Genetically Modified Organisms, Revisited

Sorry for not posting on here for the last few weeks. I have been a little busy but I’m going to try and be as consistent as possible. Also, just a warning: this post got pretty long even though I was trying to be concise. I promise it will give you a better idea of the issues surrounding GMOs, though!

Right now, I’m reading this great book that counters some of the pro-local, pro-organic ideology that is common among people interested in food and farming (especially us in the Bay Area). I’ll be sure to write a full-fledged post about the book once I have finished it. For now, I just read the chapter on genetically engineered crops which brought up some new ideas about the issue and I figured it would be cool to revisit the idea of genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) that I talked about in an earlier post, here. While I am still against GMOs, I enjoyed hearing some of the author’s points which helped me understand the issue as a whole and consider the strengths of the opposing side.

In this chapter, McWilliams points out the stigma attached to GMOs because of misinformation or a lack of knowledge. Many people think of GMOs as unnatural, toxic, and dangerous. It would be just as easy to say that much of modern plant breeding is unnatural, involving radiation or chemicals that cause genetic mutations. While genetic engineering does involve directly combining or modifying genes, many people may not know the difference between modern plant breeding and genetic engineering. We might have a generally negative idea of GMOs based on vague ideas that it is “unnatural” without knowing much about the technology. It’s easy for this to happen with many harsh but vague ideas of GMOs floating around in the newspaper or on the internet. My point here is that we should stop with the unchecked extremism, avoid calling GMOs “frankenfoods” and the like, before we get to know the facts better. I personally don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with modifying an organism’s genome, especially if it can bring higher yields and pest-resistance that will have a positive affect on the world’s food supply.

Many people oppose GMOs because of their potential health risks and other uncertainties associated with a “new” technology. In this case, new means about 20 years old as the first commercial sale of GM crops began with the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. Many argue that this is not enough time to evaluate the long term effects of the technology on the health of humans, other non-target species, and the environment. Many concerns have to do with the science behind combining genes. Frequently asked questions include: what if a certain gene causes unexpected and harmful mutations when inserted into a certain genome? What if certain “sleeper” genes with unseen, unknown traits are activated with genetic modification? Here, the approval process for GMOs would make us more sure that these mistakes aren’t going to happen. GMOs must be approved by the USDA, and often the FDA and EPA too, depending on the specific crop, but there is still a lot of controversy around this process. A critique of this process is that the biotech organizations themselves can conduct their own studies ( like environmental impact studies) without peer review, which the USDA will look at when considering the crop’s approval.

One potential of GMOs is a higher yield. With crops engineered for higher yields, farmers can produce more food on the same amount of land which reduces the necessity for expansion and habitat destruction. These higher yields are fitting for a growing population and for preserving biodiversity. Additionally, a crop like Bt corn (which is explained more deeply in my earlier post) can actually reduce pesticide use by essentially manufacturing its own pest-resistance. Many studies have confirmed this. However, this is just one crop and depending on who is doing the study and what crop is being studied, many people have drawn different conclusions about the effect of GMOs on pesticide use.

To get an idea of just how complicated the whole issue is, let’s look closely at Roundup Ready crops, which are engineered to resist Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup. Someone on the anti-GM side might tell you that this pesticide resistant crop encourages farmers to use excessive amounts of Roundup as a cure-all. It might also be said that the ubiquity of a single pesticide might breed pesticide-resistant weeds (which it has already done). Once these Roundup resistant crops pop up, a cocktail of other pesticides must be used to kill the new weeds. And since Monsanto sells both the seeds and the Roundup, farmers are encouraging the agribusiness monopoly of Monsanto, a company with a history of being zealous with their lawsuits and lobbying as well as other unethical business practices.

Recently, I was able to talk to two farmers who farm using GM crops. They pointed out that Glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, is not very toxic compared with pesticides such as 2, 4-D which were used more before Roundup.  Essentially, the enzyme which Glyphosate bonds to in plants is nonexistent in humans and animals and it therefore makes sense that it would not have drastic effects on our health. Pesticides are pretty much inherently toxic however, and if we consider the other ingredients in Roundup which might be even more toxic then Glyphosate itself, there are impacts on water and soil quality that we can’t overlook. These are valid points, but if all industrial agriculture uses pesticides, are Roundup Ready crops making it any worse? It depends on who you ask, whose studies you want to trust, and how you look at things. I’ll come back to this later.

On another note, one farmer explained to me how he was able to adopt closed to no-till practices (in which the soil is not plowed/tilled at all) because of Roundup Ready corn. Avoiding or decreasing tillage has innumerable environmental benefits including less erosion and run-off which maintains soil structure and quality while decreasing the amount of fertilizer and pesticide that ends up in water. Another huge benefit of no-till farming is that the soil holds carbon dioxide rather than releasing it when the field is tilled, doing its part to contribute less to global warming. While I don’t think these benefits negate the downsides of Roundup Ready crops or other GMOs, it was  good to hear from these farmers. I saw that the people using GMOs and monoculture don’t necessarily disregard the environment in the quest for higher yields. The people I talked to are farming in a way they truly believe is sustainable and productive. They try to take care of their soil and land and only adapt a practice when it agrees with their personal agricultural philosophy.

Another thing I mentioned in my earlier post was pesticide resistance and the “high possibility” of superweeds. (I’m quoting myself there.) I think the destructive possibility of the Roundup resistant gene in the wild is an argument commonly employed by those against GMOs. From a scientific point of view, I was incorrect to say there is a high possibility of superweeds as there are many biological barriers which make the superweed unlikely. If you google “superweeds,” you’ll find many articles which explain how Roundup resistant weeds are increasingly occurring. For this reason, I want to clarify what I mean by superweeds. I am talking about plants which cross-pollinate with GM crops, take on the genetically engineered trait and become invasive, taking over local plants. The superweeds that the media likes to talk about because of the phrase’s catchiness and shock value are simply pesticide resistant weeds, which are indeed popping up more and more.

I’m not denying that pesticide resistant weeds are a problem in agriculture. They’re a huge problem for the farmer, who looks to grow the most of a certain desired crop. But we have to realize that in the wild, a gene for pesticide resistance is completely useless. There is no reason that a Roundup resistant weed would have any advantage over other plants outside a corn field and therefore would not out-compete them to become a superweed. All of a GM crop’s genes code for a plant that necessarily requires maintenance- water, fertilizer, etc. to survive. GM corn has been bred and manipulated to increase its yield and pesticide resistance given that it receives a number of inputs. In the wild, it will not receive these inputs and will not establish itself among much more competitive weeds. On top of this, there are many other very unlikely steps that must occur for superweeds to survive. For example, a GM crop can only cross-pollinate with a closely related plant and therefore a wild relative of the crop must exist nearby.  This doesn’t happen many places around the world. If you read McWilliams’s book, you can learn about further unlikelihoods of superweeds.

McWilliams adds that GMOs offer a potential benefit to third-world countries whose citizens may struggle to find a consistent source of food or income. After all, farming offers both of these (though we’re mostly talking about subsistence farming here). And GMOs offer the possibility of crops modified to survive in dry or nutrient-poor conditions and produce larger yields of nutritionally fortified crops. We are essentially zooming out to look at the place of GMOs in areas other than the United States. GMOs may have negative environmental impacts when linked with American industrialized agriculture, but they could be implemented completely different in third-world countries, where rural citizens would be farming on a small-scale and without pesticides. GMOs could potentially benefit these countries socially, economically, and environmentally. This potential adds a whole new side to the issue and makes it more complicated. As McWilliams acknowledges, GMOs are still controlled by agribusiness giants who are often interested more in their own monetary success than the welfare of starving Africans. But with the intervention of NGOs such as Bill Gates’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (or AGRA), GMOs can be successfully implemented in third-world communities. This implementation would help alleviate poverty and hunger while creating a trend of sustainable farming in these countries. This is the kind of company that is implementing GMOs in sustainable, mindful ways. At the moment however, American agribusiness companies by far outnumber these NGOs.

As McWilliams points out, many of the problems we have with GMOs are simply problems of agribusiness and industrial agriculture such as increased pesticide usage, resistance, and run-off. I want to say again that I am not against the idea of modifying an organism’s genome. I just don’t agree with the methods currently being used to employ GM crops. And for me, it doesn’t seem like Monsanto is suddenly going to die off so that tons of NGOs can take GM seeds to poor African communities and independent, sustainable farms can grow a few acres of GM veggies. Though I want to support organizations like AGRA as much as possible, I think that in our current situation, most GMOs are inextricably linked to corporate farming/agribusiness.

In many ways you could argue that GM crops aren’t making industrial farming any more environmentally harmful than it already is. Proponents of GMOs may make this point, but it doesn’t mean GMOs have a negligible affect on the environment. It only means that GMOs are bundled up in the environmental destruction of industrial agriculture, both of which I disagree with, both of which I reject when I avoid products containing GMOs. A connection with industrial agriculture isn’t an excuse or a reason to support GMOs, it is the reason to oppose them. And as with many other agricultural issues, it is important not only to avoid the unsustainable (from biotech companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, etc.) but also to support the sustainable (from non-profits like AGRA).

Here are some of my sources if you’re interested in learning more:

http://www.reddit.com/r/farming/comments/16mzx8/whats_changing_minds_on_gmos_the_new_yorker/

http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo8.htm

http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo7.htm

http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe70s/pests_08.html

http://foodfreedomgroup.com/2012/03/10/usda-new-speedy-gmo-approval-process/

Otherwise, most of the post came from already known information or McWilliams’ book, Just Food.

-Simon

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2 responses to “Genetically Modified Organisms, Revisited

  1. Pingback: New Page: Movies and Books | Eat for the Earth

  2. Pingback: The Potential of Golden Rice | Eat for the Earth

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