**Please don’t let the length of this post deter you! This is a very big topic. If you just want the highlights I lit them up for you. If you want the details, I tried my best to provide those too.
This is me, enjoying an especially wonderful meal grown right here on earth.
I am not a farmer, scientist or businessperson. I am a consumer. I am a mother. I am a citizen of earth. As such, I believe I (we all) have a right to know what’s going on in agriculture and to have a voice for or against certain practices. That’s why it concerned me when I began to see quotes like this from the Institue for Responsible Technology:
“It appears there is a direct correlation between GMOs and autism.” –Arden Anderson, MD, PhD, MPH
And this from The Daily Paul:
We know that GMO consumption has been linked to a host of serious conditions…
I was reading one such article (honestly I can’t even remember, specifically, what it was about or how I came across it) recently that used the word, “obviously.” As in, “Obviously GMOs are going to be the death of us all.” (That’s not what it said, I’m sure, but that was the gist.) It was if a little bubble burst in my mind. I snapped a little.
IF IT’S SO FREAKING OBVIOUS WHY IS ANYONE USING IT?!
I really want to understand!
Because my family tends to lean toward the “natural living” side of the aisle I follow a lot of blogs and Facebook pages that cover topics like herbal medicine, organic farming and sustainable energy. The people and groups that put these pages out have been, pretty much across the board, VERY outspoken against GMOs and biotech in general. But I want to look at both sides of the issue. So I went in search of farmers. This is a picture of the county in which I live:
image from airphotona.com
It is not very hard to find farmers around here. The major crops near me are corn, soybeans and tomatoes. Since 93% of soy and 88% of all corn grown in the US is GMO (source) I’m guessing I know quite a few folks that use biotech. I sent out a plea. In addition to posting my questions on this blog, I sent out emails and a Facebook request to my friends.
I eventually received input from 8 “conventional” farmers, 1 “homesteader” who grows her food naturally, though she is not certified organic, and 1 Monsanto employee.
One response I got said, “Why not just do a Google search?”
I have done dozens of searches. The problem I’ve run into is that the majority of the results that come up are posted by those with a vested interest/political agenda that runs toward one side or the other and they don’t seem objective in the least. Many (not all, but several) of these use terms like, “evil, ignorant, intolerant, backward, controlling and greedy” when describing the other side.
I thought of the farmers I know. Unlike people in most professions, many of them have been working in their current profession since they were toddlers. They have grown up with their fingers in the earth. They are college educated in the science and art of agriculture. The farm is not just where they work. It is where they are born, live and die. It is their home. They pour countless hours into caring for their fields and their animals. Their personal wealth is deeply invested in the equipment and tools of their trade. These are not men and women who are going to read a flashy advertisement and say, “Oh, look! We can buy these new-fangled seeds that cost 4x more than the old ones and we’ll never have to weed again and now we can all just sit around eating bonbons and watching Toddlers and Tiaras!” Are farmers looking to make money and make life a little easier? Sure. Aren’t you? But if 8 out of 10 farmers are using any given product you can bet that there is a very good reason!
Then I thought about the folks working for the biotech companies. These people have a true passion for solving some of the most serious problems facing the human race. When I was a young girl I can remember everyone making a big deal about the world population reaching 3 billion. We are now right at the threshold of 7 billion with the UN forcasting a population in excess of 10 billion by the end of this century. That is a whole big world to feed! Especially when you consider that the climate is changing, creating new problems to be solved. Is there corporate greed? Well, sure. That seems to be a given that no one disputes. But I think there are thousands of scientists and businessmen working in biotech who are truly dedicated to using science to make life better and more sustainable for us all.
It is not fair for either side to dismiss the other.
Keep in mind that they are all eating these foods and feeding them to their families as well.
Nor is it fair for either side to dismiss the concerns of the citizens of this nation. Yes, people can be terrified easily as this great illustration shows. However, individuals are justified in questioning how new technologies will affect their health and environment. History has proven time and again that big business will NOT offer up full disclosure or pull a harmful product from the market at a cost to themselves.
I’ve tried very hard to cut through the hype and the propaganda and the political posturing and find the solid ground beneath. Here is the good, the bad and the big gray in between that I found that seem important for consumers to understand:
THE GOOD STUFF ABOUT GMO
Farmers use GMOs because they are concerned about the environment and want to have the lowest possible impact.
Farmers must make a certain number of “passes” through their field each year. The ground must be tilled, fertilized, planted, weeded, sprayed for insect and disease control, harvested, etc. An average diesel powered tractor gets about 3 MPG. That is a whole lot of fuel being burned. How many resources go into creating that fuel? Shipping it? How much greenhouse gas is released from using it? Biotech seeds are engineered to have the insecticides and herbicides that are crucial to the best possible plant development already tucked inside their genetic makeup. This means that there are less passes of the tractor and fewer toxic chemicals being dumped onto the earth.
While some argue that herbicide use will be increased in the overall population (lawn care, gardeners, etc) because of the evolution of “super weeds” all of the “conventional” farmers that I spoke with first hand said that GMOs significantly reduce their chemical usage and they LOVE not exposing themselves, their workers, and the consumers of their food to these poisonous chemicals. It also means that farmers don’t have to keep tilling up the earth (or at least they don’t have to as often) to get the unwanted stuff out and put the needed stuff in. By tilling less farmers are reducing top soil erosion. Erosion and nutrient depletion are serious concerns and the farmers I heard from see GMO as a possible solution to these problems – or at least a step in the right direction.
Farmers use GMOs because they are cheaper.
Again, based entirely on the farmers I heard from, engineered seeds are a cost savings. The seeds themselves are significantly more expensive and it is illegal to save them from one crop to be replanted the next year. In some cases that can’t be done anyway but, despite these facts, farmers feel that the overall amount of money saved in other resources such as insecticides and labor costs, make them a good financial choice.
Remember, farmers are in business too. They need to remain profitable just like any other business. They use all of the same modern profit and loss tracking tools that other businesses use and they make choices accordingly.
Farmers have more choices than ever before.
Some of the anti-GMO folks out there would have you believe that the average American farmer has been reduced to nothing more than a serf by the big biotech companies. The farmers I spoke with strongly disagree. It is NOT true that farmers are being forced to use products made by Monsanto or any other particular company. Nor are they under contract to use any particular chemical (ie. RoundUp) on their GMO crops.
Biotech manufacturers do design their seed to be most effective used with certain chemicals that they produce and so they will “highly recommend” their own products. If you read the back of your shampoo bottle you will likely see that hair care companies do the same thing. “For best results with this shampoo we recommend you also use our conditioner and styling products.”
If you are curious about the details of the Monsanto/farmer contract here is a great link for you to follow.
Several of the farmers I heard from used the phrase, “I have more tools in my toolbelt than ever before.” 100 years ago if you had harmful insects you went out and picked them off, one at a time. 50 years ago you could pick them off or spray them. Today you can pick them or spray them or use engineered seeds that chemically resist them. That’s over-simplified, but it’s the general idea. The more choices that are available the more empowered farmers are to achieve maximum efficiency. None of them thought that “designer seed” was the great magic solution to every farming problem. They simply view it as one of many ways to solve certain problems that are inevitable.
GMOs produce higher yields.
I have seen some anti-GMO blogs that say this isn’t so and they have very impressive and complicated-looking charts explaining why but every single farmer I spoke with (including those that expressed some concern about using biotech for various reasons which I will get to) said that they had a higher yield with GMOs.
Higher yield isn’t all about more money in the pockets of farmers. This video does a great job of explaining how much land is available for growing all the food for all the people on earth.
THE BAD & THE BIG GRAY IN-BETWEEN
GMOs may be linked to a variety of health problems in animals and people.
When new technology that sounds “sci-fi” comes out people are always a little leary. We’ve all seen “I am Legend,” and “Jurassic Park.” We recognize that these movies are fiction but what makes them frightening is the very true reality that things can go wrong. There is a law of unintended consequences. You can’t make, “one little change” in nature. It just isn’t possible.
Keeping that in mind, people have questioned the wisdom of genetic manipulation since the days when it was just a dream of the future. When it became reality there was serious concern despite over a decade of research regarding the safety of GMOs. But something unpleasant truly hit the fan in early 2011.
Dr. Don Huber has long been considered one of the nation’s leading experts in plant pathology with more than 50 years of experience and over 100 scientific papers published. He has held prestigious posts within academia and the US government and he wrote a letter to the secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture warning of some very serious concerns he had about “the discovery of an electron microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings.”
Dr. Huber’s letter spread like wildfire around the globe. He was not the only one expressing concern. There are a wide variety of scientists saying, if not the same thing, very similar things. Here is one link that gives the entire content of Dr. Huber’s original letter as well as information from others.
One part of Dr. Huber’s letter stated:
The pathogen may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations…
Here is something I found very interesting. Around the time all this happened, about 2 years ago, these were some actual comments on blogs discussing Dr. Huber’s allegations.
“wouldn’t meat and dairy prices skyrocket if cows were dying and becoming infertile?”
From here in 2013 I can say, well… yes. We have seen that happen, as this link points out. Now, this link is old and there are dozens of factors ranging from weather to politics that can have an effect on food prices. I’m just saying… meat and dairy cost more now than they did then.
Another commentor said:
Debunking this is like debunking the rumors that were spread that food safety bill was going to ban seed saving and force farmers to use Monsanto seeds. (Feb. 28, 2011)
Said bill has been passed… sort of. Farmers aren’t being forced to use Monsanto seeds (see “choices,” above) but seed saving has been banned and biotech has, just in the past month, been granted power over the authority of the court that no business has ever had in the history of our nation.
So the crazy conspiracy theorists of 2 years ago were right, at least in part. It makes me think about the old saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
But here’s where it gets gray:
Dr. Huber never put any evidence behind his study. At least, not the kind of evidence that makes it difficult for other scientists to disagree with his findings. As far as I can find, he continues to stand by his statements but he still hasn’t convinced the majority of his peers. In her post, “Extraordinary claims… Require Extraordinary Science,” Anastasia Bodnar discusses all of this and she concludes with this:
Why would a reasonably well published scientist suddenly throw away everything we know about the scientific method to make claims about biologically impossible organisms with no evidence? Why is so little evidence presented and why is the evidence that is presented given as anecdotes instead of hard science? Most importantly, why would he make claims without going through the peer review process to ensure that his claims would be at least vetted by his peers?
Monsanto responded (see full response here) to Dr. Huber very quickly, standing behind the safety of their product, as you would expect. And they provide on their site links to Purdue University Extension Science, Iowa State University, and Ohio State University.
Feel free to slog through all that, if you like, but here’s the gist.
Based on the number of acres I’ve walked, the samples we have received, the talks and literature I have attended and read; and our own research here at the OARDC, this statement just isn’t true. I cannot document that there has been an increase in over 40 diseases in this state, nor in the north central region since 1998 when roundup ready soybeans were first widely planted in Ohio.
…evidence to support these claims has neither been presented to nor evaluated by the scientific community. The claim that herbicides, such as glyphosate, can make plants more susceptible to disease is not entirely without merit. Research has indicated that plants sprayed with glyphosate or other herbicides are more susceptible to many biological and physiological disorders The claim that plant disease has “skyrocketed” due to glyphosate usage is also unfounded.
And I may as well take this moment to mention that Biotech got this endorsement from the head of the European Union’s Chief Scientific Adviser:
“There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food,”
So then, why, you may ask, is all this included under “bad?”
Well… because as this site, and this site, and this site, and this site, and this site, and this site,and this site, and this site, and hundreds of others (Admittedly a random sampling. Some I read very carefully. Some, not so much.) are expressing at least some level of concern over a growing body of anecdotal evidence that people and animals eating GMOs are experiencing a variety of health issues ranging from increased allergies to respiratory problems to infertility.
Anecdotal evidence is not good science and it is not proof of anything. But it should be enough to warrant serious ongoing investigation from the scientific community.
Two of the nine farmers I spoke with had anecdotal evidence that GMOs were causing negative issues on their farms.
We fed our hogs from our own GM crop and started seeing health problems we’d never seen before with spontaneous abortion and some major digestive problems. We switched feed and the problems cleared up. (I asked if the new feed was still GM, just a different brand, and did not receive a response at the time of writing this) We still grow GM on our farm but we have cut back.
When my father switched to Monsanto seed we thought it was great because it was less time intensive and yielded a higher profit. Within 2 years we had experienced 100% colony collapse in our honey bees. He blames it on the new plants and won’t grow them any more. Our new hives have been unaffected.
It gets murkier.
Beekeeping.com says that so far there seems to be no indication that GMOs negatively affect honeybees. In fact, less use of insecticides may be helpful.
Insecticide-resistant GMOs is another situation Dr. Williams says. Plants may be modified to contain Bt toxin, proteinase inhibitors, and chitinases. The benefit of such plants is that they require little or no insecticide application, decreasing, or in some cases eliminating, chemical application altogether. In a similar argument paralleling that related to herbicides, it is suggested this is a potential benefit to honey bees because it minimizes their potential exposure to harmful chemicals. In addition, the materials mentioned above are generally far less toxic in general than so-called hard or synthetic insecticides.
But this article links the very effectiveness of GMOs in preventing milkweed to a decrease in habitat for pollinators (in this case, butterflies) which is causing them to die off.
According to this Ag Weekly article there are about 10 possible contributors to CCD, with the most likely scenario being that it is an interplay between several of them. GMOs, pesticides and monocultures are only 3 of the 10.
Likewise, there is hearty debate over the existence of “super weeds,” the long term effects of GM on the soil, the ways that GM crops change the non GM plants around them and more.
I put all this under “THE BAD AND THE GRAY” because it seems obvious that the jury is still out on the GM issue.
In the mean time, these crops are being grown all around the world.
Image from humanityinthemirror.com
We can not be CERTAIN that they aren’t harmful.
Crops have been naturally bred to enhance certain traits for a millennium or more but what we are doing in this generation – short-cutting the process – has never been done before in the whole history of the planet. Our understanding of genetics is vast and growing every day but there is still much to learn.
And we are throwing these modified seeds into an environment which is already toxic from a whole host of sources. It is very difficult to establish a clear link between GMO and… say… autism, for example. It is not difficult at all to see that the youngest generation is suffering from a myriad of health issues that were considered rare or even unheard of just 50 years ago. What has changed in 50 years? Our food has changed in a big way… but other things have changed, too. So where does the problem lie?
The greatest concern that I have, after researching more on this topic than I have any other topic in a very long time is that history repeats. If you look at the history of DDT, Thalidomide, tras-fats, and countless other examples new science is not always good science and by the time concerns are proven to be valid massive damage has already been done. Just because a product has been studied extensively doesn’t mean that we know everything there is to know about it – especially when people use that product over prolonged periods of time.
Further, the new legislation protecting Biotech from legal action gives these companies unprecedented authority to move forward with their business despite what scientists find in the future. This means that, assuming someone comes up with the millions (billions?) of dollars needed to host such a study and figures out a way to conduct it without interference from other environmental toxins and takes the several years needed to observe the test subjects and evaluate their findings and publish it and be reviewed by their peers and accepted by the scientific community and present those accepted findings to congress and let them debate about it and the US government deems there to be a problem… an entire generation or more will have been irrevocably affected. The process will take decades.
Why can’t we just trust Monsanto to provide a product that is safe? Here’s a quote from them:
A Monsanto official told the New York Times that the corporation should not have to take responsibility for the safety of its food products. “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,” said Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications. “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” (source)
I don’t mean to put everything on Monsanto. They are a bit of a fall guy in all this. There is good reason. You can thank Monsanto for historical gems like PCBs and DDT which, while extremely effective in doing what they were created to do, were eventually deemed to be horrendously dangerous as well with the detriment far out-weighing the benefit. In both of these cases and others Monsanto knew the dangers and downplayed them for decades but didn’t want to pull their product because it would have hurt their bottom line.
That said, they haven’t stayed in business so long or become so big by creating crappy products. Nor are they the only game in town. Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, Bayer (yes, the drug company), Aqua Bounty, Mendel Biotech and dozens of others around the world are working to develop new biotech products, using genetic modification on crops as well as animals.
It’s not unlike McDonald’s in the fast food industry or Wal-Mart in retail. If McDonald’s disappeared tomorrow we would still be a chubby nation and if Wal-Mart were to close its doors forever there would still be big retailers preventing the revival of the “mom and pop” store. Therefore, when you hear things like, “Monsanto protection act,” keep in mind that if Monsanto were to go out of business tomorrow GMOs would still be around.
SO WHAT THE HECK ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?!
You, as a consumer, need to be informed.
Be aware of legislation that is in the works. Know why it is being proposed and don’t just fly off the handle in response to something that “seems” bad. Remember all that stuff in the beginning of the article? Farmers… the people who know the land the best… are widely in support of the use of biotech. Ag science must move forward to meet the demands of the world.
Know what labels mean. Big businesses of all types got big by doing several things well. One of those things is marketing. Clever advertisers know that people fear what they don’t understand and they will play on those fears. One example that was pointed out to me is that there is an expensive brand of popcorn being actively marketed as, “Non GMO.” What that label doesn’t mention is that, at this point, there is no GMO popcorn on the market in the USA. In that case you are paying extra for the label.
Understand that, if your choice is between a “conventional” piece of produce and a “GMO” piece of produce you are choosing between one set of potential risks and another. Most farmers would choose the GMO.
Organic is great and growing your own may be even better (all 9 farmers and the Monsanto employee I talked to agreed strongly on this point) but, when voting and putting forth your opinion, keep in mind that there are billions of people for whom that isn’t an option at this time. New technology in hydroponics, “vertical farming” and more is great but still new. Biotech is one aspect in the massive field of Ag Science. That said, if you have concerns, be empowered! Take your food destiny into your own hands! Our family is doing this more every day and we find it deeply satisfying to feast on food we’ve grown and prepared ourselves. There is more information available today than ever before about urban homesteading. Heirloom seeds are being circulated at a rate much higher than 20 years ago, thanks to the internet.
Be aware that the market is driven by consumers. If you cry about GMOs but you make no attempt to avoid purchasing them all that crying is just white noise. For better or worse your dollars count more than your words in this country.
When it all comes down to it, I can’t say it better than Mike Haley who emailed me this comment:
The simple act of farming impacts the environment we operate in, both in positive and negative ways. This is true for all types of farming large or small, conventional or organic. I think its important we are constantly monitoring the effects our practices have on our environment and work towards ways that we can minimize any negatives while working to satisfy the needs of our customers.
or Katie Pratt who said this:
The gold standard would be for people to develop an appreciation for the places and people who raise their food and an appreciation for food in general.
A few notes:
I would like to take a moment to send out my sincerest thanks to the men and women who took the time to answer my questions and help me sort through all of this information. It was clear in speaking/emailing with each of you that you have all given this subject a great amount of thought and want what is best for us all. I hope that I presented the information you shared fairly and accurately.
If you would like to know more about GMOs and, like me, find the mountains of rhetoric and propaganda online to be intimidating, here are a few links in addition to those already mentioned that were passed on to me by those closest to the debate. They were very helpful!
“I Occupy Our Food Supply Every Day” by Brian Scott
Monsantoblog.com “New Pathogen Claim Spreads Like Wildfire” by Janice Pearson
“G is for GMOs & Why Do Farmers Plant GMO Crops?” by Janice Pearson
“GMOs are Unnatural? And Other Thoughts On Biotech“
It is my most sincere hope that this post is helpful to someone and that it can generate a conversation that is productive. Along those lines, I would love it if you would comment, debate, agree, disagree, add, edit and question. I only ask that you be polite. As always, here in LHM land where I am queen, mean spirited name-calling and excessive foul language will result in your comments being deleted.
Are you, too, seeking to save the earth, promote world peace and raise productive citizens without expending too much effort?
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