Danielle Boucher

Ben Freeman

Mathew Pritchard

Sam Nalle

Sam Rayner

Dianna Seng

Genetics

Professor Montgomery

May 6th, 2003

 

Drafting a Policy Statement: GMO Technology

 

 

I.) Overview of the Technology

 

            Due to an abundance of technological advances in the field of biology in recent years, genetic modification has now become common practice.  Among the many methods used to genetically modify an organism is gene insertion, which is injecting an organism with a gene it does not originally possess.  Organisms that have new genes inserted into them are called transgenic or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Lately, GMO technology has become visible in the public eye because of its use in engineering agricultural crops that are intended to increase yield, increase profit, and benefit the environment due to a decrease in pesticides.  However, implementation of these crops has raised many biological, ethical and environmental issues both in the United States and abroad.

There are many methods used for gene insertion: transformation, injection, viral infection or bombardment with DNA-coated tungsten or gold particles.  The two current methods used to engineer a transgenic crop are by the means of a gene gun or through bacterial vectors (mainly Agrobacterium tumefaciens). 

A gene gun, or particle gun, uses microscopic pellets of gold or tungsten (Figure 1).  These pellets are coated in the DNA that is being transferred to the new organism.  These pellets are loaded into a gene gun barrel.  When the trigger is pulled a special bullet goes down the gun barrel at the speed of .22-caliber gun.  This special bullet is made of plastic and as it goes down the gun barrel it becomes coated in the pellets.  At the end of the barrel, the plastic bullet covered in pellets hits a metal sheet with a small hole.  The pellets leave the plastic bullet behind and go flying through the small hole in the metal sheet.  These pellets move away at a very high speed as they enter the cell.  While the pellet is going through the cell, some of the DNA coating is left behind.  To make sure that the new DNA has been effectively incorporated into the cell’s DNA, the transferred DNA will often not only contain genes encoding for the desired trait, but also for an antibiotic.  Then the cells are grown on a dish with the medium that the antibiotic is resistant to and if the insertion was successful, then cells will grow. 

 

 

Figure 1

 

The other current method used to create GMOs is insertion through vectors.  The most common vector used is the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens.  The modified plasmid of this bacterium used is known as Ti plasmid, or tumor inducing (Figure 2).  The Ti plasmid contains regions for origin of replication, the new DNA (with T-DNA transfer functions), T-DNA that encodes for tumor growth, and nopaline utilization.  When this plasmid is inserted into a plant, the T-DNA tumor production region causes uncontrolled tumor growth normally at its base (crown) in a process known as Crown Gall Disease (Figure 3).  The tumor growth allows the Ti plasmid to proliferate in the host plant.  T-DNA regions are then transferred from the Ti plasmid and randomly inserted into the host plants genome.  In the process, the new DNA that contains genes that encode for the desired trait is also spread throughout the plant’s genome.

 

 

 

Figure 2

Figure 3

 

 

II.) Ethical Issues

 

When striving to acknowledge the ethical issues associated with GMOs, we often assume a broad approach, striving to recognize all positive and negative effects of the technology.  Such an approach – although necessary at the individual level – does not promote the establishment of a system capable of addressing the ambiguous and expansive nature of GMO technology.  As we continue to debate the research and development of GMOs (rather than their respective implementation), we must assume three ethical approaches:  Utilitarianism, Environmental Value, and Political Control. 

            Firstly, the ethical issues surrounding the development and use of GMOs can be approached on straightforward utilitarian grounds:  what will lead to the greatest good for the greatest number.  Such an approach, however, is plagued by three main problems:

 

1.     What sorts of beings can be said to be harmed or benefited by the effects of food manipulation?  i.e. Can species of plants be harmed in any sense?  What types of organisms are capable of being harmed or benefiting not only from GMO technology but also in the general sense?

2.     In any sort of utilitarian calculation there is the problem of calculating risks under uncertainty.  This, therefore, is especially pertinent when altering the genetic structure of an organism.  How can we be sure that the gene will not loose its stability over time?  Conversely, if such alterations are in fact safe, then there is the opportunity to benefit billions of people.

3.     The right of future generations must also be considered.  Do we have the right to change the genetic structure – and therefore inherent nature – of the environment (whether or not such alterations could be beneficial/detrimental)?

 

Once acknowledged on utilitarian grounds, some ethicists approach the environment as having intrinsic value in some sense.  Therefore, when looking at the environment as a living, interactive being, we must question whether natural genetic diversity is intrinsically valuable.  If such a conclusion is reached, then the question arises as to whether it is wrong to manipulate genetic structures, in the same way that it would be wrong to manipulate ancient artifacts (part of our history and heritage).

Finally, we must acknowledge the issues of political control, as GMOs could only be beneficial if accessed by the right groups of people (i.e. those who are do not have sufficient food, medicine, etc.).  Presently, such distribution is only possible through a market-based economy, a realization that causes concern regarding the control exerted upon the world food supply, where all genes are owned and patented by multinational corporations.  Would such control ensure the efficiency of distribution, or merely increase the first-third world inequalities, and respective control of third-world political structures?

Once these relatively universal concerns are addressed, we must acknowledge the specific risks and benefits of GMO technology.  Attached is Figure. 1, a table containing many specific advantages and disadvantages of GMOs.

 

Table. 1

Advantages

Disadvantages

Greater product yield

World doesn’t have a food shortage, just problem with distribution

Accelerated growth cycle

Growth cycle may not interact with other crops/harvesting times, tradition, etc.

Ability to withstand a greater dose of pesticides/wider range of pesticides, etc.

Greater dose of pesticides then works into the surrounding food chain.

Ability to grow in a wider range of climatic conditions & therefore distributable to greater range of people.

Stability of altered DNA is unknown and questionable = could have serious consequences on all exposed orgs.

Easier for farmers to manage, and therefore grow more for less

Uncontrollable technology = replicates itself by nature = perpetual

Could perhaps be produced in larger amounts for less money through cloning

Eventual adaptations and possible mutations of viruses and weeds.

Advantages

Disadvantages

Biotech companies = a new and quickly growing source of employment = growing industry = mobilization of profit.

Increasing control of agriculture by biotech companies = forcing the small/organic farmers out of business = centralization of wealth

Greater product yield = increased ability to feed those with less food or less money

Huge presence of biotech companies limits possible criticism and therefore development of a more ethical process.

Increased taste, colour, aesthetic appeal etc.

Loss of natural elements, procedure, products

Possibility of medical implications – i.e. integration of insulin into goats milk

People lose the right to know what is in their food/where it came from (labeling rights).

Industrial implications – spider silk in goat’s milk.

Green concrete = no interacting environment i.e. other plants or insects, birds, etc….just the plant you want

Resistance to pests

Genetic pollution = cannot be contained by fences…spread by pollination etc.

Use for new products such as cheap clothing, etc.

Market collapse in the U.S. = many international economies will not buy GMOs… i.e. Japan, E.U. etc.

All the tools evolved naturally

Unintended effects are overlooked

 

Add to the further unequal distribution of wealth amongst international economies

 

Allergic reactions from exposure

New viruses/weeds = promotes the development of more technology etc.  i.e. HIV/AIDS has increased our understanding of how the body functions.

If problems are occur, they will be impossible to stop = because of perpetuating nature of technology i.e. 1 plant makes several others like it.

 

Need for technology to keep adapting to the times = inability to acknowledge that at some point there will be no technology to overcome new viruses, etc.

 

 

III.) Recommendations

 

            The current system producing and regulating GM crops in America is flawed in many ways. Private companies developing GMOs finance the research that determines the health and environmental effects of the GM crop. These crop strains are then protected by patent law, which has led to ethically disturbing verdicts regarding the sanctity of crops growing adjacent to fields containing the patented GM strain. The GM crops are then used in animal agriculture or incorporated into food products, which are not labeled as containing GMOs in American supermarkets. These are all problems that need to be addressed immediately to provide a reasonable framework in which GM crops can be safely developed, grown and consumed.

            The establishment of a government organization responsible for regulating GM crops is of paramount and pressing concern. This organization would finance independent investigations to determine the developed GMOs effects on human health and the environment prior to FDA approval. This organization will also finance ongoing research to determine the long-term effects of a GM crop after it has been introduced into an agricultural environment.

            The legal system regulating GM crops needs a paradigm shift. The current system obligates farmers adjacent to GM crop fields to be held accountable for the purity of their crop. The farmer growing a GM crop has made the choice to grow a GMO, and should be legally responsible to contain his/her crop and avoid contamination of adjacent fields. This would entail planting a sufficient buffer and providing financial compensation if the integrity of a neighboring field’s crop is damaged. This is especially important for organic farms, which can lose their organic status if contaminated by neighboring GMO pollen.

            Lastly, food products containing GMOs need to be labeled as such in any food vending setting. People who choose not to purchase or eat GMOs due to ethical or philosophical reasons should have the right to know what is in their food. However, food products containing minimal amounts of GMOs need not be labeled as GMO food.

            The technology involved in creating GMOs is potentially invaluable to the continued evolution of human agriculture. However, there are also potentially devastating effects of improperly applied GM technology. A governmental organization overseeing the development and establishing the safety of GMO crop strains will provide better security that only the positive aspects of GMOs will be expressed. Changes in the law will protect farmers choosing to avoid GM crops while clearly outlining the legal responsibility of farmers growing GMOs. Finally, the choice of the consumer will be preserved by adequately labeling food containing GMOs.