithin, soy protein isolates and concentrates).
- Oilseed rape - canola (Oil, fabric).
- Potato (Right now the only potato that has been genetically engineered is the Burbank Russet, but you still have to look out for potato starch and flour).
- Corn (flour, corn starch, corn oil, corn sweeteners, syrups).
- Dairy Products (Milk, cheese, butter, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, whey).
- Animal Products (Because animal feed often contains genetically engineered organisms, all animal products, or by-products may be affected).
The GMO foods currently on the market have not undergone adequate testing to ensure their safety for human consumption and also to quantify what impact they have on the environment. Genetically engineered food can have a serious effect on human health, on wildlife and the environment. Human risks can include;
Environmental impacts can include;
- Allergic/ toxic reactions (to hidden genes and combination)
- Antibiotic resistance
- Immune - suppression
- Increased cancer risk
- Unsuspected side effects
How to avoid GMO
- Uncontrolled biological pollution
- Threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction.
- Potential contamination of non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.
- Increased use of and dependence on toxic herbicides.
- Harm to farming (deformed crops, increased pest resistance, increased farmer costs and debt).
- Crop failures.
- Biodiversity (implications for biodiversity, the balance of wildlife and the environment).
- Creation of GM "Superweeds" and "Superpests".
- Damage to food quality and nutrition.
- Ethical Issues
Australia and GMO
- The only guaranteed way to avoid eating GMOs is to buy fresh certified organic produce.
- Read labels - When buying a product check the ingredients on the label. GM soybean and corn make up the largest portion of GE crops. If they are listed then there is a good chance it is GM. Remember the label does not have to declare that it contains GM ingredients.
- Avoid processed foods - 70% of processed foods contain GM ingredients.
Australia is already commercially producing GE cotton. This cotton is known as BT cotton as it produces a genetically engineered toxin called Bacillus Thuringensis (BT). Bt cotton produces this toxin in every part of the plant so that the cotton plant itself becomes a pesticide factory. Bt cotton is not only used for cloth and cotton products but the cottonseed is crushed for oil used in food.
Australia is also commercially growing GE canola, carrying on trials of GE wheat and growing GE blue carnation flowers.
The major problem remains that genetic engineering is highly unpredictable and that the "jury is still out" as to what impact GMO crops will have on human beings and on the environment!