To GM Or Not To GM

There’s been quite a bit of contention erupt over a bill being proposed in the House, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, HR 875: This bill

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There’s been quite a bit of contention erupt over a bill being proposed in the House, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, HR 875: This bill is purportedly to establish a ‘Food Safety Administration’ within the DHHS to regulate food safety, labelling, and regulating the processing, storing, and transport of food from ‘food establishments’, promote food safety research by academic and State institutions. On the face of it, after the recent poison peanut fiasco, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, does it…?

… Except there’s a few problems, as it is a very rare bill that can ever be accepted ‘on the face of it’. The first problem with this bill was that is was introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D – CT), whose husband, Stanley Greenburg, works for Monsanto. This may not violate any specific legalities (or maybe it does) but this is the kind of ethical conflict of interest that stinks like a three day old dead genetically modified mackerel. That alone has been enough to raise hackles and suspicions, generating accusations that this bill would in effect criminalize seed banking, impose prison sentences and fines on farmers, require GPS tracking of animals, warrantless government entry onto farm easements, and even allegations of a massive police state plot to incorporate farmland into the hands of industrial giants like Monsanto in a planned elimination of independent farmers altogether.

This bill, its detractors assert, would give the government the authority to monitor every family farm, ranch, vineyard, fishing hole, farmer’s market veggie patch, kiddie lemonade stand on the sidewalk, and demand paperwork and records relating to food production under penalty of fine or imprisonment, even seizure of goods and property without warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That the term ‘food establishment’ could even conceivably mean your own kitchen or back yard garden, thus if you don’t adhere to strict government standards (strict only in enforcement, not in the vagueness of the language defining said standards), you risk being fined or imprisoned for that really dreadful home grown carrot and coriander soup you served up to the Church fundraising potluck last weekend.

Not everyone, however, is in lockstep with this ‘first they came for the Jews’ line of emotive reasoning, including a few organic farmers themselves. But there are definitely a whole lot of things wrong with this bill, and it quite rightly should be kicked back to its designers immediately for a thorough rewrite, free of any involvement or influence by Monsanto or those married to its employees.

But beyond the accusations that Monsanto is manoeuvring to impose ‘standardized’ agricultural practices that would allow Monsanto and other GM agribusinesses to control and regulate seeds, pesticides and fertilizer that would, in effect, prohibit organic farming and open the way for unregulated GM food production, there is an underlying question:

Why are we so afraid of genetic modification? We on the left all cheered wildly when Obama lifted the Bush ban on embryonic stem cell research, and genetic modification in medicine has already offered thousands of patients genuine hope for treatment and cures for a variety of deadly illnesses. So just what is it about the science of genetically modified food that makes us so wary? Why is one ‘good science’ and the other ‘bad science’?

It isn’t as if humans haven’t been practicing genetic modification for centuries – farm animals themselves are largely the most obvious result of ‘natural’ selection for certain traits. A domestic pig bears as much resemblance to the wild boar it descended from as a Chihuahua resembles a wolf. Is it ethical to breed pigs that put on meat weight so quickly that they must be slaughtered at eighteen months because beyond that age their bones simply aren’t strong enough to support their own weight and they end up crippled? That has nothing to do with scientists artificially slicing DNA in a test tube somewhere – it’s been going on for the past 9,000 years, all quite ‘naturally’.

Speaking of Chihuahuas, ever seen a Crufts dog show? This ‘natural’ genetic engineering has produced English bulldogs with heads so heavy and legs so short they can’t support their own weight or even breed and give birth without artificial assistance, Pekinese with deformed skulls flattening the face severely enough to cause breathing problems and require cooling pads to sit on in order not to overheat and die, Boxers suffering from epilepsy, Alsatians crippled by deformed hip joints, and King Charles Spaniels with painful and debilitating syringomylia; too small skulls squeezing on the brain. It has become so bad that this year, after a BBC expose on Kennel Club show dog breeding practices, Pedigree Dog Food and the RSPCA have withdrawn sponsorship, and the BBC has refused to air the annual show on television. This expose has led to some changes to breed conformation, but it will still take at least three generations before the English bulldog even begins to resemble its original – and much healthier – ancestor.

But we’re talking about agribusiness, meaning plants, not dogs and pigs. In an age where famine, drought and starvation is rampant in the third world, and elsewhere, isn’t research into producing more and better harvests a good thing? Mexico established an agricultural research station to cultivate strains of wheat to feed its hungry population in the 1940’s, and within a dozen years was self-sufficient; a dozen more, and the country was exporting half a million tonnes of wheat a year. With all our modern technology and science, surely we should welcome a second ‘Green Revolution?’

When I started researching for this post, I contacted Jill Richardson, founder of La Vida Locavore, and author of the upcoming Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and How We Can Fix It for some background material. Instead of offering a bit of cursory advice, she was kind enough to send me the following detailed and erudite email, which is enough in itself as a post on its own:

I think there are a few issues at stake. One is safety of course and to that I say we need to ask on a case by case basis: Does benefit outweigh risk? And benefit to whom, and risk to whom? In most cases it seems like its benefit to Monsanto (profit) and risk to humanity and planet earth. That's not a good deal. But in the case of a life saving pharmaceutical perhaps the benefit to the people who need that drug makes it worth the risk, especially if we've done a good job testing up front. As for the process of testing before a GMO is approved, it doesn't seem they do a good job - they are on a mission to just fast track everything to legalization. And nature has so many variables and things we don't know or can't account for in the laboratory that there's just no way to ensure 100% something is safe. Or safe for a human to eat for a lifetime without getting sick. On some level the people who eat the food are going to be the guinea pigs no matter what. If the only benefit is profit to Monsanto, then I'm not for that. That goes for all GMO companes - Syngenta, Bayer, etc, not just Monsanto.

The example people bring up for a GMO that is beneficial beyond just corporate profit is golden rice. I'd direct you to Greenpeace's research on that - and a very good description of that can be found in Safe Food by Marion Nestle. Golden rice is rice that was genetically modified to add in beta-carotene to help the developed world get enough vitamin A. In short, someone would have to eat something like 12 lbs of rice PER DAY to get enough vitamin A from it. So it's not an actual solution - it was a PR stunt.

All that said, what truly changed my perspective on GMOs was reading a book called Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web (and I've since confirmed a lot of the info with the Rodale Institute). About a year ago I visited a farmer on her farm in Austin, TX and I was absolutely blown away by what she told me about organics. I didn't believe it, really. I was kind of just withholding disbelief to be polite but I took what she said with a grain of salt until I could back it up with facts. She said that organics did better compared to conventional in heat, drought, cold, flood, AND against pests. She said it all had to do with soil microbiology. She told me that an experiment had been done where you plant 2 tomato plants in pots - one in rich compost and one in regular potting soil. You can intertwine the two plants and release aphids on them (or some pest, I think aphids) and the pests would all go for the tomato plant in potting soil.

I wrote up what I learned on DailyKos, but the short version is summed up in something I heard once "No one ever fertilized an old growth forest." If you think about some very rich environments where plants thrived, like forests or prairie, no one ever tilled the soil, fertilized, or used herbicide or pesticide there. No one had to. And the plants didn't get eaten up by bugs and die. Obviously plants have some mechanism of their own to survive without human intervention. Yet we have this idea that if we don't spray the plants they are defenceless against pests. And if you think of it that way, then creating GMO Bt corn that makes its own pesticide makes quite a bit of sense. But that entire mindset is wrong. Now, just because I'm saying that Bt corn is a bad idea isn't an indictment of all GMOs. But it is a totally new idea to introduce when you are considering risk vs. benefit.

When you have living soil and sustainable farming you get a few things. The soil stores water better and absorbs it better so plants are more tolerant of drought and floods. The plants have better access to nutrients in the soil and are more able to fend off disease & pests. The plants are also very good at using beneficial microorganisms against the pest species, surrounding themselves with those that are either helpful to the plant or neutral, and keeping away the ones that might harm the plant (preying upon them or just competing for resources). The same happens on a larger scale with bugs - yes you'll have a few pests around but you'll also have the species that compete with or prey on those pests so you aren't overwhelmed.

That brings me to where I was as I sat in the BIO 2008 convention last year. They were talking about drought resistant plants that they were engineering (which are now a reality). And I thought: wouldn't it be more efficient to use the soil to help plants resist drought? Because it's zero risk, free, time-tested, available without R&D expenses or the time it takes to invent it, and legal. Plus there's no risk to biodiversity.

The entire GMO model requires getting bang for your buck. Ideally you'd want to invent one variety that gets planted all over. It'd be much less efficient to put your R&D into 3000 varieties and sell a little bit of each of them. It's not about Monsanto being evil in this way, but about them wanting profit like any company would. It's no shock that 50% of all U.S. crop land is in corn and soy and two of the few GMOs that are legally planted are corn & soy. Monsanto isn't coming up with GMO drought resistant heirloom tomato varieties because the bang for the buck isn't there. But if you use living soil to help plants resist drought instead of GMOs, you instantly have a solution that works for every single variety of every single plant - no R&D needed, and no loss of biodiversity too.

I mentioned Rodale Institute earlier and they've done a farm systems trial study (.pdf) twenty years where they plant conventional crops side by side with two systems of organic (one with manure, one without) to compare yields. In the first four years, conventional wins. The soil for the organic isn't healthy enough yet at that point. In year 5 they are equal. In most years after that, organic gets better yields. And the methods they used for doing this aren't inconsistent with large scale agriculture. It's a change we could make now. The past few years they have compared organic vs. GMOs - they use corn and soy for these experiments. When I visited, they had corn planted (they alternate by year). The GMO corn was shorter than the organic. Much shorter – by a few feet. When they picked an ear of each, the GMO corn was about 60% of the size of the organic ear. And they said from their research organic no-till farming used 2/3 less oil than conventional.

Obviously this is just saying that perhaps the risks of drought resistant GMOs or Bt GMOs or herbicide tolerant GMOs are not worth the benefits because better benefits are available at less risk. Less profit to Monsanto too, but less risk and more benefit to humanity. If they came up with a different type of GMO that was going to do something great that couldn't be achieved with sustainable agriculture, then I'd be willing to assess those risks against those benefits and perhaps I might fall on the side of GMOs. But so far that hasn't been the case.

Another interesting point that Rodale noted was about nitrogen. There's a standard equation used that an acre of corn requires X amount of nitrogen from petroleum-based fertilizers. Rodale used cover crops to provide nitrogen and prevent weeds from growing. They found that using their methods, they only needed about half as much nitrogen in the soil to grow their corn. This shocked scientists whose first reaction was simply, "that's not possible." It'd be like saying you froze water at 50 degrees F. You can't do it. It's breaking a known law of science. But then they figured it out. Using fertilizer, about half the nitrogen leaches out of the soil, into waterways, leading to dead zones like in the Gulf of Mexico or the Chesapeake. Using cover crops, the nitrogen stays right near the roots of the plants and so the plants can use all of it.

Last, there's an argument that Monsanto, etc, makes again and again that we need to feed the world and therefore we need new technology to boost yields. They also threaten that if we don't boost yields, we'll need more land to grow enough food and that means cutting down forests. This is a load of bull for five good reasons:

1. As food productivity & food per capita has gone up, hunger has gone up.

2. A recent study found that if we switched over to organic, using only currently cultivated land, we could feed the world even with a growing population.

3. We feed a large percent of what we grow to livestock and then eat an unhealthy amount of meat. If push comes to shove we'd be healthier and better off decreasing per capita meat consumption and using the extra food that used to go to livestock to feed people.

4. It's not about having enough food but having the desire to feed all people. Right now we'd rather feed cars with our corn than feed it to starving people. We also have plastic made out of plants (like potatoes or corn) now too, yet we have hungry people.

5. Right now we throw away a large percent of food - I've heard numbers like 1/3 to 1/2. We grow about 3900 calories of food per person per day in the U.S. currently and there's no way we eat that much. It's nearly twice what we need.

I’d like to thank Jill for this information, and encourage C&L readers to buy her book.

And in the interest of journalistic fairness, I contacted Monsanto and offered them the opportunity to present their side of the issue. At the present time of writing this post, no one has responded to my request.

About nonny mouse

nonny mouse's picture
Grumpy left-wing ex-pat foodie living in the Taranaki, New Zealand. Love grilled tarahiki, raw Bluff oysters on the half-shell, green-lipped mussels in cream sauce, hoggett kababs, roasted kumara, fresh feijoa pavlova, and chilled Marlborough Pinot Gris. Hate Vegemite. Not too sure about huhu grubs...

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