Sunday, 17 June 2012

Environmental Economics: Genetic Engineering (Part 1)



It is now June 2012, marking the one year anniversary of my blog. First, thank you to all my readers and commenter’s – and also the good folks who link me from different sites.

To mark this anniversary, I’m going to attempt to give a thorough view on how environmental and economical policies are conflicting, and how new policies should be created for the most productive result. This will be long, but I believe it should provide a solid insight into what most people believe are completely different issues, are actually very much intertwined. As a result of the length of this topic, I am breaking it into 5 different posts. This will be the first. The sixth and final post will tie all the policies together and attempt to explain their economic impact.

It’s actually amazing how many environmental issues are real problems on the planet, yet their severity and significance is misrepresented through popular media mediums. Obviously everyone has heard of climate change and nuclear issues, or even animal extinction. Yet, there are far more intense problems that the world will have to solve that will heavily affect economic activity around the world. Genetic Engineering, Energy Production, Water Management, Conservation, Land Degradation, and just simple waste will all be issues with a growing population. This first post will deal exclusively with genetic engineering.

The reasoning behind genetic engineering is pretty simple. Due to an increase in the world’s population, an increase of the world’s food supply will have to occur. To obtain this, plants and animals are genetically changed to maximize production. The Green Revolution is the prime example of this.  Currently, GE products can be found everywhere. GE plants and animals have the ability to produce different elements needed for drugs far cheaper than organic production. For example, antithrombin is produced in genetically engineered goats (called pharming) while bacteria specifically made to create insulin has been around since 1982. Yes, this comes straight from Wikipedia, yet I wanted to give some context. The process is rather simple. Identify the gene you wish to add to a host, isolate the gene, construct a new gene (add any elements to make the gene stronger, work properly), and target the selected part of the host you wish to change. Then watch the transformation of the host, and confirm regeneration with selectable markers within the transformed cells. As I am not a scientist, this process could probably be explained better – so any corrections are welcome.

The main selling point for genetically produced materials is cost, as it seems to be cheaper to create substances that are more likely to accomplish one’s goal. However, a large amount of risks seem to have been forgotten. For example, Dr. Pusztai’s research reports that GE potatoes are poisonous to mammals. Basically, DNA found in the snowdrop plant and the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMv) are used in GE potatoes and when tested against organic (regular) potatoes, rats fed the GE potatoes had a severe viral infection caused by the CaMv. The same CaMv gene is spliced into almost all GE foods and crops.

This is not the only example of problems. Monsanto is probably the largest GE producer on the planet, and one of their products is rBGH which was approved by the FDA in 1994. This product forces cows to improve milk production by using 400-500% higher levels of Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1) in cows. It was warned by the US Congressional Watchdog agency, the GAO to not approve IGF-1 as it could cause a public health problem (specifically breast, prostate and colon cancer). The EU and Canada both banned rBGH, but continues to be injected into 10% of all US Dairy Cows.

These are both specific problems, but GE products have macro problems as well. Genetic Pollution is when GE plants and animals interact with their environment and spread the genes. Think of it like this, when an insect pollinates a genetically altered plant, and then pollinates an organic plant – they pollute the organic plant with GE material. The EU doesn’t believe that genetic pollution can be controlled and are currently looking into the issue. In agreement with evolutionary theories, once released from the lab GE products can reproduce, migrate and mutate and the outcome is unpredictable.

Besides this, other macro problems are the potential creation of superweeds and superpests, or pests and weeds that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides. This means stronger pesticides will be used to control which most likely will be more toxic, and these toxic chemicals will find their way into the human food supply. One GE soil microorganism entitled Klebsiella planticola destroys key soil nutrients needed for proper growth of food, while lab tests has suggests that the common boll worm will evolve into a super pest immune to Bt sprays and other environmentally friendly biopesticides.

Don’t get me wrong, genetically engineering plants for greater chances of growth and stronger crops is a good idea. However, doing it ethically and with careful consideration is a must. If the genome is stable, genetic modification is not harmful. Additionally, genetic modification does not have to be about pesticide resistance. In many cases, large corporations such as Monsanto create the very pesticides they claim their plants are protected against.  Remember, Monsanto and other GE providers are corporations – pro profit. For example, Monsanto could lose billions of dollars from a court ruling in Brazil.  Basically a consortium of farmers argued the GM soya given to the farmers by Monsanto is “highly contaminating” (Batista da Silveira) in terms of attempting to differentiate between organic and GM soya. To explain the situation further, the reason for purchasing the Monsanto products is the farmers can spray roundup (herbicide glyphosate) for weed control without affecting their crop which are created by Monsanto to be roundup resistant. Monsanto collects royalties from the farmers for these seeds, and now may be forced to return these same royalties.

Relating this back to economics is simple; it’s our food supply. Prince Charles summed it up best when stating: “what we should be talking about is food security not food production”. He’s partly correct. Ensuring our food supply is not contaminated for generations due to corporations attempting to monopolize food production is a tough battle. However, maximizing food production efficiency will always be a topic of discussion. Maximizing efficiency is always on the mind of our capitalistic society. Sure, for the short term genetic engineered crops perform marvelously. However, when long term use of the product can cause different diseases and become the origin of more problems than society could ever anticipate, this is when GE production of food should be re-analyzed. The cost of health and environmental problems that GE products are linked to are too great to be ignored.

One of the best ideas I have read to solve the commercialization of DNA coding is creating an open source library for different plants. This would eliminate the monopoly that corporations have on GE production and allow far more minds to place their input into the creation of stronger more durable plants. Ideally, this is a great idea, practically it would almost never work due to the powerful GE lobbyist groups who would do anything to prevent this open source library from occurring. Patenting products is a key part of GE corporation's business model, and adding more freedom and transparency to their products would be very difficult to legislate into law. 

Regulation of GE products has been increased drastically over the last few years, which is good. The EU leads the way, while other countries are developing stronger policies. The age old saying of "we are what we eat" can be applied to this situation, and rightly so. GE production should not be abolished, yet the community should be far wearier of the potential outcome of their actions. 





*A good list of GE companies can be found here: http://www.biofortified.org/resources/genetic-engineering-companies/

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