Native wild corn, grown in remote, rural mountains, has been a staple of every family’s diet in Mexico for centuries. So when local farmers from the rural mountain settlement of Capulalpan discovered strange-looking, less-than- tasty corn in their crops, they were somewhat alarmed after examining it. Mexican and American scientists identified the corn as being contaminated by a genetically modified (GM) variety.
Called GM foods, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), or GE (genetically engineered) foods, these are crops such as corn and soybeans in which a segment of the plant’s genetic code has been modified in laboratories to enhance specific, desirable traits, such as being tough enough to resist the effects of pesticides and herbicides. At the same time, this powerful new technology promises farmers higher yields.
Finding GM corn in the rural hills of Mexico was surprising because Mexico had prohibited the cultivation of GM maize since 1998—although it is still imported from the United States for human consumption. It was even more unexpected because it was found 62 miles from the nearest GM crops. Not only Capulalpan was affected; strains of GM-tainted maize were identified in 15 of 22 rural towns in Oaxaca.
How could the spread of GM corn have happened? The accidental spread of laboratory-tainted corn occurred for three reasons: Diconsa, the government’s food distribution program, illegally distributed the subsidized GM corn to more than 20,000 stores; many of the corn kernels fell off the trucks and grew easily in cracks and soil, eventually contaminating Mexico’s native varieties via pollination; and some private residents of Capulalpan had planted GM corn. At first it seemed like a dream come true: The yield was abundant. But the dream turned troubling when it became evident that the ripe genetically-modified maize was especially susceptible to local plagues and diseases.
The spread of genetically modified corn in rural Mexico riveted the attention of the international community because it threatened the biodiversity of Mexico’s more than 300 distinct species of native corn and opened a floodgate of other concerns: health and safety issues, black market distribution of illegally grown seeds, government intervention, international trade issues, and lack of consumer awareness. Welcome to the world of genetically modified foods.
Like an international dust storm, genetically modified crops have spread to the four corners of the earth via food exporters in North and South America, windblown pollen, commingled seeds, and black-market plantings. Shrouded in controversy, in some nations GM foods are shunned as “Frankenfoods.” Some major food companies in America have stopped using them, and a full-page ad in national newspapers accused the biotech industry of wanting to “capture the evolutionary process and reshape life on Earth to suit its balance sheets.”
How did we get to such a difficult crossroad? Genetically modified foods burst onto the world market without taking into account the needs, opinions, and preferences of the consumer. Nor did agribusiness, biotech corporations, scientists, and government give GM foods the thorough and rigorous scrutiny they warrant given the unpredictable long-term consequences they may have on the health of the environment and human beings.
With so many unresolved issues, many uncertainties and conflicts have inevitably surfaced. For instance, biotech corporations have created “terminator genes,” seeds that live for only one generation so that farmers must purchase new seeds each year. Such “genetic imperialism” has far-reaching implications: If agricultural production depends on the purchase of GM seeds, what are the consequences for farmers, food security, and biodiversity? And what happens when pollen containing terminator genes infects natural plants?
Yet another unknown is intra-species hybridization, offspring that occur within a species of plants. If insects pollinated Mexico’s native maize with GM corn, GM plants could infiltrate all corn plants. And isn’t inter-species hybridization, which occurs between species of plants, inevitable with GM plants? This may have occurred with the unintended death of butterfly caterpillars that consumed plants infected by windblown pollen from Bt corn (the Bt toxin, Bacillus thuringiensis, is found in GE corn plants). Cross-pollination has also occurred with organic food; thought to be GM-free, it is testing positive for genetic modification.
Nutrient balance is yet another dynamic that may be affected when a food is modified by genetic engineering. When the nutrient content in GM soybeans was analyzed, they were found to have much lower levels of isoflavones, naturally occurring substances that lower cholesterol levels and the chances of cancer. Allergic reactions are another health concern with GM organisms: Most often due to the creation of new proteins, allergic reactions range from mild gastrointestinal problems to life-threatening anaphylactic shock reactions.
With so many unknowns about GM food, international organizations, global governments, and U.S. agencies are beginning to take action to prevent potential harm. The European community, for example, requires labeling of GM foods in stores, with a 1 percent contamination limit for non-GM foods and products. As of April 2001, Japan mandates health testing of GM foods, and the World Health Organization is encouraging testing of allergic reactions.
In the U.S., creating optimal GM-food policy is a work in process. The Food and Drug Administration is assigning teams to address scientific, safety, and adulteration issues, while the National Academy of Sciences is urging the Department of Agriculture to set higher standards for the biotech industry and GE crops than those for traditionally grown food.
Taking legislative action to protect the environment and the public from the impact of GMOs is imperative, given that many experts believe biotech crops are multiplying at an unknown rate. GMOs hold the potential to cause irreversible harm by changing the Earth’s ecosystem. Indeed, once a newly structured GM gene is released into the natural world, it cannot be recalled.
This controversial technology has its roots in “natural genetic engineering,” selecting the best seeds from the hardiest plants. For centuries, humans have altered the genetic characteristics of plants naturally by selecting seeds from plants with desirable physical characteristics such as taste, size, or color. In the nineteenth century, botanist and yogi Luther Burbank, a student of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, inspired worldwide interest in plant breeding after he “married” plants with different characteristics via cross-pollination to create a plethora of new fruits and flowers.
Although many proponents of GM claim it to be a safe process comparable to breeding plants, this is not accurate. Scientists are modifying the genetic code of GM plants, whereas hybrid plants create their own genetic structure. Genetic engineering modifies a small piece of the genetic code with little knowledge of how this will affect the full expression of the organism. In contrast, plants that have been crossbred work together as a whole organism, the way nature intended.
When burbank bred plants, he did so with a deep respect and reverence for the mystery of life in plants. “The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love,” Burbank said. Creating genetically modified foods is the antithesis of the ever-present love with which Burbank approached his work. The good news is that we can turn to yoga’s ancient food philosophy, anna yoga, to become proactive in our approach to genetically modified foods.
To begin, consider prana, the force of life that is in the food we eat and the air we breathe. Prana is also in the thoughts and feelings we bring to food. Says Hindu cardiologist K. L. Chopra, M. D., “Prana is the vital life force of the universe, the cosmic force…and it goes into you, into me, with food. When you cook with love, you transfer the love into the food, and it is metabolized.” Prana may affect food in yet another way. The yogic foods espoused in the Bhagavad Gita are part of a holistic philosophy of nutrition based on the vibrational energy and qualities in food and on the concept of the three gunas, or qualities of nature. Sattvic foods are natural, fresh, and calming; rajasic foods are spicy and stimulating; and tamasic foods have lost their vitality and nutrition. The yogic diet consists of foods with sattvic qualities, which are believed to take on tamasic qualities when they are denatured through adulteration or age.
The yogic concepts of prana and the gunas suggest that the consciousness and regard we bring to food influences its essence and that having respect for the life-giving, life-containing mystery inherent in plants makes a difference.
Another powerful guideline is the concept of ahimsa, not causing harm. By producing genetically engineered foods, we are tinkering with life-forming mechanisms and ageless wisdom without knowing how it all works. Such an aggressive intervention with our nourishment, with that which contains and sustains life, is irresponsible, a misguided guardianship of the gift and miracle of food.
The Fate of Designer Genes
Dna and its components have evolved over eons, working to transfer the structure of life from one generation to the next. Changing one cog in the network will affect the whole in unpredictable ways; this is clear. It is also clear that we can take steps to become responsible stewards of the Earth.
To begin to turn around this trend of genetically modified foods, get involved. Consider working toward a moratorium on the widespread application of genetic technology until ecological and human safety is ensured (visit www.truefoodnow.org). Support sustainable agriculture—crop diversification, rotation, and natural pest control. Go organic, and insist that GM foods be labeled.
We can also practice anna yoga, which honors the interconnectedness of life and acknowledges the sacred responsibility we humans have as guardians of food. By approaching the growing concerns linked to genetically modified foods with a yogic consciousness of loving prana and sattvic intention, we may also be doing our part to create food that will be filled with yoga’s wisdom—and will help, not harm, body, soul, and Mother Earth.