Friday, January 21, 2011

GMO Woes: The Biggest Problem with "Frankencrops"

At least from my perspective, the biggest talking point regarding GMOs is a sort of panic that mutant plants will take over the earth. While cross-contamination is a legitimate concern particularly impacting conventional and organic farmers, I believe it is second to a bigger issue.

If you're a long-time reader, you may be surprised that I am less up-in-arms over cross-contamination than you might expect. This past summer, I had the opportunity to discuss GMO crops with a scientist/attorney (rare combo) from a liberal non-profit. He made a valid point: natural selection favors only those traits which make a given species better suited for survival. With regard to GMO crops generally, however, one must take action for the "benefit" of the GMO plant to be conferred.

For example, Monsanto crops that are genetically modified to survive heavy dosages of herbicide (RoundUp Ready) only confer a benefit if and when the crops are sprayed with Monsanto. Thus, these plants are not better suited or more likely to survive in the wild than their non-GMO counterparts. Note that this is not the case with all genetically engineered plants. Take the GE eucalyptus created by ArboGen. Already considered an invasive species, the cold-tolerant GE eucalyptus has some serious environmental implications--particularly because these thirsty suckers minimize groundwater, rendering their environments highly flammable.

In sum, the issue of GMOs and cross-contamination warrants serious consideration (particularly when GMOs like the ArboGen eucalyptus may be released for a field trial without an appropriate Environmental Impact Statement)--but it's not my number one source of acid reflux.

My number one concern is that when a crop is engineered to be resistant to chemicals, farmers who normally use such chemicals sparingly and as needed are now incentivized to douse their crops in toxins; better to immerse your crops frequently than sparingly, risking crop failure. I think the Organic Consumers Association does a great job of underscoring the concern of herbicide abuse and rallying activists--but the organization really undermines its own legitimacy when it uses terminology like "merchant of death" to describe Monsanto. In this case, the facts speak for themselves.

GMOs are a tricky issue because different kinds of GMOs present different issues. It's difficult to inherently write them off as "good" or "bad." What we really need is a nuanced discussion and a flexible regulatory scheme. Don't hold your breath.


Jacob said...


Thanks for getting my brain going this morning with an excellent post. I'll start a response by quoting your last paragraph, which I agree with:

"GMOs are a tricky issue because different kinds of GMOs present different issues. It's difficult to inherently write them off as "good" or "bad." What we really need is a nuanced discussion and a flexible regulatory scheme. Don't hold your breath."

I come down firmly on the side of supporting the use of GMOs for various uses. Like your post suggests, there are many possible advantages/issues with particular GMOs but you highlight one use which I disagree with.

Modifying organisms to increase tolerance for chemical pesticides is, to some extent, counterproductive. I say this because the alternative course of action is to modify organisms to be naturally resistant to pests. From the perspective of a farmer, the ability to plant and raise a crop that does not need a pesticide application is the best outcome. There are similar options for GMOs that can withstand freezing temperatures, droughts, and mold better than their competitors.

But to the extent that farmers do use modified crops that are resistant to pesticides, you hit the nail on the head: we may see more pesticide usage with all of its attendant consequences.

The cross pollination concern makes MORE sense in the scenario I've outlined, where the plants are naturally more competitive, and any offspring that carry the gene will be so as well. But I don't really worry about this that much. What types of populations are we concerned about anyway? Wild wheat growing on the side of the road? Another farmer's wheat, one that has decided to avoid growing GMOs because he is ethically concerned about GMOs or because he predicts a market advantage?

In the first case, I have little interest in the population of plants that grow wild. Even with GMOs, different conditions favor different plants. No matter how franken the food is, there are myriad conditions where it won't survive, and where others will. We needn't really be concerned that one organism is going to dominate an ecosystem, pushing out all others.

In the second case, you're faced with a classic coasian dilemma, with a coasian solution. Maybe the farmer interested in growing non-GMO plants leases the use of the land upwind of the GMO crops, as opposed to downwind. Maybe the GMO grower pays a premium to the non-GMO grower to allow the non-GMO grower to bring in new seed each season (which he probably does anyway). The point is that both farmers have rights. The exercise of those rights by any given farmer leads to infringements on the other farmer's rights. If we are to establish a regulatory scheme favoring the one farmer over the other, I can see no reason why we would favor the non-GMO using farmer. Particularly where there are arguments to be made that GMO crops are more efficient: they cost less to produce and fetch more at market (due to their ability to stay ripe longer, taste sweeter, avoid mold, etc.).

The only argument I've heard against the use of GMOs has been based upon the yick factor. Who wants to eat frankenfoods? Gross, right? Well, I might:

The requirements for the food I eat are (or when I'm making good decisions ;) ) that the food taste good, be healthful, and provide me with proteins, carbs, the little bit of fat I need, etc. Naturally, if a GMO is modified to grow a chemical which causes cancer, than I have no interest in eating it.

But that's a different problem, a food safety problem, and one that I think you did a nice job of addressing. Different GMOs are modified for different reasons(i.e. to produce different proteins). I advocate for a reasonable amount of regulation in order to ensure that the GMOs that go to market are not producing chemicals that we know (or would know with sufficient research) harms humans. Like you said: a nuanced policy and a flexible regulatory scheme.

Corey said...

Interesting to see the pace of understanding of advanced technology among the general population...RoundUp Ready seed is second tier GMO, meaning it has been in use for a while for non-edibles (the rest of my explanation is based on cotton as an example, which my family farms). There is a tier of GMO cotton seed that does exactly what Jacob mentioned would be best, but it is very expensive and limited access by Monsanto, due to their patent monopoly (you sign a contract to give back the seed even). Generally speaking, spraying is a time-consuming and expensive affair that farmers hate doing. So if you wear cotton, you are more than likely wearing GMO cotton. Clothes would be prohibitively expensive if we all did like Turkey and burn down GMO cotton.

Vanessa said...

C, groundwater/soil contamination is an issue whether herbicide-laden crops are edible or non-edible.

Larry said...

V, I think we are on a similar page on this one. I think the crops that allow for decreased or no pesticides or fungicides are a great move. Its always better for the environment to not be spraying that stuff all over and I've not seen much that really seriously questions the safety of such consumption by animals or humans. That said, I'm not a huge fan of the herbicide resistant stuff followed by heavy herbicide. I'm not familiar with the larger area damage of herbicides but I have to believe it is not as damaging to an ecosystem than pesticides.

I think you are right to say its not fair to call them good or bad wholesale but I have to think that on the whole there are probably net benefits to the environment from more efficient, less invasive farming. Less crop failure and more consistent yields means less land needed to guarantee the food we need. Resistance to pests and drought and fungus means less spraying and less transportation of water...on the whole it looks to me like more good than bad is done on the whole but that doesn't mean all of the different forms are good.

One thing I am curious about and have never looked into it is does the modification change the nutritional value and would the change be for better or worse?

Vanessa said...

LRP, there is competing data with regard to altered nutritional value, particularly re: GE salmon.

The other major concern with GE salmon is that since factory farming of salmon entails over-crowding and lots of antibiotics (allegedly contributing to the overall rise in drug resistance), bigger fish will just create more crowding and heightened use of antibiotics.