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Genetically Modified Food: Insanity or the Future of Food:

  • Teaser: As with most things to do with food, the subject is full of controversy and conflicting evidence. Advocates of GMO’s think it will be the next agricultural revolution, bringing increased yields and a more sustainable agriculture to the world and its ever-growing population, while critics claim the health risks, environmental damage and financial exploitation of poor farmers threatens the future of food.

Can we really trust the agricultural industry and companies like Monsanto, or governments that seem under their influence, when they attempt to assuage people’s concerns? Or, are the concerns of many people simply naïve doubts about scientific progress and the inevitable manipulation of nature for survival and the future of the planet.

This article will reference a few areas where people can take a look and explore the subject further for themselves. To begin with an article in Nature magazine in May 2013 looked at the issue of GMO’s and asked three questions:

  • Have GM Crops bred superweeds? The answer was yes, especially in cotton, where Palmar amaranth has proliferated, taking over fields.
  • Has GM Cotton driven farmers to suicide in India? The conclusion is no, after environmentalist Vandana Shiva said “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market, she said. It’s a genocide.The article claims that one cannot attribute increase in suicides to GM cotton, though it admits that increase in cotton yields cannot be solely attributed to GM cotton and also that it is true that many farmers have been under increased financial pressure due to many reasons, including farmers having to borrow money from local money lenders. To comment on this, there seems ample evidence, even if it is empirical that many farmers in India have been put under a huge amount of pressure in recent years and as a result some have resorted to suicide. The age-old practice of money lenders extorting poor rural people has always had a serious impact on life in rural India. One bad crop can burden a farmer with debt for generations. It has been used as a form of virtual slavery. The introduction of GM cotton has not helped this problem. Even if one can’t prove it, it also cannot be proven that it has really helped the standard of living of the majority of farmers.
  • Have transgenes contaminated wild crops of corn in Mexico? This has been another controversial subject as it has been feared that GM crops would contaminate local crops, the Mexican government banning GM crops from the country. However, cross contamination is not limited to international borders. In this case, the journal concludes that it is not clear, one way or the other whether this has occurred, various trials showing some conflicting evidence. It is hard to know what is true at this point, but the issue of contamination is a common one. A famous case in Canada revealed this when a farmer in Canada was sued successfully by Monsanto for using patented Monsanto seed when they had accidentally contaminated his fields. He didn’t want to grow Monsanto seeds and yet the company sued him and won. Monsanto is well-known for having employees driving through the American countryside, looking for evidence of farmer’s fields having GM crops on them, whether they want them or not.

The developing world has an ongoing challenge of food security, where traditional farming methods are unable to meet growing demands for food and dwindling land for agriculture due to population growth makes more intensive farming necessary in some countries. With these challenges, GMO advocates look to GM seeds as a way forward, citing increased and more reliable yields and less dependency on certain pesticides. However, the counter argument is that GM seeds can’t be reused, are owned by agricultural industrial companies like Monsanto, upon whom they will become dependent, and in fact do not produce increase yields in cases when rainfall is less than expected. Further, they require the use of herbicides like roundup, owned by Monsanto, increasing costs again. It should be remembered that there are only 4 GM crops used worldwide – cotton, corn, rapeseed/canola and soy. There are others in the pipeline but these four have been the dominant ones. In Africa the question is often to do with maize/corn, a major subsistence crop in many countries, along with the use of cassava, millet and some sorghum.

In Malawi, the government has subsidized the use of fertilizer for a number of years, along with subsidizing hybrid seeds, in order to increase yield. It has worked, and after a famine in the early 2000’s (partly as a result of IMF recommendations to lower the grain banks to save money), this policy did see an increase in the yield of corn, with the benefits of good rains. However, the government cannot afford to continue subsidizing fertilizer and much of the soil is already exhausted. Also, hybrid seeds tend to need both fertilizer and good rain in order to do well. Otherwise their yield is less than local varieties of seeds. This is just one example of where the idea of a ‘technological’ solution to food security is questionable. Malawi also has one of the most inequitable land distributions in world, second only to Namibia in Africa and both in the world’s top ten. A land reform bill has been stuck in the backwaters of the government for ten years now.

This is but one example of the challenges facing many African countries. NGOs and governments are looking at solutions to the issue of food security but unfortunately many are being influenced by the corporate agendas of companies such as Monsanto and Cargill as they seek to influence the debate, holding the carrot of technological advances, GMO options and a capitalist based industrial strategy for food reform. Organizations such as the Gates Foundation are involved and working together with these corporations to use these technologies – in the name of food security for the poor of the world. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Many food activists seek a more local, diverse and democratic solution to food issues, including the diversification of crops and the use of traditional crop varieties, organic and permaculture methods of farming that maintain quality of soil, enhance local husbandry methods, planting of forests and nitrogen preserving plants and ways in which local subsistence farming can be made more effective. That does not preclude the need for some larger scale industrial technology to be used, including irrigation strategies etc., but the notion that GMO foods are the solution to Africa’s food issues is simply accepting the narrative of US based agribusiness propaganda and those that support this, like the Gates Foundation.

The impact of GM food has been far greater in the United States than any other country up until this point. In spite of all the efforts of the likes of Monsanto, many countries, including the US’s ‘allies’ in Europe have mainly resisted, mostly due to public pressure. The Blair government of the UK was quite willing to capitulate but public opinion and the rest of Europe has been much more skeptical. Much of Africa has also tried to hold out but slowly but surely the temptations have become greater to allow Monsanto and others to experiment with African farmers and use the land resources and lack of regulation to introduce their seeds, herbicides and fertilizers, under the rubric of food stability and future security. When NGO’s such as the Gates Foundation also encourage this, it is even harder to refuse. After all, much money is involved!

It is worth reading work from the organization The Environmental Working Group, In an article named “Americans are eating their weight in genetically engineered food”, they state that

To calculate how much genetically engineered food people eat each year, EWG researchers started with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2011 data on per capita consumption of four foods commonly derived from genetically engineered crops: sugar, corn-based sweeteners, salad oil and “corn products.”

We estimated how much of each of these foods were likely to be genetically modified.  We compared the consumption figures with the latest USDA data showing that 95 percent of the sugar beets, 93 percent of the soybeans and 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. We also applied federal data showing that 79 percent of the salad oil consumed in the U.S. is soybean oil, and 55 percent of the sugar comes from sugar beets.

From these figures, EWG calculated that the average American annually consumes genetically engineered foods in these quantities:  68 pounds of beet sugar, 58 pounds of corn syrup, 38 pounds of soybean oil and 29 pounds of corn-based products, for a total of 193 pounds.

That’s a lot, but it’s likely to be an underestimate, since it does not account for all the genetically engineered foods that people eat. Other foods that commonly come in genetically engineered versions – but are not included in EWG’s calculations – are canola oil, cottonseed oil, papaya, yellow squash and soy products other than soybean oil. (EWG also excluded genetically engineered animal feed that people may consume indirectly by eating meat raised on genetically engineered crops.)

As more genetically engineered crops are approved and grown commercially, the average amount of genetically engineered food consumed would be expected to spike far above 193 pounds a year. EWG considered only three genetically engineered crops, but more than 30 others are currently being tested in field trials, including apples, barley, bell peppers, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, chili peppers, coffee, cranberries, cucumber, flax, grapefruit, kiwi, lentils, lettuce, melons, mustard, oats, olives, onions, peanuts, pears, peas, persimmons, pineapple, popcorn, radishes, strawberries, sugar cane, sunflower, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, walnuts and watercress.

While it is unclear how long it may take for these new genetically engineered crops to reach the market, this long list makes it likely that people could be eating two or three times their weight in GE food annually within the next decade.

The fact remains that the science has simply not been done on the long-term effects of GM foods on human beings. As outlined in his book Seeds of Deception, the author Jeffrey Smith clearly shows how Monsanto manipulate and influenced the Food and Drug Administration to accept GM foods without any true objective oversight into their effects. As before, the American people and now people throughout the world are being experimented on for profit.

As with many complex issues, the questions of what food policies should be instituted for the global challenge of feeding an increasing world population are not easy. Perhaps some genetic engineering is appropriate but there is world of difference between simple methods of optimizing seed production and adapting plant species for certain conditions and the type of engineering being done today by Monsanto and others. What we are seeing are attempts of agri-business and other corporate and government bodies to control the world’s food and water supplies. This is not moving toward a more democratic, autonomous, localized production of food, one that respects the environment and societies throughout the world, but one which is seeking to exploit and manipulate resources for their own ends. There is too much at stake to let them get away with it without a struggle. It is worth supporting the organizations mentioned and also organizations such as and Pambazuka news and many others that are active in this field.