GMOs are evil! Monsanto is the Devil! Planting transgene corn kills unicorns!
The discourse surrounding GMOs can devolve to base levels at times. The Right to Know-supporting crowd can embrace the David role, staring opposite the seed company Goliath, a bit to enthusiastically. But in most any debate it’s a level head and facts that win out in the end. Which is why we’re looking at the hard information that appears to disprove the pro-GMO argument.
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The Nobel Peace Prize-winning agronomist Norman Borlaug wrote in a 2000 essay for Plant Physiology that, “By 2025, we will have to nearly double current [food] production again. This increase cannot be accomplished unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yielding crop production methods.” He, like so many other GMO advocates, rails against “antiscience” activists, saying they’re misguided in trying to kill much-needed agriculture technologies.
As it turns out, the argument about yields appears to be faulty. The results of a 20-year study conducted at the University of Wisconsin (and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) suggest that planting transgene corn does not categorically ensure larger harvests. Some GMO strains did have slightly higher yields, but others were beat out by their non-GMO counterparts. As Tom Philpott writes for Mother Jones, the study shows that genetically altering corn “causes unintended changes in the way it grows, causing it to be less productive.”
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A soybean and a soybean seed are one in the same. If germinated and grown into a plant, one bean can eventually produce the seeds for countless future plants—a return that grows exponentially over multiple seasons. But thanks to the strict patent control practiced by seed companies like Monsanto, farmers have to pay for new seeds, for a new license to use the GMO technology, every year—or face litigation for saving and replanting seeds. Between 1975 and 2000, the price of soybean seed rose 63 percent, according to a report from The Organic Center. The cost shot up 230 percent over the following decade.
Where farming is big business, like America’s Midwest, this increased overhead hasn’t proved devastating. But in India, where farmers have gone deep into debt to buy GMO seeds, seduced by the faulty promises of better yields, the dramatic price increases have been lethal: While numbers (and causes) are widely debated, many farmers have committed suicide after their crops failed and they were unable to pay back their debts.
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The perceived danger of eating GMO foods is what most wary consumers put their attention on in this multifaceted debate. The science here, however, proves to be the stickiest. The most recent study to suggest there are serious health risks associated with eating transgene corn, conducted at the University of Caen in France, would, despite its critics, appear to support the anti-GMO camp: “Rats fed on a diet containing NK603—a seed variety made tolerant to dousings of Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller—or given water with Roundup at levels permitted in the United States, died earlier than those on a standard diet,” Reuters reported last September.
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The logic behind Round-Up Ready crops is rather elegantly simple, if not twisted: Make the crop resistant to a pesticide that might otherwise kill it, allowing farmers to decimate weeds and pests without harming the corn or soy itself.
That may have worked as planned for a period of time, and a USDA report from 2000 said thanks to the adoption of transgene varieties, “herbicides may be used at lower application rates, require a smaller number of applications, and may be more benign than herbicides required for crops without the herbicide-tolerant genes.” But 13 years later, evolution has run its course and now superbugs and superweeds plague farmers. As a result, herbicide use increased by 11 percent between 1996 and 2011, according to a peer-reviewed paper by Washington State University’s Chuck Benbrook, published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.
Bowman v. Monsanto Co., the first ever GMO patent violation case to reach the Supreme Court, was argued in front of the Justices this week. But this is far from the first time the company has taken legal action against farmers. Monsanto claims, however, that it “files suit against farmers who breach their contracts and infringe our patents—not against farmers who did not intentionally take these actions.” So don’t worry: If GMO crops drift into your fields, no one is going to sue you! (Although some claim the company is far more aggressively litigious than it claims to be.)
But what recourse do organic farmers have? Their very business model depends on their crops not having any patented genes in them. None, apparently. In a new USDA report, the government suggests that such farmers buy additional insurance to protect them from crops lost due to unintentional GMO contamination.
Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com