GE crop concerns are taking root

GE crop concerns are taking root by Jennifer Heibult Nutrition value, calories, price � consumers consider these factors when at the grocery store, but often don't think about how the food has been grown or how it has been altered in the lab even before it is planted.

The result has lead to controversy concerning ethics, the environment and human health. Additionally, research often times produces conflicting test results about the accuracy, benefits and potential threats of genetically engineered (GE) crops that end up in 60 to 70 percent of foods in stores, according to the Mothers for Natural Law organization.

"There is a concern, not a threat from genetically engineered products because biotech technology is relatively new, said April Borders, Clay County Extension Education/Agronomy. "We don't know all the options available or if the downside of GE crops is actual or perceived."

A recent poll conducted by The Center for Science of Public Interest revealed that consumers' awareness of GE crops is relatively low. When asked to compare products made from GE crops to other products, 42 percent of those polled thought the product was the same as any other product, 30 percent thought GE products were worse, and 12 percent thought they were better. Seventeen percent did not express an opinion.

For over a century, man has modified plants through techniques such as crossbreeding, but the producers of GE crops of today have taken technology to a new level.

Unlike traditional hybridization, scientists now use the modern tools of biotechnology to insert a single gene � or often, two or three genes � into the crop to give it new, favorable characteristics.

"What science is doing in the lab today is what Mother Nature has done through natural selection and evolution for years, only we have sped up the

process considerably," said USD biology professor Dr. Zoran Ristic.

Ristic conducts his own research to genetically engineer crops, and is working with a seed company to increase heat tolerance in corn. GE crops have infinite possibilities.

Examples of bioengineering technology already implemented include inserting a gene to make the plant resistant to a particular herbicide, raising plants' tolerances to increased or decreased temperatures and inserting a gene from a bacteria that prompts the plant to produce its own deadly insecticide.

Advocates say this technology may result in foods that contain more nutritional value and that GE crops could ultimately contribute to the reduction of the deficiency in the global food supply, especially in Third World countries.

Nevertheless, the practice is controversial.

According to an October 2002 issue of The Nation, investigative reporter Mark Schapiro wrote that the southern African countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe refused to accept American donations of GE crops to aid in their food crisis that was causing tens of thousands of people to starve.

Most European countries are also skeptical of GE crops, and altogether, more than 30 countries worldwide have imposed either a complete ban or heavy

restrictions on GE imports from the United States.

According to the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, the United States has the highest amount of the world's transgenic crops � 74 percent.

This large percent is especially alarming considering it is relatively new technology that only began in the early 1980s.

Environmental impacts, such as loss of biodiversity, may also be substantial.

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ferred to as Bt corn, may lead to the loss of wildlife, birds in particular, that feed upon the caterpillar the insecticide is intended to kill.

Ristic said that researchers would not fully know all the risks of GE crops until well into the future. However, he also pointed out that some GE crops, such as Bt corn, were formulated to help reduce the use of pesticides, and pesticides also pose a great threat to wildlife.

Opponents of GE crops say that is it likely, however, that the reduction of pesticide use may not be significant enough to justify introducing GE crops into the ecosystem.

"The same amount of chemicals are being used in genetically modified crops," said Borders. "But less harmful chemicals are being used."

Schapiro's report in The Nation exposed a threat to farmers without GE crops in their fields because engineered genes may not stay where they are put.

This problem was recently discovered in south of the U.S. border.

In 1998, the Mexican government outlawed the planting of GE corn to protect the genetic diversity of the crop that is the country's most important food supply.

Nevertheless, GE corn has been discovered in Mexico.

Diversity of crops is needed to cope with unpredictable circumstances, such as climate changes and plant diseases, so that if one species does not survive or produce well, another will.

Due to corn's free-floating means of insemination, it is thought that GE genes may have simply drifted across fields and borders. That has many people concerned. Schapiro also reported a claim made by The American Corn Growers, which represents producers in 28 states. According to that organization, U.S. corn growers have already lost more than $814 million in foreign sales over the past five years as a result of restrictions on genetically modified food imports imposed by Europe, Japan and other world buyers.

The number doesn't account for the depressed prices farmers now receive for their corn because of an oversupply of unexported corn on the domestic market.

"The chemical industry has gone from a $10 million industry to $5 million because of the new technology which requires a decreased use of pesticides," Borders said.

"Unintended" bioengineering has also affected those farmers in the United States who choose to grow food organically.

An organic farmer in Iowa recently lost her organic certification, cutting her profits in half. She lives in an area of Iowa that is surrounded by GE crops.

Ethical issues also arise because, in contrast with traditional crossbreeding, GE crops may contain genes from animals.

Today, the Food and Drug Administration reports that the shelves of nearly every American supermarket are lined with foods that have been

genetically modified to some degree, whether it's by hybridization or by bioengineering.

Foods are not only directly affected, but also may be indirectly as well; a majority of the chicken, beef and pork consumers buy feed on GE crops.

Currently, the FDA does not require companies to label products as being genetically modified.

At this point, consumers only have a partial idea of what they are getting at the supermarket, but several consumer groups may change this in the future as they push for the labeling of foods made from GE crops.

In 2001, a FDA consumer report said, "The FDA has reviewed all the new bioengineered foods brought to market and has found no reason to believe they could pose a health threat."

Nevertheless, because the long-term effects are yet to be known, there are still health concerns about bioengineered foods.

Ristic points out that there is also a great deal of politics involved.

"Whenever I receive a study concerning GE crops, I always consider the source," said Ristic. Results of studies may reflect the interests of whomever advocated it.

Five major companies control the production of GE crops. And according to the Erosion, Technology and Concentration Group (ETC), 90 percent of genetically modified seed technology planted worldwide is owned or licensed by one company � Monsanto.

Schapiro's interview with Dr. Chuck Benbrook, former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed a harsh reality: While scientists may have the best intentions for their technology, agricultural biotechnology is far more concerned with financial imperatives.

"If you ask why these are the technologies that are on the market, the reason is that the companies that had invested so heavily in the technology and in buying up the seed industry had to have products on the market," said Benbrook.

Knowledge has, and always will be the best thing for consumers to bring to the market.

"One must look at unbiased, scientific date year after year to make a sound decision about genetically engineered crops," Borders said.

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