We've Been Sold a Lie for Two Decades About Genetically Engineered Foods
Editor's note: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms—either plant-, or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based—would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.
In 1994, a tomato known as Flavr Savr became the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. Scientists at the California-based company Calgene (which was scooped up by Monsanto a few years later) added a specific gene to a conventional tomato that interfered with the plant's production of a particular enzyme, making it more resistant to rotting. The tomato was given the all-clear by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Since then, both the United States and Canada have embraced the genetic engineering of food crops, while Europe has broadly rejected the use of such technology. Only five EU nations—the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain—grow GE crops, and in such minor amounts that all five countries make up less than 0.1 percent of GE cultivation worldwide.
It appears Europe has been right all along to renounce GE crops. An in-depth examination recently published by the New York Times found that GE crops have largely failed to achieve two of the technology's primary objectives: to increase crop yields and decrease pesticide use. Pesticides in particular have come under increasing fire in recent years, not only for their negative impact on human health and wildlife, but for decimating populations of key food crop pollinators; specifically bees, which we rely on to pollinate a third of food crops.
While consumer awareness of the effects of pesticides has grown, the ongoing battle over GE crops has largely zeroed in on whether or not such foods are safe to consume. But as Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim points out in his article about the paper's analysis, "the debate has missed a more basic problem"—that GE crops have "not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides."
Analyzing academic and industry research, as well as independent data, the Times compared results on the two continents and found that the "United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields—food per acre—when measured against Western Europe." The paper also cited a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found "little evidence that the introduction of GE crops were resulting in more rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields in the United States than had been seen prior to the use of GE crops."
New York Times: Behind the times?
For many farmers, researchers and activists, the Times' conclusion was not news. Ronnie Cummins, co-founder of Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Minnesota, told AlterNet that the paper's analysis simply "confirms what many of the world's best scientists have said for years: GE crops have benefitted no one except the corporations selling the chemicals required to grow them."
"I'm glad that the New York Times has now discovered what those of us in agriculture have known for 20 years, that the old and exaggerated claims of genetic engineering by Monsanto and their allies are bogus," Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer, told AlterNet. "They have not panned out and I'm glad that now the newspaper of record has made this clear to a lot of people." Gerritsen and his wife Megan have owned and run Wood Prairie Family Farm in northern Maine for 40 years. "A lot of us have been saying this for a long time," he said.
While it may not be news for those working toward a more sustainable food system, the Times story was unexpected. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., told AlterNet that the Times piece is "a surprising ray of light illuminating the longstanding GE crops debate." He said that the paper "for so many years had ignored the science about genetic engineering and bought the Big Lie" that Monsanto and its cohorts have been telling the public for so long: "that GE crops 'reduce pesticide use, increase yield and are key to feeding the world.'"
Seeing through Monsanto's propaganda
These recent findings fly in the face of Monsanto's stated claim that "the introduction of GM traits through biotechnology has led to increased yields." But the company is sticking to its guns. When shown the Times' findings, Robert T. Fraley, the company's chief technology officer, claimed the paper had selectively chosen the data in its analysis to put the industry in a bad light. “Every farmer is a smart businessperson, and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don’t think it provides a major benefit,” said Fraley. “Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously.”
On its website, Monsanto backs its claim by citing statistics reported by PG Economics, a U.K.-based agricultural industry consultancy. However, that firm that has been exposed as a corporate shill by Lobbywatch.org, a U.K.-based nonprofit that tracks deceptive PR practices. PG Economics has been commissioned to write reports on behalf of industry lobby groups whose members include the Big Six agrichemical giants: BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Syngenta.
"Most of the yield advancement since GE crops were first commercialized is attributable to traditional breeding techniques, not the GE traits," Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, told AlterNet. Kastel, who worked for several agribusiness giants including International Harvester, J.I. Case and FMC before making what he calls the "paradigm shift to sustainable farming," said that since GE crops were introduced in the U.S., farmers have experienced boom-and-bust cycles and today are "generally hurting," regardless of the scale of their farming operations. "GE crops have not been a panacea for economic sustainability," he said.
Instead, GE crops have been a source of financial growth for the agrichemical industry. Kimbrell said that the Big Six "make tens of billions of dollars in profits by selling ever more pesticides, especially herbicides. Why would they spend hundreds of millions of research dollars and then billions in advertising and lobbying to promote crops that actually 'reduce pesticides' and thereby destroy their bottom line? Are these companies committing economic suicide in an altruistic attempt to feed the world? Obviously not. You can accuse Monsanto of many things, including myriad corporate crimes over many decades, but altruism is not one of them. The vast majority of [genetically engineered crops] are not designed to decrease herbicide use, but to massively increase it."
A toxic plague
The Times' Hakim notes that, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, while insecticide use has actually fallen by a third since GE crops were introduced in the U.S. in the mid-'90s, herbicide use has exploded, growing by more than a fifth over that same period. French farmers, by contrast, have been able to reduce insecticide use by a far greater margin—65 percent—while decreasing herbicide use by more than a third. "Although some insecticide use has been reduced, overall agrochemical applications have grown exponentially," said Kastel.
American tomatoes may take longer to rot than their conventionally grown European counterparts. But with GE tomatoes being one of the most pesticide-contaminated foods in the U.S. food supply—not to mention the fact they won't feed more people (there'll be a staggering 8.5 billion of us by 2030, 11.2 billion by 2100)—the Flavr Savr is just a trick, and perhaps ultimately a dangerous one. While the real toll of industrialized GE agriculture on human and environmental health is hard to calculate, its track record is dismal. By some estimates, pesticides have killed an estimated 250 million bees in a just a few years. The Times reported that some commercial beekeepers have lost more than a third of their bees in 2013. Pesticides have also impacted populations of fish, amphibians and songbirds.
But it's not just wildlife that suffers. The general public is ingesting pesticides on a regular basis. Kastel notes that "eaters are consuming copious amounts of biological insecticides built into the genome of corn," adding that "the cumulative health impacts are unknown." People who live near GE crops have to contend with an additional health impact: pesticide drift, agrichemicals blown into their communities by the wind.
The heavy reliance on pesticides has started a vicious cycle, leading to the rise of pesticide-resistant superweeds. "Weeds and insects are becoming resistant to the herbicides and genetic insecticides that are spliced into the plants," said Gerritsen. "To combat resistance, some farmers are using a chemical cocktail of multiple herbicides while biotech companies are introducing resistance to even more powerful and toxic chemicals." He estimates there may be 60 to 80 million acres of farmland in the U.S. with "superweeds" that have built up a resistance to RoundUp. Cummins said superweed resistance has forced farmers to "use higher and higher amounts of increasingly dangerous poisons" so that "soils are eroded and degraded. Water is polluted. Foods are contaminated. And to what end?"
It may take years, even decades to fully understand the unintended consequences of industrialized agriculture. "These chemicals are largely unknown," David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, told the New York Times. His research has linked the loss of millions of IQ points among children 5 years old and younger in the U.S. to a single class of insecticides. "We do natural experiments on a population," he said, referring to human exposure to agrichemicals, "and wait until it shows up as bad."
Activists of the world, unite
Hakim also points out that "profound differences over genetic engineering have split Americans and Europeans for decades," noting that anti-GE sentiment across the pond has been much more active, with Monsanto drawing the ire of thousands of protesters in cities like Paris and Basel, as GE opposition is firmly established as a primary plank of Europe's Green political movement.
The prospect of a Monsanto-Bayer merger has only galvanized the opposition in Europe, even as activists recognize new and different kinds of challenges ahead. Jan Perhke of the Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers, a German NGO, says that Bayer's diversification has made it a more difficult target than Monsanto, whose business is simple: GE seeds and pesticides. Monsanto, which has emerged as the primary worldwide target of the anti-GE movement, has been steeped in controversy recently, particularly since RoundUp's main ingredient glyphosate was deemed a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization in 2015.
"We have tried to put the focus not only on Monsanto, and to let people know that behind Monsanto there are many agrochemical multinationals which are very big and also have very dangerous products," Perhke told DW. There has been speculation that, if the merger goes through, Bayer will drop the Monsanto name, which would force activists to rebrand their campaigns.
Many anti-GE activists can be found in Vermont, the first state to pass GMO-labeling legislation. In its 2016 report "Vermont's GMO Addiction: Pesticides, Polluted Water, and Climate Destruction," the nonprofit group Regeneration Vermont describes the terrible impact chemical-based industrial agriculture has had on the state's economy and environment:
The true nature of GMO agriculture in Vermont today is a stark and dangerous difference from the promises of its corporate advocates. According to data collected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, pesticide use is up 39% and increasing rapidly while, at the same time, new pesticides are being added to the arsenal. Climate-threatening nitrogen fertilizers have been up about 17% per year in the decade of GMO’s rise to dominance (2002-2012) and climbing as our denuded soils require more and more inputs for high production. And the pollution to our climate, water and soil from these increases continues to rise, keeping us on a steady degenerative decline, environmentally, economically and culturally.
Lining corporate coffers
"The great economic promise of genetically engineered crops has flowed primarily to bankers, suppliers and the biotechnology industry," said Kastel. "Rather than improving the bottom line, it enabled farmers to grow larger and automate crop production with fewer people involved."
The agrichemical industry is the chief beneficiary of those economic benefits. Over the past 15 years, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto and Syngenta have grown more than sixfold. And these companies are profiting on both ends. "They sell the seeds and the poisons sprayed on those seeds. Great for their bottom line, terrible for the rest of us and the planet," said Kimbrell. "For Monsanto and the other chemical companies, genetically engineering crops is just another way to significantly increase profits." If the mergers of Monsanto and Bayer on one side, and Syngenta and ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned agrichemical company, on the other, were to go through, the two newly created behemoths would each have combined values in excess of $100 billion.
Meanwhile, bees are dying in worrisome numbers, in part due to the increased use of neonicotinoids, a dangerous class of pesticides produced by Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical and commonly used on GE corn, soybean, canola and cereal, as well as many fruits and vegetables. But because bees work for free, the estimated $15 billion in ecosystem services they provide to society each year is not included in economic calculations.
Is it too late?
Even as crop yields have shown no improvement versus conventional methods, U.S. growers have increased their use of herbicides as they have converted key crops—including cotton, corn and soybean—to modified varieties. Meanwhile, American farmers have been overtaken by their counterparts in France, Europe's biggest agricultural producer, in the overall reduction of pesticides.
Is it too late for the U.S. and Canada to get off this ruinous track of industrialized agriculture? For advocates of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture and agroecology—who seek to place farming within the context of natural ecosystems as opposed to objects of chemical-based production—the answer is a resounding no.
"Research has shown that agroecologically based methods—such as organic fertilizers, crop rotation and cover crops—can succeed in meeting our food needs while avoiding the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture," argues the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "As farmers incorporate these practices into their work, many benefits emerge: Less pollution. Healthier, more fertile soil that is less vulnerable to drought and flooding. A lighter impact on surrounding ecosystems, resulting in greater biodiversity. Reduced global warming impact. Less antibiotic and pesticide resistance."
In fact, a 2015 global study conducted by researchers at Washington State University and published in the peer-reviewed Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences found that despite lower yields, the profit margins for organic agriculture are significantly greater than conventional agriculture. Part of that increased profit margin may come from not having to pay a premium for Big Ag's seeds and pesticides.
"Why would a farmer want to pay a premium for RoundUp Ready soybeans if the RoundUp is no longer working?" Gerritsen says. "What has been happening, widespread, is that farmers are going back to non-GE soybeans and growing them as they did before the RoundUp Ready soybeans came in 20 years ago. Then, the best among them have figured out that there is a growing market worldwide for a non-GMO soybeans." He notes that some U.S. farmers raising conventionally grown, non-GMO soybeans have found competitive markets in Asia, where they receive a premium for their produce. An added benefit for these farmers is that they can save their seeds instead of having to buy them each season from Monsanto, which actually leases its seeds and regulates them as intellectual property. For thousands of years prior, seeds were considered a part of the wealth of the commons, free and available to anyone who planted and grew crops.
But moving from industrial agriculture to organic farming isn't easy, especially when the transition period to get organic certification exposes growers to financial risk. The authors of the Washington State University study say that the impetus for change must come from policymakers, who should "develop government policies that support conventional farmers converting to organic and other sustainable systems, especially during the transition period," a 36-month withdrawal period from the time a farmer last used an unapproved material, like a pesticide.
But considering the powerful Big Ag lobby, getting policymakers to help farmers move to organic is a daunting task. Gerritsen acknowledges that "it's hard to out-gun the tremendous resources of Monsanto and what basically amounts to a calculated propaganda effort to misrepresent reality, to gain position and dominance." He says the deck is stacked against farmers. "Sadly, this is nothing new to agriculture. The history of agriculture is one where farmers who were spread out and independent by nature and by geography have a hard time competing with the concentrated power structures within agriculture. This has gone on for 150 years. Only now, the accelerated rates of concentration is no more stark than in the seed industry. Just a small handful of companies now control the vast majority of world seed resources. Monsanto is chief among them."
If regulators approve the $66 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger, the resulting corporation would have control of nearly a third of the world's seed market and nearly a fourth of the pesticide market.
"In all probability, one story, albeit a major one, is probably not enough to finally debunk Monsanto and friends’ Big Lie about GE crop technology," Andrew Kimbrell said about the Times' analysis. "You will probably continue to see the common sense-defying claims for a while yet. But if as the ancients said, the truth is like a lion; just let it loose. Then maybe we can finally go past the already failed but still dangerous GE experiment and move to an ecological agriculture that really will reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides and provide a secure sustainable food future for us all."
Whether or not the U.S. and Canada will move toward a more sustainable agricultural model remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The 20-year-old experiment with genetically engineered crops has proven to be a false promise, suggesting that the creation of completely new organisms is better left in the hands of Mother Nature, not scientists in laboratories.
"When you begin to genetically engineer organisms by mixing plant and animal genes, you now have the ability to alter ecosystems, which can have unintended consequences," Robert Colangelo, founding farmer and CEO of Green Sense Farms, America's largest network of commercial and sustainable indoor vertical farms, told AlterNet. "Mankind does not have a good track record when it tries to alter nature."