This past week in my Environmental Issues class, we discussed and debated about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The majority of GMO crops today are commodity crops such as corn and soy. A very large majority of these crops grown today, I think 80%, are genetically modified.
Currently used GMOs include Bt corn and Roundup Ready soy. Bt corn was created by transplanting genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which lives in the soil and creates a toxin that can kill corn borers, a common pest for corn plants. The genes which code for the formation of this toxin were implanted into the corn to create a plant that essentially grows its own pesticide. Roundup Ready soy has been modified to resist the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup. This means that farmers with Roundup Ready crops (the gene has been used in many other plants like cotton and sugarbeets) can spray tons of Roundup on their crops and kill everything green but their soy. Higher yield and drought-tolerant plants provide a potential for increased productivity with less resources and energy needed, however the predominance of Roundup Ready crops means that even more pesticides are being sprayed on crops nowadays with the appearance of GMOs.
There are many pros and cons of growing GMOs and for a while it was hard for me to decide if I agreed with the implementation of GMOs in our food system. It is largely a theoretical issue because the technology has only been around for a few decades and there are many long-term still to be seen. Also, there are many potential benefits and ideas for crops that have yet to be fully developed.
After a lot of thought, I have come to disagree with the idea of having GMOs in our food sources. I am not against the idea of genetically modifying organisms and I can definitely see the potential. Modifying plants to be more heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant can help us to produce food for a growing world. These plants even offer a possibility for those in poor and developing countries to get a steady source of income. They have the ability to survive many conditions and even restore damaged land. Many crops can give higher yield and productivity, another plus for those using agriculture to start developing a community and searching for economic stability.
The reason I object to GMOs is the way that they are currently integrated into agriculture. A court case decided that it is now legal to patent a certain set of genes, known as the “patent on life.” This decision means that a seed producing company like Monsanto can own a certain genetically modified crop seed and sue anyone found with that seed who didn’t pay for it. The monopolization is harmful to a small farmer’s way of life as Monsanto will often sue anyone who has had GM seeds blow onto their property and accidentally saved them. This also means no saving seeds if they are genetically modified, because Monsanto owns the seed and reproduction of the seed would be infringing on their patent. This is one of the issues I take with GMOs. The concept of buying new seed does not allow for the kind of sustainable cycle necessary for a farmer to be in harmony with nature.
Thinking back to the TED talk I shared earlier about fish, I think that the most sustainable and productive farms are the ones who work with the systems of nature, not against them. The idea of GM crops is scary because it may lead to a future of low biodiversity, potential pesticide resistance as well as a high possibility of contamination of the environment with super-seeds which could take over. If we want a truly reliable future for our food system, the best possibilities lie in farms like the fish farm in Spain from the TED talk (here), which don’t interfere with nature. GMOs may be cheaper economically given their higher yield, but they are not cheaper in the resources they use or the farms they put out of business.
Even the promise of helping developing economies is tainted by the monopolization of GMOs. When Monsanto helps communities by giving them seed to buy, they are often in it for the money and may end up exploiting the community. The adoption of GM crops can result in an Americanization and loss of culture for these countries. Many countries have cultural ties to the very crops they grow and won’t want to adopt new ones.
GMOs have promise outside of our food, though. Certain plants have been genetically modified to be able to absorb toxic substances such as TNT and convert them into less toxic ones, known as phytoremediation. I think that these plants can no doubt help with clean up after wars or chemical spills, but the patent on life has no place in our food system. It harms small farms and grows monopolies. GMOs as they are currently implemented cause the use of more pesticides and breed the kind of farming that is low in economic cost, but high in environmental cost.
Though GM crops allow us to plant more in new places, I don’t think this is the answer to food shortages and I don’t think it is breeds a sustainable way of farming. GMOs as they are currently produced expand the kind of industrial agriculture that will cause problems with energy and resources, not solve them. I think it is impossible to integrate GMOs into the kind of independent, low-impact farms which will help get everyone food without damaging the environment.