Genetic engineering involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another in an attempt to reproduce a desired trait. This could mean, for example, selecting a gene which leads to the production of a chemical with antifreeze properties from an arctic fish (such as the flounder), and splicing it into a tomato or strawberry. Natural barriers normally prevent gene transfers of this kind. It is now possible for scientists to cross food plants with genes taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans.
It has been suggested that genetic engineering is simply “the latest in a ‘seamless’ continuum of biotechnologies practised by human beings since the dawn of civilisation, from bread and wine-making, to selective breeding.” Although it is true that the food crops we are eating today bear little resemblance to the wild plants from which they originated, there are clear differences between genetic engineering and traditional breeding. In traditional forms of breeding, variety has been achieved through selection from the multitude of genetic traits already existing within a species’ gene pool. A rose can be crossed with a different kind of rose, but a rose will never cross with a potato. In nature, genetic diversity is created within certain limits.
There are a number of techniques in the genetic engineer’s toolkit. A biochemical process is used to cut the strings of DNA in different places and select the required genes. These genes are usually then inserted into circular pieces of DNA (plasmids) found in bacteria. Because the bacteria reproduce rapidly, within a short time thousands of identical copies (clones) can be made of the ‘new’ gene. Two principal methods can then be used to insert a ‘new’ gene into the DNA of a plant that is to be engineered.
1) A ‘ferry’ is made with a piece of genetic material taken from a virus or a bacterium. This is used to infect the plant and in doing so smuggle the ‘new’ gene into the plant’s own DNA. A bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens (which causes gall formation in plants) is commonly used for this purpose. 2) The genes are coated onto large numbers of tiny pellets made of gold or tungsten, which are fired with a special gun into a layer of cells taken from the recipient plant. Some of these pellets may pass through the nucleus of a cell and deposit their package of genes, which in certain cases may be integrated into the cell’s own DNA.
Because the techniques used to transfer genes have an extremely low success rate, the scientists need to be able to find out which of the cells have taken up the new DNA. So, before the gene is transferred, a ‘marker gene’ is attached, which codes for resistance to an antibiotic. Plant cells which have been engineered are then grown in a medium containing this antibiotic, and the only ones able to survive are those which have taken up the the ‘new’ genes with the antibiotic-resistant marker attached. These cells are then cultured and grown into mature plants.
As it is not possible to insert a new gene with any accuracy, the gene transfer may also disrupt the tightly controlled network of DNA in an organism. Current understanding of the way in which genes are regulated is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point may well have knock-on effects that are impossible to predict or control. The new gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value.
The food and biotech industries argue that it would be discriminatory to enforce mandatory labelling of GE food, and suggest that this would constitute an illegal trade barrier. Mandatory labelling could mean that not only would consumers be able to boycott GE products, but also that segregation would need to be introduced, potentially making GE food uneconomical for the food industry. There is clearly an issue of civil liberty here: without thorough segregation and labelling, people are unable to exercise free choice.
Labelling of GE food is essential in order to be able to trace any health problems that may arise. In Europe, at the time of this writing, GE soya is present in about 60% of all processed food in forms such as vegetable oil, soya flour, lecithin and soya protein; GE maize can be found in about 50% of processed foods as corn, corn starch, cornflour and corn syrup; and GE enzymes are used widely throughout the food industry. Over 90% of these ingredients are excluded from the current labelling legislation. The only certain way to avoid GE food is to eat organic produce.
The biotech industry is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations which hold interests in food, additives, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals. These corporations are beginning to hold monopolies in the global market for genetically engineered products. This is being facilitated through international free-trade agreements, patenting rights, and a systematic process of acquisitions and mergers. These mergers incorporate seed companies, biotechnology companies and other related interests.
Biotech companies are trying to persuade the public that genetic engineering will reduce the use of damaging herbicides, yet these same companies are actually increasing production capacity for the herbicides themselves and requesting permits for higher residues of these chemicals in GE food. Until now, most of the research by biotech companies has focused on making crops resistant to their own ‘broad-spectrum’ herbicides. This means that a field can be covered with chemicals and everything will die except for the resistant crop.
International free trade agreements favour the interests of multinational corporations and make it difficult for any country to refuse a new product or technology even if they have concerns about its effect on health or the environment. Rather than feed the world, the biotech industry threatens the diversity of truly sustainable farming practices; it has the potential to increase poverty in agricultural communities and drive small farmers from the land; and it will increase the flow of resources from Third World countries to corporations in the industrialised nations.
There is growing evidence that genetic engineering poses new threats to ecosystems. Once released, the new living organisms made by genetic engineering are able to interact with other forms of life, reproduce, transfer their characteristics and mutate in response to environmental influences. They can never be recalled or contained. Any mistakes or undesirable consequences are likely to be passed on to all future generations of life. Resistant weeds and crop pests seem likely to emerge, biodiversity could be threatened, new viruses could be created and farmlands may soon become devoid of wildlife. With the planned release of so many GE organisms, and with so little understanding of the way they will interact with the wider environment, it is unsurprising that some of the scenarios imagined are truly nightmarish.
From the viewpoint of Chinese medicine, to intervene at the genetic level is to tamper with the essence (Jing). The Jing is responsible for our proper growth and development and is considered to be a treasure, to be conserved and protected. Damage to the Jing through the unpredictable effects of genetic engineering could result in such consequences as compromised immunity, growth abnormalities and hormonal dysfunction.
In Devon, where I live, public resistance to irresponsible genetic engineering is strong: large-scale public education, court actions against the biotech companies and civil disobedience including the uprooting of trial crops. Positive, empowering actions include the exercise of consumer power by refusing to buy genetically engineered products, by supporting organic growers, pressuring retailers and government agencies, and by becoming educated. I am personally hopeful that the force of public resistance to the short-sighted, power-motivated misuse of science will not only stop it in its tracks, but also add new force to the growing movement towards sustainable, organic and humane agriculture.