Posts Tagged ‘gene patent’

I used to be a supporter of genetically engineered crops, especially so after researching Golden Rice (rice engineered to contain vitamin A) for a class project in college.  If we have the technology, why wouldn’t we want to make food more nutritious for populations that are suffering from malnutrition?  In the ‘Political Ecology of Food’ class i’m taking this quarter at UW, i was prepared to argue against all the GMO-bashers that genetic engineering is a pretty sweet technology and we can do some amazing and useful things with it, like prevent people from going blind due to vitamin A deficiency.  And, we’ve been breeding plants and effectively modifying their genes since the advent of agriculture- isolating genes in a laboratory and sticking them into new plants is just a faster (and way more expensive) method of breeding plants.   I finally watched ‘Food, Inc’ the other day, which talks a bit about Monsanto’s business practices, and tonight i watched ‘The Future of Food,’ an interview-style documentary about the dangers of GM crops.  The movie is fairly one-sided and hokey, but very interesting and informative.

GM crops “for good” like Golden Rice and cassava with extra protein may have problems themselves, but the main problems with GM technology comes in the form of crops engineered to produce pesticides or be resistant to herbicides by corporations in developed nations, and more importantly, how these crops are used and regulated.  The genes inserted into these crops may have harmful health effects (as of yet unknown) on people and animals that consume them, but that’s hardly the biggest reason to be wary of GM crops and the companies that produce them.

First, there are several ways to introduce a gene from one organism into another, but a commonly used method to determine whether the new gene has taken up residence in the host cell is to couple the gene of interest to a gene for antibiotic resistance.  The cells are then grown in the presence of the antibiotic, and only cells that have the gene of interest and the associated antibiotic resistance marker will survive.  The GM crops that result carry a gene for resistance against that particular antibiotic- not necessarily a problem, unless harmful bacteria get a hold of the gene.  This can happen quite easily; no special methods are needed to introduce foreign DNA to bacteria- they just scoop it up from the environment around them and begin using it to their advantage.  Potentially pathogenic bacteria may come across these genes in the digestive tracts of livestock or people that eat these GM crops.  Should these bacteria later cause a harmful infection, it will be impossible to treat the patient with those antibiotics.

Now, I should mention that there are other ways to recognize an inserted gene than antibiotic resistance- other reporter genes can be used as well, like green fluorescent protein or a gene for an enzyme that reacts with an added substrate to turn the cells containing the gene a different color.  I’ll have to take a closer look at how most GM crops are engineered- i’m hoping most of them are made without antibiotic resistance markers.  Also, many antibiotics used in laboratories are not front line antibiotics that infections would be treated with, due to expense, ease of use, or because non-laboratory strain bacteria are already resistant to them.  However, the fewer antibiotic-resistance genes that get spread around the world, the better- multi-drug resistant bacteria are already a serious problem in tuberculosis and hospital-acquired infections- we don’t need to make additional antibiotics ineffective.

Besides potential public health problems, companies that make genetically modified crops practice horrible, horrible business.  Monsanto makes both Roundup (an herbicide that kills pretty much anything green) and ‘Roundup Ready’ corn, soybean, and canola seeds that are resistant to Roundup.  This is a fairly ingenious business strategy in itself, but the company goes farther.  Farmers that buy Roundup Ready seed may not save seed from the resulting crops to plant their fields the next year- they must buy new seed.  Seed cleaning is a dying profession in which a person got paid to bring a “seed cleaner,” a big mechanical machine on a trailer, around to farms to prepare seeds from crops so that they could be planted the next season.  Because seed cleaning gives farmers a reason to save seed instead of buying GM seed, Monsanto has sued several seed cleaners for “anti-commerce.”  Ridiculous.  But there’s more.

Monsanto has patented the gene for Roundup resistance…OK, fine… but the courts have ruled that because they own the gene, they also own anything that contains the gene.  If a farmer’s crops are cross-pollinated by a neighbor’s GM crops, the progeny of those plants will contain the genetic modification, and if the seeds are saved and planted the next season, that farmer will be infringing on Monsanto’s patent.  The things is, there’s no possible way to prevent cross pollination from field to field.  When a farmer’s seed becomes contaminated, he’s fined or sued, and forcefully pressured into buying GM seed.  As the gene spreads across the US, will anyone able to buy/save/plant non-GM seed?  And the company has begun to push GM crops on farmers in developing countries- they’re having enough trouble as it is- they can’t afford to be screwed over by a giant corporation!

I could go on, and likely will in future posts, but for now i’ll end with a comment from my Political Ecology of Food class.  The professor mentioned a study in which cows were given a choice of GM corn or normal corn to eat.  The cows refused to touch the GM corn.  “It’s like they know that it’s different somehow…”  I think they refused to eat it because it’s drenched in Roundup!


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