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Genetic modification: Frequently asked questions

Greenpeace is opposed to the release of genetically modified (GM) crops into the environment. They have been released without adequate knowledge about their effects on ecology, wildlife and human health. Greenpeace does not campaign against the contained use of GM organisms, such as for medical applications. Greenpeace is opposed to the patenting of life. Living organisms like plants and animals, but also parts of them, so organs, cells, substances and genes are a product of nature, not of corporations and therefore belongs to us all.

What is genetic modification?
Genetic modification is a radical new technology that allows scientists to move genes between different species. Using laboratory techniques scientists can create life-forms that could not occur in nature.

Genes are small lengths of DNA, the living blueprint of life found in the cells of all living things. Genetic engineers use viruses, bacteria and a device called a gene gun to randomly move genes from one organism into another. These techniques are used to make plants grow differently. For example, a gene from an arctic flounder fish was added to the DNA of tomatoes in order to make the tomatoes resist the cold. Clearly, this would never happen through natural evolution.

'GE', 'GM', 'GMO', 'biotechnology' and 'genetechnology' – what does it all mean?

Genetic engineering (GE) is sometimes called genetic manipulation or genetic modification (GM). The resulting life-forms are often known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Genetic engineering is often described as a form of biotechnology. However, biotechnology is a term that also encompasses a wide range of traditional practices such as cheese-making and brewing – practices that are not in any way like genetic engineering. Gene technology is a broad term that includes techniques such as cloning and gene therapy. These are also different from genetic engineering because they do not necessarily involve moving genes between species.

Is genetic modification different to traditional crossbreeding?

Genetic modification is completely different from traditional crossbreeding. Whereas in traditional breeding methods organisms are bred within the same species, in genetic engineering genes are forced to move across species. This sort of manipulation has resulted in such things as toad genes inserted in potatoes, scorpion genes in corns and even human genes forced into pigs and into rice. By inventing new life-forms in this way chemical companies hope to find new and profitable uses for living things – to alter nature to better suit the needs of industry.

What's wrong with genetically modified foods?

Genetic modification is highly unpredictable. Contrary to industry claims, the techniques used in genetic engineering are random and imprecise. Because scientists still understand very little about how genes work, genetic engineers frequently find unexpected side effects when they move genes across species, or even within the same species.
These unexpected effects of genetic engineering, sometimes called 'pleitropic' or 'secondary' effects, can include the production of new or 'novel' proteins. These new proteins can potentially cause allergies or have toxic effects. They can significantly change the plant in ways such as making it weak, or changing its colour. Scientists do not know what unexpected results to look for in their experiments. Further, genetic engineering companies are keen to avoid testing for unexpected effects. Thus these effects only emerge after the crops have been released. For example, Monsanto's GE soy plants with extra lignin (the woody part of a stem), began to crack when exposed to heat - but nobody knew why. A GE bacteria, Klebsellia Planticola, was found to produce so much alcohol that it killed soil life.

We cannot know what further problems with genetic modification, lie undiscovered. There are many examples of technologies that have gone badly wrong, such as nuclear power and chemical pesticides. However, genetic modification represents a different threat due to their living nature. Once GM organisms have been released into the environment and the food-chain, they cannot be recalled. The living genetically modified organism will replicate forever.

Which companies are behind genetically modified foods?

Three multinational chemical companies control the market in genetically engineered crops:Monsanto, Bayer (formerly Aventis) and Syngenta.
Monsanto is an American-based chemical company that produces genetically engineered soy, corn, cotton and canola. Monsanto’s high profile products include aspartame (or Nutrasweet, which has been linked with brain seizures) and a broadspectrum weed killer called Roundup, which kills almost all plant life — except Monsanto’s own genetically engineered crops.

Monsanto has a long history of producing highly toxic chemicals. Many of these chemical are now banned or restricted, including dangerous industrial chemicals called PCBs and the notorious pesticide Agent Orange.

BayerCropscience is a European-based chemical company who has bought the biotech company AventisCropscience. Like Monsanto, Bayer produces a powerful weedkiller (called Liberty/Basta) that kills all plant life except the crops that are genetically engineered to resist it.

Aventis also produced Starlink, a GE corn believed to cause allergies. In 2001 Starlink contaminated the entire US corn supply and had to be recalled at a cost of over a billion US dollars.

Bayer wants to grow its commercial GE canola all over Australia, but has already has failed to comply with the rules for growing trial crops. Syngenta was formed when two other chemical companies, Astra Zeneca and Novartis decided to dispose of their genetic modification divisions and merge them into a new company.

Syngenta is based in Switzerland and produces a genetically engineered corn banned in several European countries.

Who else promotes or supports genetic modification?

Here in Australia there are also a few bodies that speak on behalf of the genetic modification companies. These include: The Life Sciences Network, Avcare (the peak body of the agricultural chemicals industry) and Agrifood Awareness. The Australian Food and Grocery Council which represents big food companies has also consistently supported GE foods. Three government-funded agencies also actively promote the genetic modification of food. They are Biotechnology Australia who promote public support for GM foods, ANZFA (Australian New Zealand Food Authority) whose job is to regulate individual GE foods but who also regularly defend GM foods as a whole and also some parts of CSIRO who undertake research to develop new GM foods in partnership with the grains industry.

How does genetic modification affect the environment?

Unlike previous pollution genetically engineered crops are living organisms, they can reproduce and spread. This poses an ongoing threat to the environment. If something goes wrong this GM pollution cannot simply be recalled or cleaned up. Ecologists believe that the release of these unpredictable organisms could have far reaching consequences in much the same way that non-native species such as the cane toad have become pests. Such effects may only emerge after a few generations. Persistent GM crops may cross with related weeds to become ‘superweeds’ – particularly vigorous weeds that outcompete other plants and destroy natural plant ecosystems.
GM crops produce seed and pollen which can contaminate other crops and also soil. Soil is extremely complex and there is already some evidence that GM crops have affected the fertility of soil.

One type of GM crops designed to produce their own insecticide have been shown to be harmful to the larvae of butterflies, to ladybirds and other important insects. Beekeepers are concerned that such crops may also be harmful to bees who ingest pollen. The real impact of GM crops on the many types of insect and wildlife found in the environment has not yet been checked.

So far most of the GM crops that are grown are designed to be used with powerful weedkillers. When the ‘Roundup Ready canola’ is sprayed with roundup weedkiller the plant lives but all other plants die, taking away shelter and food for many insects and birds depending on these wild plants. This too threatens natural systems.

How does genetic modification affect our health?

Several groups, including the Public Health Association of Australia and the British Medical Association, have raised concerns about the safety of GM foods.There are many reasons for concern, such as the use of antibiotic-resistance genes in GM plants. These genes are added to GM foods merely as markers but could transfer into bacteria and render existing antibiotics useless. Another concern is our potential exposure to unfamiliar or unexpected proteins, toxins and allergens through eating GM food. Overseas, a soy bean that was genetically modified with a brazil nut gene caused problems in people with nut allergies, and a genetically modified corn, called Starlink, was suspected of causing similar problems.
GM agriculture may also mean more pesticides in our food. The allowable residue level for Roundup weedkiller in food was recently (Nov 2003) increased 100-fold. Monsanto's genetically modified 'Roundup Ready' crops can now be sprayed with more Roundup. In California, where there is mandatory monitoring of pesticides, Roundup is the cause of more reported illnesses than any other chemical.

Current safety testing of GM foods is minimal. Tests are done by employees or companies paid by GM companies and the results are rarely published for scientific review. In Australia, ANZFA is the sole body to assess these company documents. An independent review of reports published by ANZFA has concluded that tests are inadequate, that GM foods have never been tested on humans and that some GM foods have not even been tested on animals.

Are genetically modified crops good for farmers?

In the USA and Canada, where GM crops have now been grown for 5 years, a coalition of 33 farm and agriculture groups recently issued a warning that “Genetic engineering in agriculture has significantly increased the economic uncertainty of family farmers throughout the U.S. and the world.

The agrochemical companies that produce GM seeds require farmers to sign legal agreements specifying how to farm and promising not to save seed. They also expect farmers to pay royalties. Companies such as Monsanto then aggressively sue farmers who they believe are using their seeds without signing such agreements. Unfortunately due to contamination many farmers are finding they have GM crops on their land whether they asked for it or not. In Canada, Monsanto sued a canola grower called Percy Schmeiser because GM canola was growing on his land as a result of contamination. Even though Schmeiser did not want the contamination Monsanto argued successfully that he owed them money anyway. Conventional growers are discovering that GM crops from neighbouring fields have become weeds that cannot be sprayed off with herbicides because they have inbuilt resistance. The Royal Society of Canada has warned that most of the country's prarie land is now contaminated with herbicide-resistant canola weeds, the removal of which raises farm costs.

At the end of harvest US and Canadian farmers are discovering a further problem of GM crops – that export markets won’t buy them. Following the introduction of GM canola in Canada, sales to Europe dried up. The same is true of US corn which is no longer sold to Europe and has lost important markets in Asia.

Will genetically engineered foods feed the world?

There is no simple solution to end world hunger. Genetic modification is not the answer, just as pesticides weren't the answer. Even increasing food production is not the answer.
World hunger will only end when the underlying causes of poverty are addressed. Poverty prevents people from securing their basic right to food - either because they have no means to purchase food or they have no access to the farmland and natural resources necessary to meet basic food needs. Genetically modified crops does nothing to address the poverty that causes hunger – in fact it threatens to make it worse.

In developing countries, straightforward solutions that empower the poverty stricken are among the most effective ways to reduce hunger and secure sustainable livelihoods. High tech agricultural technical packages, in contrast, are expensive and often make inequalities worse, contributing to landlessness and food insecurity. The monopolisation of the seed market and the way in which GM companies’ deny farmers their ancient right to save, exchange and replant seeds go against the best interests of the poor.
Ending world hunger also requires confronting bad land stewardship practices which lead to permanent degradation of the environment. Genetically modified crops which tie farmers to using chemicals promise to make this situation worse, not better, in addition to posing new environmental risks.

It is a myth that world hunger is caused by a lack of sufficient food supplies. Rather than food shortages, the world is experiencing a food glut. Over recent decades, both Europe and the United States have spent billions of tax dollars in programs to get farmers to grow less food, and to subsidise the export of food surpluses on the world market. The Food and Agriculture Organisation suggests there is in fact one and a half times the amount of food than is needed to feed the world.

At Farming Solutions Greenpeace, Oxfam and other groups concerned with real solutions to hunger have documented the ways that poor communities already feed themselves without using GE crops and without damaging the environment.

Are genetically modified foods labelled?

GM ingredients appear as hidden ingredients in processed foods, and in the meat, eggs and milk produced from animals fed on GM grains. Ninety two per cent of all Australians want comprehensive labelling of GM foods(1). But under Australian labelling laws, only foods where GM proteins can be detected need to be labelled. All the following types of food are exempt:
    •    Foods where ingredients are made from animals fed with GM feed (eg: meat, milk, eggs, honey).
    •    Food where GM ingredients are highly refined (eg: cooking oils, sugars, starches).
    •    Most processed foods fall into this category and contain some kind of oil or starch.
    •    Foods that are prepared at bakeries, restaurants, takeaways etc. So a Big Mac could be full of genetically engineered ingredients and McDonalds would not have to tell you by law.
    •    Foods that are unintentionally contaminated by up to 1% per ingredient.
    •    Foods that use processing aids or food additives using GM microbes.
    •    Foods that contain GM flavours present at less than 0.1%.

(1) Taylor Nelson Sofres, April 2002 Poll on Genetic Modification for Greenpeace

What is organic food?

Organic agriculture uses environmentally-friendly farming methods. Organic foods are not only good for the environment - they are healthier and tastier too. Here are some of the main features of organic farming:
    •    Organic farming avoids artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
    •    Instead, organic farmers rely on developing a healthy, fertile soil and growing a mixture of crops.
    •    Organic animals are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and to high animal welfare standards.
    •    Organic farming bans any use of GE organisms.

The term organic is carefully controlled by a number of certification bodies who check and enforce high environmental standards. In Australia, look out for organic certification symbols from one of these bodies: Demeter, Australian Certified Organic, National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia, Organic Food Chain and Tasmania Organic-Dynamic Producers. Going organic can be a way of life. Organic clothing, cosmetics, gardening products and even restaurants can all be found and all of them are GM-Free.

Why is animal feed important?

Commonly genetically modified crops, like soy, corn and cotton trash, are used to feed animals as well as people. We then get various products from these animals (meat, milk and eggs). The health effects GM feed has on the animals forced to eat it are unknown - and so are the possible health effects on humans who consume these animal products.
Under current Australian labelling laws, meat, milk and eggs derived from animals fed on GE crops, DON'T have to be labelled. Most Australian chickens' diets are thought to contain genetically modified soy. But if you bought the eggs or meat from that chicken, you would have no way of knowing this.
Many food companies don't even know the source of ingredients such as whey powder, which is produced from cow's milk. Ask food companies whether the animals used in the production of their food product, were fed on GE feed. Demand that their food production guarantees there is no GE used anywhere in the supply chain.

Will Golden Rice be beneficial?

The Genetic Modification (GM) industry claims vitamin A rice could save thousands of children from blindness and millions of malnourished people from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) related diseases.

However, a simple calculation based on the product developers' own figures show an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 grams to get the daily recommended amount of provitamin A.

Greenpeace calculations show that an adult would have to eat at least 3.7 kilograms of dry weight rice, which results in about nine kilograms of cooked rice, to satisfy their daily need of vitamin A from Golden Rice.

This means a normal daily intake of 300 grams of rice would, at best, provide 8 per cent of the vitamin A needed daily. A breast feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kilograms in dry weight, converting to nearly 18 kilograms of cooked rice per day.

A main sponsor of Golden Rice, the Rockefeller Foundation, has told Greenpeace that the GE industry has "gone too far" in its promotion of the product. While upholding its principal support for the project, Rockefeller Foundation President Gordon Conway said to Greenpeace in a letter: "? the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far.
The industry's advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers."

GM rice does not address the underlying causes of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is mainly poverty and lack of access to a more diverse diet. For the short-term, measures such as supplementation (such as pills) and food fortification are cheap and effective.

Promoting the use and the access to food naturally rich in provitamin A, such as red palm oil, will also help addressing the VAD related sufferings. The only long-term solution is to work on the root causes of poverty and to ensure access to a diverse and healthy diet.

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