(Information courtesy of Greenpeace, International)
With major biotechnology companies and advocates telling the public that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are nutritionally advantageous, safe, environmentally beneficial, and the solution to world hunger, it’s no wonder that there are many conflicting opinions — and much confusion — about what GMOs really mean for the world today. Following is a list of some frequently asked questions about GMOs and Greenpeace’s response.
What is Greenpeace’s position on genetic engineering?
Greenpeace is opposed to the release of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) into the environment. Greenpeace is also opposed to the patenting of life. Genetically modified organisms are new life forms which have never before occurred in nature, and which cross species barriers, unlike traditional plant breeding or traditional biotechnology. They have been released without adequate knowledge about their effects on the ecology, wildlife and human health. Greenpeace does not campaign against the contained use of genetically engineered organisms, such as for medical applications.
What is genetic engineering? Isn’t it just like breeding?
Genetic engineering is used to break the natural boundaries that exist between species. A fish and a strawberry will not breed in nature, but in the laboratory, scientists can take a gene from a fish, insert it into a strawberry, and essentially create an entirely new organism. Genetic engineering can manipulate genes from animals, plants, and even humans.
Once these man-made organisms are released into the environment and the food chain, they will reproduce, and there is absolutely no controlling them. No one knows what the long-term effects on the environment will be.
If the FDA has approved genetically modified foods, how can they be dangerous?
In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that genetically modified foods could be marketed with no requirement for long-term safety testing or labeling, and with no formal pre-marketing approval required as is standard for any food additive.
In fact, the investigative magazine Mother Jones released an exposÃ© on how the FDA ignored warnings from its own scientists about the threats of GMOs to human health and the environment. Several groups, including Greenpeace, have filed a petition against the FDA for its negligence in approving genetically modified foods.
Greenpeace and other groups are calling for labeling of GMO foods. Isn’t separating crops impossible, making it difficult to know which products contain GMOs and which don’t?
For five years, biotechnology companies have been saying that separating crops is impossible. However, when Monsanto last year saw that there was no market for GMO corn if it was mixed with other varieties, within weeks they struck a deal with one of their largest grain processors to separate the unapproved corn at no cost.
In addition, on Saturday, January 29, representatives of more than 180 governments agreed to the first-ever international treaty outlining environmental rules on the trade in GMOs. The treaty, called the Biosafety Protocol, includes a provision requiring shipments of agricultural commodities containing engineered varieties to be labeled “may contain” GMOs. A biotech industry executive conceded that this will lead to segregation of non-GMO crops “for those who don’t feel comfortable” with biotech food.
Isn’t it true that there’s no evidence of harm from GMOs?
On the contrary, there is evidence of harm. We know that allergies can transfer unexpectedly from genetic engineering. We know that levels of toxins in food can also increase. Medical experts warn that antibiotics could become useless because of gene engineers’ use of antibiotic resistance genes. A study conducted last year showed that monarch butterflies were harmed by Bt (GMO) corn.
It is true that there is no evidence that GMOs are safe. We are currently in a situation in which biotechnology industries are trying to turn the burden of proof on its head, in which their risky technologies are deemed innocent until proven dangerous. For new technologies such as this, it is essential that we subscribe to the precautionary principle.
Don’t GMOs offer a solution to world hunger?
In 1998, 24 African scientists at a United Nations conference wrote an angry rebuke of Monsanto’s advertising which used photos of starving African children under the headline, “Let the Harvest Begin.” In their statement the delegates wrote:
We….strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.
In fact, development experts warn that genetic engineering may lead to an increase in hunger and starvation. Biotech companies are eagerly pursuing a genetic engineering technique named “terminator” technology that would render a crop’s seed sterile, thus making it impossible for farmers to save seed for replanting. As Peter Rosset, Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy explains, half of the world’s farmers rely on saved seed to produce food that 1.4 billion people rely on for their daily nutritional needs. These people are at risk of greater hunger from genetic engineering.
Finally, most arguments that GMOs can solve world hunger are based on the notion that the root of the problem is shortage of food. In reality, however, the world today produces more food per person than ever before. Enough food is produced to provide 4.3 pounds to every person, every day: two and a half pounds of grain, beans and nuts; about a pound of meat, milk and eggs; and another pound of fruits and vegetables — more than anyone could ever eat. The problem of world hunger is not one of quantity, but rather a matter of poverty, inequality, and access to food.
Don’t genetically engineered crops require fewer pesticides?
70 percent of the genetically engineered crops in the field today are engineered to withstand high doses of farm poisons. Application of toxic chemicals is actually a necessity with these crops, while techniques that truly move farmers away from chemical use fall to the wayside. An analysis of more than 8,200 University field trials has shown that farmers who grow GMO soybeans use 2-5 times more herbicides than farmers who grow natural soy varieties.
In addition, crops that are engineered to produce their own insecticide, such as Bt corn, are not effective or safe replacements for spraying. A recent study by Cornell, for example, suggests that monarch butterflies are being harmed by Bt corn. And because that insecticide is an integral part of the crop, it’s in your food products in the grocery store, and could pose yet-undetermined health risks.