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Genetic Genie

Fri, May 18th, 2001
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Monday, May 14, 2001

Nature provides for genetic exchanges through natural selection. Humans have long manipulated genetic inheritance through crossbreeding of plants and animals. But, in recent years, scientists have learned how to manipulate the genes themselves moving them at will from one organism to another. In "GMOs, Friends or Foes?" an article in the January-February 2001 "Minnesota Conservation Volunteer," science writer, Mary Hoff, explores what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) mean for Minnesota's environment. She reports that over 250 GMOs with traits such as herbicide tolerance, insect resistance and increased productivity have been released in Minnesota. For example, seeds resistant to glyphosate, a relatively safe weed killer, reduce the need for chemical herbicides and reduce crop injuries that occur with chemical use. Of concern is that GMOs could make herbicides and pesticides less effective by increasing exposure, thus quickening the rate at which weeds and pests develop resistance.

Nevin Young, University of Minnesota plant pathologist, says that genetic technology's greatest benefit is an increase in per-acre productivity, which increases our ability to feed a burgeoning world population. Who can argue against feeding the world?

However, unintended consequences come with GMO use. Hoff cites the deaths of monarch butterfly caterpillars that ate milkweed contaminated with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a microbe that kills the European corn borer. Bt corn roots also release toxins that can remain active in the soil for months. The jury is still out on how these toxins affect soil fauna, groundwater, wetlands and streams.

Hoff writes that transgenic genes may escape and interbreed with organic vegetables and their wild relatives. A wild population of any species consists of individuals whose genetic constitution varies widely. The potential and readiness for change are built into the survival unit. Artificially homogenous populations of man's domestic plants and animals are not well equipped to endure changing conditions.

GMOs tend to promote large-scale monoculture over diversified farming. Add to that the present rate of extinctions and we see a worldwide decrease in diversity and the ability of plants and animals to endure changing conditions, which ultimately threatens life itself.

A recent "Frontline/Nova" special described how GMOs, without our knowledge, have permeated our food system, partly because labeling of products containing such organisms is not required in this country. Corporate CEO's say having to label all such products would devastate their industry. Also, because of the ease with which GMOs contaminate standard crops, it is nearly impossible to know which products contain GMOs.

It is not clear that transgenic organisms are of much benefit to farmers. The greatest benefactors appear to be large corporations, which force farmers to use GMOs in order to remain competitive in per-acre productivity. (See "Finding Food in Farm Country," the "Journal," 4/9/01.) If farmers do want to market non-GMO crops, they must go to great length and expense to prevent contamination.

Hoff writes, "GMO supporters note that fears live largely in the realm of mights and maybes rather than in proven harm. They also point out that risks can be managed."

She goes on to describe poplar trees genetically altered for insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and reduced lignin content. The trees grow faster and produce more pulp than conventional poplars. These factors contribute to cleaner paper production.

Wayne Barstad, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regional environmental assessment ecologist, worries that material escaping from genetically altered poplars into a forest ecosystem could have significant consequences. DNR tree improvement specialist Rick Klevorn shares Barstad's concern, but says, "I don't think potential risks should in any way inhibit the research, because the potential benefits are too great." He suggests that sufficient precautions will head off potential problems. "We'll just manage the bejabbers out of these trees," he says.

Scientists are now working on transgenic salmon that grow six times faster than their wild relatives. These salmon could reduce the environmental toll of using fish to feed a hungry world, but, what will happen when transgenic fish escape and breed with wild fish?

With the mapping of the human genome, researchers are able to locate the genes that cause certain defects and illnesses, such as diabetes, breast cancer, and Parkinson's. Long-awaited cures are bound to follow these discoveries.

But, what will happen when we begin to tinker with human appearance and personality traits? Who will decide which traits are desirable? What will cloning do to human diversity? If scientists can clone a sheep, a human is not far behind. It will happen because it can. Once you've let the genetic genie out of the bottle, you can't just stick it back in.

By Nancy Overcott

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