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GMO Opposition Is About Culture and Economics, Not Morals

  • Monsanto's Roundup brand herbicide products are arranged for a photograph in Shelbyville, Kentucky, on April 4. (MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett)



For the Valley News
Friday, January 12, 2018

Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University in Indiana and former governor of that state, recently wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post that also appeared in the Valley News titled “GMO Opposition Is Fundamentally Immoral.” I disagree.

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and indicates that the genome of a living organism has been modified by introducing one or more genes through the process of genetic engineering. Commonly, genes from bacteria are introduced to plants such as corn or soy to give them new traits.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, currently over 90 percent of corn and soy grown in America is produced using GMO technology.

Why? Simply, GMOs make big agriculture more profitable. Genetically modified organisms can largely eliminate mechanical weeding and reduce insect populations.

Monsanto developed “Roundup Ready” soy and corn in the late 1990s using a patented technology that produces plants able to survive despite being sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, which is sold as Roundup by Monsanto. That allows farmers to plant, spray Roundup as needed, and harvest. No weeding.

In 2002 I interviewed a farmer in Illinois who told me he could plant a thousand acres of GMO corn, hire someone to spray Roundup as needed, and then harvest the corn. He did this using only three weeks of his annual vacation from his job at a factory. From that, he said, he made a very significant income. But this would not be possible without GMO technology.

The other breakthrough in GMO technology came when a gene from a soil bacterium known as Bt was introduced to seeds through bio-engineering. Bt produces a protein that is lethal to larvae of certain insects including corn rootworm and cotton bollworm. The protein that kills insect larvae, however, is digested in our gut, and thus we are able to eat Bt corn and other Bt foods without getting sick.

So why the fuss about GMOs?

Monsanto has done a good job of promoting GMO crops as safe and modern. Tests have been done using rats as subjects to test the safety of consuming GMOs, but not on humans. Although the U.S. government accepted that those tests show GMOs to be safe, other tests had different results and most European governments have not approved GMOs as safe for human consumption.

Most processed foods — your breakfast cereal or a frozen pizza — now contain either GMO corn (often as high-fructose corn syrup) or soy (which is used to make more than 60 percent of vegetable oil used in America). No one can prove if consuming large quantities of GMO food over the course of a lifetime is detrimental or not.

But there are other issues. A tiny percentage of weeds will mutate, and survive a spraying of Roundup. They become “super weeds” that require higher doses of Roundup or a chemical cocktail of herbicides, negating the benefit of the Roundup Ready technology. As pesticide applications increase, residues of the herbicides show up at higher levels in food. Roundup is deemed safe by the EPA, but not all scientists agree.

Organic farmers fear using Bt widely in GMOs will render it ineffective for their own use.

Bt has been approved for use by organic farmers for decades, long before Monsanto put it inside cells. Organic farmers use it primarily as a spray on potato leaves (and some other plants) to control beetles. When larvae eat the leaves with Bt on them, they sicken and stop feeding. Bt was never in the potatoes themselves.

In rural Africa, where I lived for nearly 10 years as a young man, farmers plant, weed and harvest by hand. When I lived in Mali, a semi-desert country, farmers sometimes had to plant two or three times if rain did not continue soon enough after seeds germinated.

They re-planted each year with seeds they had saved. But Monsanto (and other companies) own the rights to the modified DNA in their seeds. This means farmers would have to buy seeds from them each year, and maybe more than once. GMO seeds are much more expensive than regular seeds, too.

GMO technology is all based on tractors tilling thousands of acres at a time, not small plots that feed a family. Tractors are not affordable in most of the developing world.

And even if tractors were donated, they would be impossible to maintain in the long run.

GMO technology could be used to provide health benefits, and has on occasion. “Golden rice” used GMO technology to increase beta carotene content in an effort to reduce blindness and death in children suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Although it was developed more than 10 years ago, it has not been widely used. There is a new papaya that is resistant to a virus that was destroying the crop.

Some university scientists are looking at new GMO technologies that will benefit people in the developing world. But the vast majority of GMOs have been developed and produced to make money for seed and chemical producers, and of course, for big farmers.

Most seed producers for home gardeners have signed a pledge not to sell GMO seeds. Because of the cost of developing and testing a GMO strain, it is unlikely that you will ever be able to buy seeds for a GMO tomato or pole bean.

There will be controversy over the health effects of GMO foods for years to come as there are so many variables. If you choose to minimize your exposure to them, eat organic food only. Organic food cannot, by law, include GMO components. And thanks to the Vermont Legislature, soon all processed foods will be labeled for GMO content.

I’m not sure why Mitch Daniels thinks someone is keeping African, Asian and South American farmers from buying GMO seeds. Monsanto would be glad to sell them GMO seeds.

This is not a moral issue, but one of culture and economics. It appears to me that Daniels has no idea how subsistence farmers survive.

Henry Homeyer is an organic gardener and the author of four gardening books. He may be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.