Many people are wary of eating food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because they suspect that GMOs negatively impact human health. As such, human health concerns have been the focus of the public and media discourse about GMOs. This debate only distracts us from the more important negative impacts of GMOs: they pose serious threats to environmental health, increase corporate consolidation of power in our food system and allow corporations to appropriate cultural heritage. And contrary to popular belief, GMOs will not help solve world hunger.
There are two types of GMOs. The first type is developed by governments or NGOs to reduce the need for inputs like water and fertilizers. Drought-tolerant wheat or naturally disease-resistant cotton are among this group. This type makes up a very small portion of all GMO varieties, largely due to the fact that they are not as profitable as the second type, which are developed by private agribusiness companies such as Monsanto. These varieties promise to help farmers save time but usually require additional inputs such as pesticides. This type of GMO is often sold as a package with a company’s patented input, such as an herbicide. Farmers can then spray herbicide indiscriminately on their fields and kill weeds, in theory, but not their crops. This might be an acceptable system from an environmental standpoint — if the herbicide does not have negative environmental effects. But that is a big “if.”
Just like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, weeds evolve to become resistant to herbicides, and just like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the more the substance is used, the faster resistance develops. There are now over 24 species of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” in the United States, a figure that is only expected to increase. Once the relatively safe herbicide glyphosate, the most common type used with GMOs, is no longer effective, farmers will seek out new chemicals to kill weeds. Unfortunately, herbicides like glyphosate that are effective but have limited environmental consequences are very rare. If superweeds render glyphosate useless, farmers will turn to more potent herbicides with harsher environmental consequences. Herbicide-tolerant GMOs contribute to liberal application of stronger herbicides across the country.
In addition to wreaking environmental havoc, there is a troubling lack of transparency in GMO research because new GMOs may be patented for profit. Agribusiness companies hold patents for the GMOs they develop. Due to this patent law, no independent research may be performed on GMO varieties without the consent of the company that holds the patent. All researchers granted permission must submit their findings to the company for approval before publication. The current system’s gross lack of transparency is simply unacceptable. By restricting independent research on GMOs and their accompanying herbicides, we seriously jeopardize environmental health by limiting our knowledge of the environmental impact of GMOs.
Traditional heirloom crop varieties, which provide the basis for genetic modification, do not arise in a vacuum. They are a product of hundreds of years of farmers’ selective breeding. However, agribusiness companies are allowed to take these varieties, modify them slightly and patent a new genetically modified variety. U.S. rice company Ricetec did exactly this in 1997, receiving a patent for a slightly modified version of Basmati rice based on varieties developed in India over hundreds of years. In this way, GMOs allow corporations to patent cultural heritage and profit from it. Cultural appropriation has arrived at your dinner plate.
As climate change worsens, weather will become more volatile and certain agricultural diseases more common. Drought and disease-tolerant GMOs might play a small part in maintaining the global food supply, provided they are not patented and developed by an entity working for the public interest. However, the problems GMOs solve can be prevented by employing more comprehensive solutions. For example, drought-tolerant varieties would not be as needed if soil health was maintained organically, rather than with chemical fertilizers. Similarly, if farmers switched from growing a single crop in monocultures to growing multiple crops in polyculture, the system’s biodiversity would preserve its resilience and ensure a harvest even in years of extreme weather without a need for GMOs.
Some might say that the higher yields GMOs provide are necessary to feed the world’s rising population. This argument is irrelevant. The world already produces enough calories to nourish everyone on the planet. The problem is not a lack of food production. It is a lack of access, and that lack of access stems from poverty. By fixing income inequality, we will fix hunger without employing GMOs.
There are numerous reasons you should be concerned about GMOs: corporate control on research, increased use of herbicides, the ability of corporations to steal and profit from cultural heritage. The problems GMOs purport to solve can be addressed more comprehensively using other strategies.
Start by standing up with your fork. Most genetically modified crops grown in the United States are corn, soy and cotton. When buying products with those ingredients, go organic. Organic products cannot contain GMO ingredients. Can’t afford that? Then reduce your consumption of processed foods with corn and soy ingredients altogether. Finally, tell other people that if they care about environmental health, corporate transparency or cultural appropriation, they should care about GMOs too.
Graphic by Lia Wang ’16, Graphics Editor