What’s wrong with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in food production? While many GMO critics say they pose health hazards, I find that argument unconvincing. Instead, I am concerned about:
- the tie between GMO crops and overuse of pesticides and fertilizer, each of which has serious environmental consequences;
- the contribution of seed companies and GMOs to the increasing industrialization of agriculture, which I believe harms the land, farmers and consumers;
- GMO genetic drift, which contributes to contamination of crops of neighboring farmers and, even more seriously, may contribute to the development of superweeds.
I support GMO labeling for the same reason that I support other labeling, such as country of origin labeling for meat and vegetables or rBGH labeling for dairy products. I think more information is a positive good, and that consumers should be allowed to make their own choices. For example, while I see no human health hazards in drinking milk produced by cows treated with rBGH, I see very high health hazards to the cows — and a detriment to dairy farming in general. For those reasons, I choose not to buy dairy products unless they are rBGH-free, and I support labeling because it gives me an option to choose.
When a reader responded to my recent post on GMO labeling, I sent a quick but insufficient response. A longer response – like most of my blog posts – takes quite a bit of time for research and writing, which produced this post. I doubt that this particular reader will be swayed from support of GMOs by my response, but at least I want to set out my position clearly.
So — on to my specific criticisms of GMO seeds.
First, seed and chemical companies focus primarily on GMO seeds that are resistant to specific pesticides, such as “Roundup-Ready” soybeans, alfalfa, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets. As I wrote in Al Jazeera in 2014:
Here’s how it typically goes: The agrochemical escalation begins when a new herbicide or pesticide is developed and approved. The chemical company promises that the new product will provide better protection against broadleaf weeds or boll weevils or problem grasses or corn borers or some other plant or insect pest. Farmers buy the new pesticide, and for a time, it works — that is, it works to reduce specific weeds for the farmers who use it. But even that success comes at the risk of poisoning neighboring farmers’ crops and people and animals exposed to chemical drift.
Then a few of the targeted weeds or insects prove strong enough to survive. With their genetic advantage, they multiply and eventually dominate their species. A new generation of pests emerges, with a genetic resistance to the pesticide. Farmers apply more of the product to knock out the stronger nemesis, and the cycle continues until the weed or insect resistance is so strong that the product doesn’t work against them. And then the game begins again.
The development of pesticide-resistant weeds is a serious and widespread problem. So is the impact of pesticides on humans living on or near farms, who may be affected by exposure to those pesticides. The World Health Organization recently warned that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”
Second, GMO seeds are part of a capital-intensive model of crop production that invests heavily in maximizing yields through purchased inputs — seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The end results include increased yields, but also serious damage to topsoil and water resources. If you have specific questions about problems with the industrial agriculture model, check out Land Stewardship’s Myth Busters series.
Third, genetic drift spreads the modified genes to nearby fields growing the same crops (GMO corn to organic corn), and also, at times to closely-related weeds, contributing in a second way to the development of superweeds. For U.S. farmers, the market implications are serious, as some countries refuse imports of GMO grain or other crops. GMO drift has been confirmed in both rice and wheat, according to the New York Times:
“In 2006, after traces of an unapproved genetically engineered rice were found in the American harvest, rice prices dropped, at least temporarily, and exports slowed.
“Bayer CropScience, the company that developed and field-tested the rice, agreed to pay $750 million to settle claims with about 11,000 American farmers.
“Mr. Firko said the rice situation was different because the grain was found in commercial supplies. In the case of the wheat, the genetically modified plants were growing where they were not wanted, like a weed.”
GMOs are one important part of the industrial crop production system. That entire system — capital-intensive and heavily dependent on application of chemicals and fertilizers — raises serious concerns for the health of our soil, water, people and rural communities.
Here are some additional places to look for information and arguments for and against GMOs.
- A lonely quest for facts on genetically modified crops (New York Times, 1/4/2014)
- Impact of genetically-modified crops and seeds on farmers (The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, The Dickinson School of Law of the Pennsylvania State University, 2001)
- Land Stewardship Project, Myth Buster series (about agriculture in general, including but not limited to GMOs)
- Nearly half of all US farms now have superweeds (Mother Jones, 2013)
- EPA will require weed-resistance restrictions on glyphosate herbicide (Reuters, 2015)
- EPA under pressure over Enlist Duo herbicide (Chemistry World, 2015)
- IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides (World Health Organization, 2015)
- Modified wheat is discovered in Oregon (New York Times, 2013)
- Japan halts some wheat imports after GMO discovery (Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2013)
- Genetic drift of seeds, pollen is a growing concern for farmers (Business Insurance, 2014)
- The legal consequences of genetic drift (The Food Law Firm, 2013)
- Genetically modified crop on the loose and evolving in the Midwest (Scientific American, 2010)