A Critique of Genetically Engineered Crops
by Christopher Cumo of Canton, OH
Once a novelty, genetically engineered crops have become a staple of agribusiness. For example, Monsanto, after a long legal battle, released Roundup Ready sugar beets to farmers in 2008. The crop has an extra gene that makes sugar beets tolerate the herbicide Roundup, also sold by Monsanto. Farmers could spray Roundup Ready sugar beets with confidence that they would not harm their crop. A year later, in 2009, 99 percent of U.S. sugar beet growers planted Roundup Ready sugar beets according to Oregon weed scientist Joel Felix. Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, and cotton are doing equally well.
But not everyone has joined the GE bandwagon. Some small farmers, organic farmers, and consumers have grown wary of GE crops. A classic issue concerns the fate of corn. With tassel and silk far apart, the natural method of reproduction is cross-pollination. Without aid from insects as pollinators, wind serves the purpose, carrying pollen from one plant to another. Although corn pollen is comparatively heavy, the wind can carry it several hundred yards. That is, pollen from corn in one farm can easily pollinate corn in a nearby field. When the pollen comes from Roundup Ready corn, Bt corn or another GE variety it can contaminate a traditional variety. The organic farmer cannot market his or her corn as organic if GE corn has pollinated it. In the guise of intellectual property rights, Monsanto, which holds the patent to many GE varieties, has sued farmers whose corn has been contaminated on the principle that they did not buy the contaminating variety and so had no right to its pollen, even though the farmers did not want this contamination, notes Jenny Thacker, Director of Education and Environmental Programs at Seattle Tilth in Washington. Because the corn planted in the United States and much of the world is hybrid, farmers cannot save seeds because second generation seed yields poorly. GE soybeans are another matter. Here Monsanto, again claiming intellectual property rights, will not permit farmers to save seeds. Farmers in effect have become dependent on agribusiness giants like Monsanto.
Brian Snyder, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, notes that “farmers of all stripes are simply annoyed by the idea that they don’t own the seeds they grow anymore. This has huge implications not only for the economics of any farm, but also the ability of farmers around the world to continue to feed the communities and countries in which they live. Many larger, conventional farmers share this strong concern, though are convinced that they best not talk about it publicly for fear of eventual retribution. Nothing is more insidious to the whole issue than this conspiracy of silence sponsored by industry.”
According to California small, organic farmer and consultant Joseph Seals, “Monsanto, et al, wants to ‘own’ the world’s food and food sources. They want no competition of any kind, of any size. They have used governments, banks and small town corruption to dismiss, destroy, mislead and otherwise eliminate non- GE/GMO entities. Only recently have small farmers won cases after Monsanto has filed lawsuits against the small farmers when the small farmers’ crops have ‘picked up drifting genes from a Monsanto crop’.”
Worse, Thacker has anecdotal evidence that small farmers in India, unable to keep up farming with GE seeds, are committing suicide. GE crops have brought Indian farmers to ruin. GE seeds and chemicals are expensive, and the frequency with which GE crops fail has bankrupted the subcontinent’s farmers. Monsanto, because of its control over seeds and chemicals, traps India’s farmers in debt. Some have seen suicide as the solution to the problems of GE crops. At one point it got so bad that every 30 seconds, an Indian farmer commited suicide because of Monsanto’s GE crops and chemicals. In the last decade some 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves in despair.
Lauren Ketcham, Communications Coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, is also aware of the issues of intellectual property and contamination. She points to a case in Oregon, where Monsanto found to its surprise that a variety of GE wheat, normally a self pollinator, had dispersed its pollen, perhaps by the wind, to non GE wheat in another field. Perhaps in a pensive mindset, Monsanto did not release this GE variety to farmers.
Ketcham also worries about the safety of GE food, noting that pigs fed presumably GE corn are less healthy than pigs that feast on conventional varieties of corn. Scientists have observed the same phenomenon in rats.
“GE crops are routinely used without adequate research to study their longterm effects,” says Snyder. “Indeed some products have caused health problems in livestock in the past, and there is no reason to discount the possibility of problems associated with humans as well, at least without further study. Fact is, the industry went from publicly denying that GE crops are used in human food to asserting that they’re used in just about everything practically overnight…farmers—and the general public—deserve better.”
Thacker admits that the “jury is still out on whether genetically modified organisms food are safe to eat. Given that inconclusiveness, other countries, such as those in the European Union, have decided to wait and see before widely introducing GMO foods.”
Seals notes that except for the United States, other countries have enough evidence that GE foods are unsafe. A study by scientists in the United Kingdom and Canada posits that GE foods may alter one’s metabolism, though the authors caution that these foods have not been on the market long enough for scientists to quantify all their effects. It is possible, the authors note, that GE foods may cause allergies or cancer. If animal studies are any guide, then GE foods may harm the immune system, liver and kidneys.
Concern has arisen about the problem of herbicide and insecticide resistance. Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar beets demand the use of herbicides to keep weeds at bay. Yet the use of Roundup has spurred the evolution of Roundup resistant weeds. These weeds afflict large areas of the U.S. West. Farmers have responded by using more and different combinations of herbicides. In the same way, insects have evolved resistance to insecticides, leading one to wonder how safe and effective chemical and genetically modified agriculture really is.
Snyder knows that GE crops and chemical “have given rise to a wave of chemical resistance among weeds and bugs across the continent, which is leading industry to develop more complex cocktails of new chemicals mixed with older ones. Again it had been promised that we were moving away from older, more caustic substances, and instead we get the opposite. Not to mention that complex cocktails of agricultural chemicals have now been implicated in the massive die-off of honeybees, and who knows what else.”
“Clearly GE crops appear less ‘natural’ and so are suspect,” notes historian Mark Hershey. Snyder goes further, noting that they are not even the best crops. “Couple this with mounting scientific evidence that farmers are better off—as well as the soil and surrounding environment—when using conventional seeds with cover crops and proven crop rotations, and one can easily figure there are only two reasons to use GE crops at all: 1) to increase profits for seed and chemical companies, and 2) to serve the hubris of those farmers who can’t stand to see a single weed standing in their fields.”
Thacker adds that there are alternatives. She recommends that consumers eat fresh fruits and vegetables because most are not genetically engineered. She encourages consumers to buy organic food and to grow a vegetable garden and plant fruit trees. Thacker believes that the educated person would think twice before buying foods if companies had to label them as GMOs.
“Small farmers are the future saviors of our food supply,” remarks Seals. “We must rely on them to produce real, organic, nutritious and interesting foods. The tide seems to be turning in our battle against processed foods and obesity. I now see inklings of a changing tide in our battle against the giants of GE/GMO. We have become aware. And that’s most of the battle.”