GMOs: Too Big to Fail
By Hanna Morris, UC Berkeley student
Originally posted at http://calibermag.org/ , a student-run publication at UC Berkeley
We all fail. Our attempts, for example, at crafting an esteemed piece of literature or painting a revered portrait or impressing our friends with a delicious gourmet meal often end in disastrous disarray. But, most of us accept and learn from our failures. If the apple pie burns, we try making cake next time instead. In short, we recognize when our experiments fall through and refocus our energy and approach. The fervent researchers and businessmen dedicated to the lofty idea of solving the world’s food security problem through Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), however, are refusing to accept their colossal failure and are, in effect, dragging the rest of the world down with them.
Billions of dollars have been spent on, entire careers have been dedicated to and hundreds of farmers have been convinced of this idea that biotechnology will solve all potential agricultural quandaries. This enormous investment of resources has made it difficult to accept the resulting failure.
The idea behind GMOs is honorable: use genetic engineering and biotechnology to guarantee a sustainable, and affordable food supply. The results, however, have been less than ideal.
Monsanto, the virtual monopoly over commercial biotechnology, calls itself a “Sustainable Agriculture Company”. In defining “Sustainable Agriculture”, the company adopts the non-profit, Field to Market’s, definition: “agricultural sustainability meet[s] the needs of the present while…decreasing environmental impact and improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food improving social and economic well-being of rural communities.”
Although a mouthful, this definition is an encouraging one. The issue is, Monsanto’s products contradict all aspects of this definition. GMOs have degraded natural ecosystems as well as threatened humans’ physical and psychological health.
There are two main types of crop-based GMOs currently dominating the market. The first type makes plants (such as soybeans) resistant to harm from powerful weed-killers, while the other type makes plants (such as corn) directly resistant to pests. Both types pose substantial environmental and health consequences.
The first type (plants modified to be resistant to herbicides) is engineered to be impervious to the chemical, glyphosate.
According to renowned agricultural consultant and physician, Dr. Arden Andersen, this chemical was originally patented “in the early 1960s as a descaling agent [used to remove mineral residues inside dishwashers, vents and the like]. It was only by serendipity that it got spilled, or something, and it killed the weeds it contacted. It was subsequently purchased by Monsanto, and the rest is history…its effect and use as an herbicide have been afterthoughts.”
Monsanto jumped on the opportunity to turn this powerful chemical into an effective herbicide. The problem is, glyphosate is a chelating agent that harms plants by removing vital minerals.
According to Dr. Robert Kremer’s 15-year study, “Glyphosate is a chelator, which will bind with elements such as manganese and calcium, and those sorts of nutrients, and immobilize them. In other words, it will make them unavailable for plant uptake.”
The result is a removal of microorganisms and nutrients beneficial for the plant (note: perhaps Stanford University should research the nutritional value of GMOs as opposed to their recent study on the nutritional value of organic foods). This, in effect, fosters pathogen growth in both the plants and humans who consume them.
Numerous veterinarians have already reported health consequences from animals fed GMOs sprayed with glyphosate. A yet-to-be-named organism has been found in these animals leading to reproductive failure.
Longstanding microbiology and plant pathology expert Dr. Huber states, “the evidence is that [glyphosate and GMOs]change the environment to make the plant more conducive for that organism to proliferate, and to thus be available and in the grain and feed that the animals receive.”
The introduction of an artificial organism disrupts and alters the natural environment, allowing for the production of pathogens previously unable to proliferate. It is an impossible task to anticipate how the millions and millions of microbes (some of which are undocumented and unknown to scientists) will react when a foreign and artificially engineered plant is introduced. Is it worth the risk when viable and safe alternatives such as permaculture and ecological-agriculture methods exist?
The second type of crop-based GMO (plants engineered to kill pests directly) has had similarly unexpected problems. These GMOs, also known as Bt, cannot outmaneuver the powers of natural selection. Strains of pests become resistant to the toxins produced by Bt. This phenomenon will always occur. No scientist can possibly overcome the powerful force of evolution, no matter how much money is pumped into his or her research.
These results were unexpected because no extensive or legitimate precautionary testing occurred prior to the widespread use of GMOs. In fact, documented research fraud has been reported ever since the onset of Monsanto’s commercial rampage. And yet, the US government has allowed the production and sale of GMOs to not only American farmers, but to international farmers as well.
This lack of responsibility has lead to international tragedy.
The largest wave of recorded suicides in human history has occurred since 2002, when Monsanto’s Bt cotton was first introduced to India’s countryside. 17,638 farmers committed suicide in 2009 alone (that’s about one death every 30 minutes). Many of these farmers killed themselves by consuming the very thing that caused their depression- Monsanto’s insecticide fluids.
Why is this “GM (Genetically Modified) Genocide” occurring? Poor, Indian farmers initially given “free” Monsanto seed trials cannot afford the continual expense of pricey pesticides and seeds. The poor farmers cannot go back to their original farming methods because of the proliferation of resistant “superbugs”. The farmers have become dependent on the latest pesticide and the latest enhanced seed.
While most dramatically seen in India, similar tragedy has occurred throughout Monsanto’s international domain. The result has been several lawsuits and the ban of GMOs in numerous countries including France, Peru, Hungary, and Poland. India is now seeking to legally ban the sale of Monsanto GMO products within their country.
While Monsanto didn’t intend to produce dangerous pathogens, breed pesticide resistant “superbugs”, and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of poor international farmers to the point of suicide, their unbending dedication to the failed experiment of GMOs is inexcusable. GMO companies are fixing research results, pumping money into governmental lobbying campaigns, and threatening anyone who takes a stand against them.
According to information released by WikiLeaks, the United States government has established plans to “penalize” nations barring Monsanto’s products through “military-style trade wars”. The United States is planning to, in effect, destroy policies aimed at protecting nations from destructive GMOs.
Proposition 37: California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (calling for mandatory labeling of all GMO foods), faces similar opposition. Monsanto spent over $4 million on the campaign against Proposition 37, funding ads and encouraging academic researchers to speak out against the Proposition.
An Agriculture and Resource Economics professor right here at U.C. Berkeley, David Zilberman, for example, states that “labeling GMOs has the potential to marginalize it and reduce the investment in research, development and introduction of new products and slow the advancement of the frontier of knowledge.”
This logic is problematic. If Zilberman is truly concerned with “the advancement of the frontier of knowledge”, then he should be in support of labeling. Since government research is inadequate, how are independent, third-party researchers supposed to measure the effects of GMOs if they don’t know which foods are, in fact, GMOs? If genetically engineered foods remain unlabeled, we will not be able to research their full health consequences.
Billions of dollars, academic careers, and political agendas have been fully invested into GMOs. These actors are using their undeniable clout to sustain their failed dream of a world-changing technology. Too many resources have been dumped into this massive project to allow the government, Monsanto, and their academic employees to accept failure. The passage of Proposition 37 can take away some of their power.