Genetically Engineered Food: Promises and Perils

Karen Charman discusses her take on the promises and problems associated with genetically engineered food.

| October/November 2002

Learn about the problems associated with genetically engineered food.

Advocates of genetically engineered food claim this revolutionary new technology is merely a more precise way to improve crops — something humans have been doing for the last 12,000 years. They don't usually acknowledge that genetic engineering gives humankind an unprecedented ability to create new life-forms by taking genes from one species and inserting them into another — something longtime biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin characterizes as "a laboratory-conceived second Genesis." This is a powerful new technology and before we accept it, we must understand both its proponents' claims and the risks it poses.

The first large-scale commercial plantings of genetically modified (GM) [also referred to as genetically engineered (GE)], crops began in 1996. Although public debate and opposition to GM food has been both intense and growing throughout the world, most Americans have only begun to become aware of the issue. Nevertheless, the technology is developing quickly, and the pressures to continue using it are great. Once genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which can grow, reproduce, mutate and migrate — are released into the environment, they cannot be removed. So before scientists and corporations remake the natural world, we would be wise to fully consider the implications GMOs raise about health and environmental safety, politics, social justice, food security and economic issues.

Agricultural biotechnology is being sold on several promises. Genetic modification of food, we are told, will enable us to save a growing world population from hunger and starvation. It will give farmers more environmentally friendly, profitable and nutritious crops to grow. Agricultural biotech will revolutionize the way we get our industrial materials, turning plants, animals and other living organisms into clean "biofactories," replacing polluting products like nonrenewable fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals.

These are all laudable goals. But whether agricultural biotechnology will achieve them or whether it will unleash greater problems than those generated by the polluting technologies it is purported to replace are questions that remain unanswered.

Four farm products — corn, soybeans, cotton and canola — currently account for nearly all of the estimated 125 million acres of biotech crops commercially grown around the world. Dairy products have also been transformed by genetic engineering; 10 percent to 30 percent of our dairy cows are injected with the controversial recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to boost milk production.

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