Altered Genes and Their Vendors

The evidence on both sides of the genetic modification debate is inconclusive, but attentive regulation could ensure crop safety in developed and developing countries.

August 12, 2010

CREDIT: Pl77 (CC).

The Ministry of Agriculture in earthquake-ravaged Haiti refused a donation of 475 tons of genetically modified Monsanto seeds this May—the same seeds that are widely grown and consumed every day in the United States. The agribusiness giant offered hybrid, pesticide-treated seeds instead, and the Haitian government has accepted.

The first shipment of seeds was delivered in May, but some farmers still think of Monsanto seeds as "a new earthquake." They have protested the government's acceptance of the donation, burned Monsanto seeds, and called on other farmers to do the same.

While some laud genetically modified crops as a solution to world hunger, others fear that the plants are unhealthy and potentially dangerous for the environment. The evidence in both cases is inconclusive. Only a few animal studies show possible ill health effects and there is a dearth of research on the long-term health and environmental effects of the genetically modified crops that already account for 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn grown on American soil.

But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In the United States, there must be scientific proof of harm for a product to be taken off the market. Many opponents of genetically modified crops argue that the precautionary principle—which states that measures to protect health and the environment should be implemented even in the absence of scientific consensus about potential harm—should become a part of U.S. environmental policy. Seed companies are held accountable for the safety of their products, but because they block independent research on their patented seeds, negative health or environmental effects are unlikely to be discovered.

Haiti is not the first developing country to rebel against aid proffered by the Monsanto Corporation. In India, for example, Monsanto sold GM seeds and pesticides to rural farmers, promising bountiful harvests and an escape from poverty. But a few years later many farmers were worse off than before—their crops failed despite the promise of greater yields, and their new dependence on pesticides was digging them deeper into debt. An estimated 125,000 Indian farmers committed suicide, some of them by drinking Monsanto chemicals.

Horror stories such as these have left the impression that genetically modified crops are categorically harmful. Yet the hardships and negativity associated with genetically modified crops have more to do with how they are sold by agribusiness corporations and controlled by regulatory agencies than with the actual science of genetic modification. A major problem for farmers in India, and even in the United States, is that Monsanto's seeds are terminator seeds, meaning that they are sterile after one generation and must be purchased again each year. Monsanto can, and frequently does, sue farmers who attempt to save their seeds.

Much of the initial outcry against GMOs in Europe was based on a study showing that butterflies exposed to GM pollen in a lab exhibited slower growth and had higher mortality rates than control groups. But considering that pesticide ingestion can kill a man in a few hours, as the Indian farmers demonstrated, the European reaction may be somewhat misdirected. GM crops reduce the amount and strength of chemical herbicide and pesticide needed to grow crops, and have reduced the environmental impact of those chemicals by 15 percent.

The World Health Organization estimates that in the 1970s before GM crops were introduced there were 500,000 cases of pesticide poisoning among agriculture workers each year, resulting in about 5,000 deaths. Because there is no national reporting system for incidents of pesticide poisoning in the United States, it is difficult to know if genetically modified crops have led to a decrease in the number or severity of cases, but the EPA estimated in 1999 that there were 10,000 to 20,000 pesticide poisoning cases per year among U.S. agriculture workers.

The root of the GM crop dilemma is regulation. Agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aren't doing enough to ensure safety, and seed companies have too much control over how their products are used, distributed, and studied.

The FDA approved GM crops for market without conducting or evaluating any independent studies of their environmental or health effects; it only considers data provided by the company itself to determine product safety. Furthermore, Monsanto does not allow independent researchers to study its products without company approval of the proposals and the results. Syngenta, another major seed company, goes so far as to forbid research comparing its crops to varieties from other companies.

As a result, no long-term independent studies have been conducted to assess the safety of GM crops. Lax regulation together with the lack of labeling requirements for GM products meant that the American public was buying and consuming genetically modified food well before it became aware. Today, some companies choose to label their products as "non-GMO," but there are still no requirements for labeling foods that contain genetically modified crops. Consumers were the first and only guinea pigs, and none of them signed a consent form.

Though genetic modification has led to some crazy organisms—goats with spider DNA that produce silk in their milk, for example—genetic modification as it is used for farming is essentially an accelerated, more controlled form of traditional plant breeding. Plant breeders pair generation after generation of plants together to get the best traits into a single species. Genetic engineers achieve this goal by splicing genes from one species into another, a quicker and more predictable way to achieve a desired trait. Because the DNA is combined directly, it is also possible to transfer traits from organisms that would be unable or extremely unlikely to mate.

The developing world stands to reap the greatest benefit from GM crops, but is also the most vulnerable to its potentially destructive environmental and economic power. Developing countries are attractive to biotech companies as testing grounds for new seeds because they tend to have looser or nonexistent GM regulations and a greater economic need. But these looser regulations mean less concern for the environment and the native ecosystem. Care must be taken that GM crops designed and distributed for developing countries will truly and immediately increase their yields. And according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, GM crops do not increase yields at all. The hunger crisis in many parts of the developing world is extremely urgent, but introducing untested, potentially aggressive or dangerous organisms to an already challenging environment could result in destruction outweighing any potential benefit.

Recently, a new potential threat entered the GM crop debate: superweeds. Since Roundup Ready seeds and Roundup are used across vast swaths of U.S. farmland, tough and fast-growing Roundup-resistant weeds have developed. However, this evolution is not a direct, exclusive consequence of GM crop technology. Superweeds are a consequence of overusing one particular weed eradication method, whether it is pesticides or weed pulling. These superweeds are the result of over-use of Roundup, and would likely occur with any herbicide or pesticide that was used too frequently, regardless of whether the crop was genetically modified or not.

The rise of the superweeds could start reining in the agriculture business. More weeds means farmers need more manual labor and different kinds of pesticides to produce a crop, and these increased costs may cancel out the money-saving benefits of herbicide-resistant, less labor-intensive GM seeds, prompting farmers to switch back to traditional seeds. Unfortunately, superweeds are also canceling out the environmental benefits of Roundup Ready seeds because the additional fertilizers farmers must use are generally more toxic than Roundup.

The science of GM crops should be pursued as carefully as possible, as a growing world population and continued food shortages in many parts of the world demand that we maximize our ability to produce food. Changes in climate will also likely affect how and where crops can be grown, potentially exacerbating existing problems of drought and land exhaustion. However, ethical concerns arise when major for-profit agriculture corporations take advantage of the vulnerabilities of developing countries to introduce new seeds into new environments without adequate testing or external regulation.

Existing national and international regulations are not sufficient to protect hungry, land-poor countries from the increasingly international business of agriculture and its promises of an escape from poverty.