Genetically Modified Crops and Unintended Consequences

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rows of plants on cultivated Over 75 per cent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain at least one genetically engineered ingredient, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Over 90 per cent of all the soybeans, corn, cotton and sugar beets planted in the U.S. are grown from genetically modified seeds.

Although genetic modification of our food looks like it’s here to stay, there are those who question whether it represents the world’s best route to maximizing its food supply.

It is clearly beneficial to producers. Several studies indicate that it is harmless to consumers, although there are studies that demonstrate serious consequences. The question of whether genetically modified plants will harm the environment is being is becoming more insistently asked. The evidence of harm is multiplying, including resistant weeds and pests as well as an unknown pathogen.

GM’s Benefits

Benefits to producers have been documented. A study for the period 1998 to 2001 showed, for instance, that the yield of genetically modified Bt cotton in India increased 60 per cent over the yield of natural cotton. Bt cotton carries a gene from the bacillus thuringiensis that makes the plant produce substances toxic to the boll weevil, a major cotton pest. Another benefit was the reduction in the use of insecticides. They were reduced by two-thirds for the Bt cotton used in India.

World-wide, the use of insecticides on Bt crops was reduced over a much wider range, from a little as 14 per cent in some instances and as much as 76 per cent in others. World-wide, the consensus is that farmers benefited, although not all GM crops produced higher yields. A University of Kansas study found, for example, that soybeans that were designed to be resistant to the glyphosate, a herbicide sold under the name, Roundup, produced lower yields than non-treated soybeans. It appears that the modification causes the plant to take up less of the plant, nutrient, manganese, from the soil. However, when manganese was supplied, the yield only increased to equal that of non-GM soybeans planted in the same area.

Superweeds vs No-Till Farming

The use of herbicide-resistant plants has greatly increased the use of herbicides worldwide – which was of course the intent of their creator, Monsanto, who is also Roundup’s manufacturer. Over 250 million acres are planted with Monsanto’s Roundup resistant crops, which are grown with Monsanto’s seeds and doused with millions of gallons of Roundup.

The reason farmers are so ready to pay for the seeds and to use the herbicide is that these GM crops are designed for no-till farming. Farmers till the earth to discourage weeds in the early stages of a crop’s growth. When they don’t have to till, there are huge savings. On a 1,000 acre farm, not tilling can save as much as 450 hours of time and 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel each year. With the price of diesel around $4, this represents a $14,000 saving per 1000 acres. It is a convincing argument, especially when the fact that tillage increases soil erosion, while no-till technique reduces it, is considered.

image In the face of these economics, the voices of environmental concern have been slow to be heard, although that is changing. One of the things that is shaking the agricultural world is the development of “superweeds,” which is a natural consequence of GM manipulation. The genes that make the crop plant resistant to the herbicide gradually transfer to one or more of the surrounding plant that have some genetic relation to the GM plant. The result is several Roundup-resistant weeds that have farmers plowing and even pulling up the large weeds by hand.  Although initially denied by Monsanto, and then belittled as being of little consequence, many farmers feel they are back where they started from 20 years ago. By 2010, there were 10 resistant weeds infesting millions of acres in the U.S. The resistant pigweed can grow three inches a day and damage farm equipment, crowding out and shading crops.

Health and GM Suspects

Little has been known about the effect of eating food doused in glphosate, but a study published in 2008, in a publication of the American Chemical Society concluded that "Glyphosate Formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells." The kinds of studies that could link glyphosate and other herbicides to birth defects appear to be scarce, if any. Considering that most of the food produced and sold in the U.S. for the last twenty years contains the residue of its herbicide exposure may ultimately be linked to the fact that our standing on infant mortality, where we were 12th in the world in 1960, dropped to 31st in 2006, behind Slovenia.

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