A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the Duluth paper (“Other Voices”) written by a sophomore from UMD. His name was Tyler Ebert and the article was about genetically modified crops (GMOs). I was heartened that the paper chose to print the opinions of a young student. But I was a little dismayed that he chose to use as his references only USA Today and some internet advocacy sites – particularly in the light of the fine library which Kathryn Martin worked so hard to provide to UMD. Had he looked deeper into the issues in modern agriculture, Tyler might have realized that the story is not so simple as he imagines. Following, there are a few specific examples of what could have been found about the assertions he made.
From Tyler’s Article: “For centuries, genetically modified organisms have helped put a dent in world hunger….” I’m going to assume that what he means by that sentence is that breeding has been controlled by farmers and botanists since the beginnings of agriculture. And of course that is true – but hybridization is not genetic modification. Genetic engineering is the introduction of foreign DNA into a germ cell. That DNA can come from anywhere and can be placed anywhere.
The biggest difference between breeding and recombinant DNA technology (within the resulting organism) has to do with gene expression. In an organism produced by natural selection, breeding, or even hybridization, gene expression remains as it was with the parents – a leaf is just a leaf, a flower is just a flower and so forth. In a GMO organism, the introduced genes are expressed in every cell. So, for example, in the commonly used Bt Corn plant, every cell of the plant contains the insecticidal protein made by the plant from the DNA harvested from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis and placed into the corn seed. The European corn borer, the target species, only eats the kernels – never the other parts of the plants. But in the meantime, the corn root system below ground is interacting with the subsoil ecosystem and introducing Bt protein and DNA into it. There is no way to know what the results of this interaction will be. There are simply too many variables and it has never been studied.
“Genetically modified organisms are safe to eat.”
There has never been any controversy about this. Our bodies digest can digest protein from anywhere (with a few exceptions). No one disputes this.
“With FDA-backed GMOs, world hunger can be managed more efficiently, food can be of better quality, agricultural diversity can climb, and the herbicide industry can continue to be supported.”
There just is no real evidence that anything in that sentence is true. Genetic engineering and other agricultural technologies have simply not been able to keep up with world population. Plant (and animal) diversity has been reduced by monoculture. And since the patent expired on Roundup, profits for Monsanto have fallen.
But none of the above questions get to the real issue, which is: can this stuff really help us? The jury is still out. Here are the major issues:
- Resistance – of all the transgenic crops planted worldwide last year, 80% were engineered to be glyphosate resistant. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. “Introduced commercially by Monsanto in 1974, glyphosate kills weeds by blocking proteins essential to plant growth. It is now used in more than 160 countries, with more than 1.4 billion pounds applied per year.” (NatGeo) Roundup is used to kill weeds and therefore reduce the amount of tillage needed. (As an aside, glyphosate is generally considered to be harmless to humans but there is controversy about some of Roundup’s other ingredients, specifically surfactants.) Because of the large amount of overall use of glyphosate, weeds all over the world, but particularly in the US, are becoming resistant to it.
There is nothing visible on the horizon to replace it.
- Food Security – the real threat to food security now facing us is unrelated to the topic of GMO or non-GMO. It is global climate change. What food we will be able to grow and where we will be able to grow it is not going to remain the same in the future. Big adaptations will need to be made. All of the things that farmers have always had to worry about like: Is it going to rain? Is it going to freeze? Will there be bees? Will I be able to get the harvest done in time? All of those questions will still be there and the predictability of the answers will be less than it is now. Overlooked in the current debates about GMOs and about climate change is the basic situation of the state of our knowledge: How much do we really know? Well, we really do know that CO2 levels are rising and that temperatures are rising. We really do know that herbicide resistance is rising. But real experimentation is missing about the risks and the benefits of GMOs.
- Follow the money – The reason (more or less) why there is not much experimentation of what the real consequences of GMOs might be is that there is no money in that kind of research. In the same way that drug companies pay for only certain kinds of medical research, chemical companies will pay for only the kinds of botanical, biochemical and environmental research that they believe will benefit them. Moreover, that kind of research, where one (or a small number of) biochemical pathway(s) is/are elucidated, is easier to control so it is easier to do. Out in nature, where these things from the laboratory end up, the complexity of ecological systems generates great experimental difficulties. Nature has her ways and we do not know most of them.
- Is chemistry better? – Well, maybe not. Experiments at the Rodale Institute and elsewhere have shown that yields from conventional farming and organic farming are the same. Moreover, organic farming reduces the use of fossil fuels and greatly increases organic matter in the soil.
So where does that leave us? Well, there is hardly anyone in this discussion who doesn’t have a dog in the fight. So it is very difficult to tease out what the real facts are. I’m going to list below the articles that I read prior to writing this. But I urge anyone interested to spend some time in the library. Because information on the internet can be pretty marginal. Nevertheless, my article is the unscary version of this story. If you want to see the scarier version, take a look at the NatGeo website.
Changing Genes to Feed the World
SCIENCE VOL 306 29 OCTOBER 2004
A Growing Threat Down on the Farm
ROBERT F. SERVICE
SCIENCE VOL 316 25 MAY 2007
Amid Europe’s Food Fights, EFSA
Keeps Its Eyes on the Evidence
SCIENCE VOL 338 30 NOVEMBER 2012
Predictions of Biodiversity
Response to Genetically Modified Herbicide-Tolerant Crops
R. Watkinson, R. P. Freckleton,1† R. A. Robinson, J. Sutherland
1 SEPTEMBER 2000 VOL 289 SCIENCE
The Ecological Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Plants
L. Wolfenbarger1* and P. R. Phifer
SCIENCE VOL 290 15 DECEMBER 2000