Dear Earthtalk: what are the potential health and environmental impacts of so many genetically engineered organisms in our food supply?

Author:Scheer, Roddy
 
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Proponents of genetic engineering (GE)--whereby DNA from unrelated species is combined to produce improved or novel organisms--insist that the benefits of increased crop yields and less agricultural waste outweigh the potential risks, but many environmental and public health advocates aren't convinced.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), one risk of GE is that our new "frankencrops" could become invasive, toxic to wildlife, or dangerous in other as-yet unknown ways. "But the most damaging impact of GE in agriculture so far is the phenomenon of pesticide resistance," reports UCS, adding that millions of acres of American farmland are infested by weeds that have become resistant to Monsanto's popular herbicide glyphosate (known to most by its trade name Roundup). "Overuse of Monsanto's 'Roundup Ready' trait, which is engineered to tolerate the herbicide, has promoted the accelerated development of resistance in several weed species."

As a result, farmers are now turning to older, more toxic herbicides--and agribusiness companies are responding in kind with new rounds of GE crops engineered to tolerate these older chemicals. UCS worries that the process repeating itself is only leading us down the path of plants evolving quickly to overcome our defenses however technically brilliant they may be.

As for health risks, UCS acknowledges that eating refined products derived from GE crops is unlikely to cause health problems, but maintains that inserting a gene from one organism into another could still have unintended health consequences. For example, those with food-borne allergies could be at increased risk for reactions given the combination of genes in what looks like any other vegetable or piece of fruit. "This phenomenon was documented in 1996, as soybeans with a Brazil nut...

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