GMOs: a scapegoat of the American food system
We recently published an article on this platform highlighting that we avoid the Non-GMO Project’s label because it does not tell consumers any information regarding the item’s healthfulness, its impact on the environment, or the pesticides used to grow crops. Many of the comments we received expressed that although GMOs may indeed be safe, there are socio-economic factors surrounding these crops which give consumers pause. Today, we write to address these concerns and highlight that such socio-economic factors are not unique to GMOs.
Non-GMO Does Not Mean Free of Patents
The development of any crop can take years, leading companies to patent these new varieties to protect their investments. However, this is done regardless of the method used to modify the crop. For example, here is a copy of the contract signed by farmers for BASF’s Clearfield seeds (which are not GMOs), and the agreement is similar to Monsanto’s stewardship agreement on its GM crops. Even seeds used in organic food production can be patented and can be developed by large agricultural companies. In contrast, some GMOs are no longer patented, such as Round-Up Ready Soy.
Most farmers buy new seeds every year and have been doing so since before GMOs were developed. Because crops grown from saved seeds do not necessarily bear all the traits that farmers and consumers desire, most farmers choose to buy their seeds every year whether they grow GMOs or not.
GMO Is Not Synonymous With Monsanto
Speaking out in favor of genetic engineering automatically gets one labeled a Monsanto defender, even though any party can wield the technology. The public largely perceives GMO as synonymous with Monsanto and the evils the agricultural company symbolizes. While business practices of massive corporations can and should be questioned and criticized when unethical, conflating “GMOs” with Monsanto creates a regulatory quagmire that stifles innovation. This crude narrative, in conjunction with a prohibitively expensive and arduous path from research to market, discourages smaller entities from developing and commercializing GE products. At the same time, Monsanto develops many crops that are non-GMO and even seeds approved for use under the USDA’s organic label. Consequently, shunning GMOs does not result in boycotting Monsanto’s products. Some examples of non-Monsanto genetically engineered crops in the pipeline or already on the market are:
- Bananas resistant to bacterial wilt, a scourge threatening the crop in Uganda and eastern Africa, where bananas compose up to 30% of caloric intake. These GM crops, which recently began trials, were developed by local scientists.
- Gluten-free wheat, developed by public sector scientists in Europe, with the potential to help celiac disease patients.
- Oranges resistant to citrus greening, a disease that eventually kills the orange tree and is wreaking havoc across several U.S. states.
- Papaya that is essentially vaccinated against Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV), which nearly wiped out the Hawaiian papaya industry before the genetically engineered solution was adopted.
- Apples, with a silenced enzymatic reaction to cell damage that prevents them from unappetizing browning, were developed by a small Canadian biotech company. Arctic apples still turn brown when truly “rotten.”
GMOs and Monocultures
GMOs are blamed for an increase in monoculture and a decline in seed diversity. Some activists, like Michael Pollan, have gone so far as to claim that monoculture is the “great evil of modern agriculture.” However, this is a gross oversimplification of the issues and often a misunderstanding of what “monoculture” even means. This has been discussed in detail at the Thoughtscapism blog (worth a read for more detail than we provide here).
Depending on how we define monoculture and what our concerns are, we can look at various measures to see how GMOs have affected these issues. On a system-wide level, currently adopted GMOs have led to reduced monoculture and protected biodiversity by protecting 13 million hectares of land from conversion to agriculture, as reported in this 2014 review, “The impact of agricultural biotechnology on supply and land-use”. Another area of concern is that biotechnology could lead to a reduction of genetic diversity within the crops themselves. However, this is not a problem specific to GMOs, as farmers plant a homogenous batch of seeds no matter what kind of seed they buy. Farmers choose from a very wide variety of seeds, GMO or non-GMO, to fit the needs of their particular farms. In addition, when scientists look at crop diversity, they actually find that many measures of crop diversity have increased over time. Claims that the number of seed varieties available to farmers have decreased are also largely fabricated: early seed catalogs had many varieties with different names that actually referred to the same variety.
Other Myths and Falsehoods
Comments we received regarding our last piece highlight numerous myths and falsehoods about GMOs and agriculture. We are providing links to articles and documents disproving these myths:
- Farmers have not been sued for inadvertent cross contamination.
- There is no evidence that organic food is healthier, nor is it free of pesticides.
- GMO seeds are not sterile.
- GMOs are not associated with the suicide of farmers in India.
The concerns that many readers have regarding the strength of multi-billion dollar agricultural conglomerates, the undue power of these companies in our political and regulatory system, and other such factors are concerns that we share. Again, these are not factors unique to discussions on GMOs or even exclusive to agriculture. These factors impact all of agriculture, whether the crops grown are GMO or Non-GMO, grown using conventional or organic farming practices. As tempting as it may be to simplify these complex political and economic problems to a GMO debate in search of silver-bullet fixes, by reducing our scope we are prevented from finding genuine solutions to these issues.