Find out the risks of genetically engineered crops.
Biotechnology is a method of gaining and maintaining corporate control over food resources. It involves genetic engineering, i.e. taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. For instance, genetic material from an arctic flounder, which is resistant to freezing temperatures, may be embedded into a tomato plant to prevent frost damage. Genetic engineering involves substantial overhead expenses and is capital-intensive. In order to recoup these costs and generate a profit, governments provide corporations a temporary monopoly on the new technology in the form of patents, and maintain legal structures for the enforcement of intellectual property rights. In addition to these legal mechanisms, biotech firms develop genetically modified (GM) varieties that are engineered with terminator technology, rendering harvested seeds sterile. Farmers cannot replant these seeds after harvest. Rather, they must continue purchasing from corporate suppliers.
Clearly, genetic modification (GM) differs greatly from traditional breeding practices. Specifically, genetic modification involves the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both. In contrast, traditional breeding techniques allow reproduction to take place only between closely related life forms, e.g., tomatoes can cross-pollinate with other tomatoes but not with soybeans, and certainly not with pigs.
Genetic engineering violates natural boundaries within which reproduction occurs by crossing genes between unrelated species that would never crossbreed in nature, and it does so in an imprecise, potentially hazardous way. The genetic modification process is imprecise because it is impossible to guide the insertion of the new gene, and even if it were possible, genes do not work in isolation but in highly complex relationships which are not understood. Consequently, genetic alterations can lead to unforeseen interactions and unpredictable effects.
The possibility exists that biotechnology will contribute to the already serious problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Genetic engineers use antibiotic marker genes (which themselves were designed for antibiotic resistance) to transfer genetic coding from one life form to another. Antibiotics are then used to kill the cells whose genes were not successfully modified, thereby creating the possibility that bacteria living in the digestive tract of humans or animals could acquire antibiotic resistance from GMO foods eaten by the human or animal.
Virtually all genetically engineered crops contain genetic material from viruses, since the artificial insertion of virus genes is a very common practice in the production of transgenic crops. These virus genes may combine with genes from infecting viruses, and experimental evidence indicates the new viruses created in this way may be more infectious, cause more serious diseases, and have a tendency to cross species borders. For example, the most common virus DNA used in genetic engineering is the promoter of the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV), which is used in almost every case, including the Roundup Ready (RR) Soy of Monsanto, the Bt-Maize of Novartis, GE cotton and various varieties of GE Canola. CaMV has the potential to reactivate dormant viruses or create new viruses in all species to which it is transferred. Potential consequences include epidemics of new viruses and the development of cancer.
According to Dr. Stanley Ewen, one of Scotland’s leading experts in tissue diseases, eating genetically modified (GM) food may lead to stomach and colon cancer. The CaMV virus used in GM foods is infectious, and could act as a growth factor in the stomach or colon, encouraging the growth of polyps. This is particularly troubling since the faster and bigger the polyps grow, the more likely they are to be malignant. Ewen recommended that the health of people who live near farm-scale GM crop trials be monitored, as their food and water will be contaminated by GM material, which could hasten the growth of malignant tumors. GM products such as maize and soybeans are also fed to cattle. Cow’s milk, cheese, or even a lightly cooked, thick fillet steak could contain active GM material and derivatives that can be directly ingested by humans. Based on these risks, which extend to a wide range of GM food crops, Ewen recommended a ban on GM crop trials while their safety is tested on animals.
Commercial farming uses vast quantities of genetically modified organisms, thereby creating ample opportunity for generating new potentially hazardous organisms through recombination. Approximately 27 million acres of cropland in the United States is planted with RR soybeans, while in Canada canola accounts for about 7 million acres. Every cell in these genetically modified crops contains virus genes. There are about 50,000 plants in an average cornfield, with each corn plant containing about 1 billion cells, with each cell containing one CaMV promoter which is prone to recombination into more hazardous viruses. 
In addition to importing GM commodities from countries such as the United States and Brazil, India is also expanding its domestic production of genetically engineered crops. Biotechnology companies, backed by substantial financial resources to mobilize scientific opinion as well as political support, have exerted tremendous pressure on the government of India to support the development and adoption of GM crops. Consequently, India has the unfortunate distinction of achieving the fastest growth in genetically modified (GM) crop adoption globally. India, which is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, is likely to grow genetically modified varieties on 80 percent of the total land area cultivated to cotton by 2010-2011. India’s biotechnology sector hopes to replicate its “success” in promoting BT cotton by spreading out into food commodities, wherein genetic engineering experiments are being conducted on maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, pigeon pea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, and several species of fish.
Commercial agriculture incurs risks that are completely unnecessary. Organic yields are at least as high as those of the genetically modified crops used in conventional farming. Organic farming is better able to withstand droughts, and is also relatively immune to the upcoming and inevitable shortages of petroleum supplies. In contrast, commercial agriculture depends heavily on petroleum-based chemical inputs, in the absence of which conventional crop yields would fall sharply. Finally, as taught by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, the world produces more food than needed, and starvation is actually caused by unequal distribution, not by food scarcity.
Chand Prasad is a Ph.D. Agricultural economist. His areas of specialization are international trade, finance, and industrial organization.