It is with great trepidation I wade into the debate regarding Genetically Modified Organisms and farming. But, where angels fear to tread and whatnot…
So, first things first. This piece should in no way be construed as a criticism of farmers that use GMO seed, no matter the source. Quite frankly, farming is a deeply personal decision and I cannot envision a world where farmers are not allowed to make decisions about how they farm, with the exception of obvious regulations which provide for the health and safety of all. Most farms are run by people heavily invested in their land, products and animals, and attacking them for the decisions they make to keep their farms from collapsing in an increasingly difficult market isn’t fair.
Secondly, it should be conceded, GMOs and their proponents have, by just about every measure, probably won the debate already. It’s nearly impossible to purchase some food, for the bulk of the people buying food in America, that isn’t genetically modified in some fashion or another. Our supermarket and grocery shelves are filled with foods derived from corn and soy. Michael Pollan, noted journalist and agricultural activist, pointed out in one of his many interviews or books, that nearly all of the processed food produced in the United States contains a soy product, a corn product or a combination of both (I’m not going to cite the book or interview or article: Just go and check out everything the man does, it’ll be a lot more informative than anything I’ll write here today and probably for the rest of my life).
These soy and corn products, which are ubiquitous in modern, processed foods are more likely than not derived from GMO strains.
In addition, the majority of the meat produced in America (and in many parts of the world) is produced from animals that consume GMO feed. (see the links below for specific data)
With those figures in mind, it’s hard to envision a greater rubric for success for GMO proponents.
Regarding the safety of GMO: Multiple studies have been conducted showing the safety of GMO food vis a vis human consumption. (see below for specifics)
While these studies are conducted by multiple parties, for multiple reasons, it must be noted an accusation of bias is nearly impossible to prove or disprove. No matter which side of the fence you sit on in this debate, you can go down the skepticism rabbit hole in either direction and find plenty of reasons to believe or disbelieve these studies.
I’m inclined to take them at face value, primarily because I don’t have enough background in medicine and science to dispute them. (I’ve included links below to sites that bring up potential health issues with GMOs and links that prove the safety of GMO. Pick your poison, no pun intended). In these situations, just as I trust my doctor to look out for my health, I’m in no position to argue with an expert. And, just as with my doctor, I do my best to be informed, regardless. I trust our readers will do the same.
Regarding the science of GMO: Honestly, it’s kind of cool. The science behind GMOs (direct genetic modification of organisms) is a natural progression of the genetic selection process used for thousands of years by farmers all over the world via seed selection and codified by Gregor Mendel in the late 1800s.
Genetic engineering has produced golden rice, an unqualified success in the field of genetically modified crops which has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths all over the world from Vitamin A deficiency.
In addition, the company Glowing Plants has genetically engineered plants that glow in the dark, which has the potential to offset energy costs worldwide by replacing electric lights (I’m a sucker for anything that glows in the dark).
So, considering the above — the supercool science with all its paradigm shifting potential, the success of GMO products in world agricultural markets, all the studies verifying the safety of GMO food and the belief that farmers should be allowed to do whatever they need in order to stay competitive and economically viable through the future — how do I feel about GMO crops?
Honestly, I don’t like them.
While the science is really neat, it’s hard to ignore studies like Cornell’s that show damaging impacts on Monarch Butterfly populations from crops genetically modified with DNA from Bt, a popular, organic pesticide.
Organic farmers who use this pesticide take steps to avoid negative impacts on pollinator (including bees and butterflies) when they use Bt. That’s not possible to do with a crop wherein the pesticide is always around to contaminate beneficial insects.
Golden Corn and glowing plants are amazing, but many of the genetic modifications wind up being used to allow farmers to spray even more pesticides and herbicides on their crops. Considering the damage that’s already done to our environment regarding the use of many commercial chemicals used in agriculture, it’s hard to argue that increasing technologies that allow greater use of the chemicals is a good practice.
Additionally, the way the science is used damages the economic viability of farmers in the long term.
Seed saving and sharing is time honored method for farmers to save money and earn income.
Most of the patents on GMO crops prohibit seed sharing. While it’s completely a farmer’s choice to enter into those contracts, it seems strange to use GMO to increase economic viability of farms while removing one of the methods (seed sharing and saving) that farmers can use to be more economically sustainable.
(Also, I would argue that the use of patents to establish ownership of genetic strains is the wrong instrument. Since we’re dealing with genetic code, it seems that a copyright would be more appropriate, but that’s a separate article altogether. Whenever I feel the urge to reveal my ignorance about copyright and patent law, I’ll be sure to write that.)
In addition, the current use of genetically modified foods seems to encourage more monoculture farming, which an article from the University of California, Berkley points out has some very real negative impacts on agriculture and the environment.
So, since we’ve already established the ubiquity of GMO products and foods, what do we do?
At the very least, offering consumers a chance to support non-GMO foods seems like the bare minimum we could do. I believe mandatory labelling laws would allow consumers who care about non-GMO products to purchase them, while supporting growers and producers who use non-GMO seed and feed.
Supporting these producers allows us to make sure that crop biodiversity is encouraged, which has very real benefits, including food security, for agricultural systems worldwide.
Essentially, the more types of fruits and vegetables (and animals we raise) means our food system is more secure from disease, pests and environmental factors.
Home gardeners and farmers who believe supporting non-GMOs is important can purchase non-GMO seed and feed (like the products provided by companies like Scratch and Peck, Sow True Seeds, Victory Seeds, NE Seeds and other — full disclosure, these companies advertise with From Scratch. We sought out these companies because of their dedication to providing non-GMO options to homesteaders).
And, finally, as a country, we can support national, state and even local policies that encourage biodiversity, discourage a centralized food system, promote increased biodiversity and advocate for responsible use of pesticides and herbicides.
Related Links and resources: