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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
It’s time to turn on the Bat Signal…