10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods Are Already Causing

Original Article Link

This article is from the website Listverse, hence the ‘top ten’ format, clearly appealing to the short attention span of the general public and intended as a concise, entertaining information source. As such, it (like most other sources, including other ones I’ve included) employs media tactics of exaggeration in the service of making ‘a better story’ as opposed to telling the whole story. This presents the complex system of the food industry as an issue more so than most other sources.

S. GRANT JUNE 22, 2013

The difficulty of debating the subject of genetically modified (GM) foods is they are so new that we don’t really know how they affect the human body–they just haven’t existed long enough to draw conclusive facts. However, we don’t need to wait around for decades to see how scientifically engineered foods will impact our nutritional health, since they’re already causing enough trouble in other ways to prove they’re not worth our while.

Consider the following.

The initial admission of unknown data sets up a fresh alternative to the usual binary debate on health impacts, and the promise of investigating the complexity of interconnected systems. The position’s strong assertion of proof somewhat undermines this, in favour of presenting a strong united (simplified) argument.

10 Create Superbugs and Superweeds

14211839-cute-but-damaging-colorado-potato-beetle-feeding-on-the-plant-s-leaves-an-agricultural-pest

The good thing about designing a plant with an insecticide gene is it eliminates a lot of unwanted bugs. The downside is that only the strongest insects survive, resulting in a new class of superbugs resistant to both the crops’ implanted toxins and spray-on chemicals.

In 2011, scientists examined 13 major pests and found that five were immune to the poisons genetically bred into GM plants like Bt corn and Bt cotton. Similarly, farmers are battling ultra-hardy weeds which aren’t responding to glyphosate–the herbicide marketed as Roundup. As a result farmers are forced to use even more chemicals to combat these superweeds. According to the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, GM crops cause herbicide use to increase 25 percent per year.

What sometimes confuses people and the data, however, is that farmers may actually experience a lower need for chemicals in the first few years of growing a GM crop. Yet, once the pests and weeds develop immunity, farmers have little choice except to spray ever-increasing amounts of herbicides and pesticides–effectively raising their own operating costs and pollution levels.

This argument firstly employs the term ‘superbug’ to sensationalize the issue, as well as equating genetic modification with adding poison. The scientific term ‘glyphosate’, and the casual dropping in of ‘peer-reviewed’ show an appeal to scientific credibility. It isn’t clear whether the described effect of pest immunity is specific to pesticide in GMOs or whether that process would occur with regular pesticide use as well.

A consideration of long-term effects reveals the generally flawed thinking behind genetic modification as it exists today: like Mariah Wright’s speculative scenarios, modifications are delivered as finished products rather than ongoing projects. Eventual failure is inevitable in a rapidly shifting world, and yet these failures are not built into the design of genetic modification projects.

Here, genetic modification would benefit from Celia Lury’s notion of designing unfinished objects, as described in an interview with Guy Julier:

It’s interesting to think about the relationship of the unfinished object to an environment or ecology in which the individual human user is not the only or even necessarily the most important element of the environment. The “user” might thus be understood variously: as some kind of collective, mass, assemblage or ecology (including other objects and the natural environment). And of course the notion of unfinished-ness directly introduces the notion of temporality – thinking the future of the object as something to be considered as implicated in the present of the object.

Allowing for the existence of unknown future factors outside human control, and considering future implications in designs for the present is no easy task, but it is one that could revolutionize the industry toward an ongoing engagement with sustainability.

9 Kill Bees and Butterflies

honey

One of the advertised benefits of GM foods is they are pest and weedkiller resistant, which supposedly leads to greater crop yields. Unfortunately, the methods GMO companies use to pest-proof their crops is also suspected to kill vital beneficial bugs, like bees and butterflies. At first consideration it might seem like more food for the world should trump the lives of a few annoying bugs, but that’s shortsighted thinking since the elimination of pollinating insects could eventually lead to a collapse in the food supply. This is because insect pollination supports one-third of food crops (with honeybees responsible for 80 percent of that number). Thus, instead of solving food shortage problems, GM foods may actually make things much, much worse.

The article sets up a catastrophic scenario, but one that is eventual and possible as well as unspecific. What constitutes a collapse in the food supply? There is a nod to the larger ecosystem surrounding industrial agriculture and the need for long-sighted thinking, but no detail as to the steps in between ecosystem damage and food supply disaster.

There is also the assumption that because bees and butterflies are what pollinate crops now, there are what we must rely upon in the future because ‘that’s the way it is done,’ when in fact alternatives would certainly come before crop destruction and starvation. For example, a reduction of bees in China has forced apple farmers to hand-pollinate their crops: a laborious process but far from supply collapse.

Why are GMO producers allowed to grow their butterfly and bee-killing crops? Unfortunately, with the slurry of insecticides, fungicides, genetically modified crops, and high-powered weedkillers present in modern farming, it’s hard to prove if GMOs are truly the variable to blame. Just as one study proves GM crops are the problem another study is released claiming they are totally safe. Meanwhile, honeybees continue to decline at a rate of 30 percent per year and butterfly populations have reached an all-time low.

This is some spectacularly weaselly wording: scientific studies are reported as inconclusive, unable to positively blame GMOs and yet the author continues to assert an absolute belief in GMOS as bee-killers. Apparently one study “proves” the author’s view while the other “claims” an opposing one, despite no evidence given as to which findings are more credible. The twisted logic seems to say “Scientific findings report that many things could be contributing to bees and butterflies dying, but it must be GMOs because bees and butterflies are dying and GMOs exist.” There is a stubborn unwillingness to account for a complex system of layered factors, preferring to point the finger at enemy number one and leave it at that.

Although it’s unclear whether GM crops are inherently bad for beneficial insects, they’re at the very least perpetuating the widespread use of chemicals, which undoubtedly harms insects and the “weeds” they depend on (such as butterflies which lay their eggs on milkweed).

Now apparently it’s unclear again whether GMOs are bad, but chemical use definitely is and that’s directly caused by GMOs. Chemicals is used autonomously as a trigger word to connote toxicity when in fact its scientific definition can be applied to any number of harmless compounds made through a chemical process. “Weeds” is given fresh quotation marks, despite item number 10 outlining the farmer’s need to remove weeds.

8 Farmers Can’t Harvest Seeds

seeds

Fundamentally, farming is a simple process: plant seeds, grow crops, harvest crops, and gather seeds from the plants for the next season. Sadly, GMO companies like Monsanto take this last step away from farmers and raise expenses even further by forcing the farmers to continually buy the premium-priced GM seeds every growing season. In fact, as was shown in the Bowman v. Monsanto court case, it is illegal in the US for someone growing a Monsanto crop to harvest the seeds and use them later. The Bowman case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, despite public outcry, the 70-year-old farmer was unanimously found guilty of patent infringement after he purchased and used second generation Monsanto seeds.

Sympathy is generated for the somewhat mythical figure of the old, traditional, simple farmer aligned with the outcrying public, pitted against the large evil GMO corporation. This does demonstrate the implications of capitalist ownership, nicely complementing and filling in Wright’s coffee scenario from her speculative design work. This brings the high-minded abstract ethical debate on the theory of GMOs into the real world, grounded in legal bureaucratic practicalities and raising questions as to whether GMOs should rightly follow the patent laws they do now.

Preventing farmers from harvesting seeds means big businesses could eventually have total control over the world’s seed supply and prices. Currently, just three mega companies control over half of the global seed market, which has caused prices to skyrocket. For example, the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has gone up 325 percent since 1995. Things get even scarier when you consider Monsanto has developed and owns a patent on a “terminator gene” which can make a plant produce sterile seeds–but don’t worry, they’ve promised not to use the technology.

If they truly wanted us not to worry, they would not have brought up the sensationally named terminator gene. This perspective overlaps the issue of the food industry with the capitalist unequal distribution of wealth and the increasing power of the mega corporation. It is a scary prospect for an industry so vital to bare survival. This positions the primary problems with the food industry with corporate corruption, the economics of the issue at least equally as pressing as the biological.

7 Cross-Pollination Contaminates Regular Crops

corn-field-road-tree-clouds-sky-nature

One of the major problems with GM crops is they are difficult to contain, which means they could be extremely hard to get rid of if we later decide they are a bad idea. Scientists have yet to figure out a way to control cross-pollination, so no matter how diligent a small, organic farmer is in using natural growing methods, he can’t stop pollen from a GM farm from blowing in, fertilizing, and turning his crops into hybrids. While it’s fairly easy to reduce contamination in some plants, with others–like canola and corn–it’s nearly impossible.

A powerful narrative of the heroic, natural, individual farmer powerless to protect his property against vampire-like invasion and corruption. This is essentially a magnification of the other issues associated with GMOs- like the challenges described in “Living in the World Risk Society,” this raises the status of the GM food risk to the level of Non-compensatibility, in addition to De-localization and Incalculableness (page 334). The risk is impossible to locally contain, it’s impossible to find out what we do not know or make any statistically measured estimation, and the consequences of accidents cannot be undone.

Early on, Monsanto and others claimed cross-pollination wouldn’t be an issue if farms were sufficiently spread apart, yet this proved inaccurate when they found pollen could travel much farther than expected (several kilometers or more). As GM crops grow in popularity, we may not be able to choose between consuming or avoiding them as all plants will be “infected.” Even buying food with an organic label doesn’t put you totally in the clear as some governing agencies, like the USDA, don’t revoke a farm’s organic status if a few plants were cross-pollinated with a GM crop.

This directly opposes the idea presented in the article “Should we Accept GM Food as the Future Fare” that organic is not necessarily exclusively non-genetically modified, applying instead a sweeping definition of organic that contains everything ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome’.

6 It’s Illegal to Accidentally Grow a GM Plant

Cherry Belle Radish seedlings

It seems there’s a basic flaw in how GM crops are governed. For one, they’re illegal to own unless you buy them directly from an approved distributor every season, but on the other hand the seeds and pollen from these plants are flying around everywhere. What happens to a farmer who, from cross-pollination, unintentionally grows a Monsanto plant? While Monsanto has never sued anyone for having trace amounts of non-purchased GMOs in their fields, they have sued farmers who claimed to be growing large amounts of patented crops by accident.

For instance, Percy Schmeiser, a 74-year-old Canadian canola farmer, was sued by Monsanto when it was discovered a majority of his crop contained the patented Roundup Ready gene. Schmeiser said he didn’t know how his fields became contaminated, yet he suspected it was from a neighboring farm that grew GM crops. His best guess was the plants closest to the neighbor’s farm were most likely to survive his own herbicide treatments and those were the plants and seeds his hired hands unwittingly harvested. In the end, the courts sided with Monsanto, saying Schmeiser “knew or ought to have known” his seeds were resistant to Roundup.

Complicating matters further, farmers often buy “commodity” bags of seeds that come from a mishmash of sources–including GMO farms. So, if a farmer plants a Monsanto seed that was randomly mixed in with the rest of the bag and later harvests more seeds from the plant, he can be sued for not paying royalties to the GMO giant. This is exactly what happened to Vernon Bowman in the Bowman v. Monsanto case.

This mainly expands upon the questions of capitalist corruption and legal difficulty raised in item number 8.

5 Increased Suicide Rates

pay-full_24969

Farming is always a gamble, especially in places like India, where farmers depend on a strong monsoon season to provide enough water for their crops. If the monsoon fails, so does their livelihood. For this reason and a myriad of other socio-economic challenges, suicide numbers among Indian farmers are staggeringly high (about 1,000 per month). GM crops are making matters worse as desperate farmers borrow money at extortionate rates to pay for “magic” GM seeds that, unfortunately, require twice the amount of water and don’t live up to their pest-free claims. When bollworms continue to decimate their plants or the monsoon doesn’t deliver, hopeless farmers crushed with insurmountable debt see no way out except to drink a deadly glass of insecticide.

The briefly mentioned ‘myriad of other socio-economic challenges’ is quickly sacrificed for the sake of a falsely simple cause/effect narrative. The implication is that genetic modification holds both the primary cause and the primary potential for solutions to increased suicide rates. The author appears to have remarkable insight into the inner thought processes of the homogenous group of ‘hopeless farmers.’ Additionally, there is the absurd phrasing that bollyworms “continue to” decimate plants and yet this constitutes a new problem caused by GMOs.

Despite there being over 125,000 suicides since the introduction of GM crops in India, and, as reported in a New York Times article, the ridiculously high prices of seeds and pesticides are causing farmers to make less money than ever. Additionally, as pests and weeds become increasingly immune to insecticides, farmers have to spend more and more money on chemicals. And let’s not forget, they are also legally required to buy new seeds every season unless they want to be sued or forced to burn all their plants.

Here we have statistics that support an increase in suicides coinciding with GM crops, but no actual evidence detailing the supposed direct link between the two. One cannot discount the strong possibility of a correlation, but causation is groundlessly suggested. The theorization delves a little into the ripple effects of GMOs on farmers, including an often overlooked psychological view, but all toward a single reductive narrative that prohibits thoughtful exploration.

While Monsanto sticks to its story of creating higher crop yields, there are many who disagree, including India’s Agricultural Ministry. The ministry says Monsanto’s Bt cotton was successful for five years, yet now produces no better than any other crop. It blames GMOs for the current rash of suicides among cotton farmers. In 2012, a panel of scientists commissioned by India’s Supreme Court recommended a10-year moratorium on field trials for all GM crops until further testing was done and stricter regulations created. It’s uncertain when or if the government will put the advice into effect.

Success followed by equality is described like an ultimate failure. The credibility of the Agricultural Ministry is used to back up the GMO/suicide link, but with little detail. A conflict of interest seems more than likely- blame an external threat for political reasons within a country: a path of speculation hardly less defensible than the article’s argumentation.

4 Little Government Oversight

Capitol_Building__Washington__DC

The sad thing is, the “superbugs” created by Roundup Ready plants may have been avoided if farmers were required to adhere to safe farming practices. For example, farmers who follow GM guidelines and plant “refuges” (areas of non-Bt crops) adjacent to their GM fields, have extremely lower rates of pest resistance. However, a lack of training, resources, and enforcement means many farmers don’t follow the refuge technique and superbugs continue to proliferate. This is likely what has led to the resurgence of the bollworm in India as the bug has become unaffected by Bt cotton, which was supposed to be bollworm-proof.

Additionally, while 64 countries–including China and the European Union–require labeling of genetically engineered foods, the United States (the largest producer of GM crops) still has no such laws. This makes it incredibly difficult for people to choose whether or not they want to consume GM foods, as many folks aren’t even aware when they’re eating a GM product. For instance, the USDA says 94% of soy and 75% of all corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. When you consider some type of corn, corn syrup, or soy is in just about every pre-packaged food, there’s a good chance Americans are eating a lot more GMOs than they realized. On top of that, many farm animals are consuming these engineered foods and passing them along in their meat.

The government regulation doesn’t appear to be a problem caused by GMOs: GMOs here are posed as the problem, and government as the tool allowing them to slip under the radar. The lack of consumer awareness is pinpointed as a government labeling issue even as the complex inescapability of GMOs is addressed.When GMOs are considered as posing a risk, it logically follows that the public has a right to know when they are eating them. Here individual freedom is prioritized in the form of informed consumer choice.

3Revolving Door between Government and Biotech Workers

Revolving door (base)

As often as GMO protestors shout out the dangers of “frankenfoods,” biotech companies respond, scientific studies in hand, that GM foods are perfectly safe. It’s admittedly hard to make sense of the endless contradictory information, but there’s at least one fact that should raise the eyebrow of even the most neutral party: the former attorney and vice president of Monsanto, Michael Taylor, is now theDeputy Commissioner at the United States Food and Drug Administration. Taylor has also held positions at the USDA and is often criticized for being in the “revolving door” of the public and private sector.

Even those who don’t gravitate towards conspiracy theories can’t help but wonder if Taylor genuinely took the position with the FDA for his love of food safety and civil service or if he has ulterior motives to protect his agribusiness buddies. This makes it hard to trust the FDA when they say GM foods pose no other risks than their natural counterparts. Trust diminishes even further when you consider that, back in the ’90s, FDA scientists warned that gene-sliced foods were significantly different and could lead to “different risks” as compared to conventional foods. For some reason, those findings didn’t match official policy.

The phrase ‘one can’t help but wonder’ is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but does raise important concerns over how to allocate trust in the expert system of chosen information sources. Corruption is sadly a very real idea to consider not only in grounding ethics debates but in filtering information sources.

2Harm Biodiversity

OroValleyWildFlowers

Biological diversity, or biodiversity, refers to the variety of lifeforms in a particular region or on the earth as a whole. Maintaining biodiversity is important since every living thing plays a pivotal role in the circle of life we currently enjoy.

Industrial farming reduces biodiversity as agribusinesses clear the land of all native plants and focus on producing only one type of crop. This large-scale monoculture crop production has resulted in a 75 percent reduction in plant diversity since the 1900s. GM farms make things worse because not only do they produce a single plant species (e.g. corn, soybeans, rice), but all the plants within the species come from one modified source plant and are genetically identical. Having such unvaried crops is troublesome as it makes our food supply particularly susceptible to climate change, disease, and pests. And it’s not just the biodiversity of plants that are affected. As mentioned, insects like bees and butterflies are already suffering, and herbicides are known to result in birth defects and population decline in amphibians, birds, soil organisms, and marine ecosystems.

This mirrors Fennelly’s argument about the need to preserve biodiversity but with a very different tone, relying on concise ‘objective’ facts.

Businesses like Monsanto are further hampering biodiversity by systematically buying up seed firms and replacing tried and true conventional varieties with their higher-priced, genetically engineered versions. While some argue Monsanto’s ultimate goal is to control the world’s food supply, it’s more likely their motivation is simply higher profits. After all, they make much more money by selling their patented, expensive, must-buy-every-season seeds than by offering quality traditional seeds.

This demonstrates how impacts of economics and biology, for example, are intertwined systems that complicate and exacerbate issues with the food industry. Social realities like capitalism and its ideals are always present beneath the surface of an issue, and occasionally become very plain.

1Distract from Healthy, Environmentally Friendly Technologies

irrigation

One of the main strategies GM companies have used to push their way to the agriculture forefront is the promise of preventing a world food crisis and being the solution for hungry people in Africa and elsewhere. However, that assurance hasn’t exactly panned out since GM crop yields are highly variable and many countries simply don’t want to eat food designed in a laboratory.

In fact, in 1998, 24 delegates from 18 African countries told the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, “We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.

The translation from theoretical promise to socially real application incurs the complication of multiplicity and resistance. In the context of this article, this passage conveniently provides an external voice to summarize its own premise.

Genetic modification is presented as unsafe, environmentally damaging and economically costly, a sign that the modern industrialized food industry needs to step back from its pursuit of forward progress and reflect on whether improvement is being achieved.

So, if GMOs aren’t the answer, how are we to feed the world’s rapidly growing population? Fortunately, there are many viable solutions being advocated by farmers and scientists alike. For example, as reported by the 1996 National Research Council in the U.S., there are currently many crops such as pearl millet, fonio, and African rice that are nutritious, tasty, and produce well in harsh climates. Additionally, environmentally friendly, low-water farming methods, such as the System of Rice Intensification (which improves rice production by 50-100 percent) is being used as a model for growing other crops in a sustainable manner. Other ideas include the decentralization of farming, urban farming, greenhouses on top of grocery stores, aquaponics, and more. Diverting funds and resources away from GMOs could allow one or more of these natural, wholesome practices to flourish.

This finishes on an unambiguous note of pitting natural and wholesome against sinister and chemical GMOs. Whether the aforementioned methods are indeed superior, however, requires further investigation: introducing foreign species from other climates, for example, always has unintended consequences. With that said, the mere mention of alternatives differentiates this from a common and flawed argumentation that defends the need for GMOs by virtue of being the only solution to food scarcity. If indeed GMOs are potentially dangerous, then a larger problem alone does not necessitate their usage. Unlike the panic-inducing tone through the rest of the article, the conclusion soars with hopefulness, leaving readers with an open invitation to change.