Posts tagged with: Molecular biology

GE CropsIn a massive new 420-page report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops summarizes their findings on the effects and future genetically engineered (GE) crops.

Here are five facts you should know from the report:

1. Biologists have used genetic engineering of crop plants to express novel traits since the 1980s. But to date, genetic engineering has only been used widely in a few crops for only two traits — insect resistance and herbicide resistance.

2. Despite the claims by critics of GE crops, there is not evidence they have had adverse effects on human health. The committee examined epidemiological data on incidence of cancers and other human-health problems and found that foods that used GE crops were as safe as foods that used non-GE crops. Additionally, a large number of experimental studies provided reasonable evidence that animals were also not harmed by eating food derived from GE crops.
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gmo-food1Last year, the House passed a bill to preempt states from imposing mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food (GMOs). But as Daren Bakst notes, “While it looked like the Senate was going to follow suit, in the last minute, the new Senate bill would actually effectively mandate the labeling of genetically engineered food.”

“In the Senate bill, there would be a national mandatory labeling requirement unless the Secretary of Agriculture determines that there has been substantial participation by labeled foods in voluntary labeling,” says Bakst. “The Secretary has to develop regulations to clarify the process, but there has to be at least 70 percent substantial participation after two years.”

Here is what you should know about GMOs and GMO food labeling: 

What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
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A segment on yesterday’s CBS weekend news and entertainment program Sunday Morning informatively dealt with the controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms. It’ll likely be the best 11 minutes of broadcast science journalism readers will view all week. The segment contrasts the relatively weak arguments presented by the anti-GMO crowd with the real-world benefits of GMOs for everyone, but especially those struggling from hunger in drought- or flood-ravaged areas and impoverished countries.

Two dots not connected in the otherwise outstanding piece are the misperceptions spread by the anti-GMO crowd and the negative impact that would have on companies forced to label their food products derived from GMOs. While CBS correspondent Barry Petersen reports an estimated 80 percent of food sold at U.S. supermarkets contain GMOs, he also notes 57 percent of Americans are skeptical about the safety of GMOs. Labeling safe food as containing GMOs may scare off consumers who can’t afford the higher-priced GMO alternatives.

Here’s hoping the anti-GMO shareholder activists at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and As You Sow view Petersen’s excellent report. These activists are performing more actual harm than perceived good in their crusade against feeding the world.

Monsanto PlantWriting over at the Live58 blog, Catherine Sinclair describes her transition from uncertainty regarding GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) to outright opposition: “After doing some more research, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should avoid GMO as much as possible.” This a conclusion that we might think is counter-intuitive, to say the least, for an organization committed to ending the scourge of global hunger and poverty.

Sinclair’s main indictment of GMOs comes down to the agribusiness giant Monsanto: “Because they are companies seeking profit, seed developers like Monsanto do whatever they can to control the agricultural industry.”

It’s important to distinguish the theoretical and ethical basis for genetic modification from the actual behavior and practice of corporations like Monsanto. Too often the two are conflated. In my new book, Get Your Hands Dirty, I have an updated discussion of a theological framework for evaluating GM foods. As I caution at the conclusion of my examination of GM foods, “nothing in this framework presumes any particular policy outcome in the realm of law, and so, for instance, concerns about the use of property rights as a means to tyrannize or monopolize particular industries ought to be considered.”

Making such a distinction allows an approach that is more nuanced and responsible than simply identifying Monsanto with GMOs in general. So, for instance, a self-identified “hippie” writes in Slate:

I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops (like Roundup Ready Soybeans) lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.

But I’m also not going to let my anti-corporate sentiments get in the way of a diverse and promising field of research. (emphasis added)

Genetic modification and the cronyism that is so endemic to big agribusiness simply aren’t identical. That distinction strikes me as a helpful starting point for responsible discussion of GMOs.

For a critical but balanced examination of GMOs in theological context, check out Brad Littlejohn’s treatment of his “inner Luddite” at Mere Orthodoxy.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.