People who oppose the growing of GMO crops (I actually prefer to use the word “transgenic,” indicating that it contains genes from another species, because it is more specific and because critics will tell you that all crops have been genetically modified by centuries of artificial selection… this is accurate, and the more specific term helps to keep things clear) have come under fire for being unscientific, or for using pseudoscience to back their claims that transgenic crops are harmful. There are good reasons for this; I am not one of those “GMOs are poison” people, mainly because I haven’t seen sufficient scientific evidence to convince me that there are direct adverse health effects from transgenic crops, and I think that opponents of these crops suffer from a lot of bad messaging.
I do oppose transgenic crops, though. I think that there are a lot of good, scientifically sound reasons to oppose them. Some of these have to do with the kinds of crops that we’re creating, and some have to do with how these crops are grown, while still others have to do with how the products are handled legally.
To start with, and probably my greatest concern, is the large quantity of pesticides required to grow the most common varieties of transgenic crops on the market; the glyphosate resistant crops.
Glyphosate resistant crops account for 80% of the transgenic crops grown in the US today. These are commodity crops; corn, soybean, canola, cotton, sugarbeet, and (at one time) alfalfa. These are things that we don’t generally eat directly, but are processed into products that are then used in cattle feed and processed foods (with the notable exception of cotton). They are engineered to resist having been sprayed with glyphosate (brand name Roundup), so that a farmer can spray the entire field, killing the weeds without endangering the crop itself. This sounds great on the surface, but it has lead to more and less discriminating use of the herbicide, which we are now finding out may cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and infertility. In fact, in addition to the glyphosate, some of the “inert” ingredients in Roundup may be more deadly than the herbicide itself. And despite what we’ve been told about the fact that glyphosate breaks down after spraying, we’re finding that it persists in the water and the air, and residues remain on the food that is harvested from these fields. More than that, pesticides are sometimes even sprayed on farm workers, some of our most vulnerable and invisible workers.
There are other problems with the heavy use of glyphosate… one is that it does appear to have environmental impacts… it is destroying the Monarch butterfly migration, reducing the genetic diversity of wild plants (commonly known as weeds), and creating glyphosate resistant weeds. The industry solution to this was initially to prescribe larger quantities of Roundup to be sprayed, and recently to introduce a new line of products resistant to 2,4-D, one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War. This will, in turn, create more resistant weeds. It is, at best, a temporary solution. In the same way, Bt crops, crops engineered to produce their own pesticides, are now producing a Bt resistant corn rootworm. These are not unexpected results. These were a forgone conclusion.
And the difficulty that I have with this is that the transgenic crops don’t even present long-term, consistent gains in yield. In fact, some studies seem to show that the introduction of herbicide resistance or pesticide producing traits create lower yields overall. This is not surprising… there is no such thing as a free lunch in nature. I think that if these crops produced an increased yield, we could actually have a conversation about how to keep the transgenic crops and manage the risks involved, but as it stands, I don’t see a lot of advantages. In the meantime, the truly massive quantities of transgenic crops being grown are supplanting heirloom varieties (varieties of food crops changed by generations of selective breeding). This is a problem; many heirloom varieties provide superior taste and even better nutrition, and more importantly, they’re often selectively bred to be well-suited to their growing environment… so that certain plants may be hardy to temperature variations in a certain area, or more resistant to diseases common in another. Crops developed in drought-prone areas may be more drought tolerant. These crops are important, not just because they’re good for us, or good at growing in certain areas, but also culturally… this has been a big concern in Mexico, which is home to the widest variety of heirloom corn species anywhere in the world. And this magnificent diversity is under threat.
Biodiversity in food crops is a good thing. It means that when one variety fails, a different one might do fine. It gives us more options, is a bullwark against massive crop failure due to drought and disease, and provides a varied diet, which is extremely good for us, since we are omnivores. Not only is the concern that so many large farmers have adopted vast transgenic monocultures, but it is also that transgenic crops interbreed with conventional crops, and there’s no way to determine which traits will be inherited or eradicated in the resulting offspring.
Farmers have so readily adopted transgenic crops because it is cheaper and easier to spray an entire field without worrying about what is friend and what is foe, and frankly for the growers of commodity crops, I can’t blame them. Soy, canola, and corn aren’t highly profitable; in fact without federal subsidies, corn couldn’t be grown at a profit. But with the way transgenic crops are handled, the farmer becomes a kind of seed tenant, and never truly owns his product or the means of production. The seeds cannot be saved and replanted by law, and the farmer MUST purchase new seed every year rather than saving a portion of his crop for the next sowing season. This results in additional cost to the farmer, but it also prevents the farmers from continuing to select seed from the best plants of any given crop, and the process of artificial selection that gave us the modern potato, the modern apple, and Mexico’s incredible diversity of corn, just… ends. It no longer exists. The seeds are now mass-produced in a lab by an agri-chemical company, and the crop field innovation by individual growers that has served us since the very beginning of human agriculture is suddenly no longer possible.
The spread of this monoculture is so complete, that grocery stores are running short on organic eggs. The reason for this is that commercial chicken feed is made largely from corn, and so few farmers are growing organic corn that organic chicken feed is scarce. Transgenic crops are not considered organic, and hence cannot be used in feed for organic animals. Organic meats can be raised on pasture or on other forms of feed (pigs are particularly omnivorous), but commercial laying hens, even organic ones, don’t generally have enough room to range to allow them to find sufficient protein… they must be supplemented with feed in these cases.
And aside from the fact that these crops are bad for us, bad for animals, bad for the environment, and don’t even offer increased yields, they aren’t even things we eat. They are an industrial raw material, made into fuel, animal feed (which is fed to farm animals in confinement operations which is a whole different can of worms for a different and probably equally lengthy blog post), and the ingredients for processed foods. Processed foods are strongly indicated in America’s current health crisis, due to their high amount of empty sugars and ridiculous quantities of salt. So in addition to all of this, they’re making us fat and sick.
It’s hard to find good information on transgenic crops these days. It seems that most of what you can find is either sponsored by the company producing the product, or the ravings of pseudoscientific whackadoos such as Mercola, Natural News and the like. But there are reasons to oppose transgenic crops… good scientific reasons, even more than I’ve enumerated here. You just have to use common sense and be discriminating in your selection of sources.