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Potential Dangers of Genetic Engineering
By: Meghan G., Grade 12, Holy Heart High School, St. John's, NF

There's no escaping it. Genetically engineered foods are everywhere. The corn flakes you ate this morning were composed of genetically engineered grains. The milk you put on the corn flakes contains hormones that will increase your risk of developing cancer. For lunch, your strawberries are enriched with fish genes. For supper you will fill up on vegetables that were drowned in enormous amounts of wholesome pesticides. The water you drink is a floating mass of chemicals. Nothing is out of reach from genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a revolutionary new technology. It represents the unknown, the never before trespassed, the mysterious. It ventures across the genetic barriers between humans, animals, and plants, by combining, or 'splicing', the genes of dissimilar and unrelated species permanently altering their genetic codes. Scientists are now cutting, inserting, recombining, editing, and programming genetic material. For the first time, human beings are the architects of life. The prospects are frightening.

Most alarming are advances in the area of genetically engineered foods. Scientists are rushing to discover the necessary ingredients to make superior animals, plants that can grow in rough terrain, and, as they claim, enough food to feed the world's ballooning population. Genetically modified foods are making their way onto the marketplace at an alarming rate. Consumers remain virtually unaware of the potential dangers of such practices. Manufacturers are pleased at the slashed prices and increased production, and of course, these advancements are made all in the name of science.

Genetic engineering disobeys the most basic rules of nature. Animals of different species do not interrelate, thus, unnatural gene transfers do now occur. With new technology, it is not known what dangerous diseases could spread across species barriers. New toxins and allergens are being introduced to the food supply. Crops are being sprayed with pesticides, treated with hormones, and having foreign genes inserted in their genetic codes, in order to prevent the outbreak of viruses. These same chemicals then come into contact with our soil and run off into our water supply. All of these occurrences lead to one question, what will be the result of such contamination?

Imagine a world with Super Viruses, which are expected to take our food supplies by storm in the years to come. Currently farmers spray their crops with pesticides or use seeds that are engineered to prevent the outbreak of certain harmful viral diseases. Viruses, however, have the uncanny ability to mutate - they become stronger, more intense, and more powerful. They will be super (too strong for our conventional pesticides) and they will threaten our whole food supply.

The gene, human metalothenienen, has been spliced into plants. This gene causes toxins such as mercury and cadmium to build up in the body. The modified plants are believed to help remove pollution from soil. Unfortunately, this gene is also closely linked to the cancer gene and scientists now fear that they may have introduced new hazardous forms of cancer to plants.

Genes from fish have been inserted into tomatoes in order to make their skin more durable. Aspartame, better known as Nutri-Sweet, is a genetically engineered sugar. Although it has been deemed suitable by food protection agencies, there are lingering effects of its link to brain tumors. BST, a foreign hormone given to cows to increase milk production, dramatically increases the risk of prostate and breast cancer. What are the risks of such ventures?

Biotech companies insist that so far no dangers have been directly linked to genetically engineered materials. Few remember the disaster that resulted from Trytophan, a food supplement introduced to the USA in 1989. Soon after its arrival a new and mysterious disease eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, characterized by severe, often crippling muscle pain, began to appear. This new disease was eventually traced back to the food supplement from Japan. It was found that the company supplying the supplement had used genetic engineering to speed up production, and had not realized the toxic side effects. The result: 37 people were killed and approximately 1500 were left permanently disabled.

Despite pleas from consumer groups and scientists alike, our governments still remain ignorant to the issue. Currently governments do not supervise testing on genetically engineered goods. They rely on companies to research their own products. Consumer groups have been pressuring governments for years for mandatory labels on genetically engineered goods. Meanwhile, the food industry lobbied just as hard to prevent such labels as they were deemed to be unnecessary and far too expensive. Last year the government buckled under the pressure from the food industry. Instead of mandatory labels, companies that do not use genetically engineered ingredients are permitted to identify their food.

Increasingly, consumer groups are focusing more on the companies producing and selling the food, rather than regulators. Last year, Green Peace performed scientific tests on an assortment of baby food to determine if they contained genetically modified ingredients. Most notably, Gerber, a major producer of baby food, was unmasked and within weeks they had changed their practices in an effort to make their baby food 100% free of genetically engineered goods. Frito-Lay and McDonald's have also taken steps to ensure that their products are free of genetically modified foods.

As animals and plants become interrelated, it will take many years before the effects are fully felt. Changes will eventually, however, make their way throughout populations and up the food chain. In order to avoid the potential of such dangers, consumers in Europe are campaigning for a five-year ban on genetically engineered food. They believe a short ban will allow the new genes and hormones to be assessed as they make their way through specific populations.

Genetic engineering has been hailed as the biggest scientific experiment in human history. As the practice of genetic engineering continues to grow exponentially, one is left wondering what new dangers will crop up in the years to come. This new technology is taking the world by storm with virtually no regulatory devices in place and a blatant degree of ignorance from consumers and governments.

Human beings are now the architects of life, but are we laying the floor plans of our own destruction?

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