Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Ambiguous Implications of GM Crops

Genetically modified crops have a lot going for them. They provide higher yield, easier harvesting, increased pest resistance, and increased tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate  (Roundup). These are benefits that some farmers consider to outweigh the higher cost of seed. In the United States, over 80% of corn, soybean, and cotton crops are genetically engineered. On a global scale, we were the first to widely adopt these farming practices, and are now producing about 50% of GM crops worldwide. The technology is slowly being incorporated in other parts of the world, but is mostly eschewed in Europe.
(tomatoes from my garden)

On Tuesday, the National Research Council released a report entitled "Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States." Academic scientists in the Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability compiled this lengthy (240 pages) report using the findings of peer-reviewed papers to generate a thorough analysis of what we know about the effects of genetically modified crops. What resulted was an exposure of the truth that genetically modified crops have generated an imperfect solution to age-old farming woes that may leave us with perpetual social, political, and economic issues in addition to the health and environmental problems that are more tangible.

Genetically engineered "Roundup-Ready" crops have a high tolerance for the use of this herbicide. However, when farmers use it excessively, the weeds can potentially develop resistance, thus requiring the use of stronger, more toxic herbicides. So while the goal of decreased use of toxic chemicals is initially achieved, in the long run we are creating a bigger problem. Not only is the use of these chemicals harmful to the crops and thus harmful to those who consume them, the treatment of soil is also compromised. In the Food, Inc. companion book, Anna Lappe discusses the risks of overuse of chemicals on soil. More sustainable soil treatment renders a farm more resilient to drought and flooding. During a Midwest flood in 2008, corn fields were completely obliterated while biodiverse organic farms survived unscathed.

We observed some of the social impacts of GM crops in the film Food, Inc. Moe Parr, an Indiana soybean seed cleaner, was pushed out of business because of Monsanto's lawsuits against him. Seed cleaning is a practice that has been employed for thousands of years. But to Monsanto, this was exploitation of copyrighted property. Mr. Parr hadn't grown Monsanto seed, but it was the risk of contamination by his neighbor's GM seed that upset the company. He was forced to settle and end his practices. This created major rifts between these neighboring farms.

Because the genes used in GM crops have been patented, the seeds are quite costly. The prohibitive prices have played a role in keeping universal adoption of GM crops at bay. However, Monsanto announced last week that it would decrease some of its prices because their sales are not meeting expectations. An investigation is being conducted by the Justice Department to determine whether Monsanto is violating antitrust laws. They have patented the "Roundup-Ready" system and have the power to unnecessarily increase prices and possibly hinder positive innovation. As a side note - shares of the company dropped 2% the day the National Research Council Report was issued.

The political implications of GM crops can be quite unsavory. We saw in the film Food, Inc. that executives of GM crop - producing companies now run important influential government agencies like the FDA and USDA. These companies also have enormous pull with politicians. Legal regulations can be utilized to prohibit the use of GM crops, but as of late, more and more GM crop use is being approved. Last month, genetically engineered sugar beets were permitted for harvesting in California. It was justified that this ruling would assist the economy, as the sugar beet accounts for a major percentage of the sugar source in the US. Even Europe, a bastion of non-GM crop purity, has recently cleared a genetically modified potato as well as three types of Monsanto corn. Unrelenting public opposition could not prevent these approvals. The floodgates for GM crop production in Europe have now been opened.

Speculation has been presented regarding the effects of GM food on consumer health. The modified gene in the potato approved in Europe, for example, has been linked to antibiotic resistance in humans. Europeans are fully aware of these risks, and express that vehemently in polls, but the European Commission has ulterior motives for growing GM crops. By producing their own, the EU could alleviate unfavorable trade relations with the US and bring down food prices, connecting a health issue with political and economic objectives.
(blueberries from my garden)

All of this only scratches the surface of the GM crop debate. Their implications penetrate far and wide into all aspects of society - even without considering the effects yet to be discovered. The benefits sound great, but we need to step back, study,  and ask, are we setting ourselves up for something extraordinarily tragic here?

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