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Genetic Engineering - What is it?

Genetic engineering is the science of modification of genes in cells. Genes are collections of DNA molecules that comprise the code that determines the function and reproductive pattern of cells. Together with hormones and other chemical messengers, developed and naturally recombined over millions of years, genes determine everything about an organism.

Genetic engineers modify gene patterns in cells by implanting genes or DNA from one organism into another organism. For instance, Monsanto Corporation found a gene somewhere that made a plant resistant to a Monsanto weed-killer called Roundup. Monsanto then took that gene and implanted it into soybeans, instantly creating a new species of soybean that could be sprayed with Roundup weed killer without fear of killing the soybean plant. At first glance, this sounds like a great idea, using science to help farmers grow their crops. But this technology has a very dark side.

Why is it an environmental threat?

Over millions of years, a natural order of plant species variation and interbreeding in the wild has developed that has structural boundaries. Normally, the transfer of genes from one species to another is naturally regulated. If it were not, there would be species havoc - tree seeds that would grow into something completely different, grass seed that would grow 20 feet tall (or 20 millimeters tall), 50-leaf clovers, etc. There would be no way for the many forms of life on earth to survive and regenerate.

Genetic engineering has destroyed that natural barrier. The new Monsanto soybeans, called Roundup-Ready Soybeans (RRS), now have non-soybean genes in their cell nucleus. Thus in a tiny instant of time Monsanto crossed a genetic boundary that could not be crossed naturally. We know that these new genes have cross-pollinated to non-genetically-altered crops, and to similar species. We do not know know whether these genes are easily transferrable to other plant species. What Monsanto has created, is a plant "monster" - an unnatural species - that can reproduce through its seeds.

Some scientists in the early days of genetic engineering (about 1975) worried about super-germs (the first genetic engineering was done with E. coli bacteria) and cross-species contamination, but the claim was made that new species would be carefully confined to laboratories where they would be used to generate hormones or life-saving drugs. It was assumed that this containment would prevent cross-species contamination. Agricultural genetic engineering violated that assumption. Concerned scientists and others all over the world worry that this kind of artificial genetic manipulation may indeed cause biological havoc because it exposes the new cells and genes to other plant species.

In the United States, primarily because of the influence of Monsanto and other bio-technology firms in our regulatory agencies and the media, discussion of the topic has been limited, and the labeling of  seeds and products with regard to whether they are or contain genetically modified organisms was, until recently, discouraged by threat of lawsuit by Monsanto. The only way for someone in the U.S. to avoid genetically modified grain is to buy products marked organic. The Food and Drug Administration even attempted several years ago to redefine the organic label to include genetically modified organisms, but public opposition prevented this change.

In Europe, and especially in Great Britain, a movement has developed that opposes the development and use of these genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The EEU has passed a regulation requiring that grain containing genetic modifications and products containing such grain that are imported into Europe be labeled as such. Because of the strong opposition to GMOs, this makes the grain and products less saleable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Export Agency, supporting Monsanto's commercial interests, has threatened trade sanctions against the EEU. In Great Britain, environmental activists have protested agricultural genetic engineering, and some have taken part in civil disobedience, uprooting experimental plots belonging to Monsanto and other biotech firms.

What Can You Do?

If you agree that this technology is dangerous to the environment, call the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and register your concern. Ask the FDA to require labeling of GMO products and grain. Tell your friends and neighbors about the threat. Join with them and request that your supermarket supply more organically raised food, which is currently the only way to avoid GMO products.



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