By Madronna Holden
Biotech advertising, such as Monsanto’s, tells us that genetically engineered foods are the way to feed our burgeoning human population. But we don’t have a problem with food production; in fact, we are vastly over-producing food– especially corn– which is why subsidies are necessary to keep large farms in business in the US. The underlying problem of feeding the world is not production, but access, as the documentary The Future of Food points out.
Moreover, gmo foods require substantial amounts of chemical and water inputs, which not only empty the pockets of poor farmers, but deplete soil in all areas, but especially in marginal areas where local food production and protecting local water sources is most crucial.
As the Future of Food also points about, actual third-party research on gmo foods contradicts biotech’s claim. In gmo soy, for instance, root systems are reduced by twenty-five per cent compared to previously used non-gmo soy, radically curtailing production. Moreover, many farmers report that gmo soy is inferior to regular soy with respect to its nitrogen-fixing characteristics. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, Failure to Yield gives an overview of the data on gmo food production, which has a very poor record indeed.
Indeed, just this month (February 2013), a news item in the Farmer’s Weekly indicated that US farmers may well stop purchasing genetically engineered seeds because of the poor performance of gmo crops globally.
Recently there are reports that bt corn engineered to carry the bt toxin to prevent insect damage is only successful in the short term–since after three generations insects have become immune to bt, according to Iowa researchers. This has other repercussions, since bt has been used selectively and successfully on non-gmo crops before its wholesale use in Monsanto’s product. Hastened resistance will take this product (a bacterial infection previously certified for use on organics) out of this crop-growing arsenal.
The primary place of the profit motive in gmo production is indicated by Monsanto’s relentless suit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for growing gmo crops that he never purchased– but which migrated into his fields though wind pollination. The real issue for Monsanto was apparently the fact that Schmeiser was saving his own non gmo seed and distributing it to his neighbors, thus cutting into Monsanto’s market. If this was only in a small way, it was not a precedent Monsanto wanted to go unchallenged.
In parallel fashion, Monsanto went after poor East Indian women who were grinding local oil seed and selling it on street corners to support their families. It got the World Trade Organization to pressure the Indian government to shut down these small vendors as competition with the gmo soy oil that Monsanto was selling to the Indian market.
After years of legal battles, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, Schmeiser himself finally won the right to demand that Monsanto clean his field of the unwanted crops rather than paying for the presence of gmo varieties in that field.
But the fight was devastating to the farmer. At one point Monsanto’s suit compelled Schmeiser to destroy one thousand pounds of soy seed that he had developed over several decades.
The inability to control migration of gmo materials is centrally implicated in this story. Such gene migration is poorly understood and only poorly controlled. In this context, Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, engineered to make its seed sterile (so as to assure it needs to be re-purchased by farmers each succeeding season) is certainly worrisome.
British farmers, for instance, traditionally left hedgerows of rapeseed (which crosses with soy) and other wild crops to feed birds and insects that helped pollinate their fields– and provide some diversity in their own crops though wild seeds. The fact that gmo-seed might contaminate such hedgerows was a serious enough fear to cause British farmers to burn test plots of gmo seeds when they were first planted locally. Later a farmer’s movement in India did the same.
The Indian farmers had more than one reason for doing so. Vandana Shiva indicates that Monsanto’s hawking of gmos to Indian farmers is linked with the recent tragic suicide rate among these farmers, who purchase seed they can scarcely afford and then go bankrupt when it fails to yield, even with environmentally as well as economically expensive inputs of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
In fact, even consumers who have no health or environmental concerns about genetically engineered foods may well wish to avoid them on grounds of boycotting Monsanto’s corporate tactics. Monsanto was voted the worst corporation of the year in 2010 and 2012 in the public vote held by Corporate Accountability International–which placed Monsanto in its “hall of shame” . Monsanto was cited “for mass producing cancer causing chemicals”. Not only does it produce bovine growth hormone tied to reproductive system cancers (see below), it has corporate links with the companies that produce the pesticides its gmo crops–such as “RoundUp Ready” products are engineered to take more of.
Importantly, Corporate Accountability also cited Monsanto’s practice of “aggressively running small farms out of business, and recklessly promoting seeds that exacerbate food scarcity globally”. Click here to take action against Monsanto’s attempts to gain immunity from federal laws protecting human health and the environment.
As for the science of gmos themselves, they may look flashy, but they indicate the dangers of doing something (splicing genes) without really understanding the consequences of this process. According to a former student of mine, working for a biotech firm turned him into a supporter of organics, given the sloppy methods he saw in the labs where he worked. Gene splicing was done haphazardly using “junk dna” in the hope that it might yield something of use–and the debris from experiments were thrown out in such a way that local wildlife ingested it.
The European Union has steadfastly refused to allow gmo foods to be sold there— turning away the importation of all US products containing gmos. Unfortunately, the US recently filed a protest of this policy with the World Trade Organization to force the EU to accept all US imports. The WTO ruled in the US favor, since economics, not health, is its principle concern.
In the wake of this decision, EU nations have launched extensive campaigns to label gmo foods to give their consumers a chance to avoid them. Monsanto lobbyists have forestalled such labeling in the US, since their public opinion polls shows that labeling would cut into their profits. Not incidentally, many of the same polls show that the US public is overwhelming in favor of labeling such products.
Health questions about GMOS
Though there is no definitive research at to whether an upsurge in adult-onset food allergies is linked to the concurrent rise of GMOs, ingesting grains in which foreign genes have been inserted has triggered digestive upsets in certain individuals. And those allergic to Brazil nuts or peanuts may be allergic to GMO foods in which genes from these nuts have been inserted.
There is also enough data linking cancer and hormone disruption to genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to cause the EU, Japan, Australia and Canada to ban its use because of potential human harm. In Oregon, a campaign led by a Portland doctor against this hormone motivated farmers to reject it.
Tips for avoiding GMOs
Once upon a time (in the early 1990s) produce growers agreed to add an “8” before a four digit produce code to indicate that produce had been genetically engineered. (Example 94011 for organic bananas would become 84011 for genetically engineered bananas). However, industry did not follow through on this and today the only way to largely guarantee that you are not consuming genetically engineered food is to buy organic. Instead Monsanto has been involved in a pitched legal battle to avoid labeling their gmo products– to the extent that they have threatened to sue Vermont if their legislature passes a gmo labeling law.
Organic produce is “largely” free of genetically engineered components, but not totally so because of some gene drift– especially with corn– in adjacent fields.
Organic foods labeled “USDA organic” are not currently allowed to contain GMO products despite Monsanto’s intensive political pressure to change this. There is one unfortunate exception (and there may be more as gmo contamination grows): so much yellow corn used for ethanol production is gmo that it has contaminated yellow corn seed and organic yellow corn can no longer be guaranteed to be gmo free. This is a special tragedy to farmers in Central America who have developed traditionally diverse corn stocks– and now see them contaminated by gmos.
Buy Oregon milk and milk products:
In a move that should be more widely publicized, Oregon dairy farmers made a joint pact to avoid the use of the genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone.
Avoid processed food:
Ninety per cent of all processed food in the US contains GMOs.
Be especially careful of soy products:
The vast majority of non-organic soy is now genetically engineered. This is a special problem with infant formula containing soy.
A number of food producers and distributors have signed on to non-gmo pledges:
Here is a pdf to download listing such producers and distributors.
Scientific analysis of gmo problems
The Union of Concerned Scientist’s report, “Failure to Yield” is here (thanks to Lance Search de Lopez for reminding me of this link).
There is a list of papers authored by scientists on the problems with gmo release into the environment here. Some of these include cancer and allergy risk of ingestion, negative influences on seed stocks and farmer choices (including yield), contamination of non-target crops, harm to natural biodiversity, corporate as opposed to science-driven choices (and thus questionable research on gmo safety), and ignorance about the mechanisms by which gmo gene splicing works.
There are also well-considered guidelines for gmo research and release into the environment drawn up in line with the Swiss constitution supporting the “dignity of creation”. Needless to say, these are not currently being followed by the biotech industry.
Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.
Filed under: Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Land use Tagged: | genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture, Monsanto, poor peformance of genetically engineered crops, world food production