What comes to mind when reading the words genetic modification or Bacillus thurigiensis (abbreviated Bt)? I envision laboratories and science experiments, when in reality these words are related to the food we eat every day. What most Americans do not know is the threat that genetically modified food presents to our communities. PLU should do everything in its power to ensure that its students and faculty members are not exposed to genetically modified foods and crops that have been “protected” through the usage of Bt that has been artificially incorporated into crops, at least while eating on campus.
We also need to educate those individuals about the truths of genetic modification and how it can potentially harm the lives of our generation and those to come. After all, PLU’s slogan is “educating for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care – for other people for their communities and for the earth.” If we can raise awareness of genetic modification on campus, we can help spread the importance of eliminating it to the rest of our community. Researchers have recently found that genetically modified foods have more baggage than advertised, baggage such as the risk of formation of allergies, exposure to toxins in herbicides, and a significant reduction in nutritional value.
The genetic modification of crops began in the 1980s and has been growing in popularity ever since. In 1994, researchers successfully genetically modified tomatoes for human consumption. The genetic modification involved deleting a gene which produced the enzyme polygalacturonase which helps in fruit softening. This meant that the tomatoes could ripen on the vine but not spoil by the time they reached the store (“Tomatoes”). Tomatoes are no longer genetically modified, but are instead made to postpone ripening when the green tomato is picked; they are then taken to a processing plant and “artificially gassed with ethylene until they are the rosy-red skin tones of a ripe tomato” (Estabrook p. x). Seeing the words gassed and ethylene in the same context as human consumption seems concerning. Unfortunately, many
Americans are unaware of how their food has been treated when they are consuming it. Some produce is “too good to be true” because they seem perfect, without a blemish or bruise, not to mention free from flavor.
But, I now know that this is due to gasses that act as a sort of make-up. The tomatoes in PLU’s commons are unsatisfactory in taste, but impeccable in terms of looks. This leads me to think that PLU is purchasing out of season, gassed tomatoes that are bred to be green, as opposed to better quality organically grown produce. This brings nutritional value into question. In a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s,” not to mention fourteen times as much sodium (Estabrook p. x). Who would have thought that an individual’s sky rocketing levels of sodium was not only from McDonalds french fries, but also from what they thought of as a healthy alternative, a tomato bought from the grocery store. Parents are unknowingly buying these tomatoes with the intention of feeding their children something healthy, but in reality they are being undermined by the U.S. Agricultural System.
What really is genetic modification? It can be defined as: “organisms that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques” (Genetically Modified). According to Assistant Professor Romey Haberle, these types of “genetic engineering techniques” include the usage of either a gene gun or a natural vector, which sounds just as bad as the ethylene gas previously stated. A gene gun is just that, a gun. Its purpose is to inject cells with specific genetic information into plants or other cells. Natural vector is the usage of DNA cells as a means of transportation into a plant’s cells. The DNA cells contain other specific and modified cells that are foreign to the plant in which it is being injected. These two types of genetic engineering are used to produce specific plants that can have special immunities to certain insecticides, or even to alter the crops’ general composition. Guns and natural vectors are the most common ways of studying and performing genetic modification in today’s agricultural world.
“Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) is an insecticide with unusual properties that make it useful for pest control in certain situations” (W.S. Cranshaw). An insecticide is a poison designed for insects. In the past it was usually sprayed over fields in an effort to reduce the amount of crops lost to insects. There has recently been in increase in the amount of crops that have this toxin genetically modified to into its DNA, making it impossible to wash off or get rid of. Unfortunately, the crops resist the effects but the toxin is still present on crops as they grow and are picked. Bt works by “producing proteins that react with the cells of the gut lining within insects…these proteins then paralyze the digestive system, and the infected insect stops feeding within hours” (W.S. Cranshaw). In short, Bt causes the insect to die from starvation since their digestive tract is unable to digest. This makes me question the safety of using this product within proximity of humans since it specifically attacks the gut lining of the digestive system.
An unfortunate incident with Bt in the Philippines almost caused 100 members of a community to become ill. A crop within close proximity to their area of living had been sprayed with Bt. This crop was then pollinated, filling the air with pollen. The town’s people began to show symptoms of headaches, dizziness, extreme stomach pain, vomiting, chest pains, fever, and allergies plus respiratory, intestinal and skin reactions. Trying to get to the root of the problem, blood tests proved that 39 of the victims showed an anti-body response to the Bt-toxin. This means that the Bt toxin had traveled from the crops to their internal systems. Other villagers also encountered animal deaths from the same problems (Lendman p. 7). This shows that Bt is not suitable for human consumption or human contact. My concern is that PLU will purchase and serve food that has this same toxin present. Yes, the chances of this happening are rare, but we can eliminate the risk altogether by purchasing non-genetically modified produce that has not been exposed to the Bt toxin. PLU’s dining services do a great job of offering fresh and healthy foods for all meals of the day.
Each menu is clearly labeled as to whether its food is all natural – grown without fertilizers or pesticides, locally grown, vegan – free from all animal products, vegetarian, or organic. However, organic is rarely seen. The most common labels seen are the locally grown and all natural labels, but it is usually only next to the grilled or sliced chicken breast. PLU should make an effort to move away from genetically modified foods and begin advertising the elimination of engineered foods on the menus. We could do this by allotting more of our food budget to buying organically grown food. We know that to be labeled as “organic” a farm has to adapt to specific regulations such as not utilizing pesticides or other harmful preservatives and of course, to stay away from genetically modified seeds or plants. I believe that most PLU students are aware of the benefits of organically grown produce but I do not think they are educated as to the benefits of eating non-genetically modified foods.
PLU recently had food and water seminars, these seminars present a perfect opportunity to speak and educate about the negatives of eating genetically modified food in order to educate them to help others and make the right decisions for our earth. Most PLU students are interested in the environment and doing what we can to ensure sustainability, this includes the usage of harmful pesticides to our environment. By eating organic we can make a small impact in reducing the amount of non-organic produce bought and distributed. We also reduce the possibility of consuming these same pesticides that pose a threat to our atmosphere by avoiding them all together. By educating the students at PLU about the potential hazards that genetically modified food can present we can influence and encourage the right decisions to be made, the decision of going organic and avoiding genetic modification at all costs. The controversy of golden rice is one that has caused much disagreement within the world of genetic modification.
Golden rice is a genetically engineered grain that is being used to “help fight vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, a disease that contributes to the deaths of 8 million young children in the world” (Ronald). Although this statistic demonstrates the drastic improvement of the overall health in the most underdeveloped parts of the world, it fails to include the “massive changes in the natural functioning of a plants DNA. Native genes can be mutated, deleted, permanently turned on or off and the inserted gene can become truncated, fragmented, mixed with other genes, inverted or multiplied, and the GM protein it produces may have unintended characteristics” (Lendman p.2) that could compromise the health of the individual or community consuming it. Researchers have failed to imply the potential harmful effects on gut function, liver function, kidney function, the immune system, endocrine system, blood composition, allergic response and even the potential to cause cancer because of the mutilated DNA that is being ingested by our bodies every time we eat genetically modified foods.
Researchers are so quick to glorify the one added nutrient to golden rice that they forget, or rather choose to not advertise the adverse and undesired side effects that could come from eating rice that has a complex and unnatural DNA. Yes, vitamin A deficiency is a real and prominent problem in today’s underdeveloped nations, but solving the problem with genetically altered “golden rice” presents the risks of forming allergies, being exposed to toxins such as pesticides, and ultimately causing cancer. Instead of investing most of our resources and money into genetically modifying vitamin A into rice, we could donate it to charities that provide food to those underdeveloped countries that are impoverished and are in need of proper nutrition. Allergies seem to be more and more common in today’s society. I too, have been directly impacted. One of my best friends from my junior high and high school years has a deathly peanut and soybean allergy. She constantly carries around an epinephrine auto-injector, abbreviated “epi-pen,” that she is required to use if she comes into contact with any kind of nut.
We find ourselves constantly reading labels and isolating what she can and cannot eat, a practice which is tedious and inconvenient. Her soybean allergy is not as prevalent as her peanut allergy, but it is still concerning. She had an experience of eating an ice cream popsicle, in which she took two bites and her lips started to swell with red hives. Even after carefully analyzing the ingredient list, she still had a reaction to some kind of soybean that had been present within one of the ingredients. Soybeans are present in many foods, and 93% of the soybeans used in the U.S. are genetically modified (“Genetically Modified”). They are created to withstand herbicides used to kill weeds. This means that 93% of the soybeans used in food across America have the herbicides glyphosate or glufosinate within them since they are modified to resist the harmful effects that the weeds encounter when they are sprayed with a herbicide, the same herbicide that is designed to kill insects and weeds. Our bodies are not meant to ingest these harmful herbicides, so some children react adversely to soybeans that have been genetically altered. Nut allergies seem to be the most common allergy in today’s communities.
“From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18% among children under age 18” (Prevalence). This increase in food allergies seems to directly mimic the pattern of genetically modified food’s rise in popularity. Is this comparison ironic? I do not think so. PLU’s ability to specifically mark the types of allergens present in each meal is very important to the rising of today’s allergies that so many young adults are affected by. “As of 2012 there are many outgoing court cases and FDA investigation into genetically modified foods” (Genetically Modified).
There is obviously a concern for the welfare of our communities and the production of genetically modified foods, and PLU should take into consideration the recent increase in food allergies in children, the push for organically grown food, the lost nutrition, and the potential for cancer development. By educating the minds of PLU students about the harmful effects genetically modified food presents to society we can promote for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care both for others and for our planet. These contributors all add up to one conclusion: the reduction or elimination of genetically modified food in our diets. I do not want to pick up the baggage that genetically modified food carries, do you?
Cranshaw, W.S. “Bacillus Thuringiensis.” Colorado State University Extension. Dec. 2008. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05556.html>. Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring
Fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2011. Print.
“Genetically Modified Food.” 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food>. Lendman, Stephen. “GlobalResearch.ca – Centre for Research on Globalization.” GlobalResearch.ca. 22 Feb. 2008. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
“Prevalence of Food Allergies in Today’s World.” 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
Ronald, Pamela. “What If Organic Farmers Joined Forces with Genetic Engineers?” July 2008:
35-38. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
“Tomatoes.” GMO Compass. 27 Nov. 2006. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <http://www.gmo- compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/fruit_vegetables/15.genetically_modified_tomatoes.html>.