What You Should Know about GMOs & Food

Corn

At Fern Creek we grow five varieties of apples, multiple varieties of pears and peaches and strawberries, plus raspberries, blueberries, marionberries and plums.  We’ll grow about 35 different vegetable crops, which all told include over 75 varieties.  Not your typical farm.  We represent a new face in farming that includes crop diversity, direct sales to folks who eat what we grow, and nurturing relationships between people, their farmers, and their food.

Sometimes those relationships are straightforward and sometimes they are Very Complex.  For instance, our seeds come from small companies with agricultural practices much like our own. That means we purchase primarily organic seeds and no genetically modified ones.

GMOs.  When I first encountered the acronym I sighed. One more “issue” to get my head around to be a good farmer supporting sustainable agriculture.  Writing out what I’ve come to understand is the best way to settle it in my head.  That’s partly why I’ve written my books and posts like this one—to settle a thing in my head so I can get on with the business of helping life flourish.

GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms.  Any organism that has been modified using genetic engineering technology is a GMO.  This includes seeds of foods we eat, animals genetically modified for lab use to explore treating certain diseases, and blue roses. Yes, the Suntory blue rose wouldn’t exist without genetic modification, since blue doesn’t naturally occur in roses. I’m primarily concerned with GMO use in agriculture, which has also been the primary focus of controversy in the last 10 years or so. The commercial use of GMOs in agriculture began in 1996.

Barbara Kingsolver calls GMOs, “A Fist in the Eye of God,” in Small Wonder. Re-reading her essay this week, plus a conversation with Dundee Dirt Box farmer, Nadine, who studied genetics in college and is passionate about averting the disaster-waiting-to-unfold with GMOs, got me thinking about them more seriously.  I explored it more, talked with Mark, and we’re making efforts to reduce or eliminate GMO products we’ve brought into our home and used on our farm. Here’s a synopsis of what I learned from Kingsolver, Nadine, and biologists and ecologists at several land grant universities where research on these kinds of questions is ongoing.

First, some context (and statements of the obvious)

1)   The health of our planet depends on species reproducing themselves.

2)   Every organism (as a group anyway) produces more offspring than what survive to adulthood.

3)   Characteristics that get passed down to the next generation are from the offspring that make it to adulthood. They are the survivors, the ones with traits that help them better withstand drought, or freezing temperatures, or have taller stalks or shorter stalks—depending on which one survived best given the troubles and travails of their given environment.

We end up with a lot of variation.  So far so good.  Some seeds survive drought better than another that might produce more peas in every pod or grains on every stalk.  Others survive hot summers or cold winters better than others, or the nibbling of pests.  Earth holds a whole spectrum of traits with all this diversity and any life form that eats needs that genetic diversity to ensure a stable food supply.

Okay.  Enough historical context.

Crops in the US are genetically very uniform.  We like the predictability of high yields and GMOs help make that possible. Think of the thousands upon thousands of acres of corn and soy we grow in the Midwest.  That also means we have a shallow gene bank, which some argue makes us quite vulnerable to the unexpected curve ball. Since diversity still exists richly elsewhere—primarily in the Global South, it’s okay if we experiment with our agricultural practices.  But make no mistake.  We rely on the Global South for what Kingsolver calls our insurance policy in case something comes along and wipes out our few high producing varieties of corn or soy.  She argues rather persuasively that we are now engaged in an effort to cancel that insurance.

Here’s Kingsolver’s scenario:

“Let’s say you are an Ethiopian farmer growing a land race of wheat—a wildly variable, husky mongrel crop that has been in your family for hundreds of years.  You always lose some to wind and weather, but the rest still comes through every year.  Lately, though, you’ve been hearing about a kind of Magic Wheat that grows six times bigger than your crop, is easier to harvest, and contains vitamins that aren’t found in ordinary wheat.  And amazingly enough, by special arrangement with the government, it’s free.

Readers who have even the slightest acquaintance with fairy tales will already know there is trouble ahead in this story.  The Magic Wheat grows well the first year, but its rapid, overly green growth attracts a startling number of pests.  You see insects on this crop that never ate wheat before, in the whole of your family’s history.  You watch, you worry.  You realize that you’re going to have to spray a pesticide to get this crop through to harvest.  You’re not so surprised to learn that by special arrangement with the government, the same company that gave you the seed for free can sell you the pesticide you need.  It’s a good pesticide, they use it all the time in America, but it costs money you don’t have, so you’ll have to borrow against next year’s crop.

The second year, you will be visited by a terrible drought, and your crop will not survive to harvest at all; every stalk dies.  Magic Wheat from America doesn’t know beans about Ethiopian drought.  The end.

Actually, if the drought arrived in year two and the end came that quickly, in this real-life fairy tale you’d be very lucky, because chances are good you’d still have some of your family-line seed around.  It would be much more disastrous if the drought waited until the eighth or ninth year to wipe you out, for then you’d have no wheat left at all, Magic or otherwise.  Seed banks, even if they’re eleven thousand years old, can’t survive for more than a few years on the shelf.  If they aren’t grown out as crops year after year, they die—or else get ground into flour and baked and eaten—and then this product of a thousand hands and careful selection is just gone, once and for all.”

Genetically modified crops can never have the resilience of seed that is tried and reproduced naturally under the varying conditions of rain/drought, pests, and temperature extremes.  Recent university studies suggest that GMO crops require more pesticides than non-GMO (not the original hope).  The GMO engineers tried to reduce the need for pesticides by splicing Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) into the DNA of corn so that the stomachs of caterpillars that eat the corn explode.  Caterpillar stomachs did indeed explode, but other consequences were not well anticipated.  Like that the pollen from this corn would kill other insects that we’d rather not exterminate.  Or the fortunate or unfortunate ability of nature to react so that pests mutated into super-resistant pests.  That created a problem on a whole other level.

Europe responded by implementing strict labeling requirements for any GM food, and limiting the importing and use of GM seeds.  (Efforts to get manufacturers to label GMO foods in the US have so far failed).  Many African countries now reject aid that comes in the form of GM seeds.

Where GM seeds continue to be most welcome are in North America, China, Argentina, Brazil and Australia.  One wonders what these nations have in common.

One thing we don’t have that Africa has is a rich history of seed saving.  Seed saving is huge in Africa, so Monsanto’s practice of splicing in a terminator gene (or suicide gene) so the seeds Monsanto sells cannot reproduce a next generation of seed is an anathema to Africans.  Why would anyone do something so stupid as to make a seed that can’t reproduce itself? Except to guarantee dependency.  And wealth for a few at the expense of a secure food supply for many.  Seed saving is how hundreds of generations guaranteed the next year’s harvest.  Africans, Europeans, and Indians know that Monsanto seed buyers become dependent on Monsanto for seed and they want nothing of it.

Laying aside other concerns for a moment: what would Global Hunger look like if something happened to Monsanto’s seed, a corporation that already controls a large part of the world’s seed supply?

Some of you may think all this is apocalyptic nonsense.   I kinda did.  At least enough to want to hear what more positives voices were saying about GMOs.  So I looked that up, too.  Here’s a summary of the list of positives:

1)   Crop yield goes up.

2)   Crops are less expensive to produce (this one has been debated given the need to re-purchase seed every year, along with pesticides and herbicides, as well as hidden costs that get paid by ecological degradation).

But that’s no small thing if you live in China or India and need to feed lots of people.  Check this out for a 2010 snapshot of the controversy in India.  By 2012 the issue was resolved so that cotton was the only GM crop allowed in the country.

What I found on the other side were studies (albeit inconclusive for the most part) linking GMO foods to food allergies, gluten intolerance, cancers, obesity, the emergence of super-resistant pests, and the one I started with, food security.  A hefty list.

Accidently drop a rock on a hibernating bear and you might get lucky and not wake it up.  Keep throwing rocks at a hibernating bear and you will wake it up. And hibernating bears wake up hungry.  We mess too much with a reproductive system much older and more developed than any GMO lab trying to push back natural limits and make a buck in the process, and we might experience a reaction or two we didn’t, but maybe should have, anticipated.

I’d rather err on the side of letting sleeping bears lie, and be a tender of seeds following natural cycles that have functioned very effectively since the beginning.  Maybe it means we all pay the real cost for our food, and maybe eat fewer products made of corn and soy, and less beef (cows get fed lots of GMO corn). Every step we take, small or large, is one more toward preserving life.

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