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 word ‘monoculture’ is used to describe the practice of growing genetically similar, or essentially identical plants, over a large areas, year after year.
This way of growing food is used widely in modern industrial agriculture and relies on high inputs of synthetic agrochemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. These chemicals have a catastrophic impact on all types of wildlife – from the invisible microbes that enrich the soil, to native wildflowers and the insects, birds and small mammals that would normally be found on healthy and biodiverse land.
Monocultures are not created by genetic engineering – they are the result of specialised, intensive, chemically-dependent agriculture. Even so, by enabling increased use of pesticides and in some cases engineering these into the plants themselves – GMO crops have ramped-up the intensity and destructiveness of monocultures to an unprecedented level.
GMO maize and canola are most frequently grown in monocultures, especially in the US. Years ago farmers believed they would benefit financially from the simplification and specialisation this type of farming seemed to offer. But today we find that the crops most suited to growing in monocultures are often less resilient in the face of changing environmental conditions (such as extreme weather). In addition, as weeds and insects have become more resistant to the pesticides used on GMO crops, farmers are finding that they need to use more – and more expensive – chemicals to protect their crops.
These farmers are caught on an expensive and destructive agrochemical and GMO treadmill with few opportunities to break free.
Widespread evidence now shows that intensive livestock production harms the welfare of farm animals; it is very likely that genetic engineering contributes to this harm.
Around 35-40% of GMO crops, mostly soy and maize, are processed as feed for intensively reared livestock and reports are beginning to emerge of animals getting sick from eating GMO feed.
It is difficult to know whether the animals’ welfare is being compromised by their unnatural diets, the GMO feed itself or the higher residues of herbicides like glyphosate that come with it. However, there is a significant and mounting body of evidence from laboratory animals to suggest that eating GMO crops – especially the ones that are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup – can cause serious animal health problems. Reproductive disorders, tumours, liver and kidney malfunction, birth defects and early mortality have been widely reported in animals fed on diets consisting of GMO crops.
Many consumers who are concerned about GMOs and/or animal welfare might wish to avoid meat, milk and eggs from animals fed on GMO feed. This would certainly be possible. Farmers, for instance, know if they are feeding their animals GMOs, and supermarkets have access to this information. However there is a strong resistance to labelling GM-fed animal products. This means that those who genuinely want to avoid them need to opt for products from organically reared animals, which are not given genetically modified feed.
The controversy doesn’t end there, however, because scientists are actively trying to genetically engineer animals to bring them into the human food chain. The first genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption – an Atlantic salmon – is now on the market in the Americas. Studies show that the welfare of the fish is compromised by the genetic trait that makes it grow twice as fast as normal salmon. As with cloning, we can expect that genetically engineered animals may suffer in ways that are hard to predict, unacceptable and unnecessary.
Farmers are the traditional keepers of our knowledge of how to encourage and protect the abundance of farmland and the health of farm animals. Even before GMO crops, there was concern that the increasing industrialisation and mechanisation of farming was leading to a loss of this vital knowledge.
Currently, a handful of commercial GMO crops are grown in only a few places in the world which are conducive to industrial farming on a large scale – mainly in the Great Plains states of the US, and in Brazil and Argentina. These crops – predominately maize, canola (oil seed rape) and soybeans – are grown using a programme of agrochemical fertilisers and pesticides largely determined by the biotechnology companies that have developed the seeds.
The farmers’ traditional knowledge of soil, biology and the wider ecology are not needed for this type of farming. Instead this factory farm approach is built on lab-based chemistry and what the farmer most needs to know is how to mix the prescribed amount of chemicals into a tank and how to read the sheet that tells him when to plant and spray.
The intuition, feel and skills built around working with nature are redundant in this approach and are being lost as chemistry replaces ecology and genetic engineering replaces agriculture on the GMO acres of the world.
Soil is a dynamic, living ecosystem and the health of that ecosystem determines the health of the crops we grow.
There is mounting evidence that GMO crops are having a significant adverse impact on soil health. Recent US research has shown that soils growing GMO crops have reduced levels of beneficial microorganisms, such as fungi, which help plants absorb nutrients from the soil and protect them against disease.
It has also shown a rise in levels of potentially harmful microorganisms, reduced earthworm activity and reduced soil respiration (an indication that the soil may not be able to adequately support living organisms). Similar impacts have been seen in other countries over the last decade.
The extent to which these impacts are due to genetically engineered crops themselves, or to the high levels of agrochemicals used on them is unclear – and virtually no research or evaluation has been done to help determine that.
Many researchers and environmentalists are concerned that, as new genetic engineering techniques are introduced, adverse and unintended impacts will multiply, causing even more widespread damage to soil fungi, microorganisms and the wider soil ecology.
GM crops were released onto the market with a promise that they would consistently increase yields and decrease pesticide use. In the US, where the majority of GM crops are grown, they have done neither. A recent US government report, which looked at the yields of the most common GM crops (soybeans and maize), concluded that after more than 20 years of research and 13 years on the market, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase US crop yields. Traditional breeding, it said, consistently outperforms genetic engineering.
Farmers were also told that the bigger yields of GM crops would also yield bigger profits for them. The reality, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is different. Profits from these crops can vary widely, while the cost of growing them, including the cost of seeds, and inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers, has spiralled.
The practice of saving this year’s seeds for replanting next year is as old as farming itself. It is an important part of the economy of many small farms and also helps ensure continuity in a farmer’s crops, from season to season.
GMO seeds, which are patented products owned by the companies that engineer them, cannot be saved and farmers risk prosecution and high fines if they try to do so.
The issue of corporate control of the world’s seeds can be looked at in different ways; one perspective has it that four companies control over 40% of the global seed supply; another is that ten companies control 75% of global seed sales. Either way it is clear that the power and control over our food system now sits in a few, undemocratic hands.
Looked at regionally the picture is even more horrific; the “big four” – Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences, all biotech companies – own 80% of the US corn market and 70% of the soybean business. These are almost all GMO crops and the genetically engineered traits within them are owned by Monsanto.
In Europe, Monsanto subsidiaries control over 40% of the non-GMO fruit and vegetable seeds sold.
This concentration of power limits the independence of farmers to save their own seeds as well as the choices they have over which crops and varieties to grow. It also drives drive up farming costs, inhibits public sector research into sustainable alternatives and places the global food system under the control of a corporate cabal.