Breaking Down GMOs
By: Alex Bornemisza Former Board Chair for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG)
At the end of the day, we are food and water. With that in mind, one might find it strange that people know so little about the food we eat. Where it comes from, who grows it, and what it is grown with largely remains a mystery ignored by many.
Part of our misunderstanding came with the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) foods. For some, GM means poison, to others a blessing, and to a few, riches. Having worked on a bill to label GM foods in 2014 and 2015, it was fascinating to see the opinions surrounding the technology. I noticed immediately that supporters and opponents of genetically engineered, or “GE crops,” didn’t even know which crops were modified. Right now in the U.S., according to GMOanswers, a biotechnology industry sponsored website, the crops currently modified in the U.S. are corn, soy, alfalfa, cotton, canola, sugar beets, papaya, zucchini, squash, and apples. Together GE crops are in about 75 percent of the United States’ processed foods, a number agreed by supporters and opponents alike.
Proponents tout the awesome possibilities of GMO crops. They can range from pesticide resistance crops, drought resistant, and crops which create their own natural pesticides to name a few. Opponents cite environmental concerns and public health issues, among others. But before we jump into the problems of GM crops, it is important to say that, GMOs on their own are not necessarily dangerous. That does not mean however that there is nothing to fear either.
While the capabilities of GMOs are quite phenomenal, the majority of GMO crops in the U.S. are “stacked,” meaning they are both herbicide tolerant (HT) and pest resistant (BT), according the USDA website. In this case, herbicide resistance means tolerance to pesticides, the most common of which is RoundUp. It contains a component called glyphosate labeled “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization in 2014 and as use increased, weeds became resistant to glyphosate. To compensate, new pesticides using 2,4-D, an active ingredient in agent orange, began being used. The weeds quickly gained resistance to that as well. The BT aspects of these plants refer to bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium whose added genetic material allows crops to produce pesticides. While this pesticide is considered organic, there is evidence that shows too much of a good thing is still bad. The over utilization of these crops created super bugs resistant to those, making the crops less useful. This is all according to several reports, including ones published in Environmental Sciences Europe, Weed Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, all of which can be found easily through GMOinside.org.
There are still other caveats to the use of GMO crops, like monoculture which, has led to a drastic decrease in crop diversity. The reason that is bad, is simple. GMO crops are designed to be the same, whereas natural and artificial selection have genetic variation to different degrees throughout. Higher diversity in nature means resiliency. Inversely, less diversity, means less resiliency. This threatens food security and makes crops more prone to problems of drought, weeds, pesticides, or disease according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Furthermore, companies like Monsanto force farmers into contracts which forbid planting the seeds produced by an old crop. This forces the continued purchasing of seeds directly from them. Even still, some GM crops are being designed to be infertile, making even the possibility to plant crops from past yields seeds an impossibility.
All of this ties into what is in my opinion the biggest issue regarding GMOs, the consolidation of global crops by multi-national corporations. Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and few others all hold commercial patents on staple crops grown in countries around the world. If, at the end of the day, we are nothing but food and water, what happens if companies decide they no longer wish to sell seeds to a particular country or countries that have scorned them? The growth of GMOs in farming has been unprecedented and the type of power it offers, unimaginable. Perhaps it sounds like a fictitious plot for a global supervillain in some sort of spy thriller, but the power for something like that happening grows every single year. And while I am not at all suggesting anyone is planning to do so, it will always be a possibility looming over our heads moving forward. That is something we should all consider next time we are in a grocery store.