Genetically modified crops are vigorously promoted as a way to feed the world. Yet in the more than 20 years since they were introduced, the problem of world hunger has got bigger rather than smaller and has grown to encompass not just those in developing nations who are starving, but those in developed nations whose diets are so high in calories, and low in nutrients, that they too are malnourished.
In fact, very few people eat GM crops directly; instead they are eaten as ingredients such fats and oils, soya fillers and high fructose corn syrup, which go into a variety of highly processed and snack foods.These foods don’t feed those who have access to them well, and they are certainly not the answer to world hunger.
In addition, because GMOs are the ultimate commodity crop, farmers will sell them to the highest bidder. At the moment, about 40% of all GMOs are used to make biofuels to feed cars not people. Using agricultural crops to make fuel has been shown to be a significant waste of food resources as well as energy resources since it can take as much, if not more, energy to manufacture biofuels than the finished fuel eventually yields.
Studies show that we already produce enough food to feed 14 billion people, twice the global population. Much of this is carelessly thrown away; the rest consistently fails to get to those who need it the most.
When it comes to feeding the world, a recent United Nations report suggested that while “international policy discussions remain heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production,” hunger is not caused by a food shortage but by “a lack of purchasing power and/or the inability of the rural poor to be self-sufficient.”
GM crops are not the answer to these problems.
One argument used to promote GM crops is that man has been altering the genetic make-up of plants for thousands of years and that genetic engineering is simply a different type of plant breeding.
However the definition of a GMO – one that applies in both law and science – is an organism whose DNA has been altered in a way that cannot happen in nature. This definition is important because it is what allows biotechnology companies to patent the plants that they produce (and all GMO plants are patented).
Patenting of any living organism is controversial and biotech companies have pushed this issue almost as far as it can go and, in so doing, have caused a fundamental shift in the relationship between man and nature.
Living biological material like seeds and plants, which until now have been part of our natural and common heritage, are being appropriated and taken into corporate ownership through the use of patents and other forms of so-called intellectual property rights.
The “inventive step” which justifies the patent might be a small part of a GMO plant’s gene sequence, but it is used to claim ownership of the plant’s entire genome and all of its uses.
This gives the GM companies enormous power over plant breeding and farming; it takes away farmers’ traditional rights to save and swap their own seeds; it squeezes traditional plant breeders out of existence; and it concentrates genetic resources in the hands of a few companies, giving them control over the future of food and farming.
An often-used argument in favour of genetic modification in agriculture is that it takes less time to produce a huge variety of new plants than traditional breeding. But to produce an agricultural GMO actually takes a lot of money and a lot of time – around $136 million (£97 million) and 13 years per plant product.
Initially it can be faster to produce a new plant of some kind using genetic engineering, but only a few plants out of many hundreds will turn out to grow normally and exhibit the desired trait – such as herbicide tolerance. For a variety of reasons, both known and unknown, in the research and development stage, many genetically engineered plants fail to thrive, or fail to show the desired trait, or are even toxic and are therefore discarded.
What this means is that genetic engineering is potentially more ‘hit and miss’ than traditional plant breeding – which is why after more than 20 years there are still only two widely commercialised traits of GM plant in the world: those that are resistant to certain herbicides and those that produce their own insecticides.
GMO food products aren’t more nutritious, they aren’t cheaper to grow and they don’t fetch a premium at the farm gate or in the grocery store. In fact, public rejection of GMOs means that convincing consumers to buy them can be difficult.
One reason why manufacturers have consistently refused to label their products as containing GMO ingredients is that consumers have indicated they would not buy them if they knew they contained GMOs.
Manufacturers persist in using GMOs because they are cheap to buy and can easily be turned into ingredients – such as high fructose corn syrup or soya fillers – and additives, enzymes, flavourings, artificial sweeteners and processing agents for highly processed foods. Studies are showing that more than half of the Western diet is made up of these highly processed foods which, although cheap to buy, are also nutritionally poor and therefore contribute to increasingly levels of malnutrition in people who otherwise appear to be well-fed, or even over-fed.
Strong regulation, at its best, can protect people and the environment as well as supporting a healthy and dynamic economy. But where profits are at stake, regulation is often lacking.
The regulation of GMO crops varies throughout the world, but in all places it is inadequate. There is a universal lack of rigorous independent health and environmental evaluation before these crops hit the market – and virtually none afterwards. The assessments that are undertaken take their lead from confidential corporate studies which are not open to public scrutiny.
In the US, the regulatory system is fractured by an arbitrary split between government agencies and rests on a presumption of safety until risk can be proven. Whilst in Europe the Precautionary Principle, which is enshrined in EU law, and allows regulators to take action to prevent potential harm, even where there is scientific uncertainly, is set aside in GMO safety assessments.
Throughout the world GMO regulatory policy is based on the notion that GMO plants are “substantially equivalent” (i.e. mostly the same) to a non-GMO plant, and therefore safe. This ignores the fact that to achieve a patent – and all GMOs are patented – they have to be significantly different to anything that has existed before.
It’s important to note also that regulation often lags far behind independent science. This can be seen with conventional GM crops, where current regulation fails reflect emerging health and environmental risks. But the problem is especially acute with newer types of GMOs, such as gene drives and CRISPR, which are so radically different from their predecessors that current regulations cannot provide adequate protection, and many governments don’t know, yet, how to regulate them.
Despite the best efforts of the biotech industry, consumers all over the world remain staunchly opposed to GM food. Surveys consistently show that the majority of consumers don’t want GMOs in their fields or their food.
The most recent Europe-wide poll on consumer attitudes to GMOs, carried out by Eurobarometer, found that nearly 60% of Europeans believe that GM food is not safe for their or their families’ health or for future generations. An even larger majority (70%) said that genetically modifying foods is “fundamentally unnatural”, and 61% said that GMOs made them “feel uneasy”.
Other major concerns centre around the corporate takeover of food and science, too many unknowns in terms of health, environment and safety and a feeling that the genetic modification of food simply isn’t necessary.
In America, where the vast majority of GMO-containing foods are consumed, and where concerns about their safety are rising, consumers overwhelmingly favour labelling of these foods so that they can exercise the right to choose – or refuse – to eat them. Manufacturers, however, have fought hard against GMO food labels.
As with many other complex issues, consumers look to those in ‘authority’ to take the initiative in terms of understanding the issues – and to ensure things like accurate labelling and that that their food choices are generally sound.
In general, consumers want the government to take action; government believes the marketplace should be left to sort it all out; and the marketplace says it’s is led by the consumer. Because the interests of consumers, government and business are not always aligned, often no one takes action.
Anyone wishing to learn more about GMOs will quickly find that there exists a huge diversity of information and opinion on the subject. Those who actively promote genetically engineered crops will say that the science is settled and that plants which have been genetically engineered in the lab have been proven to be safe to eat and safe for the environment.
Those who question GMOs point to the links to industry which may pro-GMO pundits have, the over-reliance on unpublished corporate science, as opposed to published studies by independent researchers, and the fact that there has never been a human study conducted on the safety of eating GMOs. They point also to the accumulating evidence of environmental harm – including heavier pesticide use and damage to soil – from growing GMO crops.
The truth is that no agreement among the scientific community has been reached on the risks or safety of genetically modified food, although, increasingly, animal studies suggest that they may possess wide, uncertain and, potentially dangerous implications for health and environment.
Indeed the only certainty is that we do not know enough to say unequivocally that GMOs are ‘safe’ and that this uncertainty can only effectively be managed by erring on the side of precaution.
Until relatively recently most food was grown on small and mid-size family farms in ways that were environmentally and socially sustainable but also, crucially, more transparent and traceable. Over the last 70 years or so, however, food production has become the domain of global corporations that favour intensive, industrial models of food production.
Producing food this way takes power out of the hands of small to medium sized producers – often it involves technologies that are too expensive for these producers to buy into. It produces food made primarily to withstand the challenges of international trade and shipping, and processed in a way that ensures a long shelf life. This takes the emphasis away from fresh, local and small and shifts it to processed, ‘exotic’ and supersized.
Ceding control of our food system to a handful of corporations, where a healthy bottom line is the key measure of success, can also mean that quality and safety standards slip. The increasing number of food scares seen in the last decade are testimony to this. As standards drop, consumer scepticism about ‘brands’ and the benefits of corporate food are rising.
A key question is: Does the corporatisation of the food system help solve the real environmental and social problems associated with food production such as soil degradation, water pollution, rising CO2 levels, and increasing numbers of starving and malnourished people? Evidence of the last several decades suggests it does not.
Like the banking system, the corporate farming system is not too big to fail – and its failure could cause international panic and disaster. Many now agree that we need to change the system before it collapses under its own weight.
How do we know what’s in our food? If we are eating fresh food, such as an apple or a carrot – the question probably never occurs to us. If we are eating processed foods, usually we look on the label to find out.
But increasingly there are things on and in our food that are a cause for concern. Fresh produce, for example, may have pesticide residues on it. Or processed food may be made with synthetic ingredients that can be unhealthy.
As more genetically modified crops enter the food chain as ingredients and processing aids our food may also be quietly contaminated with GMOs. This is true for ‘junk foods’ such as cookies, cakes and snacks, but it is also true for things like infant formulas and some of the liquid foods served in hospitals.
Many of our animals, too, are fed on GMO feed and while the farmer and the supermarket will know this, the consumer may have no idea. Strong regulation and transparent labelling practices could help consumers know what they are eating. But as things stand today, GMOs are neither well regulated, nor transparently labelled.
Many consumers feel that they should have the right to choose – or refuse – to buy certain foods. For this reason the foods we buy increasingly come with a range of different labels such as gluten free, dairy free, organic, biodynamic, vegetarian and preservative free.
Surveys show that consumers also want to know if their food is genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients. But the companies that produce these foods and ingredients have spent decades – and millions of dollars – blocking attempts to label them.
In Europe GMO foods must be labelled, although the law allows for levels of up to 0.9% ‘accidental’ contamination. In addition, GMOs used a processing aids, for instance for emulsifiers or sweeteners, do not require labelling.
In the US, in some case, manufacturers have used loopholes in the law to bring their products to market. The new genetically modified salmon, for instance, is regulated as an animal drug rather than a food, and therefore requires no labelling to alert customers to its origins.
Now companies are claiming that new genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR, are so different, and so much more precise, than older genetic engineering techniques that foods produced via these method require no labelling at all.
Even if they are more precise, this does not make the effects of growing and eating them predictable, nor does it guarantee their safety.
In truth, labels can mislead as often as they inform and there is a compelling argument that the need for so many labels suggests that there is something very wrong with our food system. However, until the necessary systemic changes to the system are made, clear labels are our best chances of knowing what is in our food.
The word ‘natural’ has been greatly abused by the food industry – almost to the point where it has little or no meaning in a food labelling context. But on a personal level, ‘natural’ carries significant meaning for many of us, particularly when it comes to what we eat.
Food manufacturers know that natural is a byword for trust. Marketing a food as ‘all natural’ or ‘as nature intended’ can boost sales by reassuring consumers of its quality or hinting at the idea that this particular food has been part of our diets for millennia.
While not 100% synthetic, genetically modified foods are unnatural. In fact, the international definition of a GMO, according to the World Health Organization, is any organism (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) “in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”
Having said that, synthetic biology – a new branch of genetic modification – takes us into uncharted territory where the natural vs synthetic debate is concerned. With this process food technologists can write a DNA code on a computer, print it off on a bio-printer and use it to create crops that have never existed before in the natural world. There is no current regulation to limit – or label – the products of this process.
Although many of us aspire to eat natural food, and innately value this concept, in truth our diet has never been so far from natural. This is not simply because of the various chemicals and genetically modified products in the food chain, but also because of the lack of diversity and nutrition in the food we eat.
Genetic modification, however technologically sophisticated, doesn’t solve any of these issues; instead it takes us down the road towards more industrial and synthetic ways of producing food.
Although both people and animals eat foods containing GMOs, it is impossible to say unequivocally that GMOs are safe to eat. When GMO crops were first grown commercially regulators around the world were persuaded to take the view that these crops were ‘substantially equivalent’ to normal crops.
In essence substantial equivalence says that if a food looks the same and tastes the same it must, therefore, be the same. This means GMO foods entered the food chain without being subjected to human safety assessments. In addition, in the decades that we have been eating GMOs, the health impacts of these foods have never been studied by any government agency, nor by the companies that produce them.
However, studies of animals fed GM foods and/or glyphosate – the main herbicide used on GM crops – show worrying trends including damage to vital organs like the liver and kidneys, damage to gut tissues and gut flora, immune system disruption, reproductive abnormalities, and even tumours. Laboratory studies are now showing that the genetic modification process can alter the nutritional composition of foods, either directly or through damage to soil. It can also cause the plant to produce unexpected toxins which are dangerous to consume.
These studies point to potentially serious human health effects that could not have been anticipated when we first began growing and eating GMOs, and yet they continue to be ignored by regulators, who should be taking them seriously. Instead our regulators rely on often outdated studies and other information funded and supplied by biotech companies that obscures or dismisses potential health concerns
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.
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.
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.
Many people simply don’t know – and they find it hard to begin to think or talk about it. It’s not just because genetic modification is perceived as a ‘science thing’ that some believe is beyond their comprehension – though this concern is widely exploited by those who want to keep average citizens out of the conversation.
It’s more because the issue of genetically modified food cuts across a vast array of issues and it can be hard to know where to start.
At heart they all come down to the need for a sustainable food system – one that feeds us well and has the potential to go on feeding us far into the future. But the stakes are high and sustainability is a complex concept that encompasses several factors including food quality, social values, ecology, health, economic factors and governance and regulation.
The goals in each of these categories are not always well-aligned (for instance the desire for high quality foods that are also inexpensive, or for safety regulation that doesn’t affect the bottom line of global businesses) which is why progress is slow and why, also, we have a tendency to believe in quick fixes and sure bets.
Genetic modification is often portrayed as a sure bet. A technology that benefits people and planet, that is good for the economy and that represents modern, scientific approach to problem solving. But should we take these claims at face value? Is it a gamble we are willing to take? Or do we need to ask more questions, and have a deeper, more nuanced conversation about food systems, sustainability and the future?
If you are new to the subject of genetically modified foods – or just want know more – spin the wheel, take a chance and start a conversation.
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