Why should I avoid eating genetically engineered foods?
Genetic engineering of food plants is problematic due to the uncertainty of the endeavor. The structure of life, or DNA, was discovered only about fifty years ago. We know so little about the processes and structure of life, yet some scientists proceed to change its very make-up. What will be the consequences? Have any negative long-term consequences been considered? Have long-term studies looked at health consequences of daily consumption of genetically engineered plants? Even as we grow and consume these plants on a daily basis, questions remain, for the most part, unanswered.
How do genetically engineered plants affect the environment?
Most commercially grown genetically engineered crops have been made tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate. The idea was to allow farmers to apply the herbicide at any time, without affecting the crop.
While Round-Up Ready crops reduced herbicide use in the first three years, herbicide use has been increasing since 1999. In fact, genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton have led to a 122 million pound increase in pesticide use since 1996.
The increase in herbicide use is due to the fact that weeds develop resistance to herbicides. For example, the trait for herbicide resistance has spread to weeds like marestail (also known as horseweed). Resistance to the herbicides means that farmers are forced to apply more herbicides than before.
Corn has also been genetically engineered to express a gene for Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt). Approximately 183 million acres of Bt corn and cotton have been planted since 1996.
Bt is a naturally occurring organism with effective pesticidal properties that show no negative effects on humans. Due to its effectiveness and harmlessness to humans, it is used widely in organic agriculture. However, organic farmers use Bt sparingly. If used too often and too freely, the pests which it targets will evolve to become resistant to Bt.
Bt corn releases Bt from every part of the plant, including the root. As a result, pests are already showing resistance to Bt. As resistance grows, Bt’s effectiveness declines, which hurts organic farmers who must seek new ways to contain pests.
How do I avoid eating GE foods?
The simplest way to avoid eating genetically engineered foods is to be aware of which foods could be genetically engineered, and which processed products may contain genetically engineered ingredients.
It is important to note that there are currently only four major crops that are genetically engineered. They are:
- rapeseed (to make canola oil).
Unfortunately, corn and soybeans are a staple of the American diet. Soybean oil and corn oil are very common in processed products, as are high-fructose corn syrup, soy protein isolate, and many other soy and corn derivatives.
The good news is that organic standards prohibit the use of genetically engineered seed; therefore, any food with the USDA organic label will not contain genetically engineered ingredients.
To avoid eating genetically engineered plants:
- Eat organic whenever consuming soy, corn or canola
- Avoid processed foods with corn, soy and canola ingredients
A Philosophical and Ethical Argument against Genetic Engineering of Crops
Various religious traditions are joined by the sciences of ecology, quantum physics and evolutionary biology in viewing the world as an interconnected system of complexity and mystery. However, there remain alive and well certain Western religious belief systems as well as a branch of science that continues to operate from the philosophical and scientific assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. This worldview, with its Platonic roots, not only separates the spiritual from the material, but views the material world as a collection of separate parts that are connected by quantifiable and predictable forces and mechanisms. In separating the spiritual from the material, the Earth is associated with the material, loses any spiritual significance and is considered to be lifeless, dead matter that can be manipulated by the superior knowledge of that which does contain spirit, namely, the human mind. Our planet and its abundance of life, thereby, is viewed as a machine, as a mere assortment of separate parts that work together mechanistically. In this way of
thinking, to re-engineer life is considered perfectly acceptable and even highly desirable.
Soon after Newtonian physics proposed that the Earth functions lifelessly and mechanistically, the “science” of economics eagerly adopted this worldview. Just as Newton proposed that a quantifiable force called gravity acts outside and between the separate parts of the world, economists were eager to adopt the notion that a similar force – the invisible hand – could flawlessly connect separate parts of the world in a market economy. As this mechanistic view of a lifeless world influenced economics, a market value could be attached to all parts of the machine. Combined with the Platonic and Cartesian model that separates any spiritual significance from the material world, the Earth was now ready for economic exploitation by capitalist economists. While some scientists appreciate complexity and interconnectedness, other scientists remain loyal to the economic model that demands quantification, separation and mechanistic thinking. By now, science, economics and mechanistic thought have been so ingrained in some scientific minds that ecological thought and traditional wisdom are not only ignored, but even considered illegitimate.
Proposed scientific solutions that arise from a view of the natural world as a machine ignore the complexity and mystery of life, and are therefore inherently short-sighted and dangerous. Inexplicable and unforeseen connections, events and interventions by natural processes – most often humanly unknowable and certainly unforeseeable – are not part of the equations proposed by the mechanistic scientists. Erwin Chargaff (1978), the scientist whose discoveries laid the foundation for the discovery of the DNA double helix and hence genetic engineering, considered life to be “the continual intervention of the inexplicable.” Chargaff recognized that human knowledge will always be limited in relation to the complexity of the natural world. It is simply dangerous when humans believe that the world is a machine and even assume that humans can have full knowledge of its workings. In a world that functions as a complex system of interdependency and interconnectedness, genetic engineering of life will inevitably have unforeseen consequences. It is for this reason that Chargaff commented that genetic engineering of life forms is “a irreversible attack on the biosphere, … something so unheard of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.”
Indeed, once certain humans started to think of living beings as machines, it opened the door for viewing life as a collection of separate artifacts that could be owned and tinkered with by humans. The morality of intervening in the
workings of natural processes is no longer an issue, and the right to tinker with the machine becomes self-evident. These scientists forget that life is a miracle and a mystery, greater and more complicated than the human mind will ever be able to understand. As Wendell Berry, philosopher of agrarian values, explains, “when science attempts to replace religion by claiming that it will eventually know everything, and that it will eventually solve all human problems, there is a danger of violating life by an oversimplifying, feelingless utilitarianism” (Berry 2000: 34). What is needed is a fuller and more complex understanding of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. Although many pre-industrial societies and various religions continue to recognize the interconnectedness of humanity and the natural world, Aldo Leopold was perhaps one of the first in our modern, industrial society to remind us of humanity’s place in the biotic community. To Leopold, humankind is a “plain member and citizen” of that community, and “land is understood not just as a collection of individual elements but as an ecological pyramid of interdependencies within a broader evolutionary process.”
What about genetic engineering to fortify food, like Golden Rice, which is engineered to provide Vitamin A?
This proposed solution arises out of a post-Enlightenment, industrial way of linear thinking, which views the world as a collection of separate mechanisms and problems that can be solved without regard to complexity and interconnectedness. It is a solution that defines the problem as a shortage of Vitamin A in the world, and does not consider poverty, monoculture, and corporate control over the food supply as contributing to the problem. Moreover, this proposition reveals an inherent belief that human beings somehow stand outside the natural world, which is hostile, scarce and antagonistic and must therefore be controlled and subdued by the superior knowledge of humans. To propose that humans should genetically engineer plants and animals in order to “feed a hungry world” reveals a profound arrogance that stems from the inability to understand that the world does not function as a set of separate mechanisms that can each individually be understood, controlled and re-engineered by humans. Instead, the Earth, its life forms and life processes are, and always will be, wonderfully complex and mysterious. Humans can stand within this mystery of life and marvel at it in a sense of awe and wonder, increase their understanding of it, and work with the processes of nature to bring about change. But hubris, which leads one to believe that humans can somehow stand outside these mysteries of life, fully understand them, and even re-engineer them, is not only absurd but downright dangerous. Actions have consequences beyond those foreseen, A does not always lead to B and only B,
and the reality of ecological complexity will always include confounding inconsistencies and surprises, without which life simply would not exist.
Within the human realm as well, complexity abounds. Again, to believe that hunger and malnutrition are caused by merely a lack of food on the planet would be to seriously misunderstand the economic and political structures in which people live. The problem that we are facing is not simply a shortage of Vitamin A on the planet, but an economic system that favors unsustainable monoculture and centralized, corporate control over land and resources. Thereby, the biggest threat of Golden Rice would be to justify an economic system in which large corporations control the food supply, and in which the rich can eat varied diets whereas the poor, displaced from their land, must eat genetically engineered “superfoods” to meet their nutritional needs. Such a solution, which proposes that the poor simply eat rice, and only rice, all day, every day, without addressing structures of inequality and poverty, is not only unimaginative and short-sighted, but grossly offensive and degrading to the poor.
Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries is a major public health problem, but genetically engineered Golden Rice will provide nothing more than a band-aid solution to a complex situation that involves economics and ecology as much as it does nutrition. Those who are suffering from the health problems associated with the deficiency need more than to consume vast quantities of rice that is patented by powerful corporations and grown in ecologically unsustainable monoculture fields. We do need science to provide us with answers, but by scientists who understand ecological complexity and are willing to admit that human knowledge is never absolute and complete. We need solutions proposed by scientists who maintain a sense of awe at the mystery of that which they study, and who respect the complexity of the natural world of which they are a part, not a master. Moreover, what we need is science that not only uses knowledge, but respects wisdom as well. Scientists and farmers should cooperate in understanding vitamin A levels of various foods that are grown locally and sustainably, as well as in developing and supporting farming systems that do not give ownership of life and land to corporations, but that promote locally-owned and ecologically responsible farming systems.