By Ioulia Nemtseva

As many of you know, Connecticut was the only state that recently signed the bill requiring GMO labeling into law. Before the law becomes effective four other states need to adopt the same legislation, one of these states has to border with Connecticut and the joint population of northeast states requiring GMO labeling should be more than 20 million[1]. This is certainly a tall order. But, as a big proponent of GMO labeling, I am still happy about this important first step. Below is a summary of my research on GMOs: why GMO food gets so much attention lately, history behind it, and why parents all over the country are so concerned about it.

History – The Green Revolution.

In decades World War II a need for much greater global food supply lead to an initiative to increase food production which later became known as the Green Revolution. The initiative entailed development and utilization of new synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, “miracle seeds” and irrigation techniques and resulted in significant increases in crop yields around the globe, especially in the developing world. Use of genetic engineering was key to the success of the initiative as new higher-yield varieties (HYVs) of rice, wheat and maize were developed and produced much greater output than traditional crops. Green Revolution and the industrial agriculture practices that it launched is praised by some for saving millions from starvation and criticized by others for failing to address the very issue of hunger and creating new risks to global food supply. I would now like to explore the promises and risks that the use of genetic engineering in agriculture poses.

The Promise of GM Foods and Industrial Agriculture.

The main promise of genetic engineering in agriculture is to increase food supply by developing crops that are more resistant to herbicides, pests and disease, more tolerant to severe weather conditions, such as cold or drought, and more nutritious (for example, the famous golden rice). There are also premises that higher yielding crops will result in more income for the farmers and higher outputs of food will means less hunger. This sounds like a great promise but analysis of actual results of industrial agriculture methods and genetically modified crops to date and potential risks, however, lead us to be less than optimistic about these promises.

Consumer Safety Concerns.

Some cases have shown that genetically modified (GM) crops can cause health problems by introducing new allergens or toxins, for example, attempts to modify soy beans with a Brazil nut gene were discontinued due to (nut) allergic reactions in animals and potatoes modified with a lectin gene were found to affect intestinal system in rats. All the possible effects of introducing foreign genes into food crops are still not known.

15476684_mAdditionally, industrial agriculture and GM crops are heavily reliant on the use of chemicals and pesticides, which pose a host of health risks. Prolonged exposures to pesticides and herbicides are associated with increased incidences of cancer and some of these substances are known as tumor promoters. A vivid example of the consequences of pesticide exposure is, sadly, the state of Punjab in India which was considered the “poster child” of the Green Revolution. Punjab has experienced an alarming increase in the rate of cancers and a host of other diseases and the “excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers following Green Revolution seems to be a major culprit”[2].

In the US, the FDA relies heavily on information from the industry (Monsanto and other companies) for assurances of food safety. With vested economic interest of these companies such information can be skewed. US is also one of the few developed countries that does not mandate GM food labeling.

Environmental Concerns.

Adverse effects on the environment also abound. One risk is gene transfer from a GM crop to its wild counterparts, invasiveness of the GM crops and, hence, their gradual dominance and loss of natural biodiversity. The GM crops are heavily reliant on pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, whereas wild counterparts usually develop natural forms of resistance. If the GM crops continue to replace wild counterparts, the global food supply will end up with few very chemical and pesticide-dependent crops (monoculture farming). The monoculture farming depletes the soil, pollutes the water (one of the reasons of the tragedy in Punjab), contributes to global warming emissions and reduces wildlife diversity (populations of birds, bees, caterpillars are negatively affected).

Another alarming development is the rise of herbicide resistant “superweeds” in response to the overuse of Monsanto’s “Roundup” herbicide. This phenomenon then leads to even more use of herbicides and use of increasingly toxic herbicides.

Economic, Social and Ethical Concerns.

Industrial agriculture aims to increase income for the farmers with increased yields, and make food more affordable. In reality, however, it leads to farm and land concentration with only the largest farms benefiting. In addition Monsanto puts significant research to develop the GM crops and recoups their investment by owning biological patents to its seeds and creating biological and legal obstacles for farmers to save and share seeds, as they have historically done. For example, some of the engineered crops are sterile, which ensures that farmers can not reproduce their own seed from these crops and the seeds are exclusively owned by said companies. Decreasing number of global crops owned by a small number of private companies will increase global dependence on these companies and is likely to raise the price of these crops. This poses ethical as well as economic concerns: “Should a handful of private companies be allowed to control the world food supply”?

In quest for efficiency and profitability, the industrial agricultural model uses the land mostly for growing high yielding, multi-use grain and corn crops at the expense of fruits and vegetables. Hence those foods are cheaper and more abundant, whereas fruits and vegetables are in shorter supply and, thus, more expensive. In this case the government by supporting industrial agriculture practices does little to support its own recommendation that fruits and vegetables should constitute 50% of our dietary intake[3].

Industrial agriculture also does not solve the political and social causes of poverty. The fact that more food supply is produced does not guarantee that the hungry of the world will benefit from it, if distribution of food and other economic power is uneven.

In Conclusion.

Any intended benefits of industrial agriculture and GM crops are heavily outweighed by risks and side effects. I think the best alternative to this model is creating (or going back to) a sustainable agriculture model, that does not rely on heavy use of chemicals and pesticides, keeps soil and environment healthy, encourages biodiversity and creates high yields via traditional and innovative agricultural methods. I am sure there are applications for GM crops in this sustainable model but their use should be well thought through and regulated.

References:

1. “Our failing food system”, “Healthy Food and Farm solutions”. www.ucsusa.org Web 11-15-13

2.  Klug, W. S., Cummings, M. R., Spencer, C. A., & Palladino, M. A. (2012). Concepts of genetics. (10th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson

3. “Green Revolution” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution Web 11-15-13

4. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” Deborah B. Whitman April 2000 http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php Web 11-15-13

5. “GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops” Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, John Fagan June 2012 http://www.nongmoproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/GMO_Myths_and_Truths_1.31.pdf Web 11-15-13 

5. “Lessons from the Green Revolution” April 8th, 2000 http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html Web 11-15-13 

6. http://www.punjabfoundation.org/about-us.html Web 11-15-13


[1] http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/archives/entry/connecticut_still_alone_on_passing_gmo_labeling_bill/ , retrieved Dec 29, 2013

[2] http://www.punjabfoundation.org/about-us.html , retrieved November 15, 2013

[3] http://www.choosemyplate.gov/index.html