Archive for January, 2014

Despite misleading claims made by companies selling them, GMO crops will not alleviate concerns re contamination of water, air or soil. Far from eliminating pesticides, GMO crops have actually increased this chemical pollution. Plants engineered to tolerate herbicides result in the widespread use of chemical-intensive farming. This, in turn, results in weeds that mutate and become resistant to the herbicide, forcing farmers to use ever more toxic chemicals.

To control herbicide resistant weeds, farmers are now spraying more toxic herbicides (6 to 8 different types in extreme cases), resorting to more soil-eroding tillage operations, and hiring weeding crews to hoe weeds by hand in cotton-growing states. In Illinois, weed scientist Patrick Tranel predicts that waterhemp resistant to as many as four families of herbicide may soon make it impractical to grow soybeans in some Midwestern fields.

GMO genes are escaping into populations of weeds and related crops. These “SuperweedsPegasus Project - 1” are fast becoming a major concern among farmers. This biological pollution will not dilute or degrade over time. They will reproduce, alter ecosystems and threaten the existence of natural plant varieties and wildlife.

The Pegasus Project is a thriller about the search for a bio-fuel that will replace our reliance on oil. It paints a scenario of what might happen if that research happens to fall into the wrong hands. I like scary stories so enjoyed writing it. I hope readers will enjoy reading it and, at the same time, learn a little about the pros and cons of GM products.

The Pegasus Project is available from  http://www.melange-books.com
https://www.amazon.com/author/daphneolivier

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I’ve spent most of my life on a farm so when I set out to write a thriller I naturally turned to agriculture as a theme. As I knew nothing about Genetically Modified products, I knew I’d have to do lot of research if I wanted the background of the novel to be authentic. And the more I discovered about GMO, the more fascinating the subject became.

GMO has created a huge controversy across the world with people either for it, or bitterly opposed. There have been worldwide protest marches (one taking place here in Howick a few weeks ago) lawsuits involving millions of dollars and violent clashes. In Australia recently, two women wearing Greenpeace overalls, climbed a high fence in the middle of the night and destroyed a Genetically Modified wheat crop using weed-eaters. They were given suspended sentences. This demonstrates just how far people will go to voice their opposition. There are argument to support both points of view and I will try to give both.

So, what is GMO and how does it differ from selective breeding?: Man has been using selective breeding for thousands of years to improve the plants and animals we have domesticated. By selecting wild grasses, grains such as wheat, rice and maize have evolved. From the wolf, dogs as different as the Great Dane and Chihuahua have been produced. But in all those years, breeding has only been done within a species. As one scientist said, “A pig can mate with a pig, and a tomato can mate with a tomato. But there is no way that a pig can mate with a tomato and vice versa.”

GMO  products are plants or animals that have been produced in a laboratory by taking DNA from one species and inserting it into another, totally unrelated species. The process transfers genes across barriers that kept species apart for millions of years. These genetically modified plants can spread and interbreed with natural plants and so contaminate environments in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways.

A few examples of GMO organisms: Florescent jellyfish protein has been injected into a fertilized rabbit egg to produce a rabbit that glows in the dark. The same DNA was used to produce sheep, pigs, cats and dogs that glow in the dark. They are said to be useful in medical research.

GMO mice are used extensively in medical research. GMO pigs will be used to grow organs that can be transplanted into humans. These pigs are genetically modified to contain 6 human genes that partially “humanize” them in order to prevent rejection by the immune system of organ recipients.

A donor organism in a GMO product may be a bacterium, fungus, a plant or animal. In the case of Bt maize, the donor organism is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, that kills the larvae of the maize-stalk-borer. Farmers who plant this GMO maize do not need to spray insecticides. Another example is a green pepper gene which, when inserted into banana, has produced a strain resistant to banana wilt.

A brief History of GMO

1980 the first genetically modified mouse was produced.

1982 a giant mouse produced by transferring growth hormone genes from a rat.

1983 the first GMO plant was produced— a antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. In the same year bacterial genes were inserted into plants and a bean gene into a sunflower plant. More dramatic still, the gene for human growth hormone was inserted into a mouse embryo. The resulting adult mouse was double the normal size.

1984 the first long-life tomato was put on the market.

1985 First GMO domestic animal, a pig, was produced.

1987 A series of GMO mice were produced, carrying human genes, all used for medical research.

1988 GMO maize (mentioned before)

1990 an enzyme used to make cheese was produced.

1992 the SA government approved the first controlled field trials with GMO crops. These were for genetically modified cotton.

1993 a hormone used to increase milk production in dairy cows was inserted into a bacterium. This bacterium produces large amounts of the hormone which is then injected back into cattle. This increases milk production by up to 25 %.

1997 the SA Department of Agriculture issued the first commercial release permits for GMO cotton and genetically modified maize (herbicide-tolerant maize and insect-resistant maize)

In the years that followed, a wide variety of crops were developed, including soya, potatoes, rice, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, eggs, meat and chicken. Genetically engineered foods saturate our diet today. We eat them without knowing in tomato sauce, ice cream, bread, margarine and peanut butter, processed foods, vegetable oils, soft drinks and salad dressings. Even baby food contains high levels of GMO maize but this was not shown on the label.

Farmers in South Africa are finding GMO crops profitable. 2,3 million hectares were planted to GMO crops in 2011. In 2012 this went up to 2,9 million hectares.  In America, 85% of corn, 91% of soybeans, and 88% of cotton are genetically modified. Many other countries are following suit. The latest statistics show that in 2012, 17,3 million farmers in 28 countries planted over 170 million hectares to GMO crops. All this in the 17 years since GMO crops were commercialised!

The  big Corporations that produce the GMO products, such as Monsanto, claim that GMO foods are safe. They argue that changing a few genes here and there does not make a crop toxic or dangerous.

Others disagree. Activists claim that the long-term effects on health and environment are unknown, that the risks are enormous and that by the time we find out how damaging GMO products are, it will be too late. Once GMO seeds are introduced to an area, the genie is out of the bottle for keeps. Activists point out since GMO products have been introduced into our food, there has been an upsurge of diseases such as asthma, cancer, allergies, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

One of the dangers is that GMO products can have a devastating impact on the environment if they are allowed to escape into the wild. Because of this, most GMO animals must be sterilized. GMO plants, however, have already escaped. This includes two varieties of herbicide-resistant canola which now grow along roadsides in North Dakota. Each of the varieties was engineered to be resistant to a particular herbicide, but the two strains interbred in the wild and have produced a feral hybrid which now exhibits resistance to both herbicides.

Although herbicide resistance may not seem like a dire threat, imagine if these plants were to invade wheat or corn fields. They are resistant to two of the most common herbicides so they cannot be killed as traditional weeds would. They could soon take over fields, requiring the use of new poisons, adding to the load of chemicals already being dumped onto the land.

The bt toxin in maize and sweet corn protects the plant by rupturing the stomach of insects that feed on it. Monsanto claims that the toxin will break down before it reaches your dinner plate, but rats fed on the GMO corn showed organ failure and the toxin has been detected in pregnant women.

Activists accuse Monsanto of hiding the true results of trials conducted to test GMO Products. Scientists who studied the effects of GMO food on animals report all kinds of health problems including stunted growth, impaired immune system, allergies and fertility problems. Monsanto reacted by hounding and threatening the scientists and journalists who dared publish the results.

Birds and Bees: A recent report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, states that “a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine, are destroying our planets bee population, and which if left unchecked could destroy our world’s ability to grow enough food to feed its population.”

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. It is all too true.

GMO Humans: An article in the Daily Mail reveals that the world’s first genetically modified humans have been created in the US. 30 healthy babies have been born to women who had problems conceiving. Extra genes from a female donor were inserted into their eggs before they were fertilised in an attempt to enable them to conceive. Genetic tests on the children confirm that they have inherited DNA from three adults –two women and one man.

The fact that the children have inherited the extra genes and incorporated them into their ‘germline’ means that they will, in turn, be able to pass them on to their own offspring.  Geneticists believe that one day GMO will  be used to create a new race of humans with extra characteristics such as strength, high intelligence, disease resistance, longevity and whatever else the parents may want for their offspring. That day may not as far off as we think!

Monsanto: A few giant companies are at the centre of the GMO controversy. The largest and most powerful is Monsanto. It has been labelled the most hated corporation on earth. And with good reason. This is the company that not only contaminated a town in Alabama with a cancer-causing chemical known as PCB, but covered up this pollution for decades. It is also responsible for creating Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the war in Vietnam.

When Rachel Carson wrote ‘The Silent Spring,” pointing out the dangers of DDT and other chemicals  made by Monsanto, she was aggressively targeted and called “a hysterical woman.’ Their tactics haven’t changed. Scientists who dare criticise GMO products are ridiculed as scaremongers.

Today Monsanto is better known for it GMO crops. It is the world’s biggest producer of GMO products, responsible for 95 % of world plantings. Their most widely grown crops, maize, canola, sugar beet and soya, are specifically engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup. Chemicals in Roundup have been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, cancer and gut diseases, as well as having serious impacts on fish, soil bacteria and other ecological processes. Besides being used with these crops, Roundup is widely used on lawns and golf courses.

Farmers like these crops because they can kill weeds by spraying with Roundup without damaging their crops. However, Monsanto makes them sign an agreement which prevents them from replanting their own seeds, forcing them to buy fresh seed every year. Any farmer who tries to sidestep this is relentlessly tracked down and sued. A recent report shows that Monsanto has been awarded $23 million from lawsuits against farmers and small businesses.

The Pegasus Project is a thriller about the search for a bio-fuel that will grow in marginal and desert-like soils and so replace our reliance on oil without taking up land needed to grow food. That research is taking place in real life right now. In my book I paint a scenario of what might happen if that research happens to fall into the wrong hands. I like scary stories so enjoyed writing it. I hope readers will enjoy reading it and, at the same time, learn a little about the pros and cons of GMO products.  Available from www.melange-books.com

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