First published August 2008, updated December 2009
I first published this article after visiting a teacher’s resource site and came across a lesson plan aimed at children basically alluding to transgenic, or GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), crops being similar, but better than the crops we have today that have resulted from thousands of years of traditional selective breeding techniques.
This really bothered me as GMO crops are not the same at all. I had heard this argument before, but it was the first time I saw it used in an attempt to influence children’s views.
The lesson plan smacked of some of the campaigns of old such as “DDT is good for me”.. and we all know how that turned out.
DDT advertisement – Time Magazine in 1947
DDT then, GMO now?
DDT was originally hailed as a miracle pesticide and deemed “safe” but was banned in most circumstances across the entire USA by 1972. Over 3 decades later, traces of it can still be found in animals; even penguins in Antarctica.
Just because a company says something is safe, or even if the government does; it doesn’t mean it is – and there’s so much controversy over GMOs that still has not been settled. The DDT experience should have been a lesson applied to GMO.
I’ve been following the for and against regard GMO crops for a few years now; hoping to see enough evidence to dispel any misgivings; but exactly the opposite is happening.
So let’s take at look at selective breeding vs. GMO processes as this is an incredibly important topic in relation to the future of our food security, the wider environment.. and our freedom. In terms of urgency, it’s on par with the issue of climate change in my opinion.
Selective breeding is the process of developing a plant or animal based on selecting desirable characteristics of the parent. For example, saving seed for replanting from plants within a crop that have shown to be particularly robust; or breeding a white dog with a black patch over its eye via two parents that have the same trait.
Humanity has been tinkering with selective breeding for thousands of years. Often it’s been beneficial and has led to many of the food sources we have today. However, it can really only go so far – within species or very closely related species.
Interbreeding between totally different species just doesn’t and can’t happen with traditional selective breeding techniques – and it doesn’t happen in nature either. It never has as far as I know and perhaps there is a very good reason for it.
The way that species evolve in nature is through natural selection (the survival of the fittest) or through mutation – where an abnormal trait is introduced by “mistake” which proves to be beneficial to that plant or animal and that mutation is passed on, becoming dominant.
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Usually it’s just shortened to GM when mentioned in relation to food. This is where the genes from one species can be introduced into an entirely different species through human intervention.
For example, taking a gene from a jellyfish and inserting into the zebrafish genome created the “glofish” – fish that glow in the dark which are now being sold on the market.
Another example is genes from a bacteria inserted into food crops so that the crop can create it’s own insecticide. These plants and animals are also known as “transgenic”.
Sound a little freaky? Well, if you’re living in the USA, it gets worse. 70% of the food in US supermarkets contains bioengineered ingredients (corn and soy being the two biggies), but GM labeling is forbidden in the USA; so you’ll never know what it’s in.
Owning a species
As these transgenic plants and animals have a different genome (genetic makeup), they are new species that have been patented. They are the intellectual property of the company that created them and these companies exercise tight control over how they are used.
Biotech companies such as Monsanto force farmers to sign contracts stating that the farmer will not save seed produced by the crop. Monsanto has also been busy over the past few years buying up seed companies all over the world. This is the same company that brought to the world such wonderful products such as Agent Orange; used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War.
What we are seeing is a handful of companies taking control over food crops, replacing them with species they own; even the seeds we buy for our back yard veggie gardens. It’s another good reason to consider buying heirloom and heritage seed lines.
It’s been shown that GM crops do “escape” and infect other crops (referred to as “outcrossing”). The ramifications of that are not only the reduction of crop biodiversity by the invasion of crops we still don’t fully understand, but it’s also related to the intellectual property issue mentioned above.
Here’s an example
Farmer A grows a GM crop with seed provided by Company X
Farmer B grows a non GM crop
Farmer A’s crop invades Farmer B’s crop through pollination, subsequent generations are “infected” with the GM genes.
Company X now effectively “owns” Farmer B’s crop.
It’s frightening and not the stuff of tinfoil hats – there’s documented cases whereby companies producing GM crops have prosecuted people in Farmer B’s situation.
WHO (World Health Organization) also mentions a case where traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the USA.
GM crops, herbicides and pesticides
The overuse of pesticides and herbicides has always resulted in the same situation – insects/weeds develop resistance and/or non-target species (including humans) being negatively affected.
Some crops have also been genetically manipulated to resist certain herbicides. The company creates not only the crop, but the herbicide the crop is resistant to. The end result is farmers spraying even more herbicide knowing that it won’t kill the crops. The weeds become resistant and around we go again – stronger/better poisons need to be created and another crop will need to be developed to be immune to it. Meanwhile, what other damage has been done?
Lack of study
The GM industry is huge and it’s very powerful; with many complicit partners in government. You’d be surprised how many high ranking politicians and bearers of office have either worked for major biotech and agribusiness companies before entering office or immediately upon leaving.
In some cases it’s a revolving door – work for the company, then work in the Department of Agriculture or the EPA, then back to the company.
Due to this infiltration, the studies you’d think would be required to release these plants and animals onto the market for human consumption simply haven’t been done. You can learn more about this aspect in the video; “The World According To Monsanto“.
The American guinea pig
In a nutshell; America – you, the people, are the GM experiment. You’re the study. It’s happening now; you’re all the guinea pigs of this brave new world of GM… and the sad thing is, nobody asked your permission.
The situation is bigger than us too. Other animals feed on the same crops that we do. What will be the long term effects on them? What will happen when creations such as the glofish invariably get into aquatic ecosystems?
Nobody can say because nobody knows.
As for human health, a recent study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences claims to have established a link between three GM maize varieties and negative effects on kidney and liver function in rats after just 90 days of feeding. In addition, some effects on heart, adrenal, spleen and blood cells were also frequently noted. Other studies have also raised some serious health concerns.
Is the future frankenfood?
GM crops are hailed by their proponents as the answer to the world’s food shortage. It’s my opinion that this is at best naive and a worst a plain lie.
I’m no scientist though – so if you’re looking for a more informed point of view, have a read of the Union of Concerned Scientists report “Failure To Yield“. After 13 years of commercialization in the United States, the report concludes that these frankencrops have done little to increase overall crop yields.
There is no food shortage problem, there is a food wastage and distribution problem. The world creates an abundance of food.
GMO is about money and power. Remember that the industry is not government driven, or driven by humanitarian organizations; it is driven by business – companies with shareholders.
I strongly believe that allowing GM crops and animals to become the core of our food supply will only end in disaster.
Transgenic crops are not in harmony with nature, they fly in the face of it. And what happens when our activities work against nature? Climate change is a classic example.
GMO’s and your child’s education
Ask your children what they are being taught about GMO at school. If the teacher’s lesson plan I viewed is indicative of what our children will be learning, I fear we are in deep trouble.
But don’t take my word for it. The above really only scratches the surface of all the issues related to the GM crop and food industry. Research the topic; the for and against – but whatever conclusion you arrive at about GM food; it remains that selective breeding is very, very different to the technology behind GMO. Our children deserve to know, because without that knowledge, they are more likely to accept GM food without questioning it – and I fear that is the plan.