The debate has all the qualities of a great science fiction movie: Foes of genetic engineering foresee doomsday scenarios, poisoned humans, and tainted ecosystems. Supporters see the end of hunger, an abundance of food sprouting from the harshest spots on earth, and crops capable of withstanding the toughest droughts, weeds, and insects.
The worst part for consumers trying to learn about GMOs is that studies printed in prestigious journals back up both sides.
With fifty shades of gray and resources fueling each side of the argument, we are left with more questions than answers and a roadmap that is unclear: What will happen if we permanently shift agriculture to the business of Petri-dish farming? Can organic farming co-exist in the same proximity to genetically engineered crops? Do we really know the long-term implications on the environment and human health?
In this Georgia Organics special project, we look at the issue from both sides, with the goal of informing consumers and encouraging healthy conversations on the topic of GMOs.
Let’s start with some basics:
What is a genetically-modified organism (or a product that’s been genetically-engineered) – AKA GMOs or GE?
Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. —From the glossary on the Monsanto website
Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. —World Health Organization
How is this different from plant breeding, a technique used in agriculture for thousands of years?
This relatively new science allows DNA (genetic material) from one species to be transferred into another species, creating transgenic organisms with combinations of genes from plants, animals, bacteria, and even viral gene pools. The mixing of genes from different species that have never shared genes in the past is what makes GMOs and GE crops so unique. It is impossible to create such transgenic organisms through traditional crossbreeding methods.
The first widely-grown genetically engineered crops contain genes from bacteria and plant viruses that make them resistant to several insect pests and herbicides.
Are GMOs in organic food?
No. USDA Organic Rules state that “The use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited in any form or at any stage in organic production, processing or handling.”
A “Round Up” of Three Important Issues in the GMO Debate
1. Sustainable Silver Bullet
GMOs are said to deliver positive environmental results – they produce breeds that are more drought-tolerant, reduce the need for excessive pesticide and herbicide applications, and make more efficient use of nitrogen.
Brian Tolar, the president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, recently spoke to Georgia Organics on the state of Georgia’s “biotech” – the term he prefers for genetically engineered crops – production abilities.
“Whether it’s drought or heat stress, whatever it might be, so far what we’re hearing now is that they [GMO crops] are performing exceptionally well,” Tolar says. “At least 95 percent of our corn production for feed grain is going to be biotech and we’re seeing exceptional yield numbers of 200 bushel and more to the acre. Those are numbers we used to see in the Midwest. For us to be able to produce corn at this level in the Southeast is a tribute to the biotech performances and the improved genetics of the crop.”
“The bottom line is that GMOs give great yields in difficult climates,” Tolar says.
But some studies paint a different picture of the productivity of GMO crops.
A U.S. Dept. of Agriculture report on the yield performance of genetically engineered (GE) crops says “GE crops available for commercial use do not increase the yield potential of a variety. In fact, yield may even decrease…. Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.”
The failure of GMOs to increase yield potential was emphasized in the 2008 report by the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This report on the future of farming, authored by 400 scientists and backed by 58 governments, stated that yields of GMO crops were “highly variable” and in some cases, “yields declined.” The report noted, “Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.”
Moreover, the amount of chemical use in agriculture may be increasing because of the rise of superweeds and superbugs that have adapted to resist common pesticides and herbicides.
According to the 2009 study, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years,” farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides over the last 13 years as a result of planting GMO seeds. The study was published by the Organic Center and was written by the center’s chief scientist, Dr. Charles Benbrook.
“[GMO] crops are pushing pesticide use upward at a rapidly accelerating pace. In 2008, [GMO] crop acres required over 26 percent more pounds of pesticides per acre than acres planted to conventional varieties. The report projects that this trend will continue as a result of the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds,” the report states.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Glyphosate, also known by its tradename Roundup, is commonly found in rain and rivers in agricultural areas in the Mississippi River watershed.”
“Though glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, we know very little about its long-term effects to the environment,” says Paul Capel, U.S.G.S. chemist and an author on the study.
2. Human Health Unknowns
The impact of genetically modified food on human health is the most unclear area in this debate. Research is difficult because the seeds are patented and any scientist wishing to perform research must receive express permission from the seed company or patent-holder. This has created a scientific vacuum which has spurred more questions and apprehension than may be warranted.
However, short- and medium-term impacts are surfacing. Peer-reviewed studies have linked allergenic and toxic reactions or products containing decreased nutritional value to GMOs. But because the technology is fairly new and not available for public research, it is difficult to know the long-term health impacts that may come as a result of genetically modified foods.
But a growing body of evidence links the pesticides and herbicides used on GE crops to human health problems, specifically birth defects, ADHD and other neurological disorders, and liver damage.
3. Farmer Rights – Seeds and Sovereignty
Genetically engineered crops are, by design, intellectual property and patented by the companies that engineer and manufacture them. This simple fact has drastically altered the seed industry and farming. Farmers can no longer save seeds for future plantings or share seeds among one another. This has begun to impact the diversity of seeds available, as well as access to regionally appropriate crop strains. It has also concentrated the seed business into the hands of a few large companies, limiting the choices farmers have to purchase and plant seeds.
The most pressing concern among organic and sustainable farmers is the chance for co-mingling, or contamination by genetically engineered seeds in their fields. Pollination is an amazing natural feat, but it is a process that does not occur in a controlled environment. If one farmer has planted genetically engineered seeds, those plants can be pollinated and easily contaminate other fields.
Strong arguments have been made in favor of the “co-existence” principle – an idea that both GMO and non-GMO crops have a place in agriculture. Currently, organic farmers bear the full expense of preventing contamination and dealing with it if it does happen. Patent-holders are not required to take any steps to prevent genetic draft or pollination contamination as it stands now, which is an expensive liability for organic and non-GE farmers.
GMOs and Georgia – A Lesson in the Making
Nowhere has the impact of GMO crops been felt more than in the cotton fields of middle Georgia. The most common variety of cotton in Georgia is known as Roundup Ready, a product that was genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate.
Farmers could plant the Roundup Ready cotton, spray with the chemical treatment containing glyphosate and the cotton plants could withstand the spraying while the weeds died off. Somewhere along the way though, nature got smart. A variety of pigweed developed that became resistant to the glyphosate and took its toll on Georgia cotton farmers in a big way. In 2009, nearly half a million acres of Roundup Ready cotton had to be hand-weeded when pigweed took over fields in 52 counties. The hand weeding cost farmers nearly $11 million.
“What we’ve seen is nature is pretty incredible,” Tolar says. “It has an ability to adapt fairly quickly. [We] have some weeds that have developed a resistance to Roundup. When you used to spray Roundup, it killed everything. For cotton, soy beans, or whatever, we’re seeing weeds that are resistant to even other types of herbicides.
“If a machine gun won’t work, we’ll hit them with a grenade, and then we’ll pick the next weapon of choice,” Tolar says. “We’re trying to expand that toolbox with the least amount of chemical applications needed to control weeds.”
In July of 2012 at the SunBelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, UGA researchers shared that the techniques and chemicals being used to control the spread of glyphosate-resistant pigweed are beginning to work. Dr. Stanley Culpepper was quoted as saying “We’re having a great year as far as management, but we’re having a challenging year as far as sustainability.” (SE Farm Press, 7/16/2012)
Growers are now instructed to practice more chemical applications both pre- and post-emergence to control the weed’s growth. During that same field day presentation, growers were warned of the need for more research to ensure neighboring fields would not be impacted by the spraying. Air, water, and wind may carry the chemicals to unintended sources such as streams and rivers – and organic and sustainable farms.
On the plus side, the never-ending battle against weeds is leading some farmers to adopt more sustainable pest-management practices.
Julia Gaskin, the Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator at UGA’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and a Georgia Organics boardmember, provides this perspective: “Although overuse of glyphosate has created glyphosate-resistant weeds, the availability of Roundup ready cotton, corn, and soybean allowed widespread adoption of conservation tillage systems.”
Conservation tillage is any method of soil cultivation that leaves the previous year’s crop residue (such as corn stalks or wheat stubble) on fields before and after planting the next crop to build the soils as well as reduce soil erosion and runoff.
According to Gaskin, using the conservation tillage method “had and still has a tremendous impact on sustainability. For example, in cotton in Georgia, we went from 31,320 acres in 1993 to 447,223 acres in 2003 of conservation tillage. On a 5 percent slope of land, this can reduce soil erosion by 12 tons per acre per year. Since sediment is the number one impairment of our streams, this is a big step forward in sustainability. It’s not perfect but these are large impacts.
Also, adoption of conservation tillage systems with winter cover crops and crop rotation has been shown to reduce weed pressure, so farmers using this … still reduce herbicide applications. Conservation tillage systems increase soil organic matter and reduce the [mechanized] passes across the field so [there is] reduced fossil fuel [use]. This just illustrates how complex the issue is.”
Letting the Consumer Decide
Conflicting evidence, inconclusive science – in the end, the gray area around GMOs has led countries around the world to compromise: label GMOs and let consumers decide.
Nearly 50 countries require labels on GMOs, even China, and many of these also have severe restrictions or bans against GMO food production or sale. The U.S. does not have any laws requiring transparency. Currently, the only state that has any kind of GMO labeling law is Alaska, which requires fish and shellfish to be labeled if genetically engineered.
But that may be changing. In early 2012, over 1 million comments were delivered to the USDA requesting that foods made of GMO crops be labeled. Georgia Organics signed on to support the “Just Label It” campaign.
States are acting as well – this fall, California will have a ballot question that would require the labeling of GMO foods. Prop 37, as it’s known, is now a flash point for the GMO debate. It’s become a line in the sand that distinguishes whether a company or group is for or against GMOs in general. (Editor’s note: Prop 37 was narrowly defeated last fall. Here is a recent update on state GMO labeling efforts.)
Monsanto has poured $4.2 million into campaigns to squash Prop 37, and the parent companies of brands that many believed to value the philosophies of the organic food movement have joined Monsanto in the push to stop GMO labeling.
Pepsico, owners of the Naked Juice brand, has spent $1.7 million fighting Prop 37. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, owner of HONEST tea, and Odwalla, has spent $1.2 million; Kellogg, owner of Kashi, Gardenburger, and Morning Star Farms, has spent $633,00; General Mills, owner of Larabar, Muir Glen, and Cascadian Farm Organic, has spend $520,000; and Dean Foods, owner of Horizon Organic dairy products, and the soy-based dairy substitute, Silk, have spent $253,000 to make sure foods made with GMOs are not labeled as such.
Connecticut and Washington are also pursuing the required labeling of GMO foods.
Tolar, of the Georgia Agribusiness Council says, “I think consumers should be warned when there’s the potential hazard to their health for them or their health. There is no reason to label a product that’s produced from a biotech crop because there’s no hazard associated with its production.”
Tolar may be correct about health-hazards related to GMO foods. But the link between the herbicides and pesticides used on GMO crops, specifically glyphosate, is well-established.
Glyphosate is commonly used on GE soybeans, corn, and cotton – three of Georgia’s most widespread crops.