Around 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that micro-organisms could be patented. Thus began what can be described as a mad rush to tamper with the genes of various organisms in laboratories around the world, in the hope of constructing marketable life forms.
Some laboratories concentrated their efforts on genetically engineered organisms, randomly splicing, say, human genes with spiders’ and observing the results. Other laboratories concentrated on the more potentially lucrative genetically engineered foods in an effort to make food crops resistant to insects and herbicides. Insect resistant crops are achieved by introducing toxins into the crop to make them poisonous to insects. Herbicide resistant crops are achieved by changing the nature of the crop so that when sprayed with heavy concentrations of herbicide, the surrounding weeds die, but the food crop remains.
The long-term health effects of genetically engineered foods are unknown. However, genetically engineered foods may be the cause of the upsurge in asthma, allergies, and antibiotic resistant diseases. When genes are taken from one source and spliced into a food group, then the allergenic properties of the source is also transferred which can trigger life threatening allergic reactions. Each genetically engineered food also contains markers to indicate that the organism has been successfully engineered. These markers are generally resistant to antibiotics and are believed to contribute to the decreasing effectiveness of disease fighting antibiotics.
Approximately two-thirds of all imported foods in local supermarkets are estimated to be genetically engineered, and these foods are not required to be labelled. Barbadians are therefore being forced to consume genetically engineered foods against their will. The justification for not labelling genetically engineered food is the assumption that such food is materially equivalent to conventional food.
The world has had to suffer unnecessarily because of incorrect assumptions determined due to commercial pressures. Wrong assumptions from the pesticide industry have left a legacy of contaminated soil and water around the world. Wrong assumptions made by various manufacturing industries have left a legacy of toxic waste sites around the world. Wrong assumptions made by the tobacco industry have left a legacy of heart disease and lung cancer. Wrong assumptions already made by genetic engineers pose grave threats.
Perhaps the greatest of these threats is in the area of genetically engineered viruses and bacteria. Unlike natural organic material that simply degrades, genetically engineered waste material does not naturally degrade but can jump or cross over into other species causing them to undergo changes at a genetic level. Discarded genetic laboratory waste has the potential to contaminate all life.
Coincidentally, HIV/AIDS was first observed during the time of the first genetically engineered viruses. HIV/AIDS also behaves like a genetically engineered virus in that it has the ability to cross over into other species. In 1975, genetic engineers feared creating and inadvertently releasing dangerous viruses and bacteria pathogens into the environment. They therefore agreed to stop all such research until countries enacted sufficient regulations to control this new branch of science. Since the US Supreme Court ruling that essentially overturned this agreement, over 50 new human attacking micro-organisms have been discovered, with some being invulnerable to all known antibiotics.
Genetic engineering experiments are being carried out in laboratories at UWI campuses in Barbados and in Jamaica. If it is felt that such experiments are necessary and desirable in the Caribbean, then given the high risks and grave consequences associated with such research, it is highly recommended that independent audits be carried out of UWI’s labs and genetic disposal protocols as a matter of extreme urgency.
The Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs has inherited the responsibility of protecting Barbadian consumers. One effective protective measure would be to ensure that all genetically engineered foods are labelled before they are placed on our supermarket shelves. Barbadians should not be forced to participate as human trials in the current genetically engineered food experiments.
Grenville Phillips II