Monday, June 8, 2015

I got 99 Problems but a GMO Ain't One

In the past, I’ve written a short list of problems that are attributed to GMOs, but are actually problems with modern agriculture. Well, I’m going to expand the list to “9 Reasons Why GMOs are Opposed that Aren’t Really About GMOs”, or as the spouse aptly entitled this post "I got 99 Problems, but a GMO Ain't One". But it's really only 9 problems. As I've written before, transgenesis, or the method used to make most GMOs, is a tool and it makes no sense to oppose a method with broad applications. It's like opposing electronics as a category because you don't like the fact that your Roomba chews up your computer cable (which is happening this very instant...) or that iPhones cost too much.  In fact, an article was just written in the NY Times about GMOs, and in the comments section, you'll see the reasons below being listed time and time again.

So, here we go.

Success Kid - I got 99 problems But a GMO Ain't One
9) "GMOs are patented". Yes, many of them are patented, but so are many non-GMO crops. Pluots didn't just drop out of the sky: someone had to work for years to develop those tasty treats, so there are patented varieties. Not all GMOs are patented: there are open-source GMOs, and there are also GMOs where organizations have worked with private enterprises to give away seeds on humanitarian grounds, such as Golden Rice. So using the "GMOs are patented" excuse makes no more sense than saying that you don't like electronics because Windows is under a copyright. 

8) "GMOs cause superweeds". GMOs that carry traits for herbicide tolerance can lead to weeds that develop tolerance to the herbicide, known as "superweeds", and I've reviewed this topic here. Superweeds are far from being an issue unique to GMOs, and even pulling weeds by hand can lead to weeds that look like the crop itself (known as mimicry). The issue of superweeds is a serious one, and this database tracks herbicide resistant weeds as they develop across different nations. Reducing it to a "GMO-specific" problem and severely narrowing the scope of the issue, deters the efforts of finding genuine solutions to the problem. So using the "GMOs cause superweeds" excuse makes no more sense than saying that you don't like computers because they can lead to electric shocks, when the issue is much broader in scope.

7) "GMOs are drenched in pesticides". Yes, pesticides (be they herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides) are used on GMOs, as well as any other form of modern agriculture unless it specifically states "pesticide-free". That includes the U-Pick farm I went to last week for cherry picking and the organic peach farm next to it. That includes the fields of corn that we drove by to get there. It took me a while to come to the realization that no form of agriculture is perfect. If we insist on going pesticide-free, crops will be lost which will increase costs to consumers and we will have to dedicate more land to get the same output. Pesticides are expensive. Farmers don't just decide to spray their fields with pesticide because they feel like it, nor do they "drench" their fields in it. There are laws and regulations on how much can be applied, and why on earth would anyone use any more than necessary when its use can cut from your profits? Here's an excellent post written from a farmer's perspective on the topic of pesticides and why they're used. PLEASE read it. Some GMOs are designed to resist pests so that pesticide doesn't have to be applied, such as the Rainbow Papaya which is designed to resist the ring-spot virus and saved Hawaii's papaya industry.

6) "GMOs are monocultures". When I was preggers, the spouse and I went on a road trip around California. I was miserable. I was one of those people who had morning sickness well into the 3rd trimester. Anyway, I was on medication to control it because I was losing weight, but the medication made me horribly drowsy. So the road trip ended up being more of a sleeping trip. Somewhere between Sequoia National Park and Fresno we drove through orange farms. And we drove. And drove. And drove. I don't know how long it was but it felt like every time I woke up, we were still driving by orange trees. And GMO oranges don't exist on the market. So yes, there are vast fields of GMO corn in places across the US, but there are also vast fields of non-GMO spinach and giant orchards of fruit. When I lived in Venezuela, we lived across from a valley that was a giant sugarcane farm. It was enormous and it belonged to the local sugar refinery. Every year, they'd harvest sugarcane about 3 times. It never changed, there was no crop rotation, and it just went on for miles. There's no GMO sugarcane. Monocultures can lead to crop resistant pests, and farmers are encouraged to rotate their crops from one year to the next so that this risk can be minimized. So, again, reducing the issue of monocultures to a GMO-specific one is highly disingenuous.

5) "GMOs are being made by Big Ag to line their pockets". Unless your problem is with making money in general, then this doesn't make much sense. Of course ag-businesses want to make money. Why would any corporate enterprise embark on a project where they think they'd lose money? Again, the "Big Ag" argument doesn't apply to all GMOs. Arctic Apples were developed by a small company up in BC, Canada that only had 7 employees. AquaBounty, which developed the transgenic salmon (not yet commercialized) only had 12 employees on staff in 2012. And of course, many transgenic crops are being developed by public sector scientists, some of which address undernurishment such as biofortified bananas to address vitamin A deficiency. This reason for opposing GMOs is like saying that you oppose electronics because Apple makes too much money from the iPhone.

4) "GMOs place restrictions on seed saving". This is tied to #10 on this list. Farmers who plant GMOs sign a contract where they state that they will not reuse seeds. In the same way that you're not supposed to copy and give away that Maroon 5 song that you just downloaded from iTunes because it's a copyright violation, farmers are supposed to respect the intellectual property rights of the companies with whom they have signed a contract. Many farmers have written about the plethora of choices they have when it comes to seeds (here's one of my favorite articles). Basically, if farmers do not like the restricted seed use, they don't have to buy the seeds. It's as simple as that. The fact that they do and that they buy the seeds on a fairly regular basis suggests that there's something about GMO seeds that they prefer. Not only that, but there are non-GE crops where farmers have to sign agreements as well (this includes non-GE sunflowers, which Chipotle switched to when they adopted more integritiness). So this has little to do with GMOs: it has to do with patents. If you can think of a better way that companies can recover the dollars they spend on making a product after the first year, by all means, make the suggestion. Farmers who do not use GMOs generally buy their seeds from one year to the next, too, because the seeds they plant are often hybrids. Recalling Mendel's pea experiments, this would mean that if farmers reused the seeds, only a portion of the following year's crop would have the traits they want.

3) "GMOs use the carcinogenic Glyphosate". Glyphosate use is not restricted to GMOs. That by itself is enough to earn it a place on my list. In fact, we just used it this week to get rid of a particularly thorny wild blackberry that we couldn't control and was right in Baby Boy's biking path along the driveway. Regarding the label "carcinogenic", I think that Dr Andrew Kniss wrote one of the most balanced pieces I've read on this topic, and I'd like you all to head over there to take a look. An important point to keep in mind is the time at which herbicides such as glyphosate are applied. Think about it: glyphosate is being applied so that corn/soy can grow heartily without getting choked out by weeds. Does it make sense to apply glyphosate when corn is several feet tall? Here's Pioneer's recommendations for glyphosate application, and they recommend using glyphosate when the plants are just a few weeks old. Between that time and harvest, it might rain, the sun will have beaten down on the crops, and the crops will have been watered. So saying that the corn we eat is "drenched" in glyphosate doesn't make sense to me. Regarding the amount of glyphosate used, I love this graphic by Sarah Schultz where she explains that approximately one soda can-sized amount of glyphosate is applied across an entire acre of crop in one season. More importantly, there are MANY GMOs that are not glyphosate resistant: the Arctic Apple or Innate Potato, for example, could be grown using organic practices (without the organic label), and again, all those GMOs that are being made for humanitarian purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with pesticides.

2-1) "Monsanto". I give Monsanto 2 spots on this list, because there are different aspects to the "I hate GMOs because of Monsanto" reason.

2) "GMOs promote a monopoly." Every time I see this, I think that someone over at Dow Agro is cackling. I work in a field in biotech right now where a single company has between 70-80% of the market. Google web searches are used almost 70% of the time. Android has 80% of the market in operating systems for smartphones. But strangely enough, I've never seen a "March against Google". I tried to find out how much of the seed market Monsanto owns, and the numbers are all over the place, because it's such an easy number to rig to portray your point. For example, Monsanto says that it has 5% of the world market in seeds. The Organic Consumers Association says that Monsanto has 80% of the US GM market on corn. However, explains the latter by stating that they license the trait to other independent companies, so they're not sold by Monsanto. Commercial licensing agreements are set up between companies ALL the time, so the stat from OCA is blurring the real numbers. This would be equivalent to saying that the Lenovo laptop I'm typing on was sold by Microsoft because it has a Windows OS on it. No: the laptop and the sales go to Lenovo, which then pays Microsoft a licensing fee. So I honestly don't know how much of the seed market Monsanto owns. Keep in mind that organic and non-GM farmers have to buy seeds from somewhere, and Monsanto does sell organic seeds. Unless you know what seeds your local farmers used when you buy your veggies, you have no guarantee that you're boycotting Monsanto if you boycott GMOs.

The problem with monopolies is a tough one and I don't know what the solution might be. Since it takes such a long time to get a GE product through the regulatory process, it's difficult for a small company to last very long. During that time employees need to be paid, logistics need to be taken care of, and the product pipeline needs to continue its development while no revenue is being generated. By no means is this a problem unique to the agricultural biotech sector. Small tech companies are gobbled up by larger behemoths every day. So the issue of monopolies is far from being a problem about GMOs.

1) "Monsanto made (place your favorite scary chemical here)". This is a topic that I'm struggling with myself. I know that Monsanto has a very checkered past, particularly when it comes to Agent Orange. Very briefly, Agent Orange is an herbicide that was used by the US during the Vietnam War to deprive the guerrillas on the ground of food and cover. Agent Orange production during the Vietnam War contained a contaminant which caused severe health problems in the local inhabitants. The US government placed orders from many companies for Agent Orange, and Monsanto was one of them. I don't know how it came to be that Monsanto is exclusively blamed for Agent Orange. As I see it, there are multiple people to blame, primarily the US government. I'm assuming that all the companies involved could have turned down the US government contract, and I'd like to believe that in an ethical world, they would have. But to blame Monsanto for this issue makes no more sense than to blame Boeing for military airstrikes, and I have yet to see a "March against Boeing". The Monsanto that exists today has gotten rid of its chemical division, however there's no denying that the company is built upon the revenue generated by the company that existed back when it made chemicals. There are many companies that exist today that were built decades or centuries ago under very shady circumstances (see the Hugo Boss brand as an example, where they provided uniforms during Hitler's Germany; here's a short list of companies that benefited from slavery. When the spouse read this section, his degree in Political Science kicked in and he started rattling off companies that benefited from times of war, including IBM). I believe that these companies should acknowledge their past and make amends. GMOanswers addresses the topic of Agent Orange and Monsanto, but they have a very PC statement basically pointing the finger elsewhere. Ultimately, this issue has very little to do with GMOs, but is a discussion that we need to have in our society.

In conclusion: there are many legitimate concerns about modern food production. There are many legitimate concerns about the corporate nature of our society and the undue strength they exert over the American political system. These are the things we should be opposing. But whether you realize it or not, when you yell "No GMO!" and list one of the reasons above, the crops that are designed for you and I as consumers, the crops that are designed for humanitarian efforts, all suffer as a consequence. I know it doesn't make for a catchy slogan, but why not try voice your concerns by stating "No to the patenting of all seeds, regardless of technology used for their development!!" or "Increase funding so that our public institutions have the resources to commercialize and license crops!!". I'd recommend focusing your efforts on the REAL reason why you oppose GMOs, and not on the technology as a whole.


  1. To add to #4, many farmers (including non GM) don't save seeds anyways. Here's why according to UCDavis graf students and faculty:

  2. This is a wonderfully informative post. By the way, did you hear the recent news that Monsanto is trying to buy up Syngenta's chemical division?

    1. I had heard the news but hadn't read the article, so thanks for sharing that. This sentence sums up my thoughts about the deal: "The company also says it worries about the "reputational risk" of combining with Monsanto". From a PR perspective, I don't think it helps either one of them. I'm sure it makes a lot of business sense, but from the public's perspective, Monsanto reputation as a monopoly will grow and Syngenta will have to deal with all of the baggage of being associated with Monsanto.

  3. Wonderful info as one how is married to somebody who worked for Whole Foods for 12 years and who frequently spouted that GMO was "black death" it is refreshing to read the science and art behind food and agriculture. Farmers are not food fairies that make food by the Grace of Gaea.
    The struggle with the changing environment and the requisite need to feed an ever growing human population globally frequently leads to various Malthusian pronouncements. I am not sure what the optimum or final carrying capacity of the Earth is in terms of being able to “feed the World” but that probably is not a recommendation that we as people want a “scientific committee” from the UN deciding.
    Nature evolves and farmers want to grow crops in the most efficient manner to get bigger, better, tastier end products for consumers. Does that mean playing with seeds and manipulating agricultural processes maybe?
    Flooding the market without FDA approval with genetic code destroying food that accelerates puberty in toddlers is probably not the way to go either never mind the lawsuits. A careful continued monitoring/study about GMO processes and our keeping our eyes on sustainability is what should keep us all engaged.

  4. 'GMO's being patented' is not the problem per se; a person stating such a phrase is saying that the primary objective of selling the GM crop is to foster the grower's dependency on crops that can only be sourced from a manufacturer (price, contractural arrangements & so forth, be controlled by the supplier) in contrast of the traditional ways such as getting seed from a local market, farmer friend, natural indigenous sources.

    The commercialization breaks down the local traditional networks, people cooperating with each other and replaces it with an exploiitative pawn/master relationship.

    The 'substantiatiative' justification you use at the end is not even closely analagous to either your irrational argument, or any readonable interpretation of anything connectable to your token quote.

    Electronics is either a subject or hardware. Microsoft is software in this context. I am interested to see where your analogy reflects or supports your argument.

    Likewise most people who dont get 'round to commenting on your article will most likely dismiss it as slightly screwy

    1. Hi Mark, I fail to understand how your comment regarding grower dependency is exclusive to GMOs. Most farmers buy their seeds each year due to hybrid vigor. Additionally, most crops are patented whether they're GMOs or not, so the issues you raise such as pricing, contracts, supply, apply to most seed varieties.

      Regarding your concerns about the pawn/master relationship, have you spoken to farmers about this? If not, I strongly encourage you to join the Food and Farm Discussion Lab Facebook page, and ask farmers how they view seed suppliers:

  5. After aproval?

    Don't worry I've got a copy and will attach alongside in other media if necessary

    1. Yeah, the blogspot platform has a lot of spam, so I prefer to approve comments.


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