© Josh Sager – September 2013
When you pour yourself a glass of orange juice for breakfast, your beverage, one day, may be genetically modified with pig genes. Accompanying this orange juice, you may also have a nice bowl of Wheaties, produced with wheat that has been modified with insect genes. To round out your balanced breakfast, you may also decide to eat a banana with your Wheaties, giving you the potassium that you need for proper health and, as an added “bonus,” a vaccination booster for hepatitis.
This potential breakfast is, of course, brought to you by the GMO industry and is not as far away from reality as you may assume.
In an attempt to produce crops which are hardier, have higher yields, consume less resources, or are immune to certain diseases, corporations have started researching a variety of ways of modifying natural crops at the genetic level. There are numerous ways altering an organism on the genetic level, ranging in invasiveness between cisgenic modifications (using the genes of closely related species to artificially create a hybrid) to “transgenics” (inserting foreign DNA into a species’ genetic code).
Of the various methods of genetic modification that are being researched, the creation of transgenic crops is starting to produce some very unusual “franken-crops.” Seemingly outlandish genetic combinations, like pig and orange, are not unrealistic, as most life on earth has some degree of genetic commonality—for example, humans and bananas have genetic sequences which are approximately 50% identical.
The combination of a lack of disclosure requirements for GMOs and the development of transgenic crops brings up an extremely interesting: “Shouldn’t people have a right to know what they are consuming and whether they are inadvertently breaking their ethical, religious, or health requirements in regard to food?”
Here are a few examples of new GMO ideas that are especially good illustrations of this question:
Oranges and Pigs
Currently, American orange crops are being afflicted by a highly contagious, incurable and fatal bacterial infection called candidatus liberibacter asiaticus. This infection is carried by tiny parasitic insects called psyllids. Once it is infected, the fruits of the orange tree develop in a deformed manner which causes them to be small, extremely bitter (thus useless for juicing), and discolored green. Eventually, this infection chokes the vascular system of the tree and leads to its wilting and death.
As of yet, there is no real solution to this citrus infection and the yearly loss (average crops which are grown but unusable) of Florida’s orange growers has nearly doubled from 2-3% to 4-5%.
In order to immunize orange crops from the greening bacterium, some scientists have looked towards genetically modifying the plants themselves, thus making them unsusceptible to this specific ailment.
As reported by the NYTimes, several different organisms were seen as potential DNA donors for immunizing the oranges, but pigs were among the most effective. Through transposing lines of pig DNA into oranges, scientists were able to reduce orange trees’ rates of infection with greening bacterium.
It is important to note that these GMO oranges contain only trace amounts of pig DNA, amounting to a miniscule portion of their total genetic code—functionally speaking, such a change is unlikely to have any extreme effect on the nature of the plant (ie. no oranges growing pig snouts).
Despite some success, the stigma of putting pig DNA into oranges has largely killed the project, leading scientists to keep searching for a solution. At this point, there is almost no publically available information about the specifics of the transgenic orange with pig DNA, other than the facts that it was somewhat effective in staving off the greening bacteria and that an FDA official said that “there’s no safety issue from our standpoint — but there is a certain creep factor” in regard to the orange’s safety for consumption.
Beyond the “creep factor” inherent to putting pig DNA into an orange juice that is destined for your breakfast table, there are ethical problems with the process. Under the current framework of the law—where GMO status is undisclosed—people who have dietary limitations based around religious or moral reasons would have no way of knowing what they were consuming.
What if a religious person who must keep kosher or halel (Jewish and Islamic food restrictions) inadvertently consumes pig genetic material because they weren’t made aware that their orange juice has been genetically modified? The pig genes attached to the orange may not resemble the actual pig, but that is irrelevant in the face of religious taboos. Such people would be unintentionally be violating the tenants of their religion.
It appears that there is no danger of transgenic oranges with pig DNA in the immediate future. That said, the march of transgenic science continues and eventually it is very likely that such a combination will actually be approved for sale.
Wheat and Insect Pheromones
Wheat is a major cash crop that goes into a wide variety of food products, ranging from breads to whiskies. As such, it is in the best interests of corporations to research methods of “improving” their crops in order to make it easier for them to be grown and to increase their yield.
Currently, several researchers are working on inserting insect genes into wheat strains in order to create a wheat strain which emits the warning/danger pheromone of various insect species that are a danger to crops. Specifically, this type of transgenic wheat would emit sesquiterpene-beta-farnesene, which causes many aphid species emit as a warning when they sense danger in an area—this acts as a natural scarecrow of sorts, except it is the crops itself which repel the pests.
As with the oranges that contain pig DNA, this use of transgenics involves the insertion of animal proteins into plant goods that are slated for human consumption. Needless to say, this could repel many people and inadvertently lead them to consuming things that they would never voluntarily eat.
To clarify, this is not a typo; there is actually a great deal of research into using bananas as an oral delivery system for a variety of vaccinations. Rather than use needles and physicians/technicians to apply vaccinations, some scientists are looking towards introducing vaccinations into foods that could then be distributed in bulk.
Currently, scientists in New York are attempting to introduce a hepatitis B (HBV) vaccine into the common banana. By genetically modifying a banana to act as a factory for the creation of HBV antigens, scientists could not only grow vaccines (simply plant a grove of GMO banana trees and wait for harvest time), but also package these vaccines in a package which is easy to transport and administer. Once consumed, the antigens within the banana would be absorbed into the body as though they were injected and the person would (theoretically) be immunized from a chosen disease.
While is sounds great that foods can be modified to fight disease, there are some very real dangers to the idea of a self-replicating transgenic vaccine:
- If it were to cross-pollinate, a vaccine banana grove could contaminate regional banana supplies. We have seen this in cases involving GMO corn and there is no reason to assume that it would not happen with GMO bananas.
- As with all vaccines, there are side effects. As such, releasing edible vaccines into the market, to be consumed without the supervision of a doctor, could have some extremely harmful consequences.
- Many people have moral or spiritual problems with vaccinations and the development of food-based vaccines risks vaccinating people without their consent. If ever there were a case of contamination, it is possible that thousands of people could inadvertently consume the vaccine bananas and have their choice taken away (you cannot un-vaccinate).
As of yet, no transgenic edible vaccines have been approved for sale, but research is ongoing and always progressing towards a product which may one day be on the market. This research isn’t limited to producing vaccine bananas, as other crops (ex. tomatoes) are also viable carriers for vaccines—that said, bananas are the most likely carrier, as they are easy to transport and come in their own wrapper.
Everybody has heard the phrase “let the buyer beware” (caveat emptor), but this is a case where the buyer must first be made aware of the dangers. Currently, there is no requirement that GMO goods be labeled in the United States, thus consumers could very easily be eating foods that they would never normally eat.
In my opinion, this situation creates an ethical quandary where the interests of the corporations are put above the rights of the people—corporations are allowed to sell their goods for a massive profit, to the detriment of every American’s right to choose exactly what they put into their bodies.
If a person is informed that something that they are buying contains GMOs and they still choose to consume it, I have no problem with their choice—they are making a conscious decision to consume transgenic crops—and would simply with them the best. That said, few people are going to be given that choice if we do not start regulating and labeling all GMO goods to be put on our shelves.