The Woes of GMOs
Why GMOs Threaten Environmental Health
The Miracle of Genetic Engineering
GMOs Are Our Greatest Friend
July 31st, 2017
Methods of genetic selection, like selective breeding of the fittest crops, have always been a part of agriculture. An example of this type of selective breeding is corn. From scrawny ancient teosinte grains, corn crops have changed over centuries to better accommodate human nutritional needs. Modern genetic modification saw its birth in 1973, and by 1975, the Asilomar Conference met to debate the safety and ethics of modern genetic engineering. In the past 40 years, scientists have developed a myriad of GM crops, ranging from herbicide resistant crops, like Roundup Ready corn, and insecticide-producing crops, like Bt cotton. Proponents of GM crops claim they have the potential to curb malnutrition and famine, while those opposed to GMOs claim they are a harm to environmental and human health, and increase pesticide usage.
In terms of human health, researchers are concerned about three main issues. One is the possibility of gene transfer. Genes that make a plant resistant to certain types of antibiotics are used as markers during the development of GMOs. Scientists are concerned that said genes could possibly transfer to the cells of the body or to bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract. The bacteria and its host could then develop resistance to a specific antibiotic. This issue is especially pertinent in today’s world, where rising antibiotic resistance now threatens global health. Though it is recognized that the possibilities of gene transfer are low, the pressing problem of antibiotic resistance makes the use of antibiotic resistance in genetic engineering unfavorable. Additionally, scientists are concerned about allergenicity, or the potential for GM crops to provoke allergic reactions. The possibility of outcrossing is another issue that could affect human health--the World Health Organization recognizes cases where genes from strains of GM crops only approved for animal use migrated in the wild to conventional crops for human consumption, putting the integrity and safety of the conventional crop at risk.
Still, health concerns may be distracting consumers from more important discussions surrounding the use of GMOs--particularly that of environmental health. Genetically engineered corn and soy crops, widely grown in the US, require more pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer than other crops. Nitrogen fertilizer is especially problematic, as its runoff negatively impacts aquatic life. Excessive pesticide use is not the only environmental issue GMOs pose. By emphasizing the planting of only a few staple GM crops, biotechnology giants like Monsanto promote monoculture. Traditionally, farmers use crop rotation, in which they plant a different crop in a given plot each growing season to replenish soil and control pests. Planting only one staple crop in a plot of land is unsustainable, and leads to increased use of pesticides and herbicides when pests and weeds adapt to monocultural crops and practices.
Advocates of GMOs say GM crops can be developed to resist pests and therefore require farmers to apply less pesticides or herbicides. Or, in the case of RoundUp Ready crops, GM plants can be designed to resist herbicides, allowing farmers to spray the herbicide RoundUp on entire fields, instead of more wastefully spraying the herbicide on individual weeds. However, herbicide use since the introduction of RoundUp Ready crops has only increased as weeds evolve to resist RoundUp. Bt crops are genetically engineered by adding the Bt delta endotoxin protein, which can selectively kill caterpillar larvae before it destroys harvests. Since their crops already have an added gene to resist a certain pest, farmers can use less pesticide on their crops. However, the decrease in pesticide use thanks to Bt crops may not be sustained if caterpillar larvae develop resistance to the Bt protein.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in biotechnology giant Monsanto’s pesticide RoundUp is a herbicide that is non-selective, meaning it kills both the weeds and the crops onto which it is sprayed. Glyphosate is recognized as a possible carcinogen in California under its state Proposition 65. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is the European Union’s agency for investigation of health and environmental concerns surrounding chemicals. Though the ECHA did not elect to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, they concluded that glyphosate has the potential to cause serious eye damage and is “toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.” Their second statement surrounding glyphosate is especially important considering pesticide runoff into water tables and streams, as detected by the United States Geological Survey. Harmful chemicals like these might become more prevalent if the use of GMOs spreads.
Even if the health effects of GMOs are not detrimental to humans, they can still be an inappropriate solution to the nutritional needs of an exponentially growing human population. They are widely touted as a possible solution for the expanding needs to feed a rapidly rising human population, especially in developing nations. However, the introduction of genetically modified crops may hurt the development of these nations. Million Belay and Ruth Nyambura, respectively coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and advocacy officer of the African Biodiversity Network, assert that farmers in the developing world have traditional methods of crop rotation and seed-saving that are more appropriate to their population’s needs than GM crops. Belay and Nyambura write that when wealthy biotechnology companies promote the planting of only a few types of GM crops, the companies are eroding traditional crop diversity.
Another issue surrounding GMOs is the rights of farmers against the power of biotechnology giants. Monsanto has levied 142 court cases against farmers they accuse of “seed piracy,” and collected damages from farmers and small farm businesses in over half of these cases. By saving and replanting Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready crops in the next year, Monsanto argues that farmers are violating the company’s patent rights and intellectual property. This leads to cases such as was recorded in the 2009 documentary David vs Monsanto, in which Monsanto sues a Canadian farmer whose crops were contaminated by GM Monsanto plants for infringement.
Farmers have always used methods of genetic selection, since the advent of modern agriculture. Now that the world is faced with greater agricultural demands, modern GM crops have a great potential to help end malnourishment worldwide, provide a more secure food supply, and reduce use of pesticides in agriculture. However, scientists developing them must be careful to consider the consequences of inserting genes for herbicide resistance, to avoid the issues that come with weeds and pests evolving to resist such changes. Biotechnology corporations must also commit to protecting genetic biodiversity, as monoculture stemming from the mass planting of only GM crops could prove devastating to the environment. Lastly, in the scale of greater human development, we must remember that GM crops are not the all-powerful panacea for advancing world development. Golden rice will not create complete food security in the developing world, and marketing GMOs as blanket solution for developing nations is an oversimplification of the issues affecting the developing world.
There is a certain stigma with GMOs, one of distrust, as it seems that they surely can’t be good for us. But this kind of thinking is simply ignorant; the fact that we have learned how to genetically modify any organism is a scientific miracle. With this technology, many of the biggest agricultural and environmental problems of today could be solved.
GMOs have long been a subject of debate, and that’s for two main reasons. One is the public fear of genetically modified organisms and a fear of health risks, and the other is fears within the scientific community of things like the potential of GMOs to interbreed with wild crops and how GMOs support the pesticide industry.
The main public fear of GMOs is their “health risks,” but such fears are unfounded. All GMOs sold for consumption are regulated by the FDA and are heavily tested. Even if we disregard these regulations, after 10 years of scientific research, there is no evidence that genetically modified crops are hazardous to humans. In fact, 80% of the packaged food you eat contains genetically modified organisms. Some of this fear stems from the fact that some GMO food products are modified to produce molecules that kills insects, but these molecules are to the insects like chocolate is to dogs; both are harmless to us but can be deadly to their intended targets.
Another reason much of the public dislikes GMOs is simply the fact that they aren’t natural. Many people like to buy “natural” or “organic” products because they are “pesticide-free” and are the healthiest option. But neither of these things are true; “organic” products like these are far from truly natural, and they are not necessarily healthier for you than any other product. For thousands of years, the food we eat has been selectively bred; this means humans have controlled and altered what we eat long before GMOs. And most of the time, when a food item is labeled “organic,” it is not truly organic. Almost all organic farmers use pesticides on their crops—just not synthetic ones. In fact, if you’re looking for pesticide-free foods, GMOs are probably your best option. This is because of Bt crops, which are a safer and effective alternative to pesticides. All in all, GM crops are barley less natural than any other food item.
The other fears with GMOs are more valid than the previous ones. One problem is the potential gene flow from GM crops to wild crops, which could alter or even destroy entire environments. Events like this are something we should worry about, but not reason enough to abandon GMOs overall. There are various ways to prevent this kind of spreading, and farmers of GM crops are aware of how to prevent this. Because such spreading is easily preventable, it’s slight possibility does not outweigh the myriad benefits of GMOs.
Another legitimate problem with GMOs, at least today, is how they support the pesticide industry—an industry that is corrupt and dangerous to both human health and agriculture. Because GMOs can make a plant resistant to a selected type of pesticide, this means that farmers will rely only on this type of pesticide. This supports pesticides and ignores other more efficient and sustainable ways to protect plants from pests. But GMOs are not to blame; in fact, one other more efficient and sustainable way to protect plants is the aforementioned Bt crops. This makes plants inherently poisonous to their most common pests, and eliminates the need for pesticides. This has even already happened in Bangladesh, where Bt eggplants reduced the use of insecticides by 80%. So to begin solving this problem, the pesticide industry should be confronted, not GMOs.
GMOs cannot be abandoned just because of the problems listed above; evidently, they are exaggerated. On the other hand, what is not exaggerated enough is the astounding potential of GMOs in the agricultural industry, and elsewhere. Let me give you some examples:
The papaya industry in Hawaii, a very large and important industry at that, was threatened by the ringspot virus, and no pesticide could help - but after a GM eggplant that was resistant to the disease was introduced, the industry was saved. Without GMOs, this industry would have collapsed.
GMOs could also help solve a worldwide epidemic of Vitamin A deficiencies. With a strain of genetically modified rice known as golden rice, which has an increased concentration of Vitamin A, this problem could be solved.
GMOs are also to thank for cheaper and more available insulin; their benefits reach further than agriculture. GM technology was used to attach the human gene for insulin production to the bacteria E. coli. This produced what is called human insulin, indistinguishable from, but more efficient than, previous methods of producing insulin.
Evidently, GMOs have already benefited the world greatly, but their potential for the future is even greater. Crop yields are always increasing, and this most always means that new land is needed, and this means habitat destruction. With GMOs, agricultural yields can increase while land area stays the same; this is agricultural intensification. This not only helps the environment, but it helps small farmers as well. A study from the African Development Bank showed that GM crops increased gross margins and crop yields, while reducing costs due to pesticides. Crops have also been altered to more efficiently absorb nitrogen from the air, eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilizer - another reduced cost for small farmers, especially those in developing countries where nitrogen fertilizer is less common and more expensive.
GMOs can also (and have already done so) help fight one of the biggest environmental issues of today: climate change. Not only do GM crops reduce fuel use and the respective greenhouse gas emissions, crops can be genetically engineered to more efficiently absorb carbon dioxide, one of the biggest greenhouse gases, from our atmosphere and combat climate change. And if we still can’t stop climate change, crops could be genetically altered to be much more resistant to its effects.
GMOs are saving the agricultural industry; many catastrophes have been avoided thanks to them. But GMOs aren’t just a way to save agriculture, they are a tool of science that could be, and have already been, used to do so much more. Their potential negative side effects should be addressed, as they are preventable. But those side effects are no reason to completely abandon their amazing potential in the modern world. Some problems, like climate change, might be unsolvable without them. GMOs are a gift, and we must not take them for granted.