Frequently Asked Questions

General questions about genetic engineering

Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, refers to a new set of molecular techniques. With these techniques, scientists are able to take DNA from any species – bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans, and engineer them into another organism. An example would be selecting a gene, which leads to the production of a chemical with antifreeze properties from an arctic fish, and splicing it into a potato or strawberry in an attempt to make it frost-resistant.

The industry likes to say this in order to confuse people. The fact is that traditional breeding and hybridisation are completely different to genetic engineering. In traditional breeding it is possible to cross a rose with another rose to get a new variety, but it is not possible to cross a rose with a potato or a mouse. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile—a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.

Genetic Engineering, or genetic modification, has only really been developed over the last 30 years. (The first ever field experiment with a genetically engineered plant was in 1983). With these molecular techniques, scientists are able to take DNA from any species – bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans, and engineer them into another organism.

Example: Biotech company Nexia has been engineering goats with a gene from a spider that leads to the production of the spider silk protein (the stuff that spiders’ webs are made of – of interest to the industry because it is so strong). The genetically engineered goats can then be milked for this spider protein.

Example: Biotech company Epicyte conducted experiments with corn engineered with genes taken from humans, so that the corn contains a rare class of human antibodies that attack sperm. The idea was to develop the corn as a plant-gel contraceptive that kills sperm on contact.

The technology of genetic engineering is currently very crude. It is not possible to insert a new gene with any accuracy, and the gene transfer may disrupt the tightly controlled network of DNA in an organism.

Current understanding of the way in which genes are regulated is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point can have side effects that are impossible to predict or control. The new gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value. As Richard Lewontin, Professor of Genetics at Harvard University, has said, "we have such a miserably poor understanding of how an organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don’t get one rude shock after another."

Example: When genetically engineered coho salmon were compared to a control group of normal coho salmon, it was found that the genetic engineering had affected the activity of a number of non-target genes in the transgenic fish. These changes included an increased amount of the protein parvalbumin-b in the genetically engineered salmon, a protein that has been identified as a major food allergen in fish.

There is no long-term safety testing of genetically engineered food. Short-term animal feeding trials are conducted in some cases. The research is mostly done by the biotech companies themselves. No evidence from human trials for either toxicity or allergy testing is required. No independent checks of the company’s claims are required.

"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible." Phil Angell, Director of corporate communications, Monsanto Corporation

Proponents of genetic engineering often make comments such as: "We’ve been eating genetically engineered food for years in the United States and there have been no problems, no-one has even caught a cold.” Considering that there have been no studies done (following people who’ve eaten genetically engineered food over years, comparing them with a control group of people who have not eaten GE food, taking blood samples etc) how on earth would we know if people are being affected? Many scientists feel that we would need to study the cumulative effects of eating genetically engineered food over years to know if we are being affected.

"Antibiotic resistance, the threat of new allergic reactions and the unknown hazards of transgenic DNA mean that on health grounds alone the impact of GMOs must be fully assessed before they are released. The environmental implications and the long term effects on human health cannot be safely predicted at this stage and caution must therefore prevail." - British Medical Association

"This technology is being promoted, in the face of concerns by respectable scientists and in the face of data to the contrary, by the very agencies which are supposed to be protecting human health and the environment. The bottom line in my view is that we are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences." - Dr Suzanne Wuerthele, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist

The most common genetically engineered crops are corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Other crops that have been approved for sale include Papayas, Radicchio, Potatoes, Squash and Tomatoes. There is also a genetically engineered hormone, BGH, which is commonly injected into dairy cows in the United States.

The best way to avoid genetically engineered foods is to buy fresh organic food from local farmers. Food is not allowed to be sold as organic if it is genetically engineered.

Examples from around the world show that when genetically engineered food is labeled, people vote with their wallets and boycott food containing genetically engineered ingredients. The industry has lobbied hard to prevent labeling in the US, spending $6 million to defeat a citizens labeling initiative in Oregon.

Countries around the world with labeling of GM ingredients include Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, all 15 countries of the EU, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Taiwan and Thailand.

A 2003 study which analysed the USDA’s own statistics since 1996 found that pesticide use has actually increased with the planting of genetically engineered crops. This is hardly surprising – the companies selling genetically engineered crops own 60% of the global pesticide market. These are not companies that want to see farmers using fewer chemicals, these are companies that want to profit by selling more of their chemicals.

More than 70% of the genetically engineered crops that are grown are crops engineered to be resistant to these companies’ own-brand chemicals. This means that a farmer can spray the field with the chemicals without harming the genetically engineered crop.

Herbicide-resistant genes are being transferred from genetically engineered crops to weeds via cross-pollination, and higher and higher doses of chemicals are being needed to have the desired effect, leading to a rise in herbicide use.

Once released, the new living organisms made by genetic engineering are able to interact with other forms of life, reproduce, transfer their characteristics and mutate in response to environmental influences. In many cases they can never be recalled or contained. The probability that one or more of these releases could cause serious ecological harm increases all the time as more and more products are approved.

Genes engineered into plants and animals can be transferred to other species. For example, genes from GM crops, fish or trees may move into the gene pools of related species in the wild. The introduction of genetically engineered organisms into complex ecosystems may bring about effects that we are unable to control.

"I have the feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate . . . you cannot recall a new form of life . . . It will survive you and your children and your children’s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it." Erwin Chargaff, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, Columbia University, and discoverer of ‘Chargaff’s Rules’, which laid the scientific foundation for the discovery of the DNA double helix

Example: Researchers at Purdue University in the US used computer models and experimental research to study the potential effects of the release of a small number of GE fish into the wild. They estimated that just 60 genetically engineered fish, which were larger and more likely to mate, and yet which had less viable offspring, released into a wild population of 60 000 could lead to the extinction of the wild fish within 40 generations.

Genetic contamination happens in one of three ways:
1. Through cross-pollination – wind or insects can carry pollen over large distances. E.g. Genetically engineered corn could contaminate corn being grown on farms or in backyard gardens.
2. Mechanical contamination – through mixing of crops in storage, plant material left on farm equipment etc.
3. Through the passing of DNA from plant material into the soil where it can be picked up by soil bacteria.

According to Monsanto, in 1998 its Roundup-resistant soybeans averaged 43.1 bushels per acre, beating conventional growers by 4.5 bushels. A number of other studies, however, do not support these conclusions. Ed Oplinger, for example, Professor of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, has been conducting performance trials for soybean varieties for the past 25 years. His comparison of yields in the 12 states that grow 80 per cent of the soybeans in the United States show that, on average, the yields of genetically engineered soybeans were 4 per cent lower than conventional varieties.

This is unknown, the only information that we know of that is relevant to this question comes from the UK, where farmers have been told that the growing of genetically engineered crops could reduce the value of agricultural land and potentially leave farmers open to legal action. The presence of GM crops could become as relevant to purchasing a piece of land as any past chemical contamination, or a history of crop disease.

The biotech companies have lobbied hard against liability laws when countries around the world have tried to introduce them. If the industry is so sure that these products are safe, then why are they not happy to take full liability if anything goes wrong?

There is case after case of this kind of double standard by the industry. For example, when it comes to the safety testing or labelling of genetically engineered food, the biotech companies say that genetically engineered food is the same as food produced by any other breeding method. Yet when it comes to patenting, biotech companies say that GMOs are unique, they’re different, and that’s why they have the right to patent them as their own inventions.

Yes. Corporations are being awarded patents for plants, microorganisms, and animals.

The biotech industry sends out ‘researchers’ around the world to discover genes that may have commercial applications. Often this includes asking indigenous people which plants have been traditionally used for medicinal purposes. Then these ‘researchers’ take back samples to their laboratories, isolate active ingredients, and patent these medical properties of the plant as their own inventions. This is what many people in the world call biopiracy – the corporate theft of the genetic resources of this planet.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, biotech companies are also patenting the genes of humans. A biotech company called Autogen, for example, recently made a deal with Tonga’s government in which the corporation bought the exclusive patent rights to the entire gene pool of the people of Tonga.

It is estimated that of the 25,000+ genes now believed to be in the human genome, over three thousand of these have been patented or have patents pending.

We are already producing one and a half times the amount of food needed to provide everyone in the world with an adequate and nutritious diet; yet one in seven people is suffering from hunger. Every day 25,000 people die from hunger. Clearly there are social and political reasons why people are suffering from hunger. If we are interested in feeding the world, then we need to tackle poverty, and the poor need access to inexpensive, sustainable agricultural technologies that can provide them with a diverse and varied diet. The last thing they need is increased corporate control of the food supply, expensive fertilisers and chemicals, ecological hazards and patented seeds that they are not allowed to save for the following year.

"We . . . strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves." Statement signed by 24 delegates to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation from 18 African countries

Progress towards what? Progress is supposed to be 'change for the better'. Many people feel that new threats to the environment and human health, potentially irreversible forms of pollution, and the patenting of living organisms as ‘corporate inventions’ do not constitute progress.

If the biotech industry is allowed to continue with this global experiment, then we could witness the commercialisation of genetically engineered trees, fish, livestock, grains, fruits and vegetables over the next decade. In the next two decades, we could start seeing genetically engineered humans. Future generations will look back on these years as the time when human society had the choice whether or not their world was going to be genetically engineered.

In order to ensure that our voices are heard, we need to take action. There are massive commercial interests behind the introduction of genetic engineering, and support for the industry from many governments. However, there is growing opposition from many peoples around the world, and there have been great successes in this global resistance to GMOs. People have the power to work together to create the kind of world they would like to leave their children, but only if everyone who cares is also willing to act.