Executive Summary from the Genetically Modified Organism Exploratory Committee
Timothy W. Bates
Anne M. Blair
Erika S. Jermé
Adrienne B. Keller
Gillian E. Lavik
Kelly A. McMaken
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), organisms in which genes from another organism are inserted into the targeted organism’s DNA, have the potential to both positively and negatively affect the environment and human health. Plants can be genetically modified easily because they can be grown from a single cell or small pieces of tissue. Thus, one only needs to modify a single cell to produce an entire genetically modified organism (“Genetically-modified Q & A”).
Several methods have been used to insert foreign genes into the target organism. In one method, the target organism takes up a vector with cloned DNA from a donor organism and incorporates this foreign DNA into its genome. Another method involves removing the wall of the target cell, allowing the introduced DNA to easily penetrate. A third method requires using a special gun to inject foreign DNA into the target cell in hopes that the cell will incorporate the new DNA into its genome (“Genetically-modified Q & A”).
Crops have been modified for centuries by humans using selective breeding techniques, but GMO biotechnology is a more specific and rapid selection process. For instance, genes from a different species can be incorporated into the modified crop. Therefore, GMO technology creates concern over potential environmental and human health impacts (Whitehouse, David).
The use of genetically modified organisms is a practice still in its infancy. The long-term effects of this technology are yet to be seen, and thus we must proceed with caution as we develop our practices and guidelines.
Herbicide Use and Resistance
Effects on the environment are a particular concern with regard to GMO crops and food production. One area of development involves adding the ability to produce pesticides and resistance to specific herbicides. These traits are helpful in food production, allowing farmers to use fewer chemicals, and to grow crops in less than ideal conditions. However, herbicide use could be increased, which will have a larger negative effect on the surrounding environment. Also unintended hybrid strains of weeds and other plants can develop resistance to these herbicides through cross-pollination, thus negating the potential benefit of the herbicide. One such herbicide that has already been added is RoundUp. Crops of RoundUp-ready soybeans have already been implemented into agricultural practices, possibly conferring RoundUp resistance to neighboring plants.
Bt corn, which produces its own pesticide, is also in use today. Concerns have been raised regarding adverse effects on Monarch butterfly populations, which are not the original target of the pesticide (Losey, 1999). Although the pesticide can protect crops against unwanted insects, they can also have unintentional effects on neutral or even beneficial species.
GMO crops could potentially have negative effects on human health as well. When splicing genes between species, there are examples in which consumers have developed unexpected allergic reactions. Researchers used a gene from the Brazil nut to increase the production of Methionine in soya beans. The insertion of this gene inadvertently caused allergic reactions to the soya bean in those with known nut allergies, but no previous allergy to the soya bean, according to the product developer, Pioneer Hi-Bred (“Biotech Soybeans”).
Because GMO technology has been available for such a short amount of time, there is relatively little research which has been conducted on the long-term effects on health. The greatest danger lies not in the effects that we have studied, but in those which we cannot anticipate at this point.
Proteins which have never been ingested before by humans are now part of the foods that people consume every day. Their potential effects on the human body are as of yet unknown.
GMOs also present us with possibilities of introducing additional nutrients into foods, as well as antibiotics and vaccines. This availability of technology can provide nutrition and disease resistance to those countries that don’t have the means to provide these otherwise. The distribution of these foods is more feasible than mass inoculations for current diseases. However, even these possibilities carry with them potential negative effects such as the creation of antibiotic and vaccine-resistant strains of diseases.
It is imperative that we ensure that environmental issues and human health are kept at the forefront of development in this field. It is important that we not lose sight of the repercussions that could accompany the benefits if we do not carefully investigate and control development.
Given the ethical issues raised in the above section and the complexity of the technology used in creating GMOs, we propose the following recommendations:
Recommendation 1: The United States Government should financially support independent research institutes to study the environmental and human health impacts of GMOs as well as to assess whether the product accomplishes its stated goal.
This committee suggests that a new board be created within the Food and Drug Administration to delegate further research to the previously mentioned research labs. GMO products must be brought before this board and sufficient research must be conducted in the independent labs before FDA approval will be granted. The producer of the GMO may decide at which stage of development the product will be brought before the board. Independent research is necessary to prevent the vested interests of the manufacturer from affecting the reported results. The research labs will be responsible for investigating both positive and negative effects of the GMO in order to provide a safe and effective product to consumers.
Recommendation 2: All GMOs not already marketed are subject to examination by the board created under Recommendation 1 before they can receive FDA approval and be introduced to the market.
The committee believes it is in the best interest of consumers that new GMOs undergo rigorous testing to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the product.
Recommendation 3: Existing GMOs must be approved under these new FDA provisions, but may stay on the market during the approval process. Further expansion of GMO cropping shall be prohibited until products are re-approved.
Because GMOs have not previously been proven unsafe, there is no reason for this committee to require that they be removed from the market unless they are found unsafe after further research is conducted. The immediate removal of GMOs from the market would be economically detrimental if they were subsequently approved under the new regulations; for this reason, the committee believes that these measures are unnecessary. Further GMO cropping is too much of a risk without investigating the environmental impacts of such agriculture.
Recommendation 4: All GMO products should be labeled as such.
The committee feels that the public has the right to be informed about the nature of the foods they consume. This is also essential for citizens with food allergies. Therefore, we recommend labeling with stickers for produce or directly labeling the packaging of other foods. Further information about each GMO product will be available online or in information packets in grocery stores and restaurants. Distributors of the food must provide this information to the marketing location.
Recommendation 5: The United States Government will financially support public education regarding GMO products.
The Government will fund the distribution of informative posters to cooperating grocers. A Government-operated database will be available online for easy public access to information regarding GMO technology and specific GMO products. In addition, unbiased commercials will be broadcasted on television and radio to inform consumers. We feel that education will enable consumers to make informed decisions regarding consumption of GMO products.
Recommendation 6: The Government will provide funding for research into alternative farming methods.
While the committee finds that GMOs do have great potential, other methods for increasing crop yield and farming efficiency should be researched further.
Biotech Soybeans and Brazil Nut Protein. 25 November 2002. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. 24 April 2003. <http://www.pioneer.com/biotech/brazil%5Fnut/default.htm>
“Genetically-modified Q & A.” BBC News 6 April 1999. 24 April 2003
Losey, John E., et al. “Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae.” Nature 20 May 1999: 214.
Whitehouse, David. “The power of genes.” BBC News 6 April 1999. 24 April 2003 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/1999/02/99/food_under_the_microscope/281365.stm>