Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been in the news and have become a hot topic of debate. As an Herbalist, Permaculturist, Pagan and all around Child of the Earth, GMOs make me shudder and a feel a bit queasy. On the other hand, my inner science geek is somewhat intrigued. And, as my husband brought up the other day during one of our many discussions on organic, fresh and non-prepackaged foods, “How can producing more food be wrong?” I can see his point! But, who says we don’t produce enough food, especially when farmers are paid by the government not to plant and whole silos of grain are rotting?
In the mid-70s, scientists in the Western World invented ways to shift pieces of genetic material, the very blueprint of life, from one species to another. Proponents claimed that this new technology of moving and changing genes, which came to be known as genetic engineering (GE), would lead to more abundant food supplies, inexpensive medicines and cures for currently untreatable diseases. GMO crops offered the world’s best chance to end, or greatly reduce, hunger and malnutrition. For example, golden rice was engineered to provide extra vitamin A, therefore preventing a form of blindness caused by a deficiency of this vitamin. Naysayers, on the other hand, feared that modifying organisms of any kind would lead to unstoppable plagues of disease or other environmental disasters.
GMOs have given farmers the advantages of growing genetically enhanced crops that are resistance to drought, herbicides, and insects. Unfortunately, as a side effect, pollen from crops engineered to be resistant to weed killer have fertilized weeds that are in the same family as the crop planted, creating superweed hybrids. These plants are now resistant to the herbicide that was created to eradicate them.
This technology has been used in organisms from bacteria to plants, mammals and ultimately human cells. Use of transgenic organisms (those containing genes from a non-related species) became a small but growing part of biotechnology. For some companies it became very profitable, particularly after the US Supreme Court declared in 1980 that altered living things could legally be patented.
Monsanto is a sustainable agriculture company. We deliver agricultural products that support farmers all around the world.
We are focused on empowering farmers—large and small—to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy. We do this with our leading seed brands in crops like corn, cotton, oilseeds and fruits and vegetables. We also produce leading in-the-seed trait technologies for farmers, which are aimed at protecting their yield, supporting their on-farm efficiency and reducing their on-farm costs.
We strive to make our products available to farmers throughout the world by broadly licensing our seed and trait technologies to other companies. In addition to our seeds and traits business, we also manufacture Roundup® and other herbicides used by farmers, consumers and lawn-and-garden professionals.
Monsanto could not exist without farmers. They are our customers–the lifeblood of our company. More important, they are the support system of the world’s economy, working day in and day out to feed, clothe and provide energy for our world.
Since they own these rights, Monsanto can demand that growers buy new seeds each year at premium prices rather than reusing seeds from the previous year’s crops as is traditionally done. Monsanto has also sued farmers for using saved seeds, such as the Nelson Farm of North Dakota. Actions like these have grown their own coffers without addressing the poverty and inequality that are the real roots of world hunger, completely controverting the original arguments for modifying organisms in the first place.
According to their Executive Summary, the International Service for the Acquisition of AgriBiotech Applications (ISAAA), a leading crop biotechnology advocacy organization, farmers in 29 countries grew nearly 400 million acres of commercial GE crops in 2011. This was an 8% increase from the previous year. An estimated 60–70% of processed foods in the US contain GE ingredients, with corn and soybeans making up the majority of these crops.
In 1992, the FDA said that it would not require special labeling of GMO foods. In response, there was an outcry from critics concerned about the possibility of the transfer of allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions) through the gene-splicing process. A 1996 study then confirmed that this had already happened! In response to this study, the FDA changed its position on the labeling of GMOs, but only on foods that use the genetic code of known allergens. Since then, the FDA has approved numerous GMO crops for sale in the US.
In the book, The Ethics of Genetic Engineering, An Opposing Viewpoints Series, written by Lisa Yount, we see that supporters and opponents are just as divided about the basic ethics, or morality, of the technology as they were about its practical implications. Supporters have said that it is nothing more than an extension of what breeders of plants and animals have been doing for thousands of years and, indeed, what nature itself accomplished through evolution and natural selection. Detractors claim that it is “unnatural” and “playing God” and, therefore, should be banned on ethical, as well as safety grounds.
With the capacity to massively change the physical world of plants and animals to suit our desires, we relinquish another level of our ties to the land and nature. Such large scale creation, use and manipulation of the flora and fauna of Earth cannot help but have a profound effect on the way we regard all life forms not of ourselves. More than ever before, we will be able to evolve whatever we want, or simply manufacture it directly. This is where we will see the most immediate and profound sociological, psychological and ethical effects of cloning and other biotechnological developments. The environmental movement will be affected by this as talk will turn from preserving nature to consciously creating exactly the sort of “nature” we want. In the past, people found meaning in nature by observing its cycles: the changes in the seasons and the changing requirements that came with them. But now, with the capacity to massively change the physical world of plants and animals to suit our desires, we relinquish another level of our ties to the land and nature.
Humanist Manifesto II, Paul Kurtz and Edwin H Wilson
To quote from the Manifesto, Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our lifespan, significantly modify our behavior, and alter the course of human evolution and cultural development with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.
The future is, however, filled with dangers. In learning to apply the scientific method to nature and life, we have opened the door to ecological damage, overpopulation, dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and nuclear and biochemical disaster.
It would seem that the debate about GMOs is settling ultimately between big business and the consumers. so far, there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are inherently bad. There is no definitive proof that they are the cause of allergies, chemical changes in the brain or outright environmental hazards. It cannot be denied, however, that allergies in children have risen and the rates of autism are on the upsurge. What is know is that GMO crops deplete the soil more thoroughly and much faster than non-GMO crops. There is also the development of superweeds, as well as the massive bee decline, all of which has occurred during the development and growing of GMO crops.
Yount, Lisa (2002) The Ethics of Genetic Engineering. San Diego, California: Greenhaven Press Inc.