The long-range effects of the alterations genetic scientists are making to our environment cannot be known, and the results can never be recalled or contained. Our plant and animal species have evolved over millions of years in a holistic, interactive context. Suddenly introducing genetically engineered species upsets the intricate balance of our ecosystem, with changes which are unpredictable and would not occur naturally. New genetically altered living organisms are now being released into the environment, and many scientists fear that some could mutate, reproduce, or migrate. They may transfer their new characteristics to other organisms as has unexpectedly already happened in some instances. This type of scenario could make the effects of genetic mistakes irretrievable.
Transfer of inserted genes across species has already occurred, despite experts claiming this could not happen. Genes inserted into canola (oilseed rape) plants to increase their ability to resist herbicides so that even more chemicals can be used to kill agricultural pests, have been shown to transfer these genes to weed relatives, raising the possibility of creating ‘superweeds’ – i.e., those resistant to pesticides. Proponents of genetic engineering claimed these transfers would not happen. Transfer has been noted in other species as well. Marker genes from sunflowers were seen to invade and persist in wild sunflower populations, and in a population of wild strawberries growing within 50 meters of a strawberry field, more than 50% of the wild plants contained marker genes from the cultivated plants. All of these transfers were thought impossible.
Some scientists are concerned that even rare genetic transfers from genetically engineered plants to wild ones could have devastating effects. Even if gene transfer to wild plants happens with less than 1% of the engineered products, some scientists fear that within 10 years, we could have a moderate to large scale catastrophe involving ‘superweeds’ because there would be so many artificial genetic ‘innovations’ being released into the ecosystem.
Ecological Imbalance – Domino Effect
In addition, scientists are concerned that unknown and unpredicted results of genetic engineering may alter essential ecological relationship between soil bacterium, insects, plants and animals, and thus may endanger wildlife and/or their habitat, as well as the ecosystem itself. Some instances of this type of domino effect have already occurred and it is thought that further unintentional genetic modifications of the environment could, in the future, pose a threat to world agriculture and the global food supply.
The widespread and well-documented ill effects of high tech. Farming methods may be added to by the technology of genetic engineering. In one contained experiment, a genetically engineered bacterium developed to aid in the production of ethanol unexpectedly produced residues which rendered the land in which it was planted infertile. New corn crops planted on this soil grew three inches tall and fell over dead. If unpredicted problems occur after a genetically engineered organism has been released, bees, birds, and wind can carry the seeds (and the problem) into neighbouring fields. At least one non-genetically engineered virus, being bred to cut rabbit numbers, has recently escaped from controlled quarantined research facilities in Australia, and spread like wildfire among the rabbit population – with ominous results. Some genetically engineered organisms could do the same with tragic consequences. Mutated seeds, bacteria, and viruses could even piggyback on our international travel and trading system across continents and oceans, creating new unsuitable species (this kind of damaging transfer is already occurring with many normal organisms, and could be greatly compounded by genetic engineering).
In Britain recently, the life span of female ladybird (ladybugs) was reduced to half when they ate aphids, which fed on genetically altered potatoes, in greenhouse tests. The ladybirds also laid 30% fewer eggs. The potatoes were engineered to produce their own pesticide to ward off aphids, succeeding to some extent, but leaving significant number to feed on the potatoes. Because both the ladybird’s lifespan and reproduction capabilities were dramatically reduced, this means at least twice as many ladybirds would be needed to eat the remaining aphids – a quite unmanageable scenario. Yet, others may go undetected as subtle changes occur in the plants, insects, and soils. Anywhere near adequate monitoring of the innumerable entities and interrelationships, even in a local ecosystem is impossible.
As many observers have stated, since we do not know what the consequences will be, (and when we find out it will be too late) it is the responsibility of governments and research institutions to enact the utmost safety precautions, and require, and monitor, strict long-term quarantine and testing.
Genetically Engineered Cotton Fails To Control Pest-Costs Farmers Dearly
Genetically engineered B.t. cotton sold to farmers last year with the promise of pest control has flopped in the fields from Texas to Georgia. Many cotton bollworms survived in the new crop, and farmers had to apply chemical insecticides at extra expense. In addition, the escaping bollworms raised doubts about the bollworm resistance management plan implemented by biotechnology corporation, Monsanto, to prevent the development of B.t.-resistant bollworms. Over the years, bollworms have developed resistance to insecticides farmers have had to apply increasingly, raising the risk of toxins in the plant, soil and water supply. This cotton was developed to make plants resistant to bollworms, and thus reduce the amount of pesticides the farmer has to apply. However, the approach failed, and chemical use is just as necessary. Some farmers face losses of $500,000 to $1,000,000. In addition, because of the complexity of genetic information within the intricacies of the ecosystem, and the known phenomenon of potential gene transfer to other species, the long-term effects of this GE cotton are unknown. Thus, the possible disruptions of the soil-food web occur in ways that may not be easily traceable. Therefore, this release is unscientific and irresponsible.
Neither increased pesticide use nor genetically engineered crops are the answer to agricultural pest problems.
The farmers who are being sold the technology of genetic engineering are not being told of the dangers but are being led into the belief that this will help their business. The over-emphasis on genetic engineering and other high-tech farming techniques is especially regrettable because it is unnecessary. Far safer sustainable agricultural methods are available that can feed all of humanity.
If we learn one thing from the 20th century it should be that, despite their professed advantages, many technologies backfire on us, producing disastrous side effects (e.g., nuclear pollution and waste which nobody wants in their locality, ozone depletion, acid rain, the countless hazards of modern medicine, pollution from factories and motor cars). Much of this leads to the breakdown of the immune system for the individual, and severely weakens the ecosystem at large. In every case, it takes years, even decades, for the dangers to be taken seriously often leading to disastrous results. At this time, we must learn to make careful choices in our use of the knowledge and technology at our command.
Over time, every technology becomes more accessible to more people in more countries. A case in point is the use of DDT pesticide. DDT was greatly hyped at its introduction but is now banned in the U.S. and other industrial countries. Yet, it is still manufactured in the U.S. (or by U.S. companies abroad) and other countries, and sold abroad, where it is widely used. Another more dramatic example are the dangerous nuclear and biological weapons (some of which could be genetically engineered) now known to be in the hands of unstable countries around the world.
The wider accessibility of genetic engineering technology statistically increases the chance of mistakes even by careful researchers, not to mention less careful scientists who lack complete education, or harbour ill intent. Widespread availability of genetic engineering technology could create a very dangerous scenario for the world.
Genetic engineering poses the greatest danger of any technology yet introduced, safety testing will never be adequate, because organisms once introduced can never be recalled from the environment, and their effect will spread without limit. If action is not taken now, virtually everyone in the world could soon be eating genetically engineered food and farmers and consumers will reap the negative results.
Is It Necessary?
Through proper coherent management we already have the ability to feed the world’s population without the risks posed by genetic engineering. As has been common practice in the past, commercial and political motives are taking precedence, with little regard to the possible dangers.
With so many farming practices having been discredited in the past, we should be alert to the dangers of radical interference with nature. The system of taking everything out and giving nothing back in intensive agriculture, including the use of hybrid plants and pesticides, has already damaged public health and the environment, and has resulted, worldwide, in widespread malnutrition and loss of biodiversity. Compounded to this, according to the British Royal commission on Environment Pollution, 10% of the world’s soil has already been lost this century. This is due, in part, to unsustainable and unnatural large-scale farming, and is a major problem in countries, such as the U.S., which rely on these intensive techniques.
Genetic engineering is being hyped in the same way all these other failed practices were but is even more dangerous by far. It will make the environmental situation worse, not better. The agriculture that we rely on today cannot be counted on to sustain future generations. Genetic engineering will perpetuate the reliance on high tech, unnatural farming practices, and, in the long run, could damage the farmer’s business and the ability of the land to produce.
The chemical and biotechnology industries, as well as some in the medical establishment, would have us believe that we are at war with nature. Such beliefs and attitudes are unnecessary. We have learned that it is more sensible and rewarding to find ways to operate in harmony with nature’s laws, rather than against them, and to understand and utilize what nature provides, rather than attempt to defeat the larger ecosystem in order to further small gains.