The Dangers of Genetically Modified Crops

A discussion of the dangers of genetically modified crops and the associated risks to human health and food costs.

| April/May 2000

Learn about the dangers of genetically modified crops.

Will genetically modified crops save us or sink us?

When members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle last fall to discuss global trade issues, negotiations were unexpectedly shut down by the shattering of shop windows and police in body armor. Nearly 35,000 demonstrators from around the world clogged the city's streets to protest what many saw as the closed-door politics of global food corporatism. Meanwhile, the 137 WTO delegates were there-rather skeptically by all accounts — to iron out labor issues, decision-making policy and to discuss what to do about a tense and growing international food scare: the potential dangers of genetically modified (GM) food. Instead, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets littered the streets, 400 protesters went to jail and the WTO went home stunned and empty-handed. Why? While the immediate reasons involve an arguably overzealous response to recent headlines, the root causes can be traced back to a small seacoast lab, more than a century ago.

In 1874, Luther Burbank, a 26-year-old farmer's son from Lancaster, Massachusetts, with an elementary school education, had the unprecedented idea of taking the pollen from one plant and fertilizing the fruit of another — thus creating a hybrid. He didn't know if the qualities of the male or the female would dominate, but the experiment was an interesting gamble. In his 55 years of working with plant species, Burbank produced over 800 strains and varieties. Among these was the Burbank potato, developed to combat the devastating potato blight affecting Ireland's crop. He sold the rights to his lifesaving potato for $150.

In the 1950s, scientists began exposing seeds to X-rays, hoping to jostle the genes inside. It worked, and mutant varieties were the result. They selected from these and were able to develop some new varieties that were worthwhile, but the process was largely hit-or-miss and no less time-consuming than hybridization.

Then science took a giant leap forward when the first gene was transferred between plant organisms in 1973. Such engineering involves the splicing of a gene from one organism into another. Every gene — whether of bacteria, plant or animal — codes for a specific protein. Thus, when you insert a foreign gene into an organism, you prompt that organism to produce a non-native protein, changing its basic structure at the cellular level.

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