Commentary: GMOs provide more questions than answers

By Nancy Churchill

GMOs are not the answer to world hunger. The truth about them is pretty ugly. In Fred Hiatt’s words (“Chicago Tribune,” 2/10/2015) pondering whether they should be identified on product labels,  GMOs sound so benign.

He pointed to a World Resources Institute paper indicating that farmers will need to produce 69% more food in 2050 than they did in 2006, given expected population growth.

“Though far from the only solution to this challenge,” he said, “genetic modification can provide seeds that are more resistant to pests, drought or disease and that produce greater yields with less water or in poorer soil. They could be, in other words, one significant component to avoiding mass hunger over the next generation.”

Problematically, GMO food production has a built-in umbilical chord-like dependency on its developers for its sustenance. GMO seeds are patented, as are the toxic herbicides they are designed to withstand. Thus, not only are farmers who plant GMO crops under contract to re-buy new seed from the patent-holder every year, deviating from age-old traditions of setting aside harvested seed for replanting, they are also on the hook for the patented herbicides besides. Not to mention the costly farm equipment needed for application, none of which are likely affordable in emerging markets. And higher population growth is expected to occur mostly in the undeveloped world.

Add to that the risk to human health of applying the herbicides, both for farmers and anyone downwind who might breathe its airborne residue, plus the fact the end product cannot be assured to be hazard-free, and the promise of GMOs to feed the world fades fast.

And then there are the Super Weeds. Apparently Mother Nature has some modification tricks up her sleeve as well, for weeds that tolerate the patented herbicides have evolved right alongside the high-yield crops! Wherever this occurs, increasingly toxic substances must be developed to eradicate the newly modified Super Weeds.

Courtney White reminds us (“Agriculture Needs to Back Up,” The Progressive Populist, 2/15/15), that once all agriculture was what we associate today only with sustainable, organic food production.

She tells the story of Dorn Cox, a young New Hampshire farmer who said “Farming isn’t rocket science — it’s more complicated than that.” He prefers no-till cultivation to the plow, sophisticated technology to measure and increase the carbon content of soil, has developed a biodiesel alternative to fossil fuels, and “co-founded Farm Hack, an open-source virtual café for … beginning farmers.”

The patented GMO farming model is demonstrably failing as even a partial answer to the needs of an increasingly hungry world. Even if farmers in emerging markets were by some miracle able to afford its contractual and costly equipment requirements to participate, food safety could never be assured. Rather than fooling with Mother Nature as GMO developers have done, farmers should flock to return, alongside Dorn Cox, “Back to the Future” of food production sustainability.

One thought on “Commentary: GMOs provide more questions than answers

  • Feb 26, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    The author’s knowledge of farming is demonstrably incorrect. It is true that GMO seeds are patented, but so are many other plants. One of my favorite apples is Honeycrisp; whoops, patented by University of Minnesota. There are about a dozen applications per week for plant patents, virtually none of them are by the large ag companies. In one week in the middle of January, there were 10 applications for a chrysanthemum,a dahlia, an apple, a hosta and assorted others. Like the Honeycrisp patent, plant patents expire. A patent for Roundup Ready soybean expires next month meaning growers can reuse the seed. The University of Arkansas is releasing off-patent soy lines they have developed.

    The patent for glyphosate (Roundup) expired 15 years ago. I believe there are over 40 companies that now market that herbicide. No one is required to buy Roundup to utilize that herbicide resistance.

    There are other crops that are herbicide resistant besides GMOs. Look up Clearfield wheat, sunflower, rice, lentils. They were primarily created by chemical mutagenesis, with virtually no testing for food safety unlike GMOs. Or how about corn’s natural resistance to atrazine, a widely used herbicide. That can be used with or without GMOs, Atrazine is ~5 times more toxic than Roundup but caffeine is about 4 times more toxic than atrazine!

    In the US, corn farmers haven’t saved seed for over 70 years, since the development of hybrid crops. A basic knowledge of plant genetics and the word heterosis would tell you why. So while the author may pine for a time when farmer’s saved seed, very few farmers want to go there.They would much rather have the higher yields produced by modern varieties.

    While some organic farmers have figured out how to control weeds in a no-till system, the vast majority of no-till acres (by several orders of magnitude) perform weed control with herbicides. According to a 2009 study published by 6 land-grant universities, ‘Roundup Ready® Crops Have Major Positive Impact on Tillage Practices’, ~19% of growers switched to no-till after adopting Roundup Ready crops.

    It is perfectly OK to discuss the impacts of various forms of agriculture; I encourage that. But one must start with facts, not some anachronistic quasi-religious appeal to Mother Nature by people separated by two generations and 100 miles from a farm.

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