I’m going to share some thoughts on GMOs or genetically modified organisms, as this relates to food. This may incite a riot… or at least a lot of negative feedback. I’m going to propose something a bit radical. The truth about GMO foods may not be black and white. GMO may be shades of gray, and I’ll tell you why I believe this may be true. Please don’t tune out… there are important questions we must tackle.
The good, the bad, and the ugly… with a focus on the bad and the ugly
The unfortunate face of GMO
I believe that the GMO issue is not very well-understood by most people, but I don’t think it’s their fault. I blame the large agribusiness (“Big Ag”) interests for this problem. In my opinion, it’s very unfortunate that the face of GMO, in fact, the very first thing that Americans (and most other people around the world) think when they hear the phrase, “GMO” is Monsanto and Roundup Ready soy. While soy was the first, there are now many Roundup Ready crops, including corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, and sorghum. So, why is it so unfortunate that GMO is synonymous with Big Ag in general, and Monsanto in particular? Because I honestly believe the entire purpose of these GMO products was to enrich Monsanto, period.
Contrary to Monsanto’s claims, Roundup Ready crops have not resulted in more food grown per area of land, and less application of herbicides overall. What they have resulted in is record profits for Monsanto and its shareholders. These crops result in two profit streams for the company. Farmers must buy Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup to use on their crops, and farmers pay more for the “special” GMO seeds. It’s a lose-lose for the farmer, and a win-win for Big Ag. Monsanto promotes Roundup ready foods in particular, and genetically engineered foods in general as the solution to feeding a growing world. Skeptics (myself included) don’t buy it – literally or figuratively.
Further profits come from the fact that the Roundup Ready crops use a technology referred to as “terminator technology.” This means seeds grown for a second generation are sterile, in essence, useless to the farmer. Farmers must purchase new seeds from Monsanto every single year if they want to continue to grow these crops. This goes against centuries, millennia even, of farming practice. Saving back seeds from a previous year’s harvest is a way that farmers the world over are ready for the next season. Even better, the farmer can pick which seeds to save back… maybe those from plants that were the biggest and yielded the most food, or plants that seemed most resistant to pests. Over time, this resulted in genetically varied and strong plants, and cost the farmer nothing, as he or she did not have to buy seeds every year.
Big (Ag) lies
Also troubling is that the American public was told Roundup Ready crops would yield more food, and result in less total application of herbicides on crops across the United States. Neither of these things turned out to be true. In 2002, an organization called the Soil Association published a comprehensive, well-researched report, called Seeds of Doubt, on the many impacts of GMO crops. According to the findings detailed in this 68 page report:
- Many claimed benefits of Roundup Ready crops have not been seen in practice
- The profitability (to the farmer) of growing Roundup Ready soy is less than non-GM crops, due to the extra cost of GM seed and because lower market prices are paid for GM crops
- The claims of increased yields have not been realized, and Roundup Ready soy appears to yield 6–11 percent less food than non-GM varieties.
- GM herbicide tolerant crops have made farmers more reliant on herbicides, new weed problems have emerged, and farmers are applying herbicides several times, contrary to the claim that only one application would be needed.
- Rogue GMO oilseed rape plants (‘volunteers’) have become a widespread problem in Canada, with contamination from these GMO plants causing the loss of nearly the entire organic oilseed rape sector in the province of Saskatchewan; organic farmers are struggling economically and many can no longer sell their product as organic due to GMO contamination.
- Within a few years of the introduction of GMO crops in North America, the majority of the $300 million annual US maize exports to the EU and the $300 million annual Canadian rape (canola) exports to the EU had disappeared, and the US share of the world soy market had decreased. Why is this a problem? Because…
- US farm subsidies were meant to have fallen over this time frame. Instead they rose dramatically, paralleling the growth in the area of GMO crops. The lost export trade as a result of GMO crops may have contributed to a fall in farm prices and hence a need for increased government subsidies, estimated at an extra $3–$5 billion annually
- In total, it is estimated that GMO crops may have cost the US economy at least $12 billion net from 1999 to 2001.
- Accusations of farmers infringing on Monsanto company patent rights has contributed to severe legal difficulties for farmers: One non-GMO farmer whose crop was contaminated by GMOs was sued by Monsanto for $400,000.
This report was published over a decade ago, and this situation has continued to play out, in exactly this direction of diminishing returns, and more costs to farmer and society, since that time.
Herbicide use only going up
As for herbicide application, it has increased year over year at a significant rate since the introduction of GMO crops. According to a 2012 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe, “Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied.” The researchers also concluded, “If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%.”
Guess what happened in October 2014? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a Dow Chemical herbicide blend of 2,4-D and glyphosate, intended for use on Dow’s patented 2,4-D resistant GMO corn and soybeans. For some background the Dow-produced 2,4-D was a component of “Agent Orange,” the toxic defoliant used in Vietnam, and is the seventh largest source of dioxins in the United States.
Recent designation: Roundup is probable carcinogen
On March 20, 2105, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – a research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), published a research paper which recommended that glyphosate (Roundup) be classified as a probable carcinogen. A carcinogen is anything that causes cancer. Remember, glyphosphate is the most widely produced herbicide, by volume, on the planet.
No wonder people hate GMO
I hope by now you are convinced that I am by no means a fan of GMO crops. In fact, I am adamantly opposed to how they are being used in North America, and I personally avoid GMO foods as much as possible. After reading these facts I hope you also believe GMO crops are nothing but bad news. And this is the baseline from which most people have formed their opinions about GMO. Rightly, they have concluded these products are not good, and are simply one more way for Big Ag to make money, foul the environment, disregard the farmer, and completely ignore the very serious health and environmental consequences of application of these highly toxic chemicals.
The sad thing about all of this is that the true potential of GMO to actually help people has never been realized, because Monsanto, other Big Ag and chemical companies (i.e., Dow, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, BASF, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont) all got there first.
Based on this very awful track record, I certainly don’t have a positive association in my mind with GMO food. Beyond these egregious and obvious harms from GMO as it is used in North America, a lot of questions need to be answered about the safety of the practice of inserting genes – safety to humans and for the environment, including large ecological systems, watersheds, soil resources, and more.
We know the chemicals used with these seeds are a major issue. We know that mono-cropping – growing large swaths of one or two varieties of food across the country – is bad for the environment, depletes soil, and makes it more likely that a crop destroying disease develops. We know losing all of the diversity in our food crops promotes a very poor diet among Americans… Keep in mind that commodity crops are grown in lieu of healthy foods, and these crops are widely used to produce junk food. And we need more information on whether the food itself, with its inserted genes (assuming it isn’t contaminated with chemicals) is safe, for people and for the planet.
The gray areas: potential upsides of GMO
But what about GMO plants that actually may help people? This would be plants that aren’t designed solely to drive profits (harms be damned), but rather plants that could address serious human global health problems. For example, consider Golden Rice (yes, I know many of you are rolling your eyes, but bear with me). This product was developed, using GMO techniques, to provide beta-carotene into the diets of people living in the developing world. Why the focus on beta-carotene?
Beta-carotene can be converted into vitamin A in the body, and vitamin A deficiency is at crisis proportions in the developing world. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children in the the developing world, and contributes significantly to their inability to mount an immune response, a condition termed “anergy.” This means Vitamin A deficiency causes a lot of infant and childhood death indirectly, by making kids much more likely to die of an infectious disease. Even vaccination will not elicit an immune response in someone with severe vitamin A deficiency.
Per the World Health Organization, 122 countries have vitamin A deficiency of public health significance in preschool-age children. And once a child is diagnosed with night blindness, progression to death is not far behind if the deficiency isn’t corrected. By numbers, night blindness is estimated to affect 5.2 million preschool-age children and 9.8 million pregnant women. Low serum retinol (a form of vitamin A measured in the blood) affects an estimated 190 million preschool-age children and 19.1 million pregnant women globally.
This is a completely preventable problem, if we could just get vitamin A (or its precursor beta-carotene) into the diet. Rice was chosen as a possible food for doing this, because it’s a staple food in so much of the world. Golden Rice was not developed by a corporation, but by nutrition researchers in Switzerland and Germany.
Per information provided by the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, “The inventors of Golden Rice were Ingo Potrykus, Professor emeritus of the Institute for Plant Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH, Zurich), and Professor Peter Beyer, of the Centre for Applied Biosciences, University of Freiburg, Germany (Ye et al 2002). The search for a Golden Rice started off as a Rockefeller Foundation initiative in 1982. After years of research by various research groups, a meeting of experts was convened in New York in 1992. There, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer met for the first time, and subsequently decided to embark on the project that would lead to the development of Golden Rice in 1999. Their great contribution consisted in showing that a very complex biosynthetic pathway could be tweaked to enhance the health-promoting virtues of a crop. The breakthrough insight was that most of the pathway was already present in the rice grain and it only needed two genes to reset the whole pathway.”
Baby out with the bathwater
Sadly, it is unlikely that Golden Rice will ever be put to its intended use. Many health and nutrition experts hold this up as example that GMO is useless. For example, Marion Nestle, who I hold in high regard for her intelligence and sensible approach to nutrition, has noted, “Golden Rice is the most prominent example of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology but ten years later its promise was still unfulfilled. Field trials began in 2008 and the rice might be in production by 2011 [Oops. It’s still not in production].”
I think this is unfortunate, because it proverbially, “throws the baby out with the bathwater.” Basically, because Golden Rice has never made it to market, we should just stop exploring the biotechnology avenue altogether. Another issue raised by those who cite Golden Rice as an abject failure is that it does not address the huge, intractable, underlying issues contributing to malnutrition… lack of empowerment of women, the legacy of colonialism, lack of access to indigenous seeds and loss of the knowledge on how to grow them, government corruption, war, and so forth. The list of contributors to malnutrition is long, and permanent solutions are tough to implement.
My big questions:
- Why wouldn’t we use something like Golden Rice (assuming it is proven safe) as a stop gap? People the world over are going blind and dying due to vitamin A deficiency, as I type this!! The permanent solutions take time.
- Why wouldn’t we use something available now, to stop the carnage of malnutrition, even if it isn’t the end game, even if it doesn’t solve every social ill, and even if it only helps a portion of those affected by vitamin A deficiency?
- Why wouldn’t we use something like Golden Rice to help even a few? We may say, well, it can’t be rolled out widely enough to help all of those affected, so why bother? But to the few who may be saved from blindness or death, it matters a whole lot.
What I really believe we need to do is to get mad. We need to get really angry and ask our regulators and legislators why they would approve something like GMO Round up Ready soy, while not helping to bring a GMO crop that actually may help people, to market.
One reason? Our entire political system is propped up on money, lobbying, and the fact that the person with the most money has the loudest voice. The Citizens United supreme court decision ensures that “corporations and unions have a green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.”
But this is a story for another day….. Or maybe it is a story for today, as this NY Times article points out: A significant number of Americans, of all political stripes, want the political funding system overhauled.
Targeting the wrong GMO
So, while “Big Ag” busily courts the political decision makers to bring (in my opinion) useless GMO products to market – products which time and again have been shown to enrich corporations at the expense of human and environmental health – anti-GMO activists have stymied the ability to bring a potentially useful GMO food (Golden Rice) to market. In fact, a recent report noted that anti-GMO activists have destroyed Golden Rice test crops and lied about who they were, and why they were destroying the crops.
Again, don’t get me wrong, I think GMO needs a lot more study and careful consideration. Frankly, I would be pretty happy if the USDA had a complete turnaround, and revoked approval of Round Up Ready soy!.That is the last place where GMO is going to help, other than perhaps, to help enrich a few executives and shareholders associated with big agribusiness and multinational corporations.
Beyond Golden Rice
Beyond golden rice, there are many places where GMO is being studied, not by industry, but by people who have made it their life’s work to alleviate suffering due to food insecurity around the world. I find it heartening that one researcher has used conventional plant breeding techniques to create “orange corn.” Again, the goal is to get more pro-vitamin A carotenes into the diets of people who are suffering the dire consequences of vitamin A deficiency. Perhaps this approach, because it is more politically palatable, will finally bring a nutrient-enriched staple crop to places that desperately need immediate access to vitamin A-rich foods… Again, think of this as a stop gap, until we can fully address the big questions, which we most certainly need to do.
But what about dealing with climate change? Many environmental and organic food activists note that conventional breeding techniques can be used to create more drought tolerant plants. However, there are some issues that simply cannot be tackled with these methods. Consider rising seas and salt water incursion into farm land. This process – soils becoming more saline (salty) due to rising sea levels – happens over a period of months, not years. It is unlikely that in one or two generations of conventional breeding, a plant can be adapted fast enough to grow well in these high-salt soil conditions.
As farmers in Bangladesh can attest, if there is sea water incursion, even after the brackish (sea and ground water mixtures) water recedes, nothing conventional will grow there. Conventional seeds just don’t do well with all that salt. And this problem is huge. Per the Rockefeller Foundation’s Catalysts for Change, Paths Out of Poverty website, “Bangladesh has a coastal area of 2.5 million hectares. Out of this, approximately 1 million hectares of land have already been affected by different levels of salinity.”
It’s also worth noting that sharing this same page on the potential benefits of using genetic modification techniques to address the “salty soils” problem, is a link to an article, “Organic Rice Farming in Thailand as a Method to Escape Debt Entrapment.” The Rockefeller Foundation is no shill for GMO, and recognizes the clear need for organic farming methods to improve lives and livelihoods around the globe.
I suppose it’s “pie in the sky” and naive to believe we (humanity) could actually use biotech for good in agriculture, only where it’s needed, while also ensuring local seed varieties are preserved, empowerment of women is fostered, better stewardship of the land is prioritized, local initiatives to fix problems rule the day, anti-corruption initiatives are implemented, and more. That is my wish; unfortunately, I feel very alone in this.
I understand many people remain staunchly anti-GMO in all circumstances because this approach never seems to work out for anyone’s benefit, except large corporations. Sadly, GMO is now tainted with this reputation, so there is no longer the ability to have thoughtful discussions about whether and how this approach could possibly be used to help people.
Without those thoughtful discussions we may never know whether the risks of even “good” GMO foods, such as Golden Rice or saline tolerant rice, outweigh the “bad.” If we could have thoughtful discussions, we may discover that indeed, the anti-GMO position is the way to go; perhaps we should never go the GMO route. But we will probably never know.
We will never be able to conceive that perhaps good people, with the goal of alleviating suffering immediately, are working on these potential applications of GMO to help people the world over. In our 24/7 media-saturated culture, nuance is lost, and we are forced to “pick a side.”
If you have to pick a side, I suggest that side be to stop the current trend in GMO development in the United States. There is nothing to be gained from creating more crops requiring more pesticides.