Monsanto has done a very good job of convincing others that Genetic Modification is our salvation, that it will eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides, and will ensure that we will have continuous supplies of food as our ingredients will be, essentially, indestructible until they reach our plate. I felt it was important to review the reasons why we should not buy GMOs, should not support genetic modifications of our food supply, and should support organic agriculture instead.
It is easy to forget history and only think of the future. A few years ago, I wrote a poem comparing Lee Atwater to Dick Cheney, and a friend kindly reminded me that virtually no one would see the connection or understand what the poem is about. Likewise, people might not connect Monsanto with such scandals as Agent Orange. To be frank, I did not even know they had produced Agent Orange at all. My point here, before I go on describing the many, many reasons why GMOs are potentially dangerous, is that Monsanto is not a good company who wants nothing more than to help humanity put a stop to our dependency on carcinogenic chemicals. Let’s all either learn about or remember Monsanto’s past first.
During the Vietnam war, the government decided to conduct Herbicidal Warfare against its enemies by dumping ungodly quantities of Agent Orange to kill the vegetation which was providing them with a hiding place. This infamous Agent Orange was manufactured by Monsanto, and has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and many other terrible illnesses. I don’t want to fall into sensationalism here, but you can easily find nightmare inducing pictures of people who ended up horribly deformed from Agent Orange exposure.
What does this prove? Directly, not much related to the genetic manipulation of our food supply. Indirectly, I hope it has established a basis for my suspicion towards Monsanto. I do not trust them, and I do not think they have a right to expect consumers to blindly follow them into their little experiments where we, you and me, are the guinea pigs. And talking about guinea pigs, Japan refused to import genetically modified foods, and said they will watch Americans over the course of many years before deciding if GMOs are safe.
Is the Agent Orange scandal too old, and therefore irrelevant to our actual debate? I don’t think so, but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument. Let’s move on to something more recent. What about Terminator seeds (aka “suicide gene technology”)?
Basically, those Terminator seeds were designed to create plants that would not seed and allow farmers to harvest the seeds (as I and they routinely do) to plant next year’s crop. This, in effect, would force farmers to become dependent on Monsanto for every single year of planting. The global outcry that resulted led them to drop the project. No one can say they did not try to take over the agricultural world though, and while some might say that no one forced farmers to use these Terminator seeds, you have to remember that when it comes to planting, nature itself has made it very easy for seeds to spread around to increase genetic diversity, or in this case, complete and utter dependence after only a few generations (with Monsanto suing those farmers whose land was unintentionally contaminated).
I could go on and on writing about the harmful effects of Monsanto technologies. I feel this is something people can actually do their homework on in no time however, as there is no controversy. Agent Orange harmed, and is still harming, innocent people and their children. Terminator seeds were a dangerous, and thankfully stopped, attempt to make farmers dependent on Monsanto products. In poor countries, this only drives small farmers to bankruptcy. I won’t expand on this here, as it is a point I want to review a little more deeply later on in this post.
You might now say: “OK, Monsanto has done some bad things. But those who did all that are either dead or retired. Can’t a company redeem itself and focus its work on the betterment of humanity and help us fight world hunger through agriculture that does not require herbicides, pesticides and the like?’
I do believe that people can redeem themselves and make amends. I really do think that people can change. But, in Monsanto’s case, and while I do think it is possible that in the future they will wake up and realize they are only doing evil work, I firmly believe that what they are now doing is not any less harmful, even though it’s not as sensational, and is completely unethical.
Here are a few, but important, reasons why I am against genetically engineered food.
I know that freedom is a concept that is hard to discuss, so I thought I’d get this first argument out of the way. So, what is the relation between genetically modified seeds and freedom? Contamination. It is very easy, and indeed natural, for seeds of one area to go to another area and “contaminate” it. That’s why we have genetic diversity, and it is a good thing. Theoretically. In the case of Monsanto, their seeds can lead to the extinction of heirloom and non modified seed, and, to add insult to injury, Monsanto can then sue the farmers for “stealing” their modified seeds.
Many of us probably remember the lawsuit led by Monsanto against a farmer whose canola crop had been pollinated by Monsanto seeds. Did he even want those damn seeds? No! But Monsanto thought it was fair game to ask him to pay their Technology Fee of $15/acre. Thankfully, our legal system is not yet owned by Brawndo, and the Court finally ruled in favor of the farmer who did not have to pay anything. Unfortunately, this happened after many years of appeal, the destruction by Percy Schmeiser of all his seeds for fear that they might have been contaminated by Round Up Ready canola, and a lot of grief.
You don’t need to be a farmer to understand the ramifications. I only have a backyard garden, but plan on keeping it organic for as long as I can. I don’t have time for Monsanto and their modified seeds contaminating my crops, and I certainly don’t have the patience to deal with their frivolous lawsuits.
The potentially hazardous ingestion of questionable products
Monsanto crops are not magically resistant. They are not like human beings, who can eat well and exercise to develop a resistance to bugs. Their genes are modified to produce toxins to prevent pest destruction without the use of pesticides. No, we’re not spraying pesticides at the crops, but put simply, the plant is “spraying” itself internally with toxins to become pest tolerant. Is this safe? Maybe. Do we know for sure? No. If a bug starts eating the plant and dies, how do I know if eating that same plant is not harming me at some level?
There are many ways to help crops stand up to insects without pesticides or internal toxin production. For example, organic farmers have known for a long time that ladybugs are real killers of soft insects like aphids, cabbage moths and the like. I would much rather know that my food was kept bug-free thanks to the natural cycle of nature, rather than internal or external toxins.
Besides, remember, nature is highly adaptive. Just like insects are able to become resistant to externally applied toxins, they can adapt to internal toxins as well, and we will have to find even more aggressive solutions.
But wait, there’s more! The Human Genome Project Information page on Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms foresees some exciting future developments. “On the horizon are bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as hepatitis B; fish that mature more quickly; cows that are resistant to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease); fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties.”
Wait, did I say “exciting”? I’m not excited. I am angry at the way we spend our money, and angry at our mad scientist experimentations. Cows that are resistant to mad cow disease? How about treating them well, and feeding them the food they are supposed to eat, instead of genetically modifying them to be resistant to all the mindbogglingly inhumane and stupid treatments they are subjected to? Fruit and nut trees that mature years earlier? Is no one aware of the fact that we are currently producing enough food to feed the entire planet’s population, but that it is unevenly distributed and that we throw massive quantities of food in landfills while people in neighboring countries are starving to death? What, exactly, is early maturation supposed to achieve? And, I see they kept the best for the end. Plants that produce plastics? I’m at loss for words.
The dependence of poor farmers on GM seeds
I have to give something to Monsanto. Their marketing machine is pretty strong. Sure, they are many people who are against them (you can’t really avoid this when you are selling such a crappy product), but there are many who just do not question what the company says. That’s just the way it is, and the way it has always been, and not just with Monsanto.
The fact is that while we have access to information, and the ability to research and think before we act, some do not have this luxury. Small farmers in poor countries literally live hand to mouth, and the promise of a wonderful seed that will eliminate the need for herbicide and pesticide is quite exciting. But, there’s a catch. A huge catch. People who are overly dependent on resistant seeds and chemicals one needs to buy in order to use no longer know how to care for the land and use natural resources to their advantage.
Imagine if, tomorrow, stocks of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers were to vanish. Monsanto seeds are not magical seeds that will grow into tall and strong plants year after year after being dropped in any soil. Like any seed, they need fertile soil, they need water, they need nutrients and they need at least a little care. If the soil is dead, there is not much they can do. If they are not specially bred to be drought resistant, they will die with the cracking soil, which won’t take long to happen if the soil isn’t able to retain water correctly – a common side effect of conventional agricultural practices.
And if Monsanto were to create a truly superior seed, able to rival the best organic practices (read more about this below)? Does this sound like a panacea to every farmer on this planet? No. Those who think that Monsanto will give these seeds for an affordable price to the small farmer in Bangladesh who can barely feed his family is sorely mistaken. Monsanto is not a charitable organization. They are currently selling cheap seeds to poor countries to get them hooked on their product, but you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine what will happen once they become GM dependent. Put another way, who will be able to afford this super seeds? Only the richest farmers, driving the less fortunate ones to bankruptcy when in some areas of the globe, the food they grow is their only livelihood and means of survival. We have enough resources and food to feed everyone, and we do not need to use GM seeds. Why we even think of using them when there are better, more sustainable methods of growing food is beyond me.
Now, take a look at the organic farmer. He does not use Monsanto or GM seeds. He does not use artificial fertilizers. He does not use artificial herbicides to control weeds. How does he manage to grow such delicious food? He simply knows that everything, yes, everything we need to grow healthy crops already exists. It is not to be found in laboratories, or in genetic manipulations with questionable consequences.
All the refuse from the produce we eat can go back to the soil, and make it rich once more to grow more produce, whose refuse will again go back in the soil. This is a simplified description of the process, of course, but if you are so inclined, I urge you to read up on composting. I did it in my own kitchen, I could have done it in my tiny Paris apartment, anyone can do it, anywhere, anytime. And what about drought? Soils that are fertilized artificially to only serve the needs of this-year’s-crop are useless after harvest. And, the topsoil gets destroyed more and more each year.
By contrast, soil used with organic practices gets replenished and restored each time through composting, crop rotation, and more. Organic farming has led to many success stories of small farmers in developing countries whose crops survived many droughts while those of conventional farmers did not survive. A briefing from the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment led me to this abstract from a study published in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture (emphasis added by me):
“The 1999 severe crop season drought in the northeastern US was followed by hurricane-driven torrential rains in September, offering a unique opportunity to observe how managed and natural systems respond to climate-related stress. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (…) consists of three replicated cropping systems, one organic manure based (MNR), one organic legume based (LEG) and a conventional system (CNV). (…) Five drought years occurred between 1984 and 1998 and in four of them the organic maize outyielded the CNV by significant margins. In 1999 all crop systems suffered severe yield depressions; (…) Organic maize yielded 38% and 137% relative to CNV in the LEG and MNR treatments, respectively, and 196% and 152% relative to CNV in the soybean plots. The primary mechanism of the higher yield of the MNR and LEG is proposed to be the higher water-holding capacity of the soils in those treatments (…). Water capture in the organic plots was approximately 100% higher than in CNV plots during September’s torrential rains.”
This is going to be short and to the point. Genetic recombination does not have to only involve plants. Here is a passage from the Monsanto website.
“How is it that some fish can survive in very cold water temperatures – even those below freezing? Scientists wondered the same thing and found that these fish have an “antifreeze” gene. It keeps their bodies functioning even at very cold temperatures. Scientists were able to isolate this gene and insert it into potato plants to keep them from freezing and dying when it frosts. This is a major bonus, considering potato seed is very expensive, and the ground can easily freeze in early spring after potato seed has been planted. The higher yields make up for the increased cost of the genetically modified seed.”
This sounds like a potential question from my high school philosophy class. Are fruits and vegetables modified with animal genes still considered vegetarian? I love fish with a passion, but certainly don’t want fish genes in my potatoes, and I bet vegetarians don’t want them either.
And what about food allergies? What is someone who is not allergic to a certain food develops an intolerance to it due to the newly introduced gene?
This is getting to be a little long, so I will just stop this here, and I hope it has convinced a few people that GMOs are not the answer. Of course, there are many more issues with the genetic modification of the food supply. Feel free to bring them up in a comment.
I am a very open minded person, but I also have a solid scientific mind. I don’t believe every hogwash thrown at me, and if pro-GMO people have good arguments to offer me, I’d be happy to hear them. But please, for the love of everything that is holy, do your homework first.
At this point and with our global scientific knowledge, I do not feel it is safe to eat genetically modified products. I don’t care if they are made by Monsanto or the Organic Consumers Association. Also, I don’t think their practices are ethical, and this alone calls for a boycott.
Do you eat genetically modified food? Why or why not?