Genetic engineering uses genes from bacteria or viruses. The genes are artificially injected into plant cells’ DNA, and then these cells are cloned into plants. For example, some genetically modified corn has a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis in every cell, giving the corn a built-in pesticide. Other crops, such as soy, cotton, and beets, have other bacteria inserted that allow the plant to be resistant to massive amounts of weed killer.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that over 90 percent of soybeans, corn, and sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically modified, while over 80 percent of cotton is modified.
Now imagine this scenario:
You have a 10-acre organic farm in the rural midwestern United States. As part of your garden, you have a robust field of heirloom sweet corn. Half a mile away, farmer Dan grows commercial field corn, with genetically modified organisms (GMO). You and Dan get along well, and Dan takes care not to ruin your organic process. For example, when he sprays pesticides using an airplane, he doesn’t do it on windy days, ensuring no contamination of your crops.
However, one day there is an unseasonably violent windstorm. Most of your corn stays standing, but pollen from Dan’s GMO corn reaches your property and infects your corn. Instead of the full, multicolored ears of mouthwatering sweet corn, you get an inconsistent yield of woody tasting corn, completely unfit for consumption or sale. That’s not all, though. One day while you’re removing the corn stalks and burning them, you get a visit. The visitor hands you an envelope, and when you open it, you learn that agribusiness giant Monsanto has sued you for patent infringement, because you grew genetically modified corn without a license from them.
If this sounds ridiculous, it is. But it’s also the law. Since 1997, Monsanto has filed more than 140 lawsuits against farmers who grew GMO corn without a license. In many cases, the farmers did it inadvertently, because their non-GMO corn was infected by windblown pollen from other farmers who were growing GMO corn. Many farmers have gone out of business because they couldn’t afford to fight a giant agribusiness with the expense of lengthy lawsuits.
The Monsanto Protection Act
If this tragedy weren’t enough, Barack Obama recently signed legislation, informally known as the Monsanto Protection Act, which further aligns the law and court system with big business. Under prior law, federal courts could intervene if they felt that the United States Department of Agriculture erroneously allowed testing or sale of GMO plants. Now, under the Monsanto Protection Act, federal courts no longer have this authority. The end result of this legislation is mind-boggling—Monsanto gets their cake and eats it too. While Monsanto can use the court system to sue farmers for patent infringement, consumers cannot use the court system to challenge the USDA’s decision to allow testing or sale of patented GMO crops.
Health Concerns About GMO
On one hand, it is understandable that the country’s public policy favors GMO crops. This is because, in the short run, it is cheaper to mass produce crops with higher yields that have genetic resistance to pests and diseases. However, in the long run, pests and diseases become less bothered by the genetic resistance. For example, insect pests in South Africa are developing resistance to GMO corn.
In addition to concerns about the long-term efficacy of GMO crops, there are several reasons to question the use of genetically modified food.
First, there are health concerns. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine lists the following health impacts of GMOs: “infertility, immune dysregulation [impairment of a physiological regulatory mechanism], accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”
Second, there are environmental concerns. GMO corn, which is resistant to pesticides, results in large quantities of pesticides being dumped on crops, some of which reach are waterways. Also, weeds can become immune to GMO crops, resulting in weed infestations regardless of the amount of weed killer applied.
Third, GMO crops threaten the genetic diversity. As discussed above, over 90 percent of common crops such as corn and soybeans are GMO, resulting in concentration of these species into a few varietals.
Finally, GMOs violate the most basic tenet of self-sustainability that most living off the grid cherish. The seeds from GMOs cannot be planted (legally or biologically) because they will not result in true-to-type plants, but rather in inferior plants. Not being able to save seed for future years runs against common sense.
The world’s population is exploding, and somehow all people will need to eat. But GMO crops, despite their short-term attraction, may result in long-term environmental and health problems. Instead of the solution, they may become the problem.