What Role Does Genetic Engineering Play in Our Daily Lives?

With such a lofty title, I have given myself a tall task to do the topic justice in the space allowed here. Lofty or not, I think it is a topic that many have strong opinions about, and it is important that as consumers we are aware of the facts about genetic engineering (GE) that occurs in our medications and food supply. Fact based opinions that can be substantiated through previous and continual research are what we should all strive for. I am going to attempt to provide a brief background on the facts as presented through research. It is also important to note, before I begin, that federal oversight of GE crops is shared by USDA, EPA and FDA. All GE products go through rigorous testing by these agencies before approving their use. So here we go. What do you think of GE/GMO foods? In general, studies in the United States and Canada reveal that we are more accepting of GE foods than the Europeans and Japanese. One study in Canada found that consumers were willing to purchase GE potatoes if offered at an equal or lesser price.

Studies in Europe and Japan find consumers are willing to purchase GE foods only if they are offered at a significant cost savings over the non-GE foods. The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse reports that in 2010 8.3 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes. The majority of the people with diabetes use insulin. The insulin they use is most likely genetically engineered. In fact, it is the first GE drug marketed and has been used since 1982. Previously, insulin was produced from farm animals, but today it is primarily produced through genetic engineering because of the lower cost and reduced allergenicity. I don’t know about you, but I love cheese, probably a little too much. Many of you probably know that cheese is made using rennet. The active ingredient in rennet is the enzyme chymosin. Pre 1990, rennet was collected from the stomachs of calves. Since then, it has be genetically engineered and produced at a significantly reduced cost.

GE rennet is used in the U.S., Europe and across the world to make cheese. Tobacco has been genetically engineered to have a reduced nicotine content. Amish farmers in Pennsylvania have been growing GE tobacco for over 10 years. The GE tobacco has brought an economic influx to many communities, and has helped people quit smoking. Many of the foods we eat everyday have been genetically engineered. The crops getting all the attention today are sugar beets, alfalfa and corn. But did you know that cotton, and papaya are genetically engineered? There is a good chance that if papaya was not genetically engineered back in the late 1990’s, we would not be able to purchase it today in the grocery stores. Papaya Ringspot Virus threaten to eliminate the crop. Today you can still purchase organic papaya, but this is largely due to the fact that the GE papaya has significantly reduced the virus inoculums making it possible to grow small orchards of organic papaya.

Since the introduction of GE crops, pesticide use, which includes herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides has gone down significantly. Consequently, less non target insects and plants are being killed and less pesticide residuals are in our environment. In 2001, Chinese farmers eliminated the use of 78,000 tons of insecticides with the planting of GE cotton. Some may ask, what about pollen drift from GE crops to organic crops or native plants, and what about “super weeds”? These are issues that I wonder about at times as well. Virtually all leading scientific panels that have convened on this manner (National Research Council 2004; GM Science Review 2003) have agreed that pollen drift from approved GE varieties in the United States does not pose any conceivable increased health or environmental risk. I encourage people to use more organic practices in their gardens and on their farms whenever possible. The point of this article is to educate people on where GE is currently being used, and to emphasize the importance of having unbiased research to evaluate GE products.

I propose that continued research and testing of GE products be conducted by independent universities and organizations before being approved for use by the public. Testing separate from, and in addition to the government’s testing must be done; it is the only way we can have a clear unbiased evaluation. Research funding in our universities is being cut every year when instead we should be increasing funding for research, so we can find all of these answers. The Ecological Society of America in 2005 stated, some GEOs could play a positive role in sustainable agriculture, forestry, aquaculture, bioremediation, and environmental management, both in developed and developing countries. However, deliberate or inadvertent releases of GEOs into the environment could have negative ecological effects under certain circumstances.

With so much information available at our finger tips, you would think being an informed citizen/consumer would be easier, but there is so much information, it can be more difficult to sort through it. How do you know what or who to believe? I think it is best to put faith in our universities and sound scientific research to provide us the answers. For additional reading on the topic, the University of Minnesota just released a fact sheet titled, “Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Foods: US Policy & Current Science” by Jennifer Kuzma and Rachel Haase. The factsheet can be found at, http://foodpolicy.umn.edu/policy-summaries-and-analyses/index.htm.

Another great read on this topic is a book titled “Tomorrows Table” by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak. Much of the information for this article came from their book. Pamela is a Professor of Plant Pathology and Chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California Davis. Raoul currently works at the University of California, Davis Student Farm, where he teaches organic production practices and manages a five-acre market garden. The two authors, who happen to be married, bring an interesting perspective to the discussion.