Why are all the answers on this site pro GMO? Is there no a single drawback to GMO foods over conventional food and organic food?
Submitted by: Wilko Schutzendorf
Expert response from Robert Wager M.Sc.
Faculty Member, Biology Department, Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo BC Canada
Tuesday, 09/23/2014 23:44
GM crops have been quite successful since they arrived on the market 20 years ago. The US National Academy of Sciences’ 2010 report “Impact of GE Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States” offers an in-depth analysis on the subject. Its conclusion was:
“In general, the committee finds that genetic-engineering technology has produced substantial net environmental and economic benefits to U.S. farmers compared with non-GE crops in conventional agriculture.”
That is not to say there are no significant issues — there most definitely are. However, when one looks at the legitimate issues with GM crops, the vast majority are not unique to GM crops and are equally applicable to other forms of agriculture. Here are a few of the legitimate issues that should be looked at.
High Costs of GM Seeds
It is well recognized that GM seeds cost more than most other types of seeds. The companies that produce the GM seeds must spend tens of millions of dollars on testing to gain market access for every GM seed product. Therefore, they charge a premium to their customers, the farmers who choose to grow GM crops. There is little doubt that farmers would prefer cheaper seeds, but they weigh the elevated price of the GM seeds against the benefits the GM seeds provide (easy weed control, fuel savings, time savings, insect pest control without broad-spectrum insecticide use, etc.). In the end, over 90 percent of commodity crop farmers choose to pay the premium price to gain access to the benefits. Soon HT soy will come off patent, and then farmers will no longer have to pay Technology Use Agreement (TUA) fees for the original HT soy products. The patenting of seeds, restriction of their use and propagation for replanting are not unique to GM seeds. Patenting of seeds has been going on since the 1930s. Farmers have always had the choice to either abide by the patents and use the benefits of the patented seeds or buy some other, nonpatented seeds instead. Therefore, this issue of patents is not unique to GM crops.
With the very expensive costs of gaining market access come limits to who can afford to pay. It costs tens of millions of dollars to get a GM crop through the regulatory process. This results in two outcomes. First, few except the large corporations can afford to pay the deregulation costs, and therefore few except the corporations have GM crops on the market. Second, the high costs restrict which crops have been engineered with beneficial traits. Shelves of small companies and university labs are full of GE crops that could benefit the public but will never see the market, as there is no way the deregulation costs can be covered. Ironically, those who are pushing for more stringent regulations are actually increasing the corporations’ market consolidation of GM crops.
Agriculture has always been about the “best germ lines” of crops. The better the genome of the crop, the better the yield. Often the combinations of genes that product the best cultivars (varieties) are complex and unstable, as demonstrated by the fact that the average cultivar lifespan on the market is four years. After that, a newer, “better” cultivar takes its place. This can have the effect of losing valuable germ lines that may be sources of genes in the future. But this is not unique to GM crops. It happens with all forms of plant breeding. In 1900, there were estimated to be 7,000 germ lines. The most recent estimate is 6,500. Therefore, after more than a century of selective breeding, the world has lost only about 500 unique crop germ lines. Fortunately there are extensive efforts around the world to preserve the remaining germ lines. A related worry is over use of monocropping. This, too, is not unique to GM crops. While it may be true that a given field is all of one variety, many fields spread over the counties, states and countries of the world demonstrate tremendous diversity in crop varieties. Although the GM trait may be the same in many places, it does not mean the genetic background of the plants is the same. Different germplasms work best in different locations, and often a particular local cultivar is engineered with a trait that will benefit the grower in that location. Again, genomic diversity is rather extensive around the world.
Plants have cross-pollinated since the dawn of plant life on Earth. With crop plants, the same is true. The term “adventitious presence” describes small amounts of one cultivar ending up in another cultivar field (either by pollen spread or by seed dispersal). This, too, is not unique to GM crops. Farmers have always known about this and have always used a variety of methods to mitigate it. However, we hear a great deal about GM crops cross-pollinating (I don’t like the emotion-laden word “contamination”) organic crops, resulting in loss of organic certification or lawsuits against the organic grower. Although it is possible, there is no evidence of any North American organic famer losing certification for trace amounts of GM in his or her organic fields. Further, no organic farmer has ever been sued for adventitious presence of GM in the organic fields or crops. These are both myths. The USDA site on coexistence details the success farmers of all types have had during the entire history of GM crops.
The advent of synthetic fertilizer (along with better crop genetics) has allowed for the tripling of yields in the past 70 years. But there has been a downside to extensive fertilizer use. The runoff has had significant negative effects on aquatic environments. From dead zones around the mouth of the Mississippi River to the algal blooms in Lake Erie, the effects of fertilizer runoff are well documented. But, as with most legitimate criticism about GM crops, this, too, is not unique to GM crop production. All forms of agriculture that use fertilizers (including manure) can have runoff issues. Research actually demonstrates that manure fertilizer can result in more nitrogen leaching to ground water than synthetic fertilizer, though synthetic fertilizer usually results in more phosphorus leaching. Manure is also a significant source for pathogenic bacterial contamination of food and water. There are some very interesting enhanced nitrogen efficiency GM crops working their way through the regulatory process. And better stewardship of all types of fertilizer use should be a top priority.
Resistance is a universal phenomenon. Herbicide resistance is also as old as plants. Most people are unaware of the vast number of natural herbicidal compounds plants make. Thousands of different herbicides are found in nature, as plants are always competing for space with each other. With respect to the herbicides used with GM crops, there is definitely room for significant stewardship improvements. The overreliance on one mode of action herbicide in repeated crop rotations over repeated years has increased the selective pressure on weeds to develop resistance. About half of the known glyphosate-resistant weeds are linked with the overreliance of farmers on glyphosate. The other half developed resistance before GM crops existed. There are well over 400 different herbicide-resistant weeds, and the majority have nothing to do with GE crops or the herbicides used with them.
Herbicide-resistant weeds are not “superweeds,” as many like to say. These glyphosate-resistant weeds are mostly sensitive to other herbicides already on the market. Still, the increased number of glyphosate-resistant weeds is definitely associated with less-than-adequate integrated pest-management practices by farmers who have overused glyphosate-tolerant GM crops. If farmers want to continue to use the relatively mild herbicide glyphosate (with an EIQ far lower than that of many older herbicides), they will have to significantly improve their stewardship with respect to herbicide choices and rotations.
If you would like to read the European scientific opinion, it can be found in the European Academies Science Advisory Council 2013 report “Planting the Future.” It states:
“There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding … There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy.”
GM crops are relatively new to agriculture but have been widely adopted by farmers around the world. In fact, the developing world now grows more acres of GM crops than the developed world. But, as with all technologies, there is significant room for improving how these crops are used in the future. The world will have 9-10 billion people by midcentury, and therefore we will need the best of every agricultural technology (both old and new) to help to produce more food on the same or less land more sustainably. GM crops are only part of the solution.
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