The evolutionary party never ends; what part do we play?

EvolutionI have the good fortune to spend some of my work week researching and reviewing news and information as it relates to organic food and agriculture. Because my job is to communicate findings, I am often called upon to speak to groups equally as interested but not afforded the time to invest in such extracurricular investigations. I have become the tribal bookworm and the town crier, pretty ironically considering that I spent most of my adult life in the world of fresh produce (reading and writing only after hours, please). One of the topics I regularly research and address is the ramifications of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically GMO crops.  When I happened upon an email from The ETC Group I discovered one issue with GMOs that I hadn’t fully pondered. That being “How are genetically modified organisms spreading into the environment and affecting the natural evolution of our planet? “

The evolution of my work day almost matches the precipitous changes that have occurred in agriculture in the last twenty years.  GMO seeds are manmade, patented organisms created in laboratories to have special and unique traits.  These are new entities that have never before existed on the planet. They have fairly recently jumped off the evolutionary wheel and taken a quick turn away from the natural laws of development. These entities, owned by colossal chemical companies, dominate parts of our food supply and have a unique composite of DNA. This DNA has been known to stray back and invade other more traditional species.

The email told me that “Several examples of the uncontrolled spread of genetically engineered plants into wild populations and ecosystems have already been documented. From GMO cotton in Mexico and oilseed rape in North America, Japan, Switzerland and Australia to certain grasses in the USA, GMO plants are straying from their unnatural beds.  There are cases of this transgene presence in local varieties of crop plants such as maize in Mexico and rice in China.”

I hadn’t really considered the ramifications of this kind of gene pollution and wondered if this crazy mixing of natural and manmade life would somehow morph into the only version we have? It is one thing to consider crops such as corn and rice being contaminated but it’s an entirely different story line when you think about the wild things. As GMO technology keeps marching on, new species of grasses, trees and fish are being developed and they are nigh on our evolutionary doorstep. What if the wild things in our landscape become adulterated? How do we call back those wayward genes once they become part of the native flora and fauna?

The article went onto explain that….”This increasing trend towards uncontrolled spread of transgenes into wild populations and ecosystems raises a high level of concern for the release of new organisms such as genetically engineered trees, fish and insects and the challenges posed by emerging applications of synthetic biology.”

Because genetic engineering and synthetic biology represent a radical break from Darwin’s natural selection and the natural order of inter-species genetic exchange, we are entering a new age of evolution.  The article went on to advise that “Maintaining the ability of organisms to develop under their evolved dispositions and naturally established restrictions and to participate in further evolutionary processes is a crucial aspect of the protection of biodiversity.” It’s taken a millennium of evolutionary progress to produce the myriad array of diverse plants and animals that inhabit our blue planet. It’s been only a few short decades for scientists to develop new life forms with unique gene pools. These engineered beings can reproduce and evolve on their own and we really can’t predict how things will be altered. If wild plants and native animals suddenly become unable to self-replicate in their true form, what will become of our untamed world and the evolutionary process itself? There is a distinct risk that we may not ever be able to recover the original biodiversity, as the dynamics of wild and cultivated native varieties will be altered. Will our children’s children inherit an entirely new (and manmade) set of un-native, “natural” species?

This possible and extreme hidden consequence of genetically altering life hadn’t really become so evident to me until I read that email? I can add this bullet point to my next “industry update” but what else is to be done?

I was happy to note that our leaders in the Senate agreed, when on May 22 2014, they proposed and approved an amendment in appropriations to require mandatory labeling for genetically modified salmon if the FDA approves it for sale. Sen. Lisa Murkowski proposed the amendment to the fiscal 2015 agriculture spending bill.  “We’re not talking about genetically engineered corn or something else that is grown,” Murkowski said during the debate. “We’re talking about a species that moves, that migrates, that breath. This is an experiment … that if it went wrong could be devastating … to the wild, healthy stock that can swim off the coast of Alaska and come up from the Pacific, passing through California and Oregon and Washington State.”

The ETC group said “… no reliable predictions can be made concerning the consequences of artificially transformed organisms once they are released or escape into wider environments and become part of open-ended evolutionary processes.” For this reason they are recommending a call for the prohibition of experimental releases, imports and commercialization of genetically engineered organisms if:

a) They can persist and invade the environment if they escape their containment.

b) They cannot be withdrawn from the environment if required.

c) It is known that they can persist or have invasive behavior after release into the environment.

d) Their release may lead to transgene flow into populations of local varieties

For More information:
http://www.stop-the-spread-of-transgenes.org

It’s been such a robust and festive biological party that started when the first primordial soup quickened with life. These life forms crawled out, swam on, took root and eventually stood up to multiply and grow into unique diverse beings. Eons of fierce genetic competition coupled with orgiastic genomic dalliances have delivered millions of different unique life forms to our blue orb. Are we really willing to drive a wild card into the process and alter it forever? What part do we play in evolution?

Remember that Organic is THE CHOICE to avoid GMO’s and help to end their widespread use.

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