Beyond GM’s GMO Wheel of Chance, is based on a traditional wheel of fortune. Topics are divided into four key areas where agricultural GMOs can have a significant impact: consumers, farming, the environment and the marketplace. Each spin leads to a pop-up of bite-sized information for the user to consider. However if you wish to see all the information in one place this can be found on pages dedicated to each key area.
The increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics is of worldwide concern and studies show that how we farm – for instance, the high levels of antibiotics used in intensive livestock farming worldwide, directly contributes to the problem.
Resistance arises because living organisms such as bacteria are resilient. Exposed to high enough levels of antibiotics they can evolve and adapt and become immune to their effects.
Few people know that scientists often add antibiotic resistant genes to plants during genetic modification to make it easier to distinguish GM plants and cells from non-GM ones.
These genes persist in the plant and, in theory, when genetically modified plants are eaten, can be transferred to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of humans or animals, where the antibiotic resistance can be passed on to other bacteria.
The risk that these genes could escape into the wild or in any way harm humans has always been thought to be small. But recently studies have discovered antibiotic resistant genes from GMO plants in our waterways.
There is also evidence that that exposure to herbicides, such as glyphosate, dicamba and 2,4-D, used heavily on GM crops, changes how susceptible disease-causing bacteria are to the antibiotics used in human and animal medicine. All of this contributes to the growing concern that, when we most need them to work, these vital medicines may no longer be effective.
Not all insects are ‘pests’. In fact the vast majority insects such as bees, butterflies, moths, hoverlifes, lady birds, lacewings and beetles, as well as microscopic living organisms in our soil, have a beneficial role in pollinating plants, in controlling the smaller percentage of pesky bugs that can damage crops, as well as enriching the soil and helping crops to grow.
Insecticides are not the only way to control insect pests and yet, for decades conventional farmers have relied almost exclusively on chemicals for pest control. Nature, however, is adaptable; and the insects that attack agricultural crops are increasingly becoming immune to these chemicals.
Before the introduction of industrial agriculture, farmers relied on a number of different pest-control techniques – including rotating crops, co-planting and planting varieties suited to the landscape and climate.
Organic farmers, practice a method called integrated pest management, which encourages populations of beneficial insects, which in turn, keep numbers of invasive pests down, helping the farmer to protect his crop without having to add poisons to it.
Many of these poisons don’t just kill the invasive insects – they kill beneficial insects too and, in addition, can be toxic to birds, small animals, fish and non-target plants. They also pollute soil, water and air.
Genetically modified crops were envisioned as a way to help farmers reduce insecticide use. But, in the more than 20 years since they were introduced, they have actually increased its use. As a result, GMOs push farming further in the direction of the kind of intensive, chemically-dependent farming that is already causing so much damage.
It is said that a weed is any plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. In fact, there is a very fine line between crops and weeds. Many so-called weeds are edible and nutritious in their own right; others, including many beautiful wildflowers, are an important part of the food chain for insects, birds and small mammals. Still others attract beneficial insects that help control numbers of invasive, crop-destroying insects.
Often erroneously assumed to compete with neighbouring plants for soil nutrients and water, some “weeds” provide the soil with nutrients, either directly or indirectly and can help prevent soil erosion.
Even so, many farmers wage a constant chemical war against weeds using powerful herbicides – a type of pesticide that acts specifically against plants.
The vast majority of genetically engineered plants are designed to be resistant to herbicides, allowing the farmer to spay as much as he likes to kill surrounding weeds without harming his crop. Unfortunately weeds have developed a strong resistance to these chemicals; many even thrive in a pesticide-heavy environment. Some can now only be killed by using flame throwers.
In addition, pesticide drift – when pesticide spray is carried on the wind – means that neighbouring non-GM crops can be decimated by the herbicides used on GM crops.
There’s no question that weeds left to grow out of control can have a negative impact on a farmer’s yield. The question is whether chemical control is the only, or even the best, way to deal with them.
Methods used by organic farmers, for example, such as companion planting make strategic use of ‘weeds’, planting them in close proximity to crops in order to boost the natural predators of pests and potentially cut pesticide spraying.
Biodiversity – a rich diversity of plants, animals and insects – is necessary to promote healthy ecosystems.
Animals and insects, for example, help pollinate plants and spread their seeds. Small animals like voles and mice help to decompose and incorporate organic matter, aerate the soil and allow better water and root infiltration, while snakes and foxes help keep populations of small animals in balance with what the land can support.
Agricultural land that is biodiverse is more able to cope with unexpected changes, for instance in climate, or cyclical levels of plant diseases or invasive species.
Today modern industrial farming involves often large tracts of land devoted to a single crop. This is called a monoculture and in monocultures diversity is discouraged by the use of pesticides and insecticides which keep every living thing, except the valuable crop, off the land.
All over the world, populations of insects, birds, animals and amphibians are declining at an alarming rate – one that we could not have foreseen decades ago and which is faster than might occur by any ‘natural’ process.
The reasons for this decline include human population growth, climate change, pollution and the introduction of invasive species. But one of the biggest threats to wildlife, and one that connects most of the other causes, is intensive and industrial farming
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were brought into farming decades ago with a promise that they would reduce the environmental impact of farming. But studies have shown this is not the case. Far from having a habitat-enriching effect, GMOs have proved to be little more than an extension of the industrialised farming model.
As such they have increased pesticide use, become part of a pattern of destruction of natural habitats, and therefore increased farming’s terrible impact on wildlife.
When genetically engineered plants are introduced into the natural environment they can have a negative effect biodiversity.
GM crops can, and do, cross pollinate with other plants including wild plants, as well as conventional and organic crops. GM seeds can be dispersed by farm machinery, and by birds and small animals, and can inadvertently end up being mixed with conventional seeds during storage.
If the GM trait is dominant it can produce a plant that behaves like an invasive species that makes it difficult for other species to grow and thrive. When GM plants spread to an organic farm there are serious implications for the farmer’s livelihood since, he or she could lose their certification and likely their business.
Since biotech companies own the patent on their genetically engineered crops, cross breeding opens up serious concerns, and expensive (and for farmers potentially bankrupting) lawsuits over ownership of any plants that result from cross-breeding.
For this reason many believe that GM and non-GM farms cannot realistically co-exist.
New genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR, increase the danger of plants with altered genes spreading throughout whole wild populations. CRISPR makes use of what is called gene drive technology, which has the potential to drive or spread genetically engineered genes through wild species, causing massive ecological disruption and “re-engineering” entire populations in the field.
The most widely grown types of GM crops are either pesticide ‘resisters’ or pesticide ‘producers’. “Roundup Ready” crops, mostly corn and soya, have been genetically engineered so that when they are sprayed with the herbicide Roundup – the active ingredient of which is glyphosate – the weeds die but the crop, which is resistant to the effects of the herbicide, continues to grow. In fact, since GM crops were introduced, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of glyphosate worldwide.
Bt plants, which include corn and soya but also cotton, produce their own insecticides. When an agricultural pest eats the crop, in theory, it will be poisoned and die.
The problem is that weeds and insects can evolve to be immune to these poisons. Most agricultural weeds have become resistant to Roundup, causing farmers to spray more each year. The heavier use of herbicides creates ever more ‘superweeds’ and even higher herbicide use.
More recently, insects have begun to become resistant to the insecticides bred into pesticide producing plants, causing farmers to use even more, and more dangerous mixtures, of pesticides to try and keep them under control. It’s a vicious circle.
The biotech industry believes that one solution to this problem is to make GM plants resistant to other pesticides such as dicamba and 2,4-D. However, these pesticides are even more toxic than glyphosate and as insects grow tolerant of them farmers will end up using more of them with devastating consequences for our environment, as well as potential health risks for humans and animals who consume the crops.