Farmer's Field Notes:
Eating and growing GMOs
On the safety of consuming GMOs and the impact of GM crops on agriculture in part two of a series.
The debate raging about GMOs is focused around two basic points: the safety of consuming them, and their effect on the agricultural system. Opponents of GMOs claim GM foods are not safe for human consumption and cause a multitude of agricultural problems. The Pro-GMO camp insists the health issues are overblown and GM crops are a great boon to farmers and agriculture. An in-depth look into research and real world experience sheds some light on these issues.
A recent op-ed article in the New York Times written by Mark Lynas explains that the scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops is on par with the scientific consensus of human-caused global warming. Lynas claims the unfounded opposition to GM crops is preventing farmers in developing countries from planting pest- and disease-resistant crops which could help increase yield, decrease harmful chemical sprays, and help pull the farmers out of poverty. He also points out that the vast majority of scientific studies show no negative effects related to consuming GM crops.
Many of the studies concluding GMOs are safe for human consumption are trials lasting 90 days or less. One example is the trial conducted by Monsanto which lead the European Food Safety Authority to deem the pesticide-producing MON 863 corn variety safe to eat. After an anti-GMO group sued to see the methodology and raw data of the study, it was revealed that there were some anomalies in the tested rats which were deemed insignificant without any follow up.
A 2012 study published by a group led by molecular biologist Giles-Éric Séralini expanded on the Monsanto trial by conducting a two-year study using the same corn variety. The study found increased rates of cancer and multiple organ toxicity associated with rats fed GM corn as well as Roundup Ready corn, the most widely known GMO. The first tumors were detected 120 days into the trail, a full month after the Monsanto trial ended.
As Lynas pointed out, this study was retracted by the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal a year after its release due to what the editor called the “inconclusive” nature of the outcomes concerning rates of tumor incidence and mortality, based on the relatively low number of animals and the strain of rat used. The objections all stem from the misconception that this was a carcinogenic study. In truth, the Séralini group was testing the general toxicology of GM corn and ended up finding an increased incidence of cancer, along with many other adverse effects such as kidney deficiencies and early mortality.
Scientific debate is a very healthy practice and is what drives good science and increasingly rigorous experimental procedures. Instead of retracting the paper due to imperfect methodology for detecting cancer in a statistically significant way, opponents of the paper should have run their own studies with improved methodology to see what the outcomes would be. Regardless of unsuitable methodology, perceived or not, there’s enough statistically significant data in the revoked study to question whether or not GMOs are safe for human consumption. (If you’re interested in reading about this and other scientific findings of GMOs I highly suggest reading GMO Myths and Truths, which systematically debunks GMO myths with valid research to back up their claims.)
It’s also important to think about who benefits from the suppression of studies that find GMOs to be potentially harmful. The agro-industrial complex is a huge financial and political force in the global economy. Biotech companies like Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta have all invested vast amounts of money developing these GM crops, fighting like crazy to keep GM crops on the market and deemed safe to help bolster their return on investment. And the return on investment can be huge. The seed developers are able to charge a huge premium for their seeds, and they’ve even worked a terminating gene into the genetic code, eliminating the possibility of saving seeds and making farmers totally reliant on purchasing seeds every year, as well as buying the product the crop is resistant to (such as Roundup). Monsanto, for example, had almost $15 billion in sales and almost $2.5 billion in profit last year. With all this money, biotech companies can lobby extensively, fund politically pushed pro-GMO marketing campaigns, and pay scientists to say positive things about GMOs. Of course, this is not exclusive to biotech companies; any corporation with huge amounts of money engage in these practices, to the detriment of many small business owners, which includes all small-scale food producers.
GMOs also have far-reaching consequences in the field (pun intended) of agriculture, where GM crops have become widespread, especially in the United States. Roundup resistant crops are some of the most common GM plants, and Roundup is among the most commonly used herbicides. Roundup is a broad spectrum, systemic herbicide; once applied, it is present throughout the entire plant. From there, it inhibits the plant’s ability to produce the amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine — all of which are essential for plant life. Roundup is commonly used by homeowners, business owners, and municipalities to eliminate unwanted plants from sidewalks, driveways, gardens, and landscaping. Farmers have also used Roundup to kill weeds between rows of crops and before planting the crop, to desiccate a crop at harvest for uniformity, and to kill an already existing crop to provide a mulch for the main season crop. Roundup Ready crops are even beneficial to farmers by allowing them to spray after the crop has already emerged. This post-emergent spraying allows for multiple rounds of spray, completely eliminating weeds without the need for any mechanical cultivation, which is very time consuming and not 100 percent effective.
However, one major issue emerges: sprayed herbicides welcome the development of resistant weeds. Let's say in a 500-acre field, one weed was resistant to glyphosate, which allows it to grow even after being sprayed with Roundup. A farmer probably wouldn’t notice one weed in 500 acres, so it would reach maturity and reproduce. With no other weed competition, it would grow very large and produce a lot of seeds. Let's say five seeds out of the thousands produced are resistant to Roundup and are able to reach maturity and reproduce. If each resistant weed produces five resistant seeds and those five plants produce five more resistant seeds and so on and so on, in ten years almost two million plants will be resistant to Roundup. Soon the farmer has to spray a stronger herbicide to combat the super weeds and the process starts all over again but with a more toxic chemical, thus necessitating the development of more GM crops, and on and on it goes.
This is already happening. There are a number of weeds now resistant to Roundup, so GM crops resistant to 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, is in the approval process with the USDA and FDA. While 2,4-D is not as toxic as 2,4,5-T, the other half of Agent Orange, the government’s willingness to approve more resistant crops shows a complete understanding of the problem. The precedent has been set for this process to continue, and to what end? Will we continue using more powerful chemicals until we have completely poisoned the Earth? Do we care? Will we come up with another technological fix? Or is there a better way?
There’s a similar issue happening with Bt crops as well. Bt, short for Bacillus Thurengensis, is a bacterium which produces a chemical toxic to a large number of insects. The Bt crops produce these natural pesticides in every one of their cells — an insect can be killed by merely eating the GM plant. Luckily the different strains of Bt are highly specific and only kill a small range of insects. This significantly decreases the need to spray highly toxic poisons on the plant. However, as with resistant weeds, some insects are resistant to these pesticides, and as they breed, superbugs are created. Much like resistant weeds, these super bugs require spraying more toxic chemicals. Bt crops can also kill non-target insects and potentially lead to toxicity in animals in the ecosystem, including humans.
Cross pollination of GM crops also causes huge issues. GM crops are still living organisms and, as such, still reproduce. Thus, GM genes can be found where they’re not wanted, both in agricultural fields and in the wild. GM genes were present, for example, in 80 percent of wild canola tested in a North Dakota plot. This contamination poses serious economic risk for farmers growing non-GM or organic crops as contamination renders their product unsuitable for its intended market through no fault of the grower. Instead of receiving a premium for their product, the farmers have to sell it at the reduced GM price, and instead of holding the contaminator liable, patent laws find the GM-free farmer liable for patent infringement. That bears repeating. Farmers who have no desire to grow GM crops have their crop contaminated and thus cannot sell it for the price they desire; on top of that, they’re sued for patent infringement and have to pay a billion-dollar biotech company for their product trespassing on the farmer’s land. It’s utter lunacy.
Another potentially devastating effect of widespread GM use and cross pollination is loss of genetic diversity in crops. Genetic diversity is what allows all species to respond to and survive all manner of environmental pressures. A good example of this is the Potato Late-blight epidemic in mid-1800s Ireland, which lead to the notorious potato famine. Prior to the blight epidemic most of the potatoes grown in Ireland were a variety called Irish Lumper. Because most of the potatoes were of the same variety a single disease was able to wipe out most of the country’s crop. It is highly unlikely a similar disease epidemic could wipe out most of the potatoes in Peru, where potatoes were originally cultivated. There is such an amazing array of potato varieties in Peru that if one were killed by disease there are still potentially hundreds of varieties that would be resistant and produce a successful crop. These epicenters of genetic diversity are incredibly important to the future of food. We are approaching 1840s-Ireland levels of crop monotony, with ever-increasing tracts of land being planted with a single variety of corn or soybean or wheat. To keep disease at bay, we need the genetic epicenter of crops to provide the genes for resistant crops, areas like Peru for potatoes, or Oaxaca, Mexico for corn. Unfortunately, GM corn genetics have been discovered in Oaxaca, which is destroying the crops of area farmers and sapping the world of potentially important genetics.
Compounding the problem of decreased biodiversity, there’s a massive movement by biotech companies to purchase as many seed companies as they can. The vast majority of seed companies are owned by chemical companies such as Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, and Dupont. The consolidation of seed companies lead to much less competition, much less variety of choice for farmers, and the very real possibility that one or two companies can own almost all the seed purchased in the United States. This also limits the drive and money for breeding new traits into plants as the chemical companies will preferentially push their GM seeds.
When you add all this up, it’s clear that we should at least be skeptical of wanting to buy and eat GMO foods. While I’m not totally convinced they adversely affect health, I think there’s enough evidence to seriously reconsider our current acceptance of GMOs. The first step in moving forward is to encourage more unbiased, thorough studies into the true effects these crops have on human health. It’s also extremely important to require labeling of GM foods to allow customers to be able to choose the type of food and food system they support. The European Union, China, and many other countries already require labelling of GM Foods, but the U.S. does not. Do we want to support multinational corporations making insane profits and controlling the vast majority of the food system? Do we want to support the current industrial farming system, a system heavily reliant upon GM seeds, a system that poses potentially devastating threats to our health, the environment, and agriculture?
For part one of the Farmer's Field Notes series on GMOs and agriculture, click here. Check back soon for the next installment.
//Evan Conklin is the farm manager of Wellspring Inc., an educational non-profit and Organic CSA farm in West Bend, Wisconsin. He graduated from Albion College with a bachelor's degree in Chemistry.