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Effects of Genetically Modified Crops on Ecosystems

written by: SallyOdum•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 5/25/2011

Explore the effects of genetically modified crops or foods on ecosystems and human beings. Learn definitions for genetic engineering, genetic modification and plant breeding. Do GM crops endanger the world's food supply? Valuable references point you to more information.

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    Butterfly on flowers c. 7-09 by Sally Odum 

    First some background information and definitions:

    A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism that has been altered using recombinant DNA technology. Genetic engineering takes DNA molecules from different sources, and then combines them into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This new DNA is then transferred into the original origanism, giving it "modified" or entirely new genes compared to what it began with originally.1

    Genetically modified crops or genetically modified (GM) foods are then foods that have been made using genetically modified organisms. Unlike the naturally grown organism found in food, the DNA of genetically modified organisms have been manipulated by genetic engineering. This is "unlike similar food organisms developed through the conventional genetic modification of selective breeding (plant breeding and animal breeding) or mutation breeding." First put on the market in the 90s, genetically modified crops or foods are typically soybean, corn, canola and cotton seed oil (transgenic plants); however, GM animal products have been developed as well. 2

    Many people confuse genetic modification / genetic engineering with plant breeding. They are very different. Plant breeding has been done since ancient times – for example crossing a mildew resistant pea with another type of pea to produce a better variety of pea. In genetic engineering, Corn (Maize) and cotton are modified to have both herbicide tolerance and insect protection traits. Insect protection is provided by insertion of the Bacillus thuringiensis Bt insecticidal protein – creating what you’ve heard referred to as Bt Cotton and Bt Corn. Do you see the difference? Genetic engineering takes something that is not natural to a pea – or deriving from a pea – and inserting it into the pea – whether it’s the Bt insecticide or yellow from a daffodil to give it a yellow color. Plant breeding crosses like with like to produce like; while genetic engineering takes genes from two totally different life forms and forces them unnaturally to create a new life form. In other words, genetic engineering would never occur in nature.

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    Foods / crops in the United States that have been genetically modified are listed below, along with an estimated percentage of total U.S. production in 2006:

    · Soybeans (approximately 89% of production)3

    · Field Corn (approximately 61% of production)3

    · Cotton (from which also comes cottonseed oil for consumption – approximately 83% of production)3

    · Hawaiian Papaya (more than 50% of production) 2

    · Amflora variety of Potatoes (amount of total production undetermined)

    · Rapeseed (commonly called Canola – it’s used for cooking oil – approximately 75 - 79% of production)3

    · Sugar Cane (Undetermined)

    · Sugar Beet (Undetermined)

    · Sweet Corn (Undetermined)

    Rice (Golden Rice has three new genes inserted – two that naturally come from daffodils and one gene that comes from a bacterium – percentage of total production is undetermined)2

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    Effects Of GMOs On Ecosystems

    The full effects of GMOs on the environment and ecosystems are largely unknown – damage is evolving as you read. One thing that worries many scientists is genetically modified or genetically engineered crops contaminating adjacent fields of crops or cross-breeding with native plants, thereby corrupting entire ecosystems. The wind blows the pollen from one GM field into the organic field of another farmer. The pollinators (bees, butterflies, etc.) carry the GM pollen to other plants. There is currently a global decline of pollinators, not just honey bees, all pollinators – is it related to GM pollen?

    The jolting thing about this question is that it has not been studied adequately. It is known that cross-breeding does occur. How much damage is it doing behind the scenes? How much crossing has already occurred between native plants and GM plants? Will the genetically modified organisms mutate? Will the mutations change the world as we know it and contaminate the world food supply?

    This is not to even to consider the many unanswered questions about the effect that the resulting vegetable or fruit may have on humans and animals. Numerous studies have shown extensive ill effects from GMOs, including increased allergies and worse conditions. The evidence is sufficient enough that an unmistakable alarm should have sounded to governments of all nations. To date, the U.S. and Canada still require no labeling of products that contain GMOs – from corn syrup to corn meal, cereals, vegetable oil, canned foods and additives. Additionally, the GMO's are in feed stuffs, so whatever commercial livestock you consume has probably been fed on GM feed. While 60 to 70% of all food consumed in the United States has GMOs present, the Federal Drug Administration has no safety testing requirements but relies on the biotechnology companies to provide their own testing.4

    There are too many unanswered questions with genetically modified organisms / foods / crops. Scientists have been prevented from studying the full effects of GMOs because of patents held by the seed companies (i.e. Monsanto and others). This is your food supply – the world’s food supply that is at stake here. Seeds were here from the beginning of time and free for all to use. They were free for the farmer to collect the seeds from his harvest and put them up for next year’s planting. It is a phenomenon of the last decade when seed companies inserted something unnatural to a plant into a seed, then patented the seeds and prevented farmers from using the seeds the next year – they have to buy new seeds. For further reading, please see the reference list below.