Genetic Engineering: The Eggplant that Ate Chicago


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Genetic Engineering:

The Eggplant that Ate Chicago

Anya Carton Kramer

April 29, 2008

English 12

thousands of years, humans have worked to domesticate plants through
selective breeding
and hybridization for the purpose of producing higher yields and easier
growth. Recently, however, the use of hybridization is being displaced by genetic
engineering, with its powerful ability to alter the genetic makeup of organisms and thus
their attrib
utes and characteristics. Genetic engineering (GE), also known as
bioengineering, or more commonly as genetic modification (GM), is drastically different
from hybridization, a more passive form of agricultural enhancement, and involves
altering plant DNA.
Genetic engineering is having unintended consequences which
threaten not only human life, but plant and animal life as well. In addition, government
agencies have not kept pace with new technological advancements and their oversight of
genetic engineering
has been haphazard. Finally, genetic engineering is changing the
economic landscape of agriculture making it harder for small farmers all over the world
to survive. For these reasons there needs to be greater governmental control and oversight
of genetic

Human domestication of plants through selective breeding and hybridization is an
ancient process. For example, modern day wheat was created 4,000 years ago by
breeding tetraploid durum wheat with goat grass (Sagoff 117). The process of
zation consists of breeding one organism with another of a different species or
variety. Plant hybridizing, or cross
pollination, involves pollinating a plant with the
pollen of another plant that is a different species, but is in the same genus. For examp
le, it
would not be possible to crossbreed a corn plant and a potato plant because they are not
in the same genus, and therefore do not have the same number of chromosomes (Relf 1).
This differs from genetic engineering (which saw its commercial introducti
on in 1994)
because the process still falls under the rules of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction
is unique because, unlike bioengineering, genes move, “in the company of associated
genes that regulate their expression.” This process ensures that gen
es are in the proper
place and do not inadvertently alter the function of other genes in their midst. Since
genetic engineering does not fall under the rules of sexual reproduction, it offers no such
assurances (Fernadez 1 and Pollan 208).
Currently there
are only two ways to splice
genes into plants: by infecting them with the pathogen agrobacterium which infiltrates the
plant’s cells and alters the plant’s DNA, or shooting it with a gene gun. (Pollan 206
For example, insect resistant, or Bt, crops a
re made by inserting a gene from the natural
bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the plant’s DNA (Fernandez 1 and Pschorn
Strauss 2). However, bioengineering has been known to cause “genetic instability” in
which various unexpected effects range fro
m subtle, nearly invisible, chemical alterations
to “manifestly outlandish” physical alterations (Pollan 209). Glenda Debrecht, a
Monsanto horticulturist, says she sees “a great many freaky potato plants.” This statement
not only shows the instability of t
he process, but emphasizes a key argument. If Debrecht
sees “a great many freaky potato plants,” how many “invisib[ly]” altered potato plants
have slipped through the system (Pollan 208

Because genetic engineering is such a new and untested science,
it comes with
many risks, not the least of which is to human health (Pollan 206). The chief reason for
this is the presence of genetic instability, which only increases as more genes are
“stacked”, or added (Pschorn
Strauss 2). World
renowned genetic modif
ication expert
Arpad Pusztai, conducted the first independent study of genetically engineered crops. His
findings showed that rats fed GM potatoes had, “smaller livers, hearts, testicles and
brains, damaged immune systems, and showed structural changes in
their white blood
cells making them more vulnerable to infection and disease…” Additionally, the rats’
thymuses and spleens showed damage, and many organs, such as the pancreas and
intestine, had enlarged tissue. These symptoms appeared after only ten days
(Lendman 1
and 2). Later independent studies confirmed Pusztai results and found more disturbing
health issues such as: bleeding stomachs, liver and kidney lesions, high offspring
mortality rates, and death (Lendman 2 and 3). Recently, symptoms have been
worldwide. Many pigs and cows fed GM corn have become sterile. Seventy
shepherds have reported that twenty
five percent of sheep that were fed Bt cotton plants
died (Lendman 3). In Iowa, farmers have reported that contraception rates among s
(female pigs) dropped from eighty to twenty percent when the sows were fed GM corn.
Additionally, most sows experienced false pregnancies, others delivered bags of water,
and some stopped menstruating all together. Farmers also reported that male pigs,
and bulls became sterile (Lendman 5). In India, workers handling Bt cotton developed
severe allergies, which effected their skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tracts. Symptoms
included: itchy, red and swollen skin, red and swollen eyes with, “excessi
ve tearing” and
increased mucus production and sneezing. Some cases were so severe that workers were
hospitalized (Lendman 5).

Bioengineering also poses serious risks to the environment. Of these risks,
biological pollution is the most feared. Biological
pollution is when bio

or trans

begin spreading through the environment, impregnating nontransgenic plants, and
eliminating the “natural strain”. The ramifications of biological pollution are enormous,
and not only limited to plant life. One study, pu
blished in
in May of 1999, showed
that pollen from Bt corn killed monarch butterfly caterpillars. Pollen from Bt corn was
blown into a neighboring field of milkweed plants, which the monarch caterpillars were
eating (Whitman 5). Michael Pollan, auth
or of the
Botany of Desire
and well
agricultural journalist had this to say, “‘Everything affecting everything else’ is not a bad
description of what happens in a garden or, for that matter, in any ecosystem.” (Pollan
187). Scientists have proven tha
t GE crops can pollinate related plants. For example,
scientists discovered that weeds in the mustard family began exhibiting herbicide
tolerance after being pollinated by Roundup Ready canola. Even more worrisome is that
scientists have found that transge
nes transfer “more readily than ordinary ones.” (Pollan
213). One study of twenty processed foods labeled free of GM ingredients showed
that eleven had traces of GM ingredients and five showed significant amounts. Such
ingredients are used in two
s of the processed food in the United States (Ackerman
49). “[As] harmful as chemical pollution can be, it eventually disperses and fades, but
biological pollution is self
replicating.” (Pollan 213).

Another one of scientists’ budding concerns is the effe
ct of such a large amount of
Bt introduced into the environment from GE plants. Despite the assurances of corporate
scientists on its “safety”, Bt crops have been known to kill nontargeted insects as
demonstrated by the aforementioned monarch example (Fern
andez 1 and Pollan 211). In
addition, scientists have discovered that Bt toxins are building up in the soil. This is
because, unlike traditional Bt sprays, which break down quickly in the sunlight and are
only used as a last resort, genetically engineered
Bt crops produce Bt in every part of
their “body” from their roots to their pollen (Pollan 211). The buildup of Bt is not only
effecting the environment, but the economy as well.

Genetic engineering is having a major impact on the economics of farming. As

the years since the dawn of industrial biotechnology increase, so does fear of the
development of insect resistance to the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Since every
part of Bt crops contains the toxin, these crops put so much Bt toxin into the en
on such a continuous basis that pests will undoubtedly develop resistance. Some
corporations producing Bt crops have developed “Resistance Management Plans”. These
plans instruct farmers using Bt crops to plant a portion of their land with tradit
ional crops
in the hopes of preventing the first Bt resistant bug from mating with the second and
diluting the gene. However, this is not a long
term solution. At the most, scientists
believe this plan will stave off resistance for another thirty years. Ye
t this does not
provide much comfort. Bt is not an industrial chemical. It is a natural resource. One that
is being bled dry. When confronted with questions about the logic of using up such a
valuable resource, Monsanto executives responded, “There are a t
housand other Bts out
there. We can handle this problem with a new product.” This attitude towards the future,
an attitude of instant gratification unmindful of future consequences, is a longstanding
tradition in western culture. It is the same attitude th
at persuaded people to build nuclear
power plants before anyone knew how to dispose of the nuclear waste.

Beyond the environmental and health suffering, Bt resistance is a serious threat to
organic farmers. Organic farmers pride themselves on producing “c
lean” crops. They use
home remedies such as spraying neem tree oil to discourage Colorado potato beetles,
grow flowering plants that attract certain helpful bugs such as lady bugs and praying
mantis, plant “scapegoats” which pests prefer, and rotate the cr
ops they grow during
given years. However, when all else fails and they are faced with a bad infestation,
organic farmers must rely on Bt. It is the only pesticide that organic farmers use, when
they use it at all, and the loss of it could send the organic
farming industry into a
depression (Pollan 186, 211, 213
215 & 222 and Fernandez 1). However, organic farmers
are not the only ones at risk because of genetic engineering.

There is a risk that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to
fford seeds for GM crops. This is because GM plants have been patented (Whitman 7).
Patenting these plant varieties will raise the price of farming because farmers are not
licensed to use any seeds produced by their GM crops. These seeds fall under several

U.S. patents such as, in the case of Monsanto’s NewLeaf Potatoes, 5,196,525; 5,164,316:
5,322,938; and 5,352,605. In addition to the price of seeds, farmers are also required to
pay a “technological fee” in order to use the seeds (Whitman 7, Pollan 190, T
he Conflict
4 and 0 1). Moreover, the unwanted cross
pollination of nontransgenic crops has been
occurring more readily. Farmers who did not purchase GE crops have found themselves
under attack from corporations seeking reparations for the “unlawful use
of their
technology”. In one case, Monsanto, one of the largest crop biotechnology corporations,
sued Organic canola farmer Percy Schmeiser for $400,000, when they discovered that his
canola crop contained the Roundup Ready genetic markings. Schmeiser resp
onded that
the seeds he had saved from the previous year must have been contaminated by Monsanto
canola from a neighboring field. At trial, Monsanto contested that canola on all of
Shmeiser’s eight fields, totaling 900 acres, possessed genetic makeup that
was more than
90% similar to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. This, they said, was within the
standard for commercial grade stock. In rebuttal, Schmeiser argued that the genetic
similarities ranged from infinitesimally small to 68%. His findings were later
by independent tests by the University of Manitoba. In the federal case, Justice Andrew
McKay ruled that Monsanto was within its rights to ask for reparations. However,
Monsanto would only receive the technology fee which was required of all far
mers who
purchased Monsanto Roundup Ready. For Schmeiser, at $15 an acre, the price would be
$13,500. After his repeals were rejected, Schmeiser asked to be heard by the Canadian
Supreme Court. His request was granted. In May of 2004, the Supreme Court iss
ued their
findings. The Court found Monsanto’s patent to be valid, but as Schmeiser did not profit
from its presence in his field, therefore he was not forced to pay. However, although
Schmeiser was not forced to pay the $13,500, it is safe to say that he
lost more than he
won. By the time the case was brought to a close it had lasted for four years. Schmeiser
spent over $160,000 for legal fees, and another $40,000 on travel and labor fees for his
farm while he was away. This is not inclusive of the money S
chmeiser lost from not
selling a year’s worth of contaminated canola. But by far the most substantial loss was
the loss of Schmeiser’s own seed. For forty years, Schmeiser had been experimenting
with his canola, using his own seed, studying the qualities o
f the different years and
breeding them together. All of Schmeiser’s seed was contaminated by Roundup Ready.
Schmeiser has been forced to start from scratch and there is still no guarantee that his
seeds will not be contaminated by Roundup Ready again (Ack
erman 49, Pschorn
2 and The Conflict 1

Genetically engineered crops allow corporations like Monsanto to retain control
over farmers and orchestrate agricultural dependency. GE crops are designed to work
with specific herbicides and pesticide
s produced by the parent corporations. Furthermore,
farmers seeking to use GE crops sign contracts that prevent them from using generic
versions of these pesticides and herbicides. It is no coincidence that GE products began
appearing after patents on herb
icides and pesticides began expiring. For example,
Monsanto’s line of Roundup Ready crops was introduced not long after Monsanto’s
patent on the herbicide Roundup expired in the year 2000. Additionally, the price of
clearing a new GM crop for commercial us
e costs less than one million dollars while the
price of bringing a new pesticide through the regulatory process costs between forty and a
hundred million dollars. The motivation for corporations to engineer and push genetically
engineered crops into produ
ction is tremendous. Coupled with the low introduction price,
corporations make profits from seed sales, technological fees, and herbicide and pesticide
sales. When asked his thoughts on the downside of biotechnology, Steve Young, a large
industrial potato
farmer, had this to say, “Oh, there is a cost all right. It gives corporate
America one more noose around my neck.” (Pschorn
Strauss 1 and Pollan 220 & 235).

Finally, government oversight of genetically engineered food has not been
adequate. In a 2002
ional Geographic
article, Dean DellaPenna, a plant biologist at
Michigan State University and supporter of genetically engineered food, was adamant in
his argument that genetically engineered foods undergo “rigorous testing” that surpasses
that of nontrans
genic foods (Ackerman 31 & 42). This is completely untrue. Genetically
engineered crops are unique because they do not fall under one classification or
jurisdiction. For example, government oversight of genetically engineered plants is
divided into three j
urisdictions. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
oversees plants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees pesticides, and the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food. In addition to these agencies there
are also a number
of smaller federal departments and agencies that hold jurisdiction over
Biotechnology. Some of these agencies are: the National Institutes of Health, the National
Research Council, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Center for
Biotechnology Info
rmation, the Department of State’s Office of International Information
Programs, the Patent and Trademark Office, the Department of Commerce, the Federal
Trade Commission, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Customs Service
(Caplan and Spl
itzer 2). Within these given agencies, testing has been minimal and
scientific findings have been ignored. For example, when Arpad Pusztai delivered his

as mentioned above

he was threatened and eventually fired (Lendman 1). In
addition, regulation
and classification of GE foods is outdated and ineffective. For
example, the Food and Drug Administration does not “officially regard…[Bt
crops]…as… food”. It is their position that since the crops contain Bacillus thuringiensis
they are a pesticide, not
a food, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental
Protection Agency. The EPA’s policy towards GM crops relies on the outdated idea of
“substantial equivalence”. Since Bt is a “safe” pesticide, and widely grown foods are also
“safe,” then the res
ulting crop should be just as “safe.” Such crops are nothing more than
a “sum of…[their] …parts”. Therefore, Bt crops pass through the regulatory system
without having a single required test run (Pollan 236 and Fernandez 1). Other agencies
have similar pos
itions regarding GE food. The FDA operates under The Federal Food,
Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). FFDCA requires that the FDA perform pre
safety testing on any foods that have substances intentionally added to them, i.e.
genetically modified food,
and highly processed food such as cereal. This rule is only
curtailed if the additive is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). For example, because
of its long history of use, wheat has been classified as GRAS. The FDA’s policy
regarding GE foods is that it
is “substantially equivalent” to its conventional counterpart
and is therefore GRAS. Since GE foods are classified as GRAS they are not subject to
market safety testing. In October 1997, the agency finalized its most recent protocol
on GE food. This p
rotocol stated that, “institutions seeking to commercialize a GE food
are only required to submit a summary of their data to [the] FDA.” The FDA further
stated that this summary is “not technically required to include any information” (Caplan
and Splitzer
3). The USDA’s role with respect to GE crops is to determine whether
they are “pest plants.” Pest plants, as defined by the federal Plant Pest Act, are plants that
pose a threat to another plant. For example, in North America some forms of Ivy are
ered pest plants because they kill trees. GE plants are considered pest plants if: the
gene used to modify the plant comes from a pest plant, or the recipient organism of the
gene is a pest plant. If the GE plant fits none of these criteria, it is not requ
ired to undergo
any testing to learn the environmental repercussions of its introduction into a habitat. This
system of overview was established in 1987. In 1993, only six years after the system was
established, a system that already provided minimum overs
ight, the USDA allowed six
GE crop species
corn, cotton, potatoes, soybeans, and tomatoes
to be grown without
USDA oversight. “Part of the process for commercialization of a GE crop is to receive
deregulated status from APHIS [the USDA’s Animal and Plant
Health Inspection
Service] under the Plant Pest Act. Institutions petition for deregulation with information
gathered from field trials. APHIS has never rejected a petition for deregulated status, and
in every case when asked to do so has found that GE cr
ops do not have a significant
impact on the environment.” (Caplan and Splitzer 7
8). Because of the division of
jurisdiction over GM crops and outdated classifications, government agencies and
officials do not have a comprehensive view of all the issues.

f genetic engineering is to remain in commercial use, there must be more direct,
uncompromising, and ethical government oversight. Since genetic engineering’s
introduction and replacement of hybridization in the development of crops, there have
been a numb
er of unintended consequences. These include, but are not limited to: the
death and illness of humans, animals and plants, the eventual emergence of Bt resistant
crops, and the shift of the agricultural economy. This can be attributed to the fact that
rnment oversight has been inadequate. Even though genetic engineering is still
relatively new, with its commercial introduction only fourteen years ago, transgenes have
been replicating and infiltrating wild and domestic plants (Fernadez 1 and Pschorn
uss 2). We do not know what the long
term effects will be. However, as genetically
engineered crops have only been appearing in highly processed food such as cereal,
humans have been receiving relatively low concentrations of it (Whitman 4). Given the
toms that animals and humans who have been exposed to undiluted GE crops, one
can imagine the results when GE crops infect the majority of, if not all, plant life.

Work Cited

Ackerman, Jennifer. “Food: How Altered?”
National Geographic
Vol. 201 No.
5 (May

2002): 32

Caplan, Richard and Splitzer, Skip. “Regulation of Genetically Engineered Crops and

Foods in the United States.”
. Mar. 2001. 27 Feb. 2008.


“The Conflict.”
Percy Shmeiser
. 29 Mar
. 2008.


Drunker, Steven M. “Why Concerns About Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Food

Are Scientifically Justified.”
Alliance for Bio
. 2004. 21 Feb. 2008.


Cornejo, Jorge. “
U.S. Farmers Increase Adoption of Genetically Engineered

Crops and Favor Multiple Traits.”
Amber Waves
. Sept. 2007. 27 Feb. 2008.


Ganzel, Bill and Reinhardt, Claudia. “The Science of Hybrids.”
Living History Farm.

2003. 4 Mar. 2008.


Lendman, Stephen. “Potential Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Food.”

. 22 Feb. 2008. 10 Mar. 2008.

Pollan, Michael.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s

Eye View of the World
. New York:

Random House Trade; Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 2001. P181


Strauss, Efriedal. “Genetically engineered crops. Sacrificing the rights of future

Biowatch South Africa
. 2004. 31 Mar. 2008.

Relf, Diane (Contact). “Plant B
reeding For The Home Gardener.” Adapted from “Plant

Breeding for the Home Gardener.” Henry R. Owen, Jr. April 1997. 3 Arp. 2008.


Sagoff, Mark. “Agriculture and Biotechno
Encyclopedia of Bioethics
. Vol 1. 3

Ed. New York: Macmillan references USA, 2004. P116

“What are the Dangers?”
Safe Food
. 2001. 21 Feb. 2008.


Whitman, Deborah B. “Genetically Modified Foods: Ha
rmful or Helpful?”

CSA: Discovery Guides
. April 2000. 27 Feb. 2008.