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Last updated: Oct 24th, 2011

Genetic Engineering or Genetic Modification:

Genetic engineering or genetic modification refers to the modification of the genetic structure or genome of a living organism, which are then called genetically modified organisms or GMO's. Most commonly, genetic modification is carried out to add certain desirable traits or characteristics to commercial crops.

Genetic engineering is not the same as selective breeding, which is a safe and traditional practice that has been carried out for thousands of years throughout human agricultural history. Selective breeding results in slow, gradual modification to plants, and has less of an ecological impact because over time, the plants bred in this manner become dependent on humans, and when they escape into the wild, they have traits selected for human agriculture, whose effects are generally well-known and well-understood. There are, however, even a few examples of how selective breeding for agriculture has resulted in ecological damage, such as how Kudzu was adapted to grow in the American south, an area it was initially not adapted to grow in, but once it became successfully cultivated, it escaped and became an invasive species there.

My views on genetic engineering:

I see genetic engineering as a potentially dangerous practice, mainly because of the potential for GMO's to escape into a wild population, thus permanently altering natural ecosystems. The effect of introducing new genetic material into these populations is often largely unknown. Because genetic modification can introduce new, major changes in a species, it introduces the potential for this species to explode exponentially if the modification is adaptive or beneficial. This could have catastrophic implications for natural ecosystems.

I thus support restrictions on genetic engineering so that it is only used in the cases in which there is virtually no chance of GMO's escaping into the wild. If and when GMO's are used in commercial agriculture, I would support mandatory labelling of anything, food products or any types of products, containing any genetically-modified material. This would enable people to choose whether or not they wanted to buy genetically modified products. I imagine that most people would refrain from buying food with genetically-modified ingredients, and some people would refrain from all genetically-modified products on religious grounds.

Genetically-engineering of Pest-resistant Crops is Not Sustainable:

Naturally, plants manufacture a variety of chemicals and toxins in order to protect themselves against pests. Plants have chemicals that protect against insects, larger herbivores, and also against bacteria, fungi, and even viruses (an example would be the lemon-scented chemicals in lemongrass and other herbs). When raising open-pollinated crops, each plant has its own unique genetic material, and produces a different proportion of defence chemicals...as pests eat or target the most vulnerable plants, the population of plants will naturally shift their proportions of defence chemicals to be most protective against whatever pests are targeting them.

GMO crops are genetically identical, so they cannot do this. When chemical defences are genetically-engineered into crops that are then grown in a monoculture, you end up with a single defence chemical in very high concentrations. This produces immense selection pressure for pests to adapt to high concentrations of this chemical. Although up-front, in the short-term, this produces greater protection for the plants, in the long-term, the pests will adapt to the chemical, and because the concentration was so high, this defence chemical now becomes useless. So, genetical engineering is not only not sustainable for plant-based chemical defences, but it has the potential to "ruin" or render globally useless a chemical defence, which could have potential ecological impacts as well as economic impacts (it would then render useless the use or application of this chemical by others, such as organic farmers).

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