Why GMOs Aren’t Like Smartphones.

We all know that science is hard. Mastery of any new technology is the result of thousands of failures. If we didn’t try and fail so many times, we wouldn’t have things like smartphones, cars, or the Internet.

I used to make the same argument in favor of Genetically Modified Organisms. They were just another technology that we should strive to perfect. We’d work through the bumps and eventually create an abundance of healthy food for all. But I was wrong.

Life isn’t like cellphones, cars, and microchips. Life spreads. Mistakes can permanently pollute and endanger the world’s food supply. Sadly, this is not future speculation. It’s history.

BT Corn

When my kids were born, I started reading more about the food they were eating. I’d always assumed that GMO foods were simply hardier versions of the same crops we grew up with. I was surprised to learn this wasn’t exactly true.

Due to the actions of a company called Monsanto, the majority of the world’s corn now produces it’s own pesticide: BT delta endotoxin.

When a pest eats the corn,the pesticide dissolves the walls of their stomach. Here’s how it works:

“Within minutes, the protein binds to the gut wall and the insect stops feeding. Within hours, the gut wall breaks down and normal gut bacteria invade the body cavity. The insect dies of septicaemia as bacteria multiply in the blood.”
From University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture

Lovely. This kills the pests, but there’s one small problem. When we eat the corn, we ingest this same toxin. Unlike conventional pesticides, you can’t wash it off. In a Quebec study, BT toxin was detected in the bloodstream of 67% of the population tested. For pregnant women, this number was much higher: 90%.

OK, so we have some BT toxin in our blood. What’s the big deal?

Connecting the Dots

A recent study by Norwegian professor Åshild Krogdahl compared two groups of animals: one fed GM corn, the other non-GM corn.

After 90 days, the animals fed the GM corn had put on more weight, and had changes in their immune system. The same effect occurred if the animals were fed meat raised on GM corn.

“the ones who had fed on GM corn were slightly larger, they ate slightly more, their intestines had a different microstructure, they were less able to digest proteins, and there were some changes to their immune system. Blood samples also showed some change in the blood.”
“If the same effect applies to humans, how would it impact on people eating this type of corn over a number of years, or even eating meat from animals feeding on this corn? I don’t wish to sound alarmist, but it is an interesting phenomenon and worth exploring further.”
Dr. Åshild Krogdahl

There are two rising trends in America: childhood obesity and childhood allergies. Let’s take a look at obesity. The purple hockey stick is the US.

Correlation doesn’t equal causation, so we don’t know if BT corn is to blame. However, the timelines do match up: BT corn started gaining steam in the late 90's. This is when childhood obesity in the US kicked into overdrive.

Food Allergies

Alongside an increase in childhood obesity, we’re also seeing more children developing food allergies. From 1997 to 2007, the number of children with food allergies rose 18 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food allergies happen when the immune system mislabels food as an invader. The most common invaders are bacteria. How does this mislabeling happen? Why is it happening more now than previously? Scientists aren’t sure.

But let’s apply a little common sense. What happens if you put bacteria genes into a plant? Isn’t it possible that the immune system might start to get confused about what’s food and what’s bacteria?

We now run this risk. Let’s look at where the extra genes in BT corn come from. They come from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, which grows naturally in the soil. If you don’t wash your produce, you might ingest some of this bacteria. This is nothing to worry about. Your immune system has thousands of years of practice of fighting this kind of bacteria. And that’s part of the problem.

Let’s say you eat some BT corn. As it dissolves in your stomach, it will begin to release BT delta endotoxin. Your immune system, trained by evolution to kill the oh-so-common BT bacteria, has a choice to make. Does it let this slide? Or does it assume it’s dealing with an invader and fight back?

How Do We Know?

Studies follow dollars. In this case, the dollars are on the side of GMO producers. Even if the money is there, we don’t yet have the technology to fully measure and understand the effects of GMO foods on our bodies and environment.

Right now, we’re flying blind. This won’t always be true. One day, we will have the computing power to simulate all possible interactions. We’ll be able to tweak a line of a plant’s genetic code, fast forward 20 years in a few seconds, and see the impact on our bodies and environment.

Today, our simulator is the real world. We are unleashing genetic experiments that can spread and replace native species shaped by millions of years of co-evolution. By the time we understand the results of these experiments, we’ll be stuck with them.

Once again, this isn’t speculation. It’s happening right now.

A One Way Trip

Want to stop eating BT corn? That’s surprisingly difficult to do.

If you buy non-organic corn in the US, it’s almost guaranteed to be BT corn. Corn starch is a common ingredient in snack foods. BT corn is also the main ingredient in most livestock diets.

So, what about good old regular corn? Can’t you get it anymore?

Your only option is to buy organic corn, but that’s getting harder and more expensive to find. Why? Because life spreads, and non-GM corn is becoming an endangered species.

Cross-pollination of conventional fields by GMO strains has become so widespread it is difficult to produce “pure” seeds that are not contaminated.
“It’s become harder and harder for farmers to even find conventional seeds. The big players bought up conventional seed companies and the university public sector breeders which used to produce most of the seeds that farmers used have seen their funding reduced.”
Bill Freese, Center for Food Safety

Bugs Evolve Faster Than We Do

What is our reward for having nearly wiped out a native life form on our planet? A few corporations made the kind of green that matters most to them. And for a few years, farmers didn’t have to make creative use of ladybugs, decoy crops, and other organic tricks.

But now, the bugs are back. They’ve evolved, and Monstanto has already secured approval for their next salvo in the war: a new corn called SmartStax that contains additional BT genes.

This is a war we can’t win. The reason is simple. Insects have a new generation every season. This means they evolve faster than we do. We can poison the well for both of us. They’ll adapt, and we won’t.

Feeding the World

So how will we feed the world? Let’s start by debunking a myth. Our world’s hunger problem is a social and logistical issue, not a scientific one. Time-tested farming technologies can provide the food that we need.

At the University of California-Davis, agricultural scientist Bill Liebhardt reviewed 154 growing seasons worth of data. The data revealed that organic corn yields were 94 percent of conventional yields, organic wheat yields were 97 percent, and organic soybean yields were 94 percent. Organic tomatoes showed no yield difference.

Based on Dr. Liebhardt’s research, BT corn is gaining us only a 6% improvement in yield. In poorer countries with drier climates, the gap disappeared completely. Organic farms were found to be more efficient.

A seven-year study from Maikaal District in central India involving 1,000 farmers cultivating 3,200 hectares found that average yields for cotton, wheat, chili, and soy were as much as 20 percent higher on the organic farms than on nearby conventionally managed ones. Farmers and agricultural scientists attributed the higher yields in this dry region to the emphasis on cover crops, compost, manure, and other practices that increased organic matter (which helps retain water) in the soils.
Worldwatch Institute

Organic farming focuses on redirecting the pests to decoy crops, where they are kept small in number by natural predators. By focusing our dollars on studying natural ecosystems, we can use them to our advantage, instead of replacing them. This is a safer and faster way to make progress.

A Safe Alternative

Monsanto created BT corn to deal with the European corn borer. It turns out that this pest has natural predators, and innovative farmers are starting to catch on.

After suffering economic losses from BT corn, farmers in the Philippines discovered a natural way to combat the corn borer: a nano-wasp called Trichogramma. Measuring at 0.18mm, Trichogramma are so small that you can’t actually see them. They destroy the eggs of European corn borers.

The low cost, availability, efficiency and significant reduction of chemical inputs have made Trichogramma an extremely attractive option for farmers. Farmers that have shifted to Trichogramma say they have stopped using chemicals altogether because they have seen its effectiveness in controlling corn borer populations.
These have contributed to the success rate of the program which has effectively reduced the occurrence of corn borer by 80-85% in the province of Isabela.
Greenpeace Report, 2005

Farmers have solved the problem by re-introducing a missing predator and fixing an incomplete ecosystem. This solution is cheap, safe, and tested by millions of years of evolution.

Cornell University has released a guide which can help farmers get started. Everybody wins, except for a few corporations who’d like to insert themselves in the middle, and profit from every bite we eat.

The Moral

Science is all about making mistakes and learning from them. I believe the lesson of BT corn is simple: we need to turn back before it’s too late.

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