What is genetic engineeringadmin_tiki2020-06-17T13:26:04+00:00
A guide for kids by Tiki the Penguin
Genetic engineering (GE for short) is about scientists altering the ‘recipes’ for making life — the genes which you find in all living things. Doing this is very clever and seems to be very useful. Back in the 1990s, many ‘Greens’ campaigned against genetic engineering and still do. They predicted disaster but that hasn’t happened. Nobody has died from eating genetically modified (GM) food. They were also worried about the private GE companies’ ownership of the recipes — genes — for making these new life forms. So is genetic engineering okay? And what about CRISPR: what is it and why so important? My guide explains the basics but it’s up to you to make up your own mind about GE.
What makes you human or me a penguin? Genes. These are the instructions for how to build a body which all living things have.
Tiny creatures like snails have them just as big animals like whales do. So do all plants and other living things. Genes are very tiny clumps of information about how to make parts of living bodies … a little like a recipe for a cake or a music track on an old-fashioned cassette tape or CD. But they don’t just exist on their own. They are packaged up in long strings called chromosomes like a whole music album on tape.
All these genes – that’s all the instructions needed to make you or me – are stuffed in the middle of tiny blobby packets called cells. Cells themselves are very tiny but as millions and millions of them stick together, what we call a body begins to form. That could be a snail, a whale; you or me. (How this ‘sticking together’ happens is very complicated and no-one yet understands it fully.)
When you grow, some of your millions of cells split into pairs of identical new ones. Start with one million and, whooo! – you’ve got two million – twice as big! Now this is the clever bit: all the gene instructions get copied exactly just before the cells split. This is like copying your music album onto another blank CD to give to your friend. So every cell of every body of every living thing on the planet always has this gene body-building information – the genetic code – inside it.
You may be too young to remember when music was recorded onto magnetic tape on a spool in a tape recorder. The tape was very thin but very long – like DNA in chromosomes – and (like DNA) recorded information, usually music.
Our home planet is very old. Do you know how old? Well it’s four thousand six hundred million years old. That’s 4,600,000,000 years! And simple life has been around for most of that period — at least 3,500,000 years. That’s plenty of time to try out a system for making new life to replace old, and this works just about perfectly. What’s more, very simple life forms – just single cells – long ago began to join together to make more complicated bodies with thousands or millions of cells. All these new types of life were natural experiments to see what worked and what didn’t. Many didn’t work and died out – they became extinct. Some worked for hundreds of millions of years like the dinosaurs, but still ended up extinct. Humans have been around for just a few hundred thousand years at the most, and have only begun to mess up our planet in the last hundred or so.
Did you know penguins have been around for over 40 million years and haven’t messed anything up?
New types of bodies – organisms – generally work when they happen to be in a part of the planet where there’s plenty of food and few enemies. Too little food, nasty climate or vicious enemies spells disaster and means extinction unless an organism can adapt in some way. This is where genes come in.
The simplest organisms are bacteria and viruses. But long ago, simple organisms like these learned to cooperate rather than compete (something many humans have yet to do!). More complicated cells (eukaryotes) appeared which contained smaller cells, called organelles, which almost certainly had been bacteria. The bigger cells gave these helpful bacteria a safe home while the bacterial cell did something useful like making energy. Mitochondria are examples of these and they occur in every cell in all our bodies. They act as energy powerhouses for the cells which contain them. About 600 million years ago, new types of bodies began to appear in which cells clumped together to cooperate in more specialised ways. Later, starting with the Cambrian explosion (about 542 million years ago) of new life forms, some cells became hard to form an outside protection (shell). Others became specialised at catching things to eat – like the suckers on the arms of an octopus. Some (simple plants) had developed a way to harness the sun’s energy to make sugars which they could then store to use later. And so on. At some early stage, creatures with backbones appeared (the chordates), then clever ones with brains… and the rest you know (unless you left your brain behind).
Bacteria and viruses
Bacteria and viruses, often just called ‘microbes’ (‘micro’ meaning very tiny) are incredibly small and incredibly common. To see bacteria, you’d have to use a powerful microscope that magnifies about 10,000 times. Imagine a bean enlarged that amount. How big would it be? About the size of a large building over 300 feet (100 metres) high. And viruses are much smaller than bacteria. Just one teaspoon of water from a river or the sea contains 50 million! People used to think bacteria were primitive plants. Now scientists know that they are a completely separate group of living things (eubacteria and archaebacteria) which can live in the most extraordinary places. Some can even live in boiling water; others live inside us animals and help us digest food. They were probably the first life on Earth. Both of these microbes are important in all kinds of ways. One of these, as I bet you know, is that they can cause diseases in plants and animals. For example, one type of bacterium causes tuberculosis (TB). And a type of virus called HIV causes AIDS. Both these diseases are killing millions of people, mostly in poor countries. Bits of virus called ‘promoter sequences’ are used in genetic engineering. These are like a switch which turns a gene on. The commonest one is from a virus which infects cauliflowers: cauliflower mosaic virus. Bits of bacteria called plasmids are also used because these tiny loops of genetic material can readily move from one bacterium to another. This is called horizontal gene transfer and enables bacteria to swap useful genes. Plasmids carry genes which make bacteria resistant to antibiotics or make them manufacture toxins (poisons). They can also carry genes which scientists have inserted — spliced — into them. Plasmids allow bacteria to quickly become resistant to antibiotics like penicillin.
Humans first appeared on the planet around 195,000 years ago. At that time, several different human races lived side by side including Neanderthal man (named from where the first skeleton was found in 1856 in the Neander valley in Germany). Neanderthal people died out about 30,000 years ago. No-one knows why… but the first definite modern humans – eleven skeletons found in a cave near Nazareth in Israel – were living just 26,000 years ago. That may seem a long time to you but to a humble little shell (called Lingula) whose descendants have lived quietly and virtually unchanged since the Cambrian Era over 500 million years ago, it must seem like a… like a… well, a very short time indeed! Even to us penguins – and we’ve only been around for about 42 million years – you people are real upstarts, taking over the whole planet like you have in just a couple of centuries.
The nineteenth century naturalist Charles Darwin was the first to realise that all life is governed by this rule. He found that creatures did indeed adapt though he didn’t know how because, in his time, people didn’t know about genes. It turns out that genes can change. They don’t always make perfect copies when a cell divides. Sometimes a mistake is made. This is called a mutation. Most mistakes are disasters – the organism dies. Some are useful and give the creature an advantage which allows it to have babies which are more likely to be successful. But this process is entirely accidental. This slow business of trying new body shapes and styles, some of which work and some of which don’t, has been going on for as long as life. Perhaps you know about it. It’s called evolution – the survival of the fittest.
Two scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, finally began to find out the basics of how genes worked and how they copied themselves. This was back in 1953 when they discovered what the stuff that makes all genes everywhere really looked like. This stuff is called DNA (that stands for deoxyribonucleic acid – got that?) and it looks like a double corkscrew. It seems that DNA stores all the information about how to make a new cell – or person or penguin. It all coils up very small to pack away into the tiny space in the centre of cells.
How does the DNA copy itself? Because it’s made of two corkscrews – called a double helix – hooked together, it can unwind. As it does this, it attracts the right new bits to join the hooks which run down its middle – a bit like the legs on a millipede. And so one strand rebuilds a new mirror-image of itself, just as its mirror-image partner is doing nearby. So one DNA molecule becomes two perfect copies. Clever stuff, eh?
How the DNA itself then organises all the stuff inside a cell to make whatever it needs – like proteins – is complicated. Scientists still don’t understand all the things that have to happen to make what starts as just one cell into a human being or a whale. It’s taken billions of years for nature to develop all this wonderfully clever yet tiny machinery to build bodies. So it’s not surprising that scientists don’t understand everything yet… which makes the next bit rather worrying.
Genes are long bits of DNA which code the instructions to build bodies in certain ways. Scientists know a lot about how genes work. They know how to ‘snip’ genes out of one place and ‘stick’ them into another. This is the hi-tech world of genetic engineering. We’ll look at this in a moment. But first, let’s ask a question or two. Why do it? What’s the point of tinkering with genes – genetic engineering?
Evolution on fast forward
People are impatient. They want to move fast, not just in cars, planes and spaceships. They want to make new types of life which will do new things. The best example is plants for food. About 10,000 years ago, people found a new way to make sure they got enough food: they invented agriculture – farming. The first farmers simply collected seeds of food plants people liked to eat and sowed them in the ground. Each harvest, they gathered in their seed crops and selected the best and fattest seeds to sow in the ground next year. All organisms — plants, penguins or people – have in their genes a certain amount of variation, so gradually this year-by-year selection of the best quality seeds meant that the crops gave better yields of more food which tasted nicer.
This is called breeding. And believe it or not, all dogs from huge St Bernards to tiny Chihuahuas have been selectively bred by humans from one type of wild dog – probably a wolf. Big dog, little dogA St Bernard and a Chihuahua are the same species even though a St Bernard could gobble up a Chihuahua in one gulp. Being the same species means you can breed with any other member of your species. So you, a human, can breed — or mate — with any other human of the opposite sex to make a baby.
But breeding is rather slow. Scientists have discovered that they can speed things up greatly by using the new science of genetic engineering, part of what is called biotechnology — using life to make things.
‘Engineering’ is a fancy word for building something. So genetic engineering (often just called GE) is building something with genes. Clever scientists have learned to spot which gene does what in making a new organism. They’ve found out that simple organisms like bacteria or viruses often have genes which are useful because they can be snipped out and put — spliced — into plant genes. Doing this could give the plant special new abilities like resisting disease. But this can be rather like grabbing a large scorpion so it can’t nip you with its claws. You know it’s safe to handle since its claws can’t reach you but — ow! — it’s got a sting in its tail you didn’t know about. There may be a ‘sting in the tail’ which comes from splicing strange genes into other organisms — from viruses to plants, for example. No-one can be quite certain what will happen. It is unpredictable.
Genes can do unexpected and unintended things and nobody can ever be quite sure what. So it is wise to be very careful.
What can genetic engineering do?
Genetically modified organism, GMOs, (which are mostly plants) are mostly transgenic which means they contain genes pinched from something else like bacteria, viruses, other plants or even animals. By snipping a gene which does something useful from one organism and splicing it into another, say a crop plant, scientists can get the plant to grow bigger or faster or make more for people to eat. Or the plant could be made to be more nutritious with more protein or minerals or vitamins. Some crop plants can be made to grow in salty water or very little water — good for very dry countries. Others could be engineered to resist disease which could protect kids against nasty illnesses like polio or measles.
And there’s more! Plants have been engineered which use up nitrogen fertilisers more effectively. This not only means that farmers need less expensive fertiliser but also helps slow climate change. Why? Because nitrogen fertilisers produce a lot of nitrous oxide gas which is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Around 6 percent of warming is due to this gas.
Some plants — like peas and beans — can ‘fix’ the nitrogen they need directly from the air. If all plants could do that, there’d be no need for nitrogen fertilisers at all, so no nitrous oxide pollution.
Energy boost for plants
Most plants, including most food plants, use a process called C3 photosynthesis to get their energy from the sun. But some plants have evolved a better way to do this called photosynthesis. In the future, it may be possible to engineer C3 food plants so that they can use the C4 process too.
Papayas are delicious tropical fruit but in Hawaii, they were being destroyed by a virus. In 1998, a virus-resistant GM variety was introduced which has saved the crop. Tough potatoes: Scientists have engineered a type of potato which stops fungal blight. Blight is one of the worst diseases of potatoes. It was partly the cause of the great famine in Ireland (1845) in which tens of thousands of people died of starvation because their main food crop – the potato – was wiped out for several years in a row by blight. Rich golden rice: Many poor people can afford to eat little but ordinary rice which lacks key nutrients like vitamin A. A new type of golden-coloured GE rice which contains all of a person’s vitamin A needs could end this deficiency and the diseases it causes. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But some organisations like Greenpeace consider this rice to be an example of industry ‘greenwash’.
It’s back to speed again. People want results fast. Big companies want to make lots of money out of GE.
Penguins have no use for money but I understand why people need it since few people can find their own food any more. And I don’t see anything wrong with making money either… unless making it means damage or death to other people and wildlife.
Most companies like to make lots of money and they like to make it fast. This is what companies are for but some don’t care much who or what gets trampled on in the process. The GE companies would really like to have everyone everywhere eating food made from their genetically modified plants. These seeds are mine!Then they’d make huge amounts of money because they own the technology needed to produce the seeds. Once they have changed plants by GE, companies can patent them. This means that any farmer who wants to sow that seed must pay money to the company which owns the patent. It means that the farmer has to buy new seeds every year. She can’t save her (many small farmers are women) own seeds any more as farmers have done since the start of farming. The company, not the farmer, then has control over who grows what food. Many poor farmers won’t be able to afford to buy the seed. Patents on living things has also linked in with a new sort of piracy: biopiracy.
Open Source — the opposite of patents The biotech companies want to control genetic technologies because they can make big money from charging for their use — if they own the patents. But, as in the world of computer programs, more and more genetic information is becoming freely available for anyone to use. That’s because much of the science is done by government institutes (especially in countries like Africa, China and India) funded by public money or big charitable foundations in the rich world. The aim is to increase food production by making useful GM seeds available to poor farmers.
But GE is a potentially risky business. How safe will it be if most people end up eating GE food most of the time? What effect will growing all these plants with funny genes have on other plants or animals over time? Maybe nothing will happen – or nothing much. Nobody knows for sure but… fingers crossed!… so far, so good. People have been eating GM foods since the early 1990s and there have been no calamities.
Risky or Safe?
Humans have a very strange attitude to risk. Probably the most dangerous thing most people do is travel. Loads of people die in road traffic accidents. But they still travel – more and more – and by doing so, they are probably taking the greatest risk of all: messing with our planet’s climate system (see my guide on global warming for more on this). But how safe are genetically modified organisms? Nobody knows for sure. But I don’t think anyone would go so far as to say there is absolutely no risk in eating GE food or of releasing transgenic organisms into the environment.
People have plenty of food to eat from natural plants and animals. And you know a great deal about what things you eat are bad for you, which ones might give you tummy ache or which are poisonous. You know that because you’ve been eating these things for thousands of years and so you know from practical experience what’s good and what’s bad. You know that things like potatoes, for example, can be quite poisonous if they are green (they contain an alkaloid poison called solanine) and that some types of cassava, a staple food in the tropics, contain cyanide (a deadly poison) unless carefully prepared. Why bother with new GM food?
During the 1990s, there were major protests in Europe over the safety of GM crops. But there were no such protests in North America and as a result, people there have been eating GE foods for 20 years or more. None of the catastrophes predicted by the environmental movement in Europe have occurred so it would seem that genetically engineered foods are not the danger that people thought they might be. The companies have carried out a great experiment, trying out their GM food crops on millions of people around the world. Fortunately for them, it has been successful… so far.
Most of the GE foods grown so far have been for companies to make money and gain control of the supply of seeds. They are not nutritionally better for people and expensive for farmers to buy. The bottom line is that people who think GE foods are really needed must have much better reasons than just making lots of money. They do, of course, and some of those reasons are quite sensible. But will GE crops ‘feed the world’? Private companies have one overriding aim: to make money for the people who own them. Feeding the world is not something they would be interested in doing… unless, of course, the hungry people could pay for the food. But hungry people are almost always hungry not because of lack of food, but because they have no money to buy it and no land to grow their own. Perhaps the companies will change and become really kind and generous and give away food to starving people in the future. I hope so. What do you think? Happily, there are other moves afoot which could mean useful GE becoming more freely available to poor farmers in developing countries.
The honest answer is that nobody knows for sure. Yet GE foods are probably safe enough from a health viewpoint because Americans have been eating them for nearly 20 years and no epidemic has happened. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of risk. After all, it took some time for people to realise that tobacco killed about half of all smokers (and some non-smokers too). And the giant and rich tobacco corporations have fought against the clear and incontestable evidence tooth and nail. Why? Because they knew they would lose money! And they were right: people and governments have begun to sue them for the damage they caused. You don’t die if you smoke one cigarette – but if people smoke thousands of cigarettes every year (as smokers do) for many years, every one in two will die at a much younger age than they should.
This is why some people say that everyone is being used as guinea pigs in a giant global experiment. Back in the 1990s, when GE foods were beginning to take off, many wondered what would happen if millions of people ate GE foods all the time for years. Now the experiment is more or less over and it looks like the answer is that GE foods produced so far are indeed safe to eat.
The GE companies say they want to feed all the world’s starving people. Excellent! But few companies want to give money away – which is what they’d have to do to feed the starving. Hungry people have no money to buy food or land to grow it on. That is why they’re hungry. Not because there isn’t enough food. I think the companies are in a hurry because they want to make money fast. Many people think this is risky. They think that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) the companies are already growing — and you are eating — have not been tested very well.
It’s the same stuff!
Or is it? The big seed companies claim that their GM seeds and foods are ‘substantially equivalent‘ – meaning more or less the same as ordinary seeds. A soy bean seed or tomato looks the same whether it’s genetically modified or it isn’t. Same or different?They taste the same. They smell the same. So they are the same (almost), say the companies. So there’s no need to test them. Critics say this is wrong. If a plant’s genes have been altered by GE, the plant then makes or does something different. So it is different, and it may have effects that no-one can know about.
These were genuine worries back in the early days of genetic engineering. GE foods were beginning to be eaten by people (and farm animals) in America and many other parts of the world by the early 1990s. But people in Europe protested in a big way, so big that European governments were forced to ban all GE foods and crops. Protesters had several good reasons for taking action. One main objection was that nobody wanted to be a guinea pig. People didn’t want to eat food that hadn’t been properly tested and wasn’t labelled. They mostly still don’t and big protests regularly take place.
So the great world ‘experiment’ to discover whether these new foods were safe, as the companies that made them claimed, went ahead without Europe. Nothing has gone wrong so far, so it looks like GE foods are not the nightmare ‘Frankenfoods’ which many protesters called them. From a food safety viewpoint, they seem to be okay.
If there is no apparent difference between a GE food and its natural counterpart, it is assumed to be safe according to present regulations. Only a limited set of characteristics needs to be compared. If this testing reveals no difference, the GE food is considered to be ‘substantially equivalent’. Then no testing is required to make sure there are no harmful substances present which could appear unexpectedly due to GE. To be fair, traditional cross breeding can produce food crops which contain unexpected toxins too so new varieties of food plant need to be tested whether produced by GE or by traditional cross breeding.
For more on this, visit PSRAST (Physicians and Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science and Technology).
One of most important GE crops is soybeans”I don’t eat those. Yuk!” you probably think. But you’d be surprised because you find them – or stuff made from them – in most foods from bread to hamburgers. Maize or corn is the other most important crop. And there are many more, mostly not important yet. But what’s different about these GE crops if they don’t taste different or look different? For the moment, there are two main differences: many of these GMOs are made to be resistant to the weedkilling chemicals. That means farmers can spray their GE crops with weedkillers (herbicides) which will kill every single plant except the crop. The other GMO crops have been engineered to make a poison which kills insect pests. These sound like a good idea — but are they?
Problems with weedkiller-safe crops
Farmers like tidy fields and weeds compete with crop plants meaning that the farmer gets less crop and less money.Tractor spraying weedkiller So making sure no weeds grow by spraying herbicide seems to make sense … but not for the other creatures and plants that live in the area. By killing everything but his crop, the farmer is making the landscape into a desert for other life. No birds will be there because there are no weed seeds or insects to eat. There will be no flowers. Just miles of identical GE plants.
GE is short for Genetically Engineered and GM for Genetically Modified
What is a GMO?
A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism
There are dozens of genetically engineered crops approved for sale in many parts of the world. Most are foods like soybeans, corn (maize), squash, sugar beet, papayas, tomatoes and potatoes. These are now part of the food supply for most people and are the so-called first generation. They have benefited the companies that produce them and the farmers who grow them but had no particular benefit for the public who are eating them. Also GM cotton has become a very important non-food crop around the world, both boosting yields and reducing pestcide use. But there is still a lot of argument about how good these cotton crops are.
There are many more GM crops in the pipeline. These second generation plants should have many more benefits for the people who eat them as well as for the farmers. They will be more nutritious with more protein, vitamins or minerals. An example is cassava, a vital food for 600 million people in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Insects are very successful creatures. They are very adaptable and, Ha ha! Eat me – I’m a killer!because of their own variable genes and because they breed so fast, can quickly overcome chemical poisons used by humans. Every time a new poison — pesticide — is made, within a few years, pesky insects become immune to it. The same is already happening with the new transgenic plants which make their own insect poisons. Unfortunately, these same poisons are very important in organic farming as a weapon of last resort. Organic farmers use it only occasionally and it’s very effective because the pests have no chance to get used to it. Some transgenic crops make this poison — called Bt toxin — all the time in every part of the plant: roots, stems and leaves. So insects are developing resistance to the poison which will soon make Bt useless.
But what about the people or animals which eat these plants? Fortunately, Bt toxin is poisonous only to insects and appears to have no effect on other animals. But not everybody agrees that this is the case. Who and what do you believe?
What happens when GE plants grow where they’re not supposed to? Or when their genes get scattered around by accident? When plants flower, they do it for one reason only: to make new plants. The flowers attract bees which collect pollen from the male part of the flower. The bees visit hundreds of similar flowers, some of which may be miles away, and leave some pollen from their earlier visits on the female parts of later flowers. The male pollen connects with the female part of the flower and combines its genes with the female’s genes to make a new seed. This is called ‘pollination’ or ‘fertilisation’, long words for plant sex. Some other plants (like maize, a member of the family of grasses) use the wind rather than insects to carry their pollen around. This pollen can travel a very long way.
flowersIf pollen from a GM plant happens to land on a plant of the same species which has not been genetically modified, it fertilises the unmodified plant just the same. But the GM genes will become part of the new seed. When the seed grows into a new plant, it may grow up to be just like its engineered parent. It will be contaminated. This is one of the main reasons many people object to GE plants because there is no way to stop this contamination – called gene flow – if the GMOs grow in open fields on a large scale (as they do).
Wherever GM crops have been grown, some genes ‘flow’ into other non-GM crops or wild relatives. Until recently, some people claimed that this gene flow was of little importance because pollen didn’t travel far – no more than a few hundred metres at most. But pollen from genetically modified maize may have travelled on the wind to remote parts of Mexico. GM maize, ordinary maize and wild maize (corn) are the same species so they can interbreed. Scientists from the University of California found that the stray pollen had crossed with wild maize. It may have come from GM maize trials in 1998. But those trials were 100 kilometres away. There was a huge argument about this which rumbled on for years. A later study suggested that there was no contamination but by early 2009, the New Scientist reported “it’s official: genes from genetically modified corn have escaped into wild varieties in rural Mexico”. The worry is that long-distance drift of GM pollen threatens the purity of ancient crop varieties even if they grow in remote places. Some contamination may have come from food aid imports of GM maize from the US. Mexican farmers may have planted some of this corn. These are other ways in which gene flow – unwanted contamination – can happen. There are several real worries about this:
Mexico and the wild teosinte plant that grows there are the source of all original maize varieties from which all modern types have been bred – or genetically altered.
If this contamination has happened in Mexico so easily, it’s only a matter of time before many more countries are also affected, partly because of GM food exports from the US or because of food aid shipments to starving people.
Organic farmers, wherever they may be, have to comply with strict regulations if they want to claim that the food they grow is truly organic.. They are trusted by the growing number of people who buy organic because they don’t want GMOs in their food. Among other things, the regulations don’t allow farmers to use GM seeds or plants. So what happens when an organic farmer’s crops are contaminated by genetically engineered crops growing nearby – as will happen more and more in the future? It means that people who choose to have uncontaminated produce simply won’t be able to have that choice any more. Everyone everywhere will have to eat some form of GM food.
The GM varieties are privately owned. They are the patented 'intellectual property of powerful companies. They are not open-source; not in the public domain.. If farmers grow the companies’ seeds without paying for a licence, the companies will take them to court and sue them for damages. This has already happened to a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who claimed that his canola (rapeseed) was contaminated by RoundupReady canola seed from neighbours’ fields or had blown from passing trucks. He had been saving the seed from his canola plants and sowing it for many years – as farmers have always done. Monsanto, the company that owns the patents on RoundupReady canola seeds, discovered Schmeiser’s seeds included some of their patented weedkiller-resisting version. They took out and won a lawsuit against Schmeiser, claiming $400,000 in damages. What will happen if farmers in poor countries sow GM seeds or GM-contaminated seeds that they’ve saved? Will the companies sue them too?
Genetic engineering is just one powerful tool in the kit of tools which farmers and food producers can use to feed the world. It could also help wipe out some diseases.
The Catholic church — which has over 1 billion followers — has had a change of heart over genetic engineering. They formerly condemned it as “playing God” but in late 2010, Vatican scientists claimed that scientists have both the right and a moral duty to be “stewards of God” by genetically modifying crops to help the world’s poor. Source
But it does need to be very carefully watched and regulated — something the companies don’t much like. Wisely and cautiously used, GE has a big role to play. In their scramble for profits, will the big companies bring about the world’s end? The GE companies are driven by their need to make big profits for their shareholders. They have been very secretive about what they are doing and, of course, protect everything they do by patenting. If they own the seeds and techniques for making them, they call the shots. It is no coincidence that the makers of herbicide-tolerant crop seeds are also the manufacturers of the herbicides. They cleverly make sure that farmers who buy their seed must also use their brand of herbicide to kill all the weeds. The companies are, first and foremost and like all companies, out to make money, not save the planet or feed the poor. They can help, of course, and some do — but that’s not their main aim. Much GE is now done in universities and institutes and is increasingly open source. This means that farmers — even poor farmers — can get involved in creating new crops by telling scientists what traits (like drought resistance, salt tolerance, the ability to withstand flooding and so on) in crop plants they actually need. The seeds are sold at low cost or even given to farmers who can then save some of them, if they wish, for the next crop. By engineering special traits into food crops, they could be very useful in organic farming. But the organisations that licence organic growers, are strongly opposed to all forms of GE, despite the fact that some GE plant varieties could be very useful in organic growing systems. Some people believe that organic farming needs to get together with genetic engineers and not miss a wonderful opportunity for big advances in, to take just one example, disease-resistant crops.
The future is CRISPR
Everyone’s talking about CRISPR. This is the latest thing in GE and is a fast and precise technique which is bringing a revolution in biology and medicine. It is a gene-editing tool based on a bacteria’s anti-virus immune system and ‘hijacked’ by a team of scientists led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier back in 2012. This tool includes CRISPR, a protein called Cas9, and hybrid RNA that can be programmed to find, cut, and even replace any gene sequence. CRISPR is easy to use compared to older gene-editing methods, and works for any type of cell. This makes it very powerful and, in the wrong hands, very dangerous. It needs to be carefuly regulated but this could be difficult to organise since it is already being used in several different countries. So keep your eyes on this CRISPR ball!
People who are against GE think it’s unwise to be running GE ‘experiments’ in the open air on a huge scale. But the experiments have been happening for years in the US, Argentina, Brazil, India, Canada, Australia and China and other countries. Only Europe opted out because of mass protests which began in the 1990s. They didn’t wish to be used like guinea pigs for testing new food crops which offered them no obvious benefits. They wanted GM food to be labelled so they could choose whether or not to eat them.
Only time will tell if GE is perfectly safe or whether it is really as dangerous as many of those who are against it believe.
What does CRISPR mean?
Are you ready? CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. And ‘Cas’ means CRISPR-associated proteins
In China, millions of small farmers are finding the GM crops have their uses. Chinese scientists have concentrated on making GE rice, the most important food crop in China, which resists major pest insects. They’ve done much the same with wheat, tomatoes and sweet peppers, making them resistant to pests and diseases. Other similarly altered food crops are coming soon. The short-term benefits are obvious. More food, less need for pesticides and many fewer pesticide poisonings. Unfortunately, there’s only likely to be a brief breathing space before the bugs and diseases become used to these GE crops.
But you can see the difference in approach, can’t you? The Chinese are mostly interested in growing GE crops to help them produce more food. In North America and Europe, GE crops have mostly been designed around a particular company’s own brand of herbicide sprays which the farmer must buy.
The African Agriculture Technology Foundation is an example of how public and private (companies) organisations can work together to make available useful GE (and other) technologies to poor African farmers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to buy them. The aim is food security and poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the longer term, it looks like many types of GE could be useful. Quite apart from food, itDNA, the code for life might mean new ways to cure diseases or to prevent them in the first place. But — and this is a very big BUT indeed! — people need to know what’s happening and why. You need to get involved in thinking about whether GE (and other new human technologies) are good or bad… or if bits of them are good and other bits bad and dangerous. You also need to have a choice, to have a say in what is done or not done. You need to have proper labelling on the stuff you eat and drink so you know how it’s made. Governments and companies tend to keep rather quiet about GE. After all, people can’t object to things they don’t know about. Secrecy worries people and as they come to realise just what’s been going on, they want more openness. Don’t you want to be involved in deciding the future of life on our planet? GE could affect natural life in all kinds of ways nobody yet knows. If companies release lots of GMOs and something goes terribly wrong, who pays for the Tired Tiki the eco-warriordamage? Can the damage be repaired? Please think carefully about
kind of a
you really want.
Don’t let others do your thinking for you!
Don’t leave it to the ‘experts’. Become an expert yourself! A good start would be the Royal Society’s Genetically modified (GM) plants: questions and answers (May 2016)
Here's what GE could soon be doing:
turning plant wastes into biofuel. At present, food crops are being used to make ethanol biofuel
getting plants to be able to grow in poor or salty soils or where there is little rainfall
getting plants to make better use of nitrogen fertilisers. That means less pollution and energy-wastage
engineering crops to be resistant to diseases and pests. This would cut the use of toxic chemicals in farming
making existing foods more nutritious, containing more vitamins, minerals and protein
making microbes which can break down toxic chemicals in polluted land — bioremediation
I’ve already mentioned the GE potatoes that can resist serious diseases. That’s one example of how genetic engineering might be useful in the future (for people, that is). And here’s another ifishnteresting idea: glowing fish. Scientists have added a selection of genes from humans, rats, trout and fireflies (insects that have tails that glow) to a fish called a zebra fish. Why? This special mix of genes means that the modified fish glows in the dark when the water it’s living in is polluted. It turns out that, like other fish (or flesh-eating animals), zebra fish tend to ‘collect’ – to bioconcentrate – pollutants like PCBs and dioxins in their flesh. (This is why it can be very dangerous to eat fish from polluted lakes, rivers or sea.) If these modified fish are put in a cage in polluted water, the glow soon switches on. canaryLong ago, coal miners used to take canaries down the mines they worked in. The poor birds would keel over and die before poisonous or explosive gases built up to danger levels for miners. They were the first ‘pollution sentinels’. The zebra fish, like the canaries, are so sensitive that they show even tiny traces of poisons by glowing – traces which scientists would only be able pick up with the best equipment they have. Another advantage is that the fish are quite similar to mammals (including humans) in the way their bodies process food and poisons. So if you ever catch a glowing zebra fish, don’t eat it or drink the water!
Of course, none of this would be necessary in the first place if humans hadn’t made such a terrible mess.
1. New Scientist, ‘The tough get glowing’, 12/1/02, 36-37.
These days, everyone knows about terrorism. Unfortunately, genetic engineering could easily be used to make organisms that kill people by infecting them with new types of disease. Or they could be used to infect and kill food crops or farm animals. Then people would die of hunger. I find all this really scary as I expect you do. Pretending there isn’t a problem is not the answer.
Many countries have already experimented with what is called biowarfare – using living, disease-causing microbes to cause plagues to kill people. Countries have recently come together to try and agree on an international treaty which would ban such horrors. Unfortunately, not all countries agree with the treaty for various reasons. One reason is that to be useful, such a treaty would have to allow teams of inspectors to visit any laboratory in any country to make sure that no biowarfare organisms were being made. After all, without proper checks an agreement would be useless. And some objecting countries think that such inspections would be like spying and could give unfair advantages to others. As ever with humans, there are no easy answers. But something has to be done for sure – as the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US show. There are many much more dangerous organisms than anthrax – and that’s without genetic engineering.
Australian scientists recently accidentally created a monster while they were trying to engineer a mouse virus . The idea was not to harm the mice, but prevent them having babies. Not only did it not work. It killed the mice. Not too worrying, you might think; they were only mice. But it would be easy for a laboratory somewhere to secretly engineer a similar virus which infects humans and kills them. This would one way of using GE for making a deadly biowarfare agent. There are many others. Really scary.
1. ‘The genie is out: Biotech has just sprung a nasty surprise. Next time, it could be catastrophic’, New Scientist, 13/1/01, 3-4.
Genetic engineering is a powerful tool. But like all technology , people can choose to use it for good or bad reasons. Used wisely, it could be vital in helping people produce more food without doing so much damage to to the planet’s other life. So far, it has mostly been used to make money for companies and farmers without much thought about anything else.
You will, as you grow up to become an adult, be inheriting this world of clever technologies like genetic engineering. To help make sure it is a better world for you, your friends and family, you have to know what’s going on. You have to know what the scientists, the companies and governments they work for are doing — and why. If you don’t do this, who knows what they might get up to. You have to be always vigilant.
Here’s what you can do:
Discover as much as you can about GE. Why are some people so against it? Why do others think it’s great? What do you think? Should the companies be better regulated and monitored?
Find others who feel the same way as you do. There are many groups in many countries all working to wake up other people to the possible risks of GE. You can join and I’ve listed some on my links section. It’s ever more easy to network with Facebook and Twitter!
Ask questions. Don’t accept answers you don’t think are honest. Question where the information comes from. Is it biased? Be sceptical.
If you think patenting and ownership of genes is unfair, help campaign for GE to be open source so that everyone can benefit.
You can send emails or write letters to your local or national government in your country – that would really surprise them.
Call or write to the GE companies. Tell them what you think and why. Are they open about what they are doing? Some of them might be pleased to know you’re interested in their work. They all have very good websites. See my links section for some of them
Get your mum or dad to help you (and them) find out more. Do they know about GE? What do they think about it?
Write to your local newspaper.
Join your local radio phone-in or ask questions on a TV chat show (if you can).
Talk about GE to your friends or your teachers at school. Get your teachers to run some kind of science project where you all help each other to find out more.
I’ve written this guide just because I love all life on Earth and I want you and your friends to think for yourselves and help persuade your human companies and industries do things which are useful, sensible and not damaging to the rest of life. It won’t be easy, but there’s one thing I’m sure of: You can do it!
Check out my links section to find out more about groups concerned about genetic engineering and who are trying to change its direction for the common good of all. I’ve also added some sites which will tell you GE is a great idea. See what you think. Good luck kids. It’s your world…! Did you find my genetic engineering guide useful? If you did, please tell your friends about it. Thank you!
What is technology?
People long ago began to invent tools. Technology is very clever use of all kinds of tools and materials to make things you know about or use every day: from mobile phones to cars; from buildings to rovers on the planet Mars; from weapons of war to vaccines which save millions of lives…
There are loads of places to visit so I’ve just selected a few which I like the best. And please avoid disappointment and don’t send me more links, no matter how useful you think they are. Lots of people do but I simply don’t have time to deal with them. Sorry! Genetically modified (GM) plants: questions and answers Explore 18 questions about genetically modified (GM) plants. Britain’s Royal Society conducted a poll to find out what people want to know about GM plants, and then drew on a panel of expert, independent scientists to answer your questions. “We hope that these answers explain the science behind GM and help you form your own view,” says the word’s oldest and most respected scientific society. You can also download all this as a PDF.
Genetic Technology Here, BEEP looks at both sides of every aspects of genetic engineering. Great site.
Everything comes from your genes – and they come from your mum and dad. A gene is the basic unit of inheritance which you can find in all living things. It is a set of coded instructions, built up from DNA molecules. It’s these instructions that make you you and me me. Each gene is connected to a whole lot of others to form chromosomes. Genes control your inherited characteristics like your eye or skin colour, whether you grow feathers or fur. Every time a cell divides (as you grow, for example), a perfect copy of its genes is made. Just occasionally, this copying goes slightly wrong in which mutations or gene shuffling, called recombination, happens. It is these ‘mistakes’ which allow evolution to happen by trial and error. But genetic engineers deliberately insert new genes by recombination although they cannot tell where on the chromosome the genes they add will end up. So the process is random and may alter the way the new organism’s genes behave in a way no-one can predict. This is one of the main reasons some people are worried about genetic engineering (GE). These transgenic organisms are, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, in a sense ‘bolted together’ out of bits of others. This is why GE foods have been called ‘Frankenfoods’ by protest groups — rather absurdly since millions of people have been eating them for many years now without any evidence of harm.
Did you know that the monster in the Frankenstein story ends up killing his creator’s loved ones. And did you know that the original Frankenstein appears in a classic horror story published in England by the rather visionary Mary Shelley way back in 1818?
DNA is the stuff which makes genes and chromosomes. It is the ultimate in DIY instruction recording (like an old-fashioned cassette tape) for self-building of living organisms. Scientists know a great deal about this double-stranded molecule and its related single-strand ‘messenger’ RNA (ribonucleic acid) which acts, among other things, as a template for building proteins. The basic code is incredibly simple. There are just four chemicals (called bases) Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, Cytosine – A T G C. The code is built up from combinations of those four. A always links to T; G to C. So when the molecule uncoils, as it does to make copies of itself, each base seeks out and links to its new partner (A to T, G to C) – building blocks of life and two new molecules build up where there was just one before. The details of this are very complicated but you’ll get the main idea of how DNA is the genetic code — the genotype — for how to build proteins which are the building blocks of bodies — the phenotype. The DNA also contains instructions for how to assemble everything, how big to make it and where to put it. That’s why my beak and your nose is on our faces – and not somewhere else on our bodies. Nobody yet understands how all this works in detail.
Chromosomes are the packages which contain the thousands of genes which each organism needs to live, grow and make more of itself. You can see them with a microscope inside the central part (nucleus) of any cells (except for very simple organisms like bacteria which don’t have a nucleus). Each chromosome is made of one very long (!) strand of DNA, coiled and folded so it fits in a very tiny space.
Evolution was an idea which had been around long before Darwin. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), for example, had suggested that giraffes got their long necks by stretching and could somehow pass this ‘slightly more stretched’ character on to their offspring. But Darwin realised that true evolution occurred by natural selection of species. The fittest and best-adapted flourished and produced lots more of themselves. The rest died out. If most of the world was like the Antarctic, penguins would be the commonest creatures (I wish!) and people, who don’t like the cold, would not exist at all. We penguins are supremely adapted to live successfully in bitterly cold oceans and on ice. If the world suddenly got hot (as is happening as humans cause climate change), penguins would be in serious trouble. Species evolve by random changes whose cause Darwin didn’t know (see genes – mutations). Perhaps in a hot world, some penguins would change sufficiently to find warm water agreeable. But most of us would die.
Organisms are any living things – giant trees, whales, mice, bacteria, penguins, people. Some people think the whole planet is a living organism which can regulate its temperature so that it stays just right for life to flourish. (This is called the Gaia Theory.) Organisms are alive and that means that they have the special power to be able to make endless copies of themselves – to reproduce. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are also alive and also have this endless ability to reproduce themselves. This is why many people think they are a bad idea. Once GMOs escape from laboratories or farms, they could reproduce themselves and interbreed with non-GMO relatives and nobody would be able stop them. If something goes wrong with them (see genes), nobody can call them back. This is called bio-pollution which, unlike other pollution, cannot be cleaned up once it has happened. This is why protestors liken the escape of transgenic organisms — GMOs — to the tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp which he found. Once Aladdin rubbed the lamp, he released the magic genie. The genie, once released, was supposed to do Aladdin’s bidding (like GMOs are for people) but suppose the genie liked being out? No-one could call him back! Aladdin is a character from The One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), a famous set of 10th century Arabic stories.
‘Trans-‘ means ‘crossing from one place to another’. The ‘-genic’ bit means ‘genes‘. So it means that bits of genes from different living things have been ‘bolted together‘ and spliced into another organism to make a new one which does something which the scientists want it to do. For example, it could be a plant that resists a particular type of weedkiller or it could be a goat which makes silk in its milk.
Charles Darwin was probably the 19th century’s greatest scientist, best known for his theory of evolution. He was not much good at school but his great moment came when he was invited to join a five-year expedition on a ship called HMS Beagle (1831-36). He was a lousy sailor – always seasick – but a wonderful observer. During his five years, he visited many parts of South America and the Galapagos Islands. (Some of my penguin cousins live there.) Years later, after careful thought and preparation, he wrote a great book called On the Origin of Species (1859), explaining how life had evolved by natural and sexual selection. No-one knew about genes then so he didn’t know how this actually happened. But the evidence he brought together in his books and papers was so overwhelming that biological (life) science was changed for ever. It was Darwin who showed once and for all that humans were just another kind of animal, descended from ape-like ancestors, and not some special and unique form of life superior to everything else. This is why he is one of my heroes: he put people in their place and humbled them a bit!
Species is the word biologists use to describe organisms which are closely similar in appearance and which can breed and produce fertile offspring. All humans are the same species even though there’s lots of variation in your colour, size, hair type and so on. I am a King Penguin and I can mate successfully with any female King Penguin – if she likes me. We Kings are all the same species. My mate will lay fertile eggs (usually two) which should hatch into brown fluffy chicks. But I can’t mate and have chicks with other types of penguin because they are not the same species as me. What about a crab and a toucan? Well they are definitely not the same species! Pretty obvious really. For a start, crabs have 8 legs and toucans have two. And crabs don’t fly… How many species can you think of? And how many species are there on the planet? Scientists estimate that there are at least 5 million but there are probably many tens of millions more which we still don’t know about, mostly living in the oceans.
Splicing: In genetic engineering, a set of foreign genes is spliced – inserted – into the middle of the DNA ‘code words’ (see DNA to find DNA moleculeout about the ‘instructions’: the genetic code). This splicing can mess up the normal coded instructions in the DNA. And that can go on to mess up how the cell works. No-one can know in advance what might happen and whether it might be hazardous. It is unpredictable. The insertion or splice could make the chromosome behave in a quite unexpected way. This does not happen in normal mating because the arrangement of the coded instructions does not change when the chromosomes of the father and mother combine. So when people claim that GE is more or less the same as natural mating (sexual reproduction), they are wrong.
The damage modern industrial farming does is not always obvious because people have short memories. Where there were once forests and prairie with all their complex web of plants and animals, there are now just huge areas of ploughed earth. Enormous machines damage the soils and open it to being blown or washed away by wind and rain. They sow seeds of identical plants which are regularly sprayed with poisons to kill insects and diseases. They scatter artificial fertilisers. The machines themselves pollute the air with smoke and fumes while the poisons and fertilisers soak down into the soil or run off into streams and rivers. This pollution affects drinking water (so that in many places it has to be purified before it’s fit to drink) and the animals and plants that live in the rivers and lakes and even the sea. This type of farming works against Nature. It regards Nature as ‘the enemy’ to be poisoned, burnt, cut and smashed. It creates vast areas of ‘monoculture desert’ — without any life but the crop.
Modern farming is on a collision course with nature. It’s now right up there with global warming in the scale of damage it is doing. That’s bad news for everyone.
more people wanting to eat more meat means new farmland covering an area the size of the USA will be needed. To achieve that…
more forest and wild grassland will be destroyed, and more animals and plants will go extinct
farm animal diseases like bird flu will spread to humans with more epidemics likely
pollution from farming will get much worse. This will be partly from too much fertiliser and pesticides, but also from farm animal waste
Not good, is it?
Industrial farming is spoiling the soil and water it uses. It’s seriously threatening world food supplies because it is the largest single threat to the earth’s biodiversity:
drying out precious water supplies
destroying natural forest
To be fair, this type of farming started with the best of intentions: to feed people cheaply. It’s been very good at doing this in those countries which could afford it, but that was largely because nobody paid the full costs caused by the pollution and other damage such farming causes. What’s more, most governments in rich countries like those in Europe and North America subsidise (give money to) their farmers to make their products artificially cheaper. This business of ‘true costs’ is all very complicated I’m afraid.
Soil erosion is a serious problem which is caused by bad farming practices. The best known example was the 1930s Dust Bowl of the Great Plains of North America. More on soil erosion
The best known biotechnology of all is brewing – you know, making beer and wine and stuff. People use tiny plant-like organisms called yeasts to change sugary water (usually flavoured with something) into alcohol. Plant and animal breeding is another where people choose particular traits — qualities — which an organism has. An example is corn — maize. For centuries, this plant was carefully selected by Mexican farmers to favour one which gave bigger cobs with more and fatter grains of corn on each .glass of beer Today, everyone takes this for granted, not knowing their breakfast cereal or corn crackers are the result of all this careful work done many years ago and made freely available to everyone. And also today, companies would patent such achievements to stop anyone else from using them unless they pay money.
But now, science has created new types of biotechnology such as cloning (making identical copies of organisms or cells) and, of course, genetic engineering — the subject of my guide. GE is based on the artificial manipulation and transfer of genetic material from any type of organism to any other type.
What’s so special about ‘open source?
The idea of ‘open source’ is well known in the computer world. The Linux operating system and Wikipedia are two famous examples. These are created by enthusiastic people for all other people to use for free. The users can help by adding their own improvements. This is the very opposite of patenting in which ‘intellectual property’ is owned and jealously guarded and can only be used by others after licencing — paying some money to the owner. Genetic engineering also uses discoveries and inventions — again, intellectual property. The companies patent this information to stop others gaining from their own research and development’ Open source GE comes about when the information discovered by researchers is not patented so that anyone anywhere can use it. It is said to be ‘in the public domain’.
‘Flood’ rice could feed millions
Pamela Ronald, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has worked with the IRRI to engineer a new flood-resistant rice variety. She and her team of scientists have succeeded where 50 years of conventional breeding has failed. They have placed the information about the technique in the public domain — open source — so that anyone can use it. This single gene, called Sub1, comes from another rice variety and the engineering technique is called ‘cisgenic’ rather than ‘transgenic’. Flooding of rice crops causes losses of up to 4 million tons each year in India and Bangladesh. That’s enough food for 30 million people!
In the poorer countries, there is a real demand for crops that can resist difficult conditions like drought, flooding, poor soils not to mention diseases. These are conditions which are worsening as climate change begins to bite. Genetically modified crops and even trees could be important for farmers in Africa, for example, if the seeds and know how are made available to them at low cost. This is beginning to happen as big funding organisations work ever more closely with local governments and people, helping them to produce what they need. Public domain GE is already providing disease resistance and better nutrition. Perhaps anti-GM Greens should get to grips with the many good things GE can offer instead of concentrating on the bad. What do you think?
The trouble with patenting
Patents give people, or companies, exclusive rights to manufacture and sell a new invention for up to 20 years. Only after this time can anyone else make the same thing and sell it. The spirit of patenting has changed in recent years as companies are have managed to get rights to patent discoveries rather than just inventions. In 1987, the United States allowed patents on living organisms for the first time. After that, the floodgates opened as each company scrambled to patent as many genes, either discovered or altered, as possible. The idea behind this was, as ever, to prevent competitors from making money out of your work. Some scientists who had been working on GE techniques in public labs funded by public money realised they could make lots more money if they founded new GE companies and worked for them instead, taking their knowledge of genes with them and applying for as many patents as possible on the bits of genes they knew about.
Patenting and competition: Through a new system of what are called called ‘intellectual property rights’ (administered by WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization), patents allow companies to own the new forms of plants and animals they make. This means they can charge farmers all over the world for the use of ‘their’ creations. Some people, not surprisingly, think patenting is a brilliant idea. The companies say they need the money they get from patents to pay for more research and development. Others think it is a very bad idea indeed when it comes to being able to patent living things. And there’s worse: a new form of piracy which patenting makes possible called biopiracy.
Farmers in Africa
African Agriculture Technology Foundation
is an example of how public and private (companies) organisations can work together to make available useful GE (and other) technologies to poor African farmers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to buy them. The aim is food security and poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Biopiracy: Pirates were a bloodthirsty lot who stole and killed to make themselves rich. Often, they ended up getting killed themselves. They were outlaws, hunted down whenever possible by naval ships from various countries. The biopirates are a bit different. They don’t kill, they patent. And they are completely protected by the law so nobody hunts them. They are usually employed by corporations or even governments to go and collect genetic material (e.g. seeds) from places like India or the Amazon.this tree’s genes should not be owned by anyone! In India, the neem tree has been used by people for thousands of years for things like killing pests and as a medicine. An American company patented the tree which means that anyone using it should, by law, pay the company. This has outraged many people on the receiving end of this legalised theft. The Indian scientist Vandana Shiva claims that the real cause of biopiracy is the left-over colonial idea dating back to Columbus’s ‘discovery’. sailing shipColumbus ‘discovered’ the Americas in 1492 and from that time on, Europeans began to take the land away from the native Americans, the original inhabitants of what are now Latin and North America. (They did the same in Africa and Australia.) The Americas became Europe’s colonies, to be exploited in any way – including killing native people if they objected. It’s this same colonial tunnel vision which permits the piracy of gene resources and knowledge from non-Western cultures to be claimed as ‘invention’. This means this once-free heritage of seeds or knowledge can be protected by patent. This is just legalised stealing. Knowledge now strangled by patents (called in legal language ‘intellectual property rights’ or IPRs) used to be freely shared between everybody who needed to use it. I think your laws are unfairNow, after patenting, people have to buy it to be able to use it legally – including those who had learned it as it was passed down through each generation in their communities. I don’t know what you think about that but I think it’s wrong. Your laws need changing!
Many insects are pests. They eat many of the food plants farmers grow and, not surprisingly, farmers try many tricks to stop the insects. Pesticides are the latest human invention for killing pest insects (the ‘-icide’ bit of ‘pesticide’ means ‘killer’). Pesticides are poisonous chemicals which farmers spray on their crops. The poison kills the insects.death to all insects End of problem. Well not quite. The pesticides don’t just disappear. They stick around and poison many other creatures (including humans – over 200,000 people are thought to die every year because of pesticide poisonings). Untold numbers of innocent animals die too, but no-one bothers about them. Pesticides also pollute water supplies and plants that have been sprayed with them often contain small amounts when people eat them. People who support genetic engineering (GE) claim that if farmers use GE plants which make their own pesticides, then farmers will need to spray less pesticide which will be better for everyone.
Things to think about
the world’s biggest pesticide firms are also the biggest seed-producers and biggest GE companies (The world’s top 10 pesticide firms, GMWATCH)
some pesticides resist breakdown for many years and can leapfrog around the globe in the wind. These are the notorious POPs, persistent organic pollutants, and include dioxins, PCBs, DDT, toxaphene and chlordane
In Britain, a detailed study found some carrots on sale in shops with not twice, not four times, but 25 times the allowed pesticide residue (what’s left after harvest) in them. These organophosphate (OP) insecticides are highly dangerous nerve poisons. No one knows the long term effects of consuming low levels of OPs or any other substance, nor how they react with preservatives, colourings and stuff in the food you eat . More than 1 in 10 people who are regularly exposed to OP pesticides (like farmers) will suffer irreversible physical and mental damage . Many popular pesticides seem to damage the body’s ability to fight infection. They could be a hidden killer in poor countries where infections are a leading cause of death .
Visit the PDP website for serious in-depth information about residues in food (database information in PDF format)
1. Henry Doubleday Research Association News, Summer 1995, 1-2; 2. New Scientist, 21/2/98, 5; 3. Science News, 13/4/96, 149
Each year, around 2.5 million tons (2,500,000 tons = 5 billion pounds) of pesticide are dumped on the planet’s crops. 
In 2002, an estimated 69,000 children were poisoned by pesticides in the US 
The World Health Organization reports 220,000 people die every year worldwide because of pesticide poisoning. Hard to believe, isn’t it? 
In 2001, the world pesticide market was valued at $32 billion ($32,000,000,000). Big bucks! 
Although most pesticides (80%) are used in the rich countries, most of the poisonings are in poor countries. This is because safety standards are poor, there may be no protective clothing or washing facilities, insufficient enforcement, poor labeling of pesticides which are used by farm workers who can’t read anyway. Few people know much about pesticide hazards. 
Pesticide residues in food are often higher in poor countries. 
Farmers who use pesticides have a ‘significantly higher rate of cancer incidence’ than non-farmers. 
In the US, nearly one in ten of about 3 billion kilograms (that’s 6,613,800,000 pounds) of toxic chemicals released per year is known to be capable of causing cancer (in other animals as well as people). 
1. US EPA Pesticide Market Estimates; 2. Public health risks associated with pesticides and natural toxins in foods, David Pimentel et al., College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA; 3. US EPA fact sheet.
The FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) suggest (September 2004) at least 5 million poisonings and ‘a few thousand fatalities’ each year. Nobody really knows how many people die. What is known is that 99% of the poisonings take place in poor countries where people don’t know how to use pesticides properly and anyway do not have access to protective equipment.
or can’t understand the language on the label – if there is one.
Why ‘organic’? ‘Organic’ is a rather odd name since all food is organic, meaning that it’s made from living things. But it seems to have stuck. Organic farming is called ‘biological farming’ in some countries.Then there’s biodynamic farming… and permaculture. All these slightly different types of farming are sustainable which is the most important thing to remember. Confusing, isn’t it!
What’s so great about organic food? It looks much the same as ordinary food produced by modern farming. But there are differences.
When you buy organic food, you support farming which is sustainable. Because no hazardous chemicals are used, farmers don’t get contaminated and nor do their families
Organic farming is friendly to our planet and the wonderful diversity of living things on it (often called biodiversity)
Organic foods should be free of pesticide (or other synthetic chemical) residues. Nobody knows what the long term effects of eating slightly contaminated food might be. High levels of pesticide residues can kill or poison people. Lower levels of residues may cause cancers such as leukemia in children
There seem to be small but real differences in minor nutrients with organic fruit and vegetables being better
Organic produce does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which for some people is very important (see box below)
Many people claim that organic food tastes better
Problems with organic growing: Can organic farming feed the world?
Many studies indicate that yields from organic farms are around 20 percent less for many important food crops. The reasons for this are twofold: lack of nitrogen in the soil and crop rotation. This means that at any one time, about a fifth of farmland is not producing food because it has to be sown with soil-building cover crops and nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants to restore fertility
Organic food is usually more expensive
Organic farmers are missing out on all kinds of useful traits which genetic engineering offers (like disease, pest and drought resistance, greater yields and many more). Why? Because organic regulations ban anything which involves genetic engineering of any type including the precision technique called CRISPR. But this ban seems to be based on conviction rather than on scientific evidence. It doesn’t have to be like this — here’s A co-existence peace plan for GMOs and organics
What is sustainable farming?
Sustainable farming(= sustainable agriculture) is growing food in a way that means you can continue to do it for ever. It does not depend totally upon cheap energy (fossil fuel) which is now used to power huge machines and for making fertilisers and pesticides. Another part of sustainable farming is selling most of the food locally through farmers’ markets, local shops and other community schemes. This avoids using yet more fossil fuels for long-distance transport in trucks, ships and airplanes. And sustainable farming — more or less the same as organic farming — is kind to the land and animals that are part of it.
The nitrogen cycle overwhelmed: fertiliser pollution and dead zones
Artificial nitrogen fertilisers are now readily available thanks to the Haber-Bosch process (invented in Germany in the early 20th century). They are made by reacting nitrogen gas (from the atmosphere, most of which is nitrogen) with hydrogen gas to make ammonia compounds which plants need to grow properly. The hydrogen comes from methane which comes from natural gas, a fossil fuel. And the process itself requires high-pressures and temperatures which uses a lot of energy and that, of course, also comes from fossil fuels.
Today these fertilisers are heavily used throughout the world because they’re cheap, convenient and effective and mean more food can be grown. But there are downsides and they are big ones: pollution of the atmosphere and oceans. When farmers scatter it on their fields, soil microbes convert some of it into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas which adds to global warming. And because these fertilisers easily dissolve in water, heavy rains can cause a lot of it to run off into lakes, rivers and the sea where it creates dead zones. Find out about these in this video from NASA:
A few hundred years ago, almost everyone either worked on the land or had direct links to it. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Much land was taken from the poor people who worked it and they had to move to the new industrial cities to find a way to make a living. But even by the mid 1800s, more than half Americans still worked on family-owned farms. Today fewer than 2 per cent do — and family farms are in big trouble. But things are beginning to change. Groups are getting together to support small local farmers by organising farmers’ markets. Over 8,000 of these now operate across the USA. Others lend a hand more directly: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a really great way to help local farmers make a decent living as well as linking people to their own direct — and cheaper — source of locally-grown food.
Intensive agriculture is another name people use to describe modern industrial farming. It has been very successful at producing cheap food but there are hidden costs and it depends totally, directly and indirectly, on cheap and plentiful oil and natural gas. It is not sustainable — people won’t be able to keep on doing it — because the oil will run out. And the oil farmers burn to power their machines is damaging the planet by producing greenhouse gases which, in turn, cause climate change. World food production is at risk from farming methods that have degraded soils, over-used aquifers, polluted water and air, and caused the loss of animal and plant species.
“From northern China to the Middle East, from North Africa to the Central Valley of California, a common and unsettling story is unfolding: the effort to produce massive grain and food surpluses that will feed billions and to supply drinking water to the largest knots of humanity on the planet is taxing aquifers beyond their capacity.” Source
Family farms are in big trouble
The same is true in Britain where the pressure has been on to make farms bigger and ‘more competitive’. Family farms are going bust which is very sad. Farmers who own their land and work on it every day tend to look after their property in a kindly way, leaving space for other animals to live there with them. Huge farms owned by companies are run, like factories, just to make a profit. Wildlife and caring for the environment are not on the agenda.
And so it is with your house (or your room in your parents’ house): you care for it because if you don’t, you suffer if it falls down or gets really yukky. If you owned thousands of houses (or rooms) and rented them out to other people, nobody would much care for them.
What was the Industrial Revolution?
The Industrial Revolution started (about 250 years ago) when people realised that they could use fossil fuel (like coal and oil) to power machinery. Previously, machinery was either powered by animals, humans or by wind or water
“Agriculture was responsible for approximately 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. It is the dominant driver of tropical deforestation…” The list goes on. Source: World Resources Institute, 2016
Aquifers are underground water sources: groundwater. Many areas of the United States are experiencing ground-water depletion. For more on this, click here.