Genetic Engineering

Page - February 8, 2010
Genetic engineering enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally. These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating natural environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way. The worst part is that there is no law in the United States requiring these science experiments masquerading as food to be labeled as such.

Greenpeace made this living message by planting light green, organic buckwheat in a field of organic peas which were dark green. © Greenpeace / Barbara Tschann

The History of Genetic Engineering

During the second half of the last century, especially in industrialized countries, as well as large parts of Asia and Latin America a so-called "Green Revolution" has been underway.  Agricultural output has dramatically increased thanks to high-yielding varieties of certain crops combined with artificial fertilizer, pesticides and machinery.  These crops include rice, maize (corn), wheat, cotton and oilseed.

However, this success story of the Green Revolution has come at a high price with respect to its environmental, social and cultural consequences, as well as the basic resources upon which it fundamentally relies: soil and water. Moreover, it has also substantially reduced the available options to respond to new challenges and changing conditions.

The Case of Pesticides

Introduced at large scale after World War II with bold support from government agencies, the concept of chemical control, has served as a cornerstone of industrial agriculture. A chemical crusade was waged against weeds and pests, which are the inevitable result of large-scale planting of single crops. However, this "chemical warfare" was soon retaliated against by pesticide resistance, necessitating constant "product innovation," which in turn was met by equally constant adaptation of pests and resulting in what is now called the "pesticide treadmill."

Breeding efforts were adapted to this concept of chemical control as well as chemical fertilizer availability.  A global agrochemical industry today provides resource-rich farmers with essential products for their success:  herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, chemically treated and conditioned high-yielding hybrid or patented seeds, complemented by private extension services and information networks.  Lately these inputs include seed varieties genetically engineered to withstand some broad-spectrum herbicides, thus allowing for their permanent and relentless application throughout the growing season as well as pre- and post-harvest clearing of the land.

When the effects of pesticide use on human health and the environment came to light, it proved and still proves to be extremely difficult to remedy the situation. Organic solutions, bio-control measures, integrated pesticide management concepts and others threaten the sales and profitability of a powerful industry. They also tend to require more knowledge and in some cases higher labor input at the farmer's end. As a result, their implementation at the farmer level as well as in education and training, research and development is a constant and bitter-fought struggle rather than a welcome and jointly supported innovation.

Taking Back Control of our Food

Public involvement, control and decision making at local, regional and national levels on the way we produce and consume our food has been eroded and essential decisions on food security, land use and natural resource management have been entrusted to an alarmingly small number of companies and actors on the field. Conflicting interests and disconnects from agriculture's primary functions have resulted in ill-devised public policies, destructive market dynamics and outright market failures.  Greenpeace believes it's time that human health and environment take priority over the interests of big business and we're calling on decision-makers to listen to the will of the people when it comes to our food.