by James Videle
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a phrase that is relatively new to our lexicon. Only since 1994 have GMOs been approved for use in the United States. But what are GMOs, who grows them, where do they exist, and why should we say No? This is what we will explore in this article.
Genetically modified organisms can be defined as follows:
Genetic modification (GM) is the introduction of new traits to an organism by making changes directly to its genetic makeup, e.g. DNA, through intervention at the molecular level. It’s also called genetic engineering or GE. With genetic engineering, scientists can change the traits of plants and animals by inserting DNA pieces, whole genes, or long stretches of DNA segments from many different organisms. These sequences can also be taken from the same species or be newly made up. Scientists can also delete or swap DNA sequences in organisms or introduce genetic material to silence genes.
Unlike conventional breeding and hybridization, genetic engineering is a laboratory technology that enables the direct transfer of genes between organisms in different species or kingdoms that would not breed in nature, and the introduction of new sequences that do not even exist in nature.
To understand more fully what this means. I will describe the different type of seeds that farmers plant.
Organic: A seed that is free of GMO and cultivated without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or sprays, and that is certified by a third party agency.
Non-organic: A seed that is cultivated in any other way, with or without chemicals.
Heirloom and open-pollinated: A seed, whether organic or non-organic, that can be saved by the farmer and will produce the same plant the following year. For example a Red Brandywine Tomato (heirloom and open-pollinated) seed will produce a Red Brandywine Tomato.
Hybrid: A seed, whether organic or non-organic, that has crossed to form another variety, either by nature or by breeders, and that has been selected for specific traits to create a desired variety. Seeds can be saved and planted the following year, but the subsequent plant will be unknown, as the seed could hold the genes from any of the ‘parent’ plants or be a completely new hybrid. (Most commonly hybrids are created by breeders for specific disease resistance or plant vitality.)
GMO: A non-organic hybrid seed that has been inserted with genes in a laboratory and that is illegal to seed save, because of patents and royalties by the company that owns the intellectual property.
TYPES OF GMO CROPS
Four main GMO crops are grown, primarily in five countries in the world. The crops are corn, canola, cotton, and soy in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada.
99% of all GMO-grown acres are for the above four crops and 90% in those five countries. It should be understood that this acreage only accounts for 13% of worldwide arable land. 87% of arable agricultural land is GMO-free.
There are also GMO-grown alfalfa, sugar beets (100% of sugar beet production in the United States is GMO), papaya, squash, and eggplant (the two last vegetables in very limited supply).
WHAT ARE SEEDS GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOR?
Currently there are two main reasons why seeds are genetically modified: HT, or herbicide tolerant, the most common being round-up ready (glyphosate) treated seed for corn, canola, soy, and cotton; and BT, or bacillius thuringiensis, treated for insect resistance for corn (the European corn borer and corn rootworm) and cotton (cotton bollworm).
GMOs IN THE FOOD YOU EAT AND IN THE CLOTHES YOU WEAR
It is possible that upwards of 70% of processed food containing corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed (oil) is genetically modified currently. This includes corn chips, corn flakes, soy milk, tofu, vegetable oils, etc… There are no labeling laws in North America (United States, Canada, and Mexico) requiring food makers to designate the existence of GMO ingredients in the package. However, if a product is labeled organic, or GMO-free verified, then there are no genetically modified ingredients in the processed food. Also no raw fruits or vegetables, other than papaya (for sure), squash, and eggplant (a very small possibility) are genetically modified.
Interestingly, many countries have very strict mandatory labeling laws (where the ingredient is more than .9-1% GMO), including all 28 countries in the European Union, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Australia. Many others have strict labeling laws where the GMO content is higher than 1%, including Ukraine, China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa. Other countries have partial bans. Three countries have total bans on all GE foods: Benin, Zambia, and Serbia.
If you buy cotton clothes from India, Pakistan, or southeast Asia, chances are very likely that they are produced with GMO-cotton.
All non-organic animal products—milk, eggs, meat, and factory-farmed fish that are fed grains or alfalfa—are eating genetically modified grains in North America (100%). Currently, one fish approved for production by the FDA has been genetically modified to grow year round, the AquAdvantage Salmon. However, interestingly this salmon is banned for import into the United States from its production grounds in Canada.
If you buy organic products that contain corn, canola, soy (like tofu, soy milk), and cottonseed, then you are consuming 0% GMO crops. But organic farmers do use ‘organic’ cow manure and ‘organically-approved’ chicken manure from animals that are fed GMO grains. Even organic farmers are not completely breaking the cycle of genetically modified crops, although most organic farmers are ardently opposed to GMOs.
WHY WE SHOULD SAY NO… (A Veganic Farmer’s Opinion)
As a veganic farmer who saves his own seeds it is very important to me that the seeds I save are true to type. I grow soy and corn. There is little problem with soy contamination because the soy flower is a perfect seed, and even though insects, like bees, can carry the pollen from one field to the next, the chances are highly unlikely. However, in corn, pollen can travel by wind up to half a mile! So if a neighbor is growing GMO-corn and its pollen disburses on my field, then my ability to save true seed is greatly jeopardized; even worse, I won’t know until the plant produces ears one year later! Some companies are experimenting with genetically modified wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, and flax. All these I grow and save seed from them.
It is large companies, like Monsanto (now Bayer-Monsanto), Syngenta (now Chemchina-Syngenta), and Dupont (now Dow Chemical-Dupont) (all in 2016) that make these seeds. Their philosophy is profit first, everything else second. Yes, I am against huge companies or anyone patenting seed. Seeds form the basis of all life. Unless we go back to a gatherer lifestyle, seeds to grow the food we eat are second in importance worldwide to water.
Herbicide-treated and pesticide-treated seed create super bugs and super weeds. In the past, I have used organic insecticidal soap to try and kill the aphid population; it worked on some plants but was not 100% effective. The resistant aphids expanded and became immune to subsequent spraying. The same is true with BT corn and cotton: eventually the formulation will not be 100% effective and a new one will need to be man-created, and then another, and so on.
For herbicide-treated seed (round-up ready) the same is true. There are already main corn, soy, and cotton growing areas with resistance to glyphosate weeds. Monsanto has created a dicamba-resistant genetically modified seed, which is a stronger herbicide than glyphosate. And when that is not 100% effective, Monsanto will create another.
On our farm we do not use herbicides or any insect sprays. We hand weed, when necessary, and let nature do the work in managing insects. Nature will always find a way to strike a balance, but if we spray or use chemicals, even if the claim is that the chemical is only moderately toxic to insects, reptiles, and small mammals, it means that some are being killed and not able to partner with us. If some insects are causing wide damage, we do hand pick them off, but more likely another insect, amphibian, or bird will come in and nourish themselves or their babies.
The data on whether or not GM foods are toxic to us is inconclusive, if only because they have not been around long enough to determine their toxicity. Industry claims that the pesticides and the GM crops themselves contain ‘no risk.’ That is impossible to prove at this point, and the scientific community would agree that nothing can be listed as 100% safe. It is not that much different than those who told us cigarette smoking was fine for our health. For my part, I choose not to believe them.
The World Health Organization states in their frequently asked questions page, “that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”
Companies spend millions to block GMO-labeling laws. In 2012, in California, proposition 37 was a bill to label foods as genetically modified. Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, General mills, Kellogg’s, Dow, Cargill, BASF, and more of the like donated 25 million dollars in opposition. Blitzing ad campaigns in California defeated the bill 53-47. If genetically modified foods are so amazing and the future of our food, then why not promote them? Why not write on the package of Kellogg’s frosted flakes or Coca-Cola classic, ‘proudly made with genetically modified ingredients?’ Why not let us decide? Maybe there is a reason.
FINAL REFLECTIONS FROM A VEGAN FARMER
The more humans intervene, the more problems we create. The countries’ people who rely on seed-saving agriculture year after year do not want man-made bio-tech seeds. In our United States culture we have become so far removed from agriculture that we take for granted that agribusiness takes our best interest into account.
However, we have created antibiotic resistant bacteria in us and have had to create stronger antibiotics. There are antibiotics in our water supply. Now we are creating super weeds and super bugs in our food supply, again relying more and more on humans to create a solution.
Even though this technology exists, and attempts by the bio-engineering companies to create other GM-seeds is possible, the growth of the industry has stagnated. People are waking up and are unsure about whether or not this industry is good for us. For sure it is not good for nature or the environment, because any amount of herbicide is too much for the non-human world.
But individually we have a choice, even when our collective North American governments are pro big-business and pro biotechnology. We can choose to buy only organic products. We can eat a greater percentage of our diet as fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains (other than corn) that even non-organic are non-GMO. And as always the best choice is to be vegan, for being vegan means we take the extra time to research all of our buying choices that are the least exploitative, consuming only what we need, and for sure we can be 100% GMO-free.
For an informative read that provided much information for this article, check out: “Where In the World Are GM Crops and Foods?”
Scientific pro-GMO arguments and my rebuttal
Pro-GMO argument: GMOs are safer than hybridized seeds or irradiated seeds because they are vigorously tested for safety, allergenicity & ecological equivalence. (True)
Since all new GE strains need to be tested, the result is continuous suffering, for most testing is done on animals in laboratories, with the most used victims being rabbits (“Challenges in Testing Genetically Modified Crops for Potential Increases in Endogenous Allergen Expression for Safety,” Panda et al., 2012).
According to an article partially funded by Monsanto, corn fields in Iowa were found to have corn root worms resistant to the GE corn (“Field-Evolved Resistance by Western Corn Rootworm to Multiple Bacillus Thuringiensis Toxins in Transgenic Maize,” Gassmann et al., 2014).
GMOs that are modified to be more nutritious with inputting Vitamin A could be theoretically beneficial, but foods high in Vitamin A include leafy greens, carrots, mango, sweet potatoes, melons, and tomatoes, all or some of which can grow everywhere in the world. These GE modified varieties are also tested on animals.
GMOs resistant to drought have shown promise, but poor farmers who had once relied on saving their own seed year to year would now have to rely on buying expensive seed every year, greatly decreasing their marginal profits and giving rise to consolidation of larger monocropped farms (“Twelve Reasons for Africa to Reject GM Crops,” Makanya, 2004).
Pro-GMO argument: GMOs can be modified to resist pesticides, pests, nutritional quality, water efficiency, drought, cold or other environmental conditions. (True)
Round-up ready (herbicide resistant) corn, soy, canola, and beets have existed on a great level for the last 17 years, and now over 60 million acres in the US are infested with superweeds. In the southeast, where up to 92% of soy and cotton fields are infested, Palmer amaranth is so invasive that it can reach 8 feet in height, outcompeting soy and cotton, with a root system so large it can damage tractor implements, meaning itinerant low-paid workers are hired to dig this out by hand. Currently there are 13 more herbicide resistant crops that are awaiting clearance by the USDA and will only greatly exacerbate the problem (“The Rise of Superweeds–and What to Do About It,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013).
Pro-GMO argument: Labeling GMOs hurts scientific progress: 64 countries have bans and labeling laws because citizens fear them, not due to scientific research, but due to word of mouth and fear mongering. (False)
Whether GMOs are good or bad, the industry has invested, and continues to invest, huge amounts of money. From Monsanto’s website it takes 13 years and $130 million to bring a new GMO seed to market (“Biotechnology and GMOs,” Monsanto website).
Their motivation is clear and the suffering caused by testing on animals is intolerable.
In addition, with the GMO industry’s proven track record of not being able to see the future (superweeds, or superbugs), how can we ever be assured that it won’t create additional problems in the future?
It is a fact that developing countries’ farmers are fighting hard against GMO technology.
Peasant farmers of Ghana do not want it, they feel that, “if you allow someone to control your seed and plants, then they control you.”
In India, Vandana Shiva states, “Monsanto’s talk of ‘technology’ tries to hide its real objectives of control over seed where genetic engineering is a means to control seed.”
Here is the question that should be asked, when it comes to these developing countries and their food security: should it not be their people’s decision how best to combat hunger and malnutrition as opposed to a handful of companies and western (United States) scientists?
Keywords: GMOs, Monsanto, agriculture, seed-saving, veganic farming