The developers hope the color of genetically-modified Golden Rice will become increasingly attractive to many people over time. They call it “value-added rice” because the genetically-modified rice produces and accumulates beta-carotene (Vitamin A) in the grain.
My name is Stephanie Zonis, and welcome to Organic Matter for April, 2006.
The GMO Controversy
“GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism” (sometimes, these organisms, plant or animal, are referred to as “GE” or “genetically engineered”). Selective modification of genetics has been practiced for thousands of years by humans, who sowed or bred those organisms that had characteristics the humans favored; this applies equally to show dogs or strawberries, livestock or Lima beans. It was always a gradual process, with uncertain success. But now, genetic modification is being undertaken on a much larger and more dramatic scale, thanks to biotechnology corporations. How does genetic modification relate to the current popularity of organics?
Right now, it doesn’t. Or, more properly, it shouldn’t. Technically, the use of GMOs isn’t allowed in organic products. Practically, more and more traces of GMOs are showing up in crops that farmers produced in accordance with organic standards. Having traces of a GMO found in a product that was produced or raised in accordance with organic standards will not result in the producer’s being de-certified, but it’s an injustice to the consumers who buy organic products, at least in part, because they don’t want to consume GMO’s. Unfortunately, they have less and less choice in the matter.
The March 20, 2006 edition of Newsweek International contains an article by one Lee Silver, entitled “Why GM is Good for Us: Genetically Modified Foods May be Greener than Organic Ones.” Organic practices, products, and consumers are denigrated in this piece; consumers of organics, in particular, are accused of thinking along simplistic lines where GMO’s are concerned.
If not wanting GMOs to become an everyday part of my eating is thinking along simplistic lines, then I’m all for a little more simplicity in my life.
I believe there is potential for good in some GMOs, but allowing biotechnology corporations to forge right ahead with GMO crops and livestock is folly: poorly-regulated, poorly-overseen folly. Why? Truth is, I don’t have enough space in one column to give all the reasons, but I can at least give you an idea of what I’m talking about. And while I’m at it, I’ll talk more about Silver’s article.
Silver notes that, “all domesticated plants and animals were created by human selection of random mutations that occur in nature.” I have little quarrel with that statement. But biotechnology corporations are not merely modifying genetics slightly to produce cattle with thicker coats or corn with kernels of a particular color. Instead, their GMO’s are often transgenic—that is, they place genetics from one type of organism into another, in combinations that simply wouldn’t occur in nature.
Golden Rice, one of the better-known GM products, places genes from daffodils and a bacterium into rice. At one point, a transfer of genetic material from fish into strawberries and tomatoes was attempted (it didn’t work). In another GM experiment, Brazil nut genetics were transferred into soybeans in an attempt to improve the nutrition of the latter (that didn’t work, either; the Brazil nut gene transferred a potential for allergies to the soybean).
And what are the long-term effects of transgenic products on human health or the environment? Nobody knows. If you’re allergic to daffodils and eat Golden Rice, what happens then? Again, we have no answer.
One thing is clear, however: unintentional transfer of transgenic material through gene flow, which occurs naturally, is a certainty. Genetically-modified plants are more likely to crossbreed than non-genetically-modified plants, even if the two are growing side by side. Mexico had had a ban on GM technology since 1998, but in March of 2004, GM corn was found growing there. GM grasses in Oregon crossbred naturally with non-GM grass growing twelve miles away. This means that Golden Rice will crossbreed with rice of a different variety growing nearby, creating, well, who knows what? This could lead to a loss of unique species in the plant kingdom, and it will undoubtedly result in more widespread GM contamination of non-GM plants. Shorter- and longer-term effects on microorganisms in the soil, a critical component of soil health, are also unknown.
More Potential Problems
GMO’s have other significant disadvantages, too, and plenty of them. Despite claims that GMO’s would increase yields for farmers and require less use of pesticides or herbicides, the opposite has been true in many instances. An extension of the first claim is that GMO’s would help farmers produce enough food to feed the ever-expanding world population, but that’s not true, either. Within the past 50 years, crop production worldwide has tripled (without the use of GM crops), but an increasing number of people are going hungry. The United Nations World Food Program acknowledges that there’s already enough food produced on Earth to feed every inhabitant sufficiently and in a healthy manner, and that’s been true for some years now. Unfortunately, famine and starvation are now largely social and political issues. People who cannot feed themselves either cannot grow their own food, cannot afford to buy food, or both. Further, most of the GM crops commercialized to date go into the making of animal food, not food for people.
Summer wheat: here, happily unmodified.
Photo by Simon Templar.
Worse still with GMO crops are the ideas of seeds as “intellectual property” and GURTS. Normally, a planted, seed-bearing crop would produce seeds that can be saved to plant for next year’s crop. Saving seeds is the traditional method for being able to plant next year’s crop at all in many poorer areas of the world, in fact. But Monsanto, one of the world’s leading biotechnology corporations, has somehow managed to claim GM seeds as “intellectual property”, which makes it illegal for farmers to save seeds. This means that farmers would have to buy their seeds every single year, and many of them would end up heavily in debt as a consequence.
To help ensure the manipulation not only of genetics but human lives as well, biotechnology corporations have also come up with the idea of GURT (“Genetic Use Restriction Technology”), the so-called “Terminator” or “suicide” seeds. These seeds have been genetically modified to render them sterile at harvest, a guarantee that farmers wouldn’t be able to re-plant them the following year. This would automatically increase the dependence of poorer, Third World nations upon industrialized countries; it might allow biotech giants an increasing control of agriculture.
Currently, there is a de facto moratorium on “Terminator” seeds, but the UN Council On Biological Diversity is meeting toward the end of this month (it is March, 2006 as I write this) and is expected to face heavy lobbying from countries such as the US, Argentina, and Canada (the three chief growers of GM crops) to drop the ban, These three countries have also refused to ratify the U.N. Biosafety Protocol, which would allow developing countries to regulate the safety of GMO’s. Oh, by the way, it’s been shown that “Terminator” genes can transfer to non-GMO plants, at least in soybeans, rendering these plants sterile, as well. Worldwide, soybeans are a major crop. What if the same thing were to happen among corn plants? Wheat? Rice?
Environment Pollutants And More
I have strayed far here from Silver’s article, so I’ll attempt to get back to that. One of Silver’s major points involves pigs, and the high phosphorus content in their manure. Phosphorus run-off can be a huge environmental pollutant. Silver maintains that two Canadian biologists have developed a GM pig (called the “Enviropig”) with up to 75% less phosphorus in its manure. Further, the modification to the pig’s genetics involves a single extra enzyme also naturally occurring in bacteria in the human digestive tract, which, in Silver’s words, “suggests that the Enviropig will be as safe for human consumption as non-GM pigs.” That sounds promising, but a key word in that last sentence is suggests: The genetic modification in that pig suggests that it will be as safe as a non-GM pig.
Even Silver admits that stringent testing is required to prove that a genetic modification works and that it’s safe for humans. But that’s a problem, too. Because the same corporations that stand to reap such profits from genetic modification are the ones who finance the research on the health and environmental effects of GMOs. Does anybody else see any potential problems here?
This situation is akin to pharmaceutical corporations financing the research on the health effects of new medications they’ve created, the principle difference, perhaps, being that there’s no possible way to “recall” GMOs if there’s found to be a problem with them a few years down the road. Once genetic modifications are out in the environment (at least among plant crops), they can’t be contained or eliminated.
If Silver really wants to get upset about environmental pollution, I’d suggest he cast an eye over the million of tons of synthetic (and often toxic) fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional agriculture on an annual basis. Run-off from these substances causes substantial pollution. It’s true, as Silver points out, that organic farmers can use some chemicals on their crops, even some suspected of being linked to serious diseases. Organic farming is not a perfect system (especially in the U.S., which often has weak, vague organic standards), nor is it a cure for all of the world’s environmental contamination woes. But it is a step forward. It is a step in a positive direction.
Organically-raised crops won’t render nearby crops sterile and won’t be responsible for the loss of unique species. And nobody, least of all a biotech giant, has to study an ear of organically-raised corn or an organically-farmed tomato to convince me that it’s safe to eat and just a little gentler on the environment that either conventionally-farmed produce or a crop that’s been genetically modified.
GMOs And Food Allergies
Another point in this article touches on food allergies. It is entirely and tragically accurate that, as Silver declares, “allergic food reactions to natural products kill hundreds of children each year.” Apparently, a USDA scientist has created a less-allergenic soybean, and soy is a key ingredient for a lot of baby food. In tests, the modified soy was indeed less allergenic, and, as the scientist reported, “the yield looks perfectly normal, plants develop and grow at a normal rate and they seem to have the same kinds of protein, oil, and other good stuff in them.”
I understand that scientists tend to speak in qualifiers, but this is absurd. The yield looks normal? The soybeans seem to have the same kinds of proteins, etc., in them? Why am I so suspicious here? Because I don’t think any of us can afford not to be.
Silver is making an “apples-to-oranges” comparison in this article. The question should not be one of GM versus organic, but rather GM versus non-GM, and organic versus conventionally produced. There’s potential for human benefit in GMO’s, but right now it seems to be just potential. I’m not trying to be alarmist here; I’m genuinely concerned, because, in addition to their potential benefits, GMO’s possess the capability to profoundly change agriculture and the environment. Unless and until GMO’s are studied longer-term and more effectively (by parties who don’t have self-interest in the study results), until both they and their producers are better-regulated, I will not pretend that GMO’s are salutary or safe.
Organic Find of the Month: Mighty Mo Munchies
Mighty Mo Munchies are organically-grown soy nuts, but we’re not talking about any old soy nuts here. These are completely peanut-free and they’re not genetically-modified (much of the U.S. soybean crop is GM, these days). While all that’s great, it’s not worth much if they don’t taste good, but I am here to tell you that they do taste good. In fact, they’re my favorite brand of soy nuts. Available in four varieties —Unsalted, Ranch, Cajun, and Original (lightly salted)—they’re crunchy and satisfying. And, as we all know, soy nuts are genuinely good for you.
Considering that this business venture started as a university-course marketing project, it’s come a long way, and I think it deserved to. This is a small-scale operation that helped to save a Midwestern family farm from bankruptcy. Mighty Mo Munchies are available in both 1.5 ounce and 8 ounce bags (the smaller bags are great for quelling snack attacks, and some people put them into gift baskets these days, instead of pretzels or chips). You can find these soynuts at many natural foods stores, call the company to order at (800) 762-1384, or surf over to the Mighty Mo Munchies website.
Organic products will carry a USDA-Certified seal or the seal or another organic certifying authority.
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