It may not have smokestacks, tank farms, or distillation towers. It might not be emitting odd vapors and unusual odors. In fact, it may appear to be just a peaceful plot of corn. But soon that innocent looking field near you could be giving a whole new meaning to the terms “factory farm” and “pharmaceutical plant.” That’s because genetic engineers have figured out how to “grow” industrial chemicals and drugs inside otherwise normal looking crops. And the USDA has just issued rules that allow this bizarre and likely dangerous science to proceed.
It’s no news that genetic researchers have for several years been experimenting with the building blocks of life and creating a whole new breed of weird science in the process, one in which flounder are crossed with tomatoes to help the fruit withstand cold, and cats are crossed with jellyfish and made to glow in the dark. What might be news to many, however, is the fact that these potentially mad scientists have figured out a way to insert new genes into common agricultural crops that cause them to “grow” drugs and chemicals within their cells. In a futuristic vision of life down on the pharm, these materials would be extracted from the plants at harvest time and provide the world with a source for many substances now derived from petroleum and other things.
On the face of it, it sounds like a reasonable idea. 500 emerald acres of corn gently waving in the winds naturally beats 500 sullied acres of pollutant-belching concrete and steel factory any day. Except for one little thing…
In the natural environment, where all crops are grown, genetic material tends to wander. Bees, insects, bats, birds, and other pollinators deliver the genes from one plant to another of the same species via pollen that collects on their bodies as they feed on the plant. Winds carry pollen with nearly equal efficiency. This transport system is the fertilization mechanism that allows each plant to bloom. Nature, in fact has honed this art down to a science over millions of years, and the process of cross-pollination between unrelated plants of the same species keeps those species vigorous and prevents the plant kingdom from inbreeding itself to death.
Unfortunately, nature doesn’t discriminate between genes when it comes to cross-pollination. Regardless of whether a gene occurs naturally or has been placed there by scientists, if it’s in the pollen (as all genes are), you can bet it’s going to eventually make the trip to plants nearby. And that’s what has many environmental experts worried. Once a genetically modified plant makes the move from the lab to the field, nature is bound to spread its artificial genes to other related plants both in nearby fields and in the wild. And if these transported genes are genes that make plants produce toxic or medicinal substances, entire species of plants could become irrevocably “infected” and forced to produce these materials, too. If the plants species in question are food crops, we’ll end up unknowingly eating unknown chemicals with our corn flakes and ingesting unidentified medicines with our melons. And if the plants are growing in the wild, then everything from deer and foxes to chipmunks and mice will be unknowingly feasting on a diet of drugs. And that would be a very serious situation indeed.
If, for example, soybean plants were given a gene that caused them to produce a chemotherapy drug and planted in a field, their genes, including the chemotherapy drug gene, would almost certainly be transported by pollinators to any non-genetically modified (GM) soybean plants that might be nearby. Those non-GM plants, in turn, would transport their own genes (which now include the drug gene) to plants still further away. In ever widening circles, the drug gene would spread to innocent non-GM soybean plants and over time, the entire region’s crop would become infected. Because there would be no way for farmers to know that their plants were contaminated by this so-called “genetic drift”, the result would likely be toxic tofu and sickening soymilk as genetically tainted plants and the drug they now unwittingly contain made their way into the food supply.
Experts fear that a broad dissemination of this technology might ultimately lead to the poisoning of whole species of food crops throughout the world and their forced removal from the food supply. That’s because plant breeders rely on the priceless genetic heritage stored in the wild relatives of the world’s major food crops to constantly breed new varieties of common foods. They use the ancient DNA these plants contain to create hardy new subspecies that can resist emerging diseases and insects, produce improved yields, boost nutrition or flavor, and perform other feats farmers often require. This breeding is the reason why there’s more than one kind of tomato and orchards full of different types of apples. However, if artificial chemical or drug-producing genes were to make their way into the wild, the “gene banks” for their host species could become corrupted forever and the world might find it impossible to grow, say, a potato without poison in it.
To allay such fears, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued interim rules governing permitting for GM crops intended to produce chemicals. Unfortunately, GM crop activists and concerned citizens alike believe these new restrictions are a day late and a dollar short.
Previously, companies wanting to plant GM crops that produced drugs and industrial chemicals only had to notify the agency that such crops were being planted and agree to random inspections. Under the new interim rules (which some feel were issued because the USDA realizes contamination problems are already occurring), GM chemical crops must be surrounded by an unplanted perimeter at least 50 feet wide. GM farmers would have to use dedicated cultivation, maintenance, and harvesting equipment on the crops (meaning the machinery could not be used with any other crops) and agree to have each GM crop plot inspected five times during the growing season and then twice after harvesting. As a final protection, GM plots would have to be located at least one mile from any food crops.
Unfortunately the primary crop being used to test chemical producing gene technology is corn, one of the world’s staple food grains. (The other top three crops being used are soybeans, tobacco, and rice.) And corn is a plant whose pollen has been shown to travel much more than a mile. Thus, the rules may do little to protect the public and the food supply we depend upon. Indeed, in the wake of the new rules, both the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association have called on the USDA to issue tougher restrictions that provide a 100% assurance of safety.
Of course, in the eyes of many, the horse may already be out of this particular barn. That’s because GM crops engineered to produce drugs and chemicals have already been planted in the wild under previous looser regulations. According to Friends of the Earth, over 300 open-air field trials of such plants have already been conducted in unidentified locations across the country and 400 more tests are currently being readied. Though the vast majority of the new substances these GM plants are being raised to produce are being kept secret under the guise of “proprietary information,” the few examples that are known include a contraceptive, several potent growth hormones, a blood clotter, blood thinners, industrial enzymes, and vaccines. Time will tell if any damage from these or other crops has been done or if the new rules are enough to prevent future harm. Until then, eat, drink, and be wary.
Written by: Seventh Generation
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