Grass-root seed and food conferences are springing up everywhere, it seems, and there is a common thread woven through each one - genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
We have had several such conferences in Northern New Mexico: San Ildefonso and Santa Clara pueblos partnered for a spring conference and seed exchange; the Dixon Community Seed Exchange met in April.
Along with the agricultural experts talking about how to propagate and save traditional seeds at the 3rd annual symposium for Sustainable Food and Seed Sovereignty held at Tesuque Pueblo in late September, was longtime canola farmer Percy Schmeiser, who fought the agri-business company Monsanto all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. (Monsanto had sued Schmeiser for patent infringement because the company found its herbicide-resistant canola growing in Schmeiser's field; Schmeiser said the seed had blown there and counter-sued Monsanto for not preventing its genetically modified seed from contaminating his fields.)
Genetic modification of seeds, such as those that invaded Schmeiser's fields, involves the splicing of genes - from plant, human or nonhuman sources - into the DNA of a plant. The new life forms are called transgenic, genetically modified, genetically engineered or genetically modified organisms.
Existing transgenics include:
* A tomato that delays softening and ripening, thus extending shelf life. This tomato is also antibiotic resistant.
* Potatoes that have been altered with the gene from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. When an insects eats the plant's leaves, the enzymes in its stomach digest the Bt protein and convert it to a lethal toxin that causes paralysis and death. (These GMO potatoes, however, turned out to be vulnerable to other insects; Bt does not deter sapsuckers like aphids.)
Bt does not degrade; it's at its full potency all the time, even when ingested. Long-term effects of ingesting Bt products are unknown. When Dr. Arpad Pusztai released the report of a study of GM potatoes fed to rats, the Roweth Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland fired him. His results, as reported in the medical journal The Lancet in 1999: The rats experienced stunted organ and brain growth and breakdowns in their immune systems.
* The Brazil nut gene was spliced into the soybean to improve the nutritional value of the soy nut. One cup, or eight large Brazil nuts, contain 4 grams protein; one cup of soybeans contains 34 grams protein - so what is the advantage here? Brazil nuts can trigger allergic reactions in some people, and companies do not have to label their products as genetically engineered.
We are growing GMO crops in New Mexico - corn, cotton and alfalfa. New Mexico State University is working with Syngenta, a large biotech corporation that genetically engineers seeds and sells them around the world. They are researching genetically engineered Roundup Ready herbicide-resistant chile. NMSU has received $250,000 from the state of New Mexico to study, research and grow out GE chile plants.
In February 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report that showed that "virtually all participants surveyed in focus groups want labeling." To date, there is still no mandatory labeling required for GE products.
Most genetically modified products carry fully functioning antibiotic-resistant genes - used as "selectable markers." According to a 1999 article in The Journal (Newcastle, UK), the presence of these antibiotic-resistant genes in a plant indicate that the organism has been successfully engineered.
In an Internet posting, The Union of Concerned Scientists says that "eating these foods could reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight disease." Hospitals around the world have increased incidences of infections from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. This organism has mutated and cannot be killed by most antibiotics. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90,000 Americans a year get deadly infections from MRSA. In 2005 the CDC reported 18,650 deaths associated with MRSA infections. Do we need more antibiotic-resistant organisms?