GMOs: Growing Somewhere Between Myth and Fact

Concerns, beliefs, and research about genetically modified produce
cobs of corn with GMO spelled out in kernels on one
Carlos Amarillo/Shutterstock.com

GMOs! The term invokes fear, hope and, often, confusion. But what are they really? GMO stands for "Genetically Modified Organism", the end product of genetic engineering. Humans have engaged in genetic manipulation since the beginning of agriculture by way of now-traditional methods like selective breeding and grafting. However, genetic engineering as we know it today has existed only since 1973 when the first GMO bacteria were created. Genetic engineering is a unique form of genetic manipulation achieved by directly altering an organism’s genome in a laboratory. This is done by adding genetic material from one or more other organisms to a single organism in order to cancel undesirable traits or add beneficial ones. If you think it sounds like teaming up with Dr. Frankenstein, you’re not alone.

What we will present here are some of the concerns, beliefs and research results that exist to date, but these in no way should be considered conclusive. Rather, readers should take any information harvested from this article as a starting point for in-depth follow-up before arriving at any assumption, conviction, or confident judgement about their position regarding GMOs. Because of their proprietary nature, GMO studies are largely done or funded by the companies that profit from them, and there is little in the way of research done independently or even by the Government of Canada. Also consider that even “reliable” studies are fair game for skepticism, and an essential component of the scientific method is that results must have been replicated repeatedly before factuality, or even soundness, is conferred upon them. We are forever being told something we ingest is good or safe for us one day, then bad upon further investigation, then once again beneficial. If anything is ripe for volatility, GMOs certainly bear that fruit!

Are GMOs altering our DNA?

This claim about DNA evolved from a study called “Complete Genes May Pass from Food to Human Blood” published by the Public Library of Science which found that plant DNA derived from food (note: non-GMO food) can frequently be found circulating in our blood stream. Some news sites and blogs have extrapolated from this study to report that this confirms the dangers of consuming GMO plants but nothing in the study implies that the GMOs are altering our own DNA, nor does it suggest that they are harmful. It only concludes that “fragments large enough to carry complete genes can pass from the digestive tract to blood” and that “the presence of foreign DNA in human plasma is not unusual.”

Can genetic engineering reduce the need for synthetic pesticides?

Scientists around the globe, not associated with Monsanto, have been working towards altering crops using biotechnology to eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides. While organic agriculture continues to achieve productivity without the need for these toxins, non-organic agriculture can conceivably reduce the use of pesticides by incorporating genes that either kill or repel particular insects. According to much existing scientific data, such crops would be more comparable to organic crops than conventional non-organic in terms of safety for food and the environment. In 1982, an Italian plant scientist by the name of Eddo Rugini began a publicly funded research project that sought to reduce the use of pesticides by using genetic engineering to find varieties of olive trees, cherry trees, and kiwi vines that are resistant to pathogens. Thirty years later, despite protest from scientist and academic allies, all of Rugini's work was ordered destroyed after pressure from anti-GMO groups in Italy.

Super-weeds and super-bugs!

While it’s true that herbicide and insecticide-tolerant weeds and insects are being created, this problem is not exclusive to GMO crops. It’s also a part of natural evolution. It happens with non-GMO crops using synthetic pesticides and herbicides and it happens in organic agriculture. Each form of agriculture has measures that they must take to minimize tolerance. In crops using herbicides and pesticides, and those  including GMO crops, “refuge planting” – an area of crop that does not contain insecticide – is required to maintain a population of insects that are not resistant to the pesticides. This method increases the likelihood that resistant insects will breed with non-resistant insects, ensuring continuing production of the non-resistant ones. Even so, no measure against tolerance is 100% effective and there are even documented cases of pests becoming tolerant to crop rotation.

 

Tractor spraying soybean field
© Dusan Kostic - stock.adobe.com

Do GMOs EXPLODE in the stomachs of insects?

One of the popular arguments against GMOs is regarding BT crops. The claim is that these crops are modified to contain a synthetic toxin known as BT which “explodes” in the insect’s stomach, killing it. In reality, BT (bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacteria discovered more than a century ago and has since been used in organic agriculture. Testing has found no ill effects for humans and BT breaks down readily in the environment under sunlight and is easily washed off surfaces. It works by binding to the gut wall of the insect within minutes, preventing it from feeding anymore. Within the next few hours, the insect dies after the gut wall breaks down allowing the gut bacteria to invade the body. In organic agriculture, weakened BT is conservatively sprayed on affected crops to kill very specific groups of insects–caterpillars. In GM crops, the BT gene is incorporated into the plant itself and therefore the toxin is continually present and active in every part of the plant, increasing the chances that insects will develop a tolerance.

Are GM crops the answer to global hunger?

Not only do proponents of genetic engineering greatly underestimate the potential productivity of organic agriculture, they also miss the root of the problem by making this argument. There is no shortage of food in the world, but there is a major problem with poverty and distribution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, approximately 30% of the food produced worldwide every year is either lost or wasted. Producing more food by way of genetic engineering would not solve distribution issues, nor would the people living well below the poverty line suddenly be able to afford it.

The incredible possibilities of organic agriculture may, in fact, be the answer to breaking through these roadblocks. As an example, for more than ten years, Will Allen and his team at “Growing Power” [*note: Growing Power has been re-organized in Chicago as the Urban Grower's Collective after mismanagement and financial woes caused its discontinuation.] efficiently produced organic produce in urban environments by creating greenhouse eco-systems using aquaponics. The system he designed in Milwaukee was made up of 14 greenhouses on 2 acres, produced 40 tonnes of fresh produce year-round and it cost a mere $3,000 to set up. A variety of fruit and vegetables were grown alongside animals such as fish and bees functioning as an ecosystem in which everything complements each other. The food was then provided to local urban families at affordable prices.

Organic is also robustly supportive of job growth as managing mass amounts of food with chemicals is replaced with people tending to a variety of crops. The United Nations Environment Programme found in 2011 that an “increase in investment in green agriculture is projected to lead to growth in employment of about 60 per cent compared with current levels.” What this all means is that not only can organic agriculture provide the necessary amount of food to feed the world, more people could have the financial means to be able to feed themselves, relieving some of the problem in food distribution and affordability.

Are GMOs harmful to the environment?

There is no evidence that genetic engineering is inherently any more harmful to the environment than any other type of agriculture. It’s the way that genetic engineering is applied that makes all of the difference. The biggest players in the world of genetic engineering (yes, now think Monsanto) typically engineer products that work against the environment. For example, the herbicide Roundup (made by Monsanto) works with engineered “Roundup Ready” (Monsanto….) crops. Their corn, soy, rape seed (canola), and cotton are engineered to withstand heavy amounts of herbicides which kill everything it’s sprayed on except the “Roundup Ready” crops themselves. Add this to the additional pesticides sprayed on the crops and what you’re left with is not a functioning eco-system like a normal crop but a green desert which can support virtually no other life for as far as the chemicals are sprayed. This has uncalculated impact on the food chain that would typically follow. Think about what could happen as these large companies gain ever more control over farming and the food supply. The picture becomes much worse when you add this to the problems that monoculture brings.


Can genetic engineering save the world?

Genetic engineering is not necessary for productivity in food crops, but it can and has legitimately saved lives in other ways. Take Malaria, for example. This deadly disease kills approximately one million people every year. Meanwhile, a biotech company called Oxitech has developed self-destructive GM mosquitoes that have shown a whopping 96% suppression of the dengue mosquito, Aesdes aeypti, in Mandacaru, Brazil. Also, life-saving vaccines are typically created by way of genetic engineering. For example, a weak form of a virus can be injected into a person to promote immunity to it with the infectious sequences of that virus removed.  In the field of medicine, biotechnology is often an asset.


 

small hand touching a wheat plant
© Can Stock Photo / Soupstock

Monoculture clash

Monoculture is the act of growing a single crop over a number of years in a large area. It is preferred by corporations whose #1 interest is the bottom line because of its efficiency in producing a large harvest with fewer monetary resources. What does all of this have to do with genetic engineering? Generally speaking, genetic engineering is used in the same way that monoculture is: to produce a large harvest with less money. Corporations combine genetic engineering with monoculture to maximize efficiency. Genetic engineering typically assists monoculture by creating crops that are tolerant to the unnatural conditions to which monoculture exposes them.

Some of the problems associated with monoculture are:

Runoff of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers

Pesticide use fluctuates year by year based on environmental conditions and innovations but corn and soy have remained the largest users of synthetic pesticides across the United States accounting for approximately 80% of total pesticide use. Not only are both crops commonly produced by monoculture, 88% of corn and 94% of soy in the USA are produced with genetic engineering. In addition, these crops are heavy users of nitrogen. Once synthetics are used on the crops, they run off into soil and water causing major devastation to surrounding ecosystems by contaminating drinking water and creating large dead zones where nothing can survive in the aquatic environments.

Potential for massive crop failure

Another major downfall is the susceptibility to major and potentially worldwide crop failure due to a lack of genetic diversity. When you have biodiversity (a number of different species or subspecies grown together rather than a single variety) and disease strikes, you’re likely to have some varieties able to tolerate it more than others and you don’t lose everything. When you grow and become reliant on a single variety, there’s a much greater risk that you’ll lose it all and if that single variety is grown worldwide, it could have a catastrophic impact should the disease spread.

There are many examples of mass crop failure due to a lack of genetic diversity but the most well-known is likely the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s where potato crops were decimated by a disease known as potato blight. As the Irish were dependent on this crop for a number of reasons, over one million people died. All over the world today we have crops that are produced with little to no genetic variance, including genetically engineered crops. If we’re to learn anything from the Irish Potato Famine, it’s that building a dependence on these crops, which we are already doing, is a steep risk.

Unsustainability

Finally, monoculture is unsustainable. For this point, I’ll focus on soil degradation which happens through erosion and/or loss of fertility. Soil is crucial in a healthy ecosystem. It takes a very long time to create healthy soils and yet they can be destroyed quickly if mismanaged.

Organic agriculture is not immune to soil degradation but since organic largely relies on healthy soil, there is typically a conscious and conscientious effort made to keep the soil healthy and viable. Monocultures do not rely on healthy soil. These crops typically use synthetic fertilizers which do not feed the soil but add only the nutrients that the plants need to create a chemical nourishment. As well, growing the same crop year after year erodes and degrades the soil.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation’s global assessment of human-induced soil degradation has found that 15 percent of the world’s total land area has suffered human-induced soil damage. So even if we assume that monoculture and genetic engineering can produce more food for the world, what we’re really doing is producing more food to go to waste now, while degrading the land at the expense of food that can be grown in future. Sound a nonsensical?

What does the research on GMOs say?

To date, research has not concluded that GMOs are unsafe. One of the most popular studies used by the anti-GMO movement is a 2012 paper titled, “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize” published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology. It concluded that GM maize causes serious disease and tumours in rats. However, the small number and the type of rats used in the study rendered the findings unreliable. After much criticism from scientists around the globe, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and other risk assessment agencies, the study was retracted due to weak evidence.

Better-designed studies have found no greater risks from GMO foods than from conventional non-organic crops. For example, the European Union and European Commission funded 25 years of research to assess the risk of genetically modified crops. This research involved more than 500 independent research groups and concluded that there is “no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

None of this concludes that GMO technology is absolutely safe. It just means that no legitimate safety hazards have been discovered yet, though it is not grounds for a free pass for future GMO crops. As Dr. Marc Van Montagu, Chairman of the Ghent University Institute of Plant Biotechnology, states in the introduction of Chapter One of “A decade of EU-funded GMO research”, “Meeting the challenge to ‘prove that GM crops are safe!’ is not so easy. It looks like a scientific issue, but it isn’t. Science can certify the existence of danger, but not its absence.”

It is important to stress that the research that finds GMOs pose “no greater risk” is between GMO crops and conventional non-organic. There may not be a significant difference between these two but there is certainly a difference when compared to organic. This is largely because chemical pesticides are used in both GMO and conventional crops. In 1993, the European Commission launched a thorough review of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides used within the EU. This led to more than two thirds of these products being removed from the European market. A number of the products banned by the Commission for safety concerns are still used in North America.

Should you be GMO-free?

GMO-free does not mean that it’s safe. Nor does GMO-free mean that it is without harmful toxins. Unfortunately, GMO-free labeling has become another marketing gimmick. You’ll find GMO-free peas and wheat flour when, in reality, there are no genetically altered peas or wheat on the market at this time. So consumers are getting a false sense of security. If you think choosing GMO-free potato chips is a better option than a bag of prepared popcorn (not microwave), think again. Corn is generally low in pesticide residues. Potatoes on the other hand appear on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. So even though the potato chips may be certified GMO-free, it is still likely to be the more toxic option! If you prefer snacking on fresh produce, sweet corn which is frequently genetically altered in North America has much lower residues of dangerous pesticides than celery which is not a genetically altered food item. GM papaya is lower in toxins than non-GMO strawberries, and so on. In any case, purchasing 100% certified organic is a sure way to avoid both genetic engineering as well as synthetic pesticides.

Moreover, there is the significant issue of cross contamination that threatens the integrity of other crops. Organic canola is now extremely difficult to obtain in Canada due to corruption from GM canola. In 2014, GM alfalfa was prevented from release in Canada, at least until a “co-existence plan” is created (and this at the request of the company that sells the seed). A call for action by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario urged that further investigation was warranted after a federal safety assessment deemed that though GM alfalfa posed a “minimal apparent risk to the environment,” there were “several valid issues that clearly fall outside the scope of the narrow federal safety assessment.”

There’s cause to be wary of genetic engineering and there are also good reasons not to write it off completely. We can begin to understand these reasons by exploring some of the most pervasive claims from either side of the debate but we must first recognize that much of the field of genetic engineering is relatively young, experimental, or just hasn’t been subject to wide-spread, rigorous, or long-term testing. Therefore, the consequences of its use and the safety of its output are largely untested in terms of time and extent of production and consumption. Be your own best consumer advocate and consider all claims about GMOs with the mind of an informed critic. Ask questions about the objectivity of the research bodies and the authorities who regulate use and consumption. Consider that many results and claims are based on comparisons with conventional produce. Organic food is the least questionable food you can ingest, but if there’s a place for GM food, it will be when there is no tolerance for endangering, depleting or up-ending the environment in which it grows.


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