GMOs really are bad for you (just not how you think)

Disclaimers—(1)  From here on out, I will use GMO as a plural as well as a singular term, because it can be both.  Just like RPM.  When people say “RPMs,” my head comes close to exploding.  (2) I regularly teach a course in sustainable eating, and might be expected to have strong opinions about this issue.  I do, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.

 Cloning

First, it was GMO hysteria—Frankenfoods were going to make us all have three-headed babies.    Even now this article is zooming around Facebook, warning people to stop drinking some types of beer because GMO ingredients (among other things) used in their manufacture.  I think 5 people have shared it on my wall in the last week.

GMO-Corn GMO_s_300_300_100 GMOderp

Then (now, actually), there was the backlash—everyone is scolding the GMO alarmists for being afraid of GMO foods when there is no evidence that eating them is harmful in any way.  And besides, we have miracle foods like golden rice that seem to make things better for everyone.  But I still think about all the effort by the Monsantos and Cargills of the world to keep labeling GMO foods illegal?  It must be about money—probably because very few people would select a GMO tomato if there were a non-GMO tomato for sale right beside it.

golden-rice.si organic-gmo

While all these pro-and con GMO articles are being read by people on social media, there’s another aspect of GMO food that bears attention.

The history of agriculture has been the history of genetic modification.  The same goes for animal husbandry.  We, as a species, have been cross-pollinating and hybridizing plants and selectively breeding animals for a long, long time.  In fact, the types of pigeons that bird fanciers could bring about played a role in Darwin’s thinking about evolutionary theory.  What is that, if not genetic modification?  For me, I think they jury may still be out on the issue of modern vs. traditional genetic modification.  Like other modern things we didn’t evolve with, GMO could be as dangerous as Asbestos, which was once hailed as a miracle fire-retardant, proudly used in an astonishing array of products.

 asbestos

But there’s one very important difference between old- and new-style genetic modification.  And that difference gives me my answer to the question,  “What’s really wrong with GMO-based foods?”

In the modern era, where we find companies not only modifying an organism’s genome directly but also adding genes from one organism to another’s genome (creating what is properly called a chimera), things are a bit different.  Monsanto can (and has) created crops that are resistant to their best-selling herbicide RoundUp and crops that do not produce fertile seeds for the next generation of plant.  The RoundUp Ready plants allow the grower to spray herbicide from the moment they are in the ground, allowing weeds to be killed while the crop survives.  Terminator seeds leave no viable seeds for next year’s planting, and force the grower to buy new seeds each year.  We’ll look at each genetic modification in turn.

 roundup readyteminaor seeds

RoundUp Ready seeds increase the amount of herbicide used by growers each year.  This starts an arms race between weed and herbicide that will lead to herbicide-resistant weeds by the same mechanism that yielded multi-resistant TB and staph for human beings.  On top of this, herbicide production adds carbon cost to the growing process, making agriculture energy negative for the first time ever.  For example, Corn produced by small farmers produces 83 calories per calorie of fossil fuel used.  In ADM and other corporate farms, 33 calories of fossil fuel gets 1 calorie of food, mostly because of the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Adding to this problem is the fact that GMO strains of corn have a far greater crop density and yield-per-acre compared to previous strains.  This super density corn depletes the soil of nutrients quite quickly and thus necessitates the use of large amounts of chemical fertilizer, further raising the carbon cost of producing food.

Since the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980) that a living organism could be patented if part of its genome had been “manufactured” by humans, the list of patentable living things has grown from the original bacterium in question to include plants and animals.  The gruesome Oncomouse, a creature with a lamentable, introduced mutation that makes it highly susceptible to getting cancer, was patented by Harvard University, who profits by licensing the mouse to cancer researchers.

oncomouse

Once a company like Monsanto has modified a plant’s genome, they can patent the seed and charge farmers to use the seed each year.  In the case of soy beans, Monsanto seeds make up well over 90% of the North American crop, and farmers have to re-buy seeds each year.  The very thing that made agriculture possible, seed-saving, is illegal in the age of patented organisms.  Monsanto aggressively prosecutes seed-savers and has sued any farmer whose crop contains any Monsanto plants.  The problem is, if your neighbor has Monsanto field, the odds are that some of those seeds have found their way into your field, and now you are violating Monsanto’s patent.  And they will sue you, even though Monsanto says they won’t.  (By the way, if you think that’s an egregious overreach of patent law, the Supreme Court recently upheld the astounding ruling by the lower courts discussed here.)

Of course, enforcement is expensive, so Monsanto, according to many experts, is trying like hell to extend terminator seed technology into all its product lines, I mean seeds.  Monsanto’s official position is that they have agreed not to introduce the suicide gene into food crops.  It would certainly be in their interest to do so.

No monsanto crop circle

On top of all this, Monsanto holds tremendous sway in policies and laws due to its lobbying efforts and its placement of former executives with high-level appointments to the USDA, FDA and elsewhere in the government.  Remember, this is the same FDA that prohibited labelling of GMO food.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think having the food supply patented by gigantic corporations that attend only to their own bottom lines is a bad thing.  And I think creating terminator seeds that could, conceivably, spread by cross-pollination from corn to other types of grass like wheat, rice and barley is even worse.

fda batman slap

 It’s time to turn on the Bat Signal…

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7 thoughts on “GMOs really are bad for you (just not how you think)

  1. Corby says:

    I enjoyed “The Wind-Up Girl”, if you have not read it. It looks at some of the possible consequences of corporate agg.

  2. I enjoyed the article, and only because this is on a site called Bad Science Writing Will Destroy the World do I feel okay about pointing out that asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in products for over 4,000 years.

    I promise I do not work for the asbestos lobby.

    • Joshua–I actually have a friend who works in asbestos mining in OK. I didn’t know we’d been using it as a species for so long, but I was only trying to make the point that the industry assured the public that is was harmless, even beneficial, when, in fact, they know it as causing cancer for many years before this was know to the public. I should have spent more time on this point, since I am not a blanket chemical-phobe, so thanks for the comment.

  3. Sara says:

    “Corn produced by small farmers produces 83 calories per calorie of fossil fuel used. In ADM and other corporate farms, 33 calories of fossil fuel gets 1 calorie of food, mostly because of the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.”

    How could this be true? Why would organic food cost more than conventional, if this were the case? Can you back this up with a source or some explanation?

    • Sara—Thanks for the comment. I want people to be more critical and skeptical

      It is mainly because of the increased use of herbicides and pesticides, both largely derived from petroleum, and the increased use of chemical fertilizers, which are extremely energy intensive in their production, that leads to this fact. Also, large-scale farming depends more on petroleum-driven machinery to plant, cultivate and harvest crops than do smaller operations.

      Another issue is the shipping of food across vast distances to serve the demands of first-world countries. Organic foods are often the biggest offenders here. To get organic lettuce into every supermarket in the US every day means a lot of lettuce is being flown, refrigerated, from California all the time and then trucked to its final destination. If we didn’t go to such measures, how else could we have “fresh” asparagus, strawberries and kiwis in every town in the US year-round? As I said several years ago to a friend, “If we can get this beer in small-town Alabama, it’s not a microbrew.” Pretty much the only way to stop this sort of wasted us of fossil fuels is to buy more locally-produced food.

      As to the citations you asked for, the books I need are at my office, but from my notes I know that Peter Singer gives the numbers I cited on page 44 of How are We to Live? and he lists his sources in the footnotes. I can’t swear, but I believe it from a book by Jeremy Rifkin. Michael Pollan also addresses this issue in the early part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The depressing thing about this trend in agriculture is that we are entering a losing game wherein we use more energy than we get from the sun to get food rather than the other way around. It simply cannot last.

      • Sara says:

        Thanks for responding. That’s lots to go on as far a a citation, I was just wondering how that made sense.

        I have read arguments sort of like this one (a tallying of resources) that we can’t sustain our population (or maybe our projected population) with our diets as they are, without synthetic fertilizers and more intensive agriculture or a massive shift toward vegetarianism. I wonder about this. Much of the nitrogen used in organic production is actually synthetic in origin because it came from manure produced by animals that were not raised organically – an acceptable practice by organic rules. So the math is very far from straight forward and there are valid seeming arguments on either side: for and against intensification and the use of synthetics.

  4. One of the main wastes of resources is eating meat and other animal products. There is at least a tenfold loss in getting beef–100 pounds of plant protein yields less than 10 lbs of meat. Milk is similarly wasteful–3.5 pounds of grain and 2 gallons of water to get 1 quart of milk. Besides our ludicrously high level of consumption of these products in the US, the taste for meat, etc., being spread as we spread our overall style of life around the world. And since we feed cows (and other food animals) corn, which they cannot easily digest, by the way, the problems of the mass production of corn are amplified.

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