The GMO Melee

This is for all of you who care about the food you eat, are worried about where it comes from, and are concerned about the people who grow them. I currently live in Northeast USA, and recently, grocery shopping has me perplexed. A lot of food products in the common grocery stores I buy from have the “Non-GMO Project” labels. I do not look for these labels, I just pick what I want and get out of the store, generally. But when I unpack my bag back at home, I notice that on an average 3/5 products I purchase have the label on them.

Writing about GMOs, the concerns, and the myths, has been in the charts for a long time, and so here goes.

The (very) basics:

Living organisms have genes. These genes produce proteins, which help form the various characteristics, or traits of the organism. Same applies for plants (obviously). Certain characteristics of plants are disadvantageous to farmers who grow them in abundance, for example, their susceptibility to chemical additives – crops die when fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, weedicides, etc. are used on/near them. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for farmers.

One of the most common and earliest examples of genetically modified crops is the soybean – it was done to protect the crop from weedicides, back in 1988.

gmo

Transgenic crops, biotech crops, modified crops, all include similar modifications have been done on a myriad of other plants, a lot of which are used for human consumption.

Let’s get to the point now…

Recombinant DNA technology has been around for many decades now, grandfathered in by Darwin and Mendel, and its use in modern agriculture has seen increase in productivity like never before. It is to be noted that the current molecular genetics offer a much more controlled way of making modifications to plants that the ancient methods. This has helped increase yield and productivity of crops, improved pest and disease resistance, and a substantial increase in tolerance to environmental stress. Modified corn, canola, potato, maize, etc. have been studied for decades after introduction (more details here and here).

This ISAAA report gives a comprehensive description of the biotech crops, their implications and effects, in various countries over many decades. Developing countries currently have approximately 100 million hectares of agricultural land under biotech crop cultivation, and this was almost 0 just two decades back. This has proved to be a great step in the global impact in agriculture, and the impact it has on the environment.

Greenhouse gas emission from cultivated areas has reduced significantly, and is said to be analogous to removing 8.6 million cars from the roads – this is due to the development of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GM HT) crops (like the soybean example above), which led to no-till farming, and reduced seed-bed preparation to get rid of weed. In 2010, 1,715 million kg of CO2 was saved, because of reduced fuel usage of about 642.2 million liters. This is just the tip of the iceberg – detailed information can be found in this peer-reviewed research paper, and many more in the Journal of Developing Areas, The Lancet, etc., for those who care to read – and I encourage all readers to, I will explain why in a bit.

Assessment of Risk:

Now comes the question most of us average consumers are unable to answer – and I refuse to believe you if you think you know for sure that GM foods are harmful – there is no way you can know that – how do we know that biotech crops are risk-free?

I am going to break this down so walk (or scroll) with me.

  1. Quantifying the risks posed by food items can only be done with complete credibility on a case-by-case basis. We literally cannot compare apples to oranges here. There is no food that is completely safe, and there is no technology that is entirely safe.
  2. Purely from a technical perspective, the only potential risk is from crossbreeding of genetically modified plants to wild-type native plants, which is a negligible risk, especially since care is taken to segregate the edited plants completely by breeders. This also complies with the soil fertility maintenance cycles by farmers.
  3. There are claims all over the internet of “widespread, unpredictable” changes that might occur upon consumption of GMOs. These catchwords are often referenced to blog posts and opinion pieces. Allergies are a common effect of GMO consumption according to many anti-GMO sources on the web (I do not find the need to reference anything here, as these comprise the first page hits on any GMO-related search on Google). Allergies, are biologically subjective, especially with respect to food consumption. Peanuts, lactose, are just a few examples of person-specific intolerance to food.

Regulations, Paparazzi, and Consumers:

The FDA, USDA, NIH, NAS, EPA – all of these bodies regulate the production of GMOs, and have repeatedly confirmed one important fact – that modified plants do not pose any new or uncommon risk when compared with non-GMO plants. Nevertheless, there still exist these elaborate rules and regulations and quality assessments – because anti-GMO NGOs are a huge phenomenon, and because capitalists investing in GMOs needed Government approval, which would lead to long-standing patents, which would lead to money, and eventually market monopoly. Even the term “GMO” has always been used as a phrase of negativity, picked up by activists, propagated by the media. Though men in agriculture have been genetically modifying plants for eons, the term only applied to recent advances in transgenic technology, and now produces a wave of fear among consumers. Media coverage has been extremely biased (duh!) and negative while handling GM crops issues. Economists have shown that food manufacturing industries and even retailers egg these anti-GMO groups on, since it eventually helps them sell more expensive GMO-free products. Surveys are biased too – since the media, and easy-to-read spiteful blog posts have already defined GMOs in consumers’ heads, when asked “do you think GMOs?”, we know what an average consumer would say.

Labeling and GMO-testing:

Coming back to my tryst with grocery shopping for a second – I decided to go to this Non-GMO Project page and see what they have to say. A few of their mission statements stood out:

  • “Everyone deserves an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified organisms”
    • An organization called “Non-GMO Project” is not helping anyone make an “informed” choice on anything. Diluting down and beautifying mission statements does not cover up the underlying intentions.
  • “…. supporting the right of farmers to save and plant their own seeds and grow varieties of their own choice”
    • The advent of GMOs has not even remotely messed with farmers rights to grow their own strain of crops, nor has it intervened in varieties. This is a dig at corporations, which I will get to in a moment.
  • “A verified non-GMO system supports organic agriculture by reducing contamination pressure and protecting the supply of non-GMO seed”
    • Point to be noted (and will be explained further) – the farmers who want to grow GMOs are as bothered as their organic farmer neighbors who are worried about GMO pollen invading and polluting their crops.

Labeling food products in the name of “educating” consumers and upholding their “right to choose” is only adding tons of approval costs, not only to the GMO foods, but also to the GMO-free ones. The product has to be tested at each and every level thoroughly, and this costs an average of $10 million. This Nature research article talks more about the barriers this poses to new cropping technologies, and how we end up losing time, resources, and money, on quality assurance that will buy a consumer absolutely no additional food safety.

Where is all this anti-GMO coming from?

Anti-corporate. Industries like Monsanto have help monopoly in the GM seeds field. This campaign is against them, and rightly so. It is just like the fight against any big pharma for drug prices. But the result of this campaign is targeted to the wrong object. Socialist mindset has always been to go to science for answers, and now they are turning against this science to prove their anti-capitalist stance.

There is an example – from India.
Activists, and anti-GMO campaigners have blamed the advent of Bt-Cotton on farmer suicides across India. Environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva calls them “suicide seeds”. Bt-Cotton, a pest-resistant strain of cotton was approved in India in 2002, and has been adopted by more than 90% of Indian farmers. It has been shown to have boosted cotton yields, reduced pesticide use, and literally alleviated poverty. But there have been tweets, FB posts, memes, news tidbits, media coverage, rallies against Monsanto pertaining to these suicides linked to the cotton seeds.

Here is what happened – farmers with small lands who rely on irregular rains faced debts after buying the Monsanto cotton seeds. The 5 states where farmer suicide is most common for the past few decades, are not even the largest growers of cotton. Yet again, anger is directed poorly by well-intentioned activists. Farmers are not well informed about their seeds, the corporates are as much to blame as the government, the banking policies in India, farmers’ reliance on loans leading them to bankruptcy – all of these (more reading here and here) are responsible. But the people now know GMOs to be responsible.

Here is my conclusion, easily accessible media easily changes people’s minds. I am certain no one cares enough to read long research articles to inform themselves enough to make credible decisions. And I repeat, this is for those who care about the food they eat, and about those who grow them.

Title image source: https://www.greenprophet.com/2013/09/israels-genetically-modified-superplants/

 

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