An open letter to Europe and the world about GMOs in response to the ridiculous “Letter From America” about GMOs. Of course, Europe and much of the world has been eating and benefiting from GMOs for some time. It’s a fallacy to equate GMOs with the United States. However, it is true that the US agricultural sector has been one of the earliest and largest adopters of genetic engineering, and has benefited from it greatly.
Feel free to click the above link and read the “Letter From America” if you’d like a laugh or to be disgusted.
I’m also an American and I’ve been eating genetically modified foods since the mid 1990′s. So I figured I’m just as qualified to set the record straight. No, the sky is not falling. And yes, I am perfectly healthy.
Dear People of the World,
I am writing you as an American citizen and resident of the United States to share the experience my countrymen and I have had with genetically modified crops.
Genetically modified organisms are common in American agriculture. They account for more than 90% of important crops such as soy, cotton and corn. The United States is also one of the earliest nations to deploy genetically modified crops in mass. Indeed, they’ve been a major component of our food supply since the mid 1990′s.
As an American, I cannot help but take some measure of pride in my country for being at the forefront of this innovation. However, I should also point out that, despite what is sometimes reported, genetically modified organisms are by no means uniquely American. The first GMOs appeared in the late 1970′s in the form of microbes that were programed to create important pharmaceutical components, such as human growth hormone and insulin. Today these organisms are used worldwide to produce such substances at a lower cost and higher purity than other sources. The first genetically engineered plants were developed in the 1980′s, and first deployed in France. China was another early player in the field of genetic engineering.
The US is the world’s largest producer of corn (Maize) and of soybeans. We’re one of the largest producers of wheat, cotton and many vegetables and fruit. Our agricultural base is one of the largest in the world and we are a huge net exporter of staple crops. Overall, the United States is the world’s largest single exporter of food and agricultural products. Naturally, in order to maintain such bounty, the American farmer has been quick to adopt the latest methods and technologies to enhance production. Genetic engineering is only one of the many developments the past century has brought to farming.
Despite what you may have heard, our health, in the United States, like most industrial countries, has never been better. No, we are not all dying of cancer. Actually, age adjusted cancer rates are declining. Many other diseases are too. Life expectancy has only gone up.
Some might point out that there are some conditions which appear to have risen over the past few years or decades. Indeed, asthma, allergies and some other conditions have risen. We’re not entirely sure why, although there are hypothesizes. It has nothing to do with genetically modified organisms, of course. These rates were rising long before GMOs came on the market and have not shown any acceleration in the diagnosis rates that would correspond with genetically engineered foods.
We’re also fatter than we’ve been in the past. It’s not a uniquely American problem, of course. Many industrial countries are getting fatter. There’s no mystery as to why this is happening. We’re sitting around more and eating more calorie-dense foods. It was happening long before genetically engineered foods were created. It’s still happening.
The reality is that, nearly two decades in, no scientific data to show any negative health effects from genetically modified foods has been produced. None.
Our farmers are not morons:
You have probably heard that genetically engineered seeds are doing a terrible disservice to farmers. You may have been told that they do not increase but actually decrease yields or that they make farming more expensive, more risky or more difficult. You’ve surely heard that they result in farmers being ruined by contracts that they are forced to sign. The only logical conclusion, based on this, is that American farmers must be absolute bumbling idiots. I’m sure you think “But these crops hurt farmers and are worse than non-GMO crops and the farmers continue to plant them? They must be imbeciles.” After all, anyone who has a brain in their head would know enough not to go out and buy seeds that give worse results. Perhaps they would buy them once, but would surely wise up after discovering how horrible they are.
I must therefore inform you that American farmers, contrary to what you have been told, are not stupid. The farmers who manage the largest and most productive farms in the US tend to be extremely skilled in both the agricultural and business side of farming. Many have learned this from a lifetime of family farming. Others have gone to college and obtained degrees in agricultural sciences. They often do not work alone, but are assisted by accounts, consultants, contractors and others. Indeed, American agriculture can be very sophisticated and well managed.
Farmers choose to use GMO seeds (and yes, they choose it, nobody holds a gun to their heads) because they have done their homework or have experience in using such seeds and understand that doing so benefits them. For example, if farmers use “Roundup Ready” crops, they will be able to use glyphosate-based herbicides on their fields, as a means of weed control. This turns out to be a much cheaper and easier method of controlling weeds than what would have to otherwise be done. Similarly, if they plant corn or cotton that is insect-resistant, they will be able to save time and money on the application of chemical insecticides.
Farmers have many choices when it comes to the seeds they purchase and the crops they grow. There are numerous seed companies out there and they can provide specialized breeds of crops, hybridized varieties and also seeds that include genetically engineered features. The GMO seeds do tend to cost slightly more than the non-GMO varieties. But again, farmers are not stupid. They know how to do math and they would not buy the seeds if the additional cost were not outweighed bu the savings or increased production.
It should be mentioned that the claims that farmers are somehow ruined or controlled by not being allowed to replant seeds from one harvest to another are based on a complete lack of understanding of how modern agriculture works. Farmers DO NOT generally keep seeds or harvest their own seeds from their production crops to replant their fields. They haven’t done this in some time. They buy seeds, each year, from seed companies. Yes, it costs something, but it assures they have a product that is consistent and not the result of unknown pollination. The seeds they get have the desired characteristics and they are assured to be fertile and germinate. They would also lose any hybridization traits if they didn’t purchase new seeds. The cost is more than worth the benefit.
You may have also heard that companies like Monsanto like to sue farmers who accidentally end up with some GMO pollen falling in their fields and fertilizing their crops. This is patently false. The only lawsuits that have been filed by genetic engineering companies have been against those who very clearly tried to obtain GMO seeds for planting by some backdoor means, like buying feed corn which they knew would be GMO in origin and planting it. We can debate whether this should be an issue that can be protected by patent, but lets not resort to making up lies.
No, A Single Corporation Does Not Control The Food Supply:
As mentioned above, farmers do not have to use genetically modified seeds and they do so because they find that the small additional cost is very much worth the savings or increased production they receive in return. Farmers could grow non-gmo crops keep their own seeds and use them generation to generation, if they wanted to, never using seed suppliers. But, as mentioned above, that would be a stupid thing to do, because they would lose the consistency and desired traits in their seeds. They can also buy seeds from suppliers that provide non-gmo seeds and many do.
The Monsanto company was one of the first to heavily invest in the commercialization of genetically modified organisms for agriculture. Their gamble turned out to be a good one. Their products have been wildly successful and they’ve reaped the rewards. Yet they still are limited in what they can charge. If the cost of their seeds were so high that it was higher than the additional revenue or savings that farmers got from them, the economics would be poor and n0body would buy their seeds. Additionally, if the fees for GMO seeds were exorbitant, other companies would have even more motive to create their own GMO varieties and undercut Monsanto.
That said, there are other companies that have developed and marketed genetically engineered crops and are competing with Monsanto and with other non-GMO crops. These include BASF, Bayer, Dow and Dupont. These companies and others have produced genetically engineered crops that are becoming increasingly popular and are challenging Monsanto’s dominance. None the less, there’s no debate that Monsanto does produce some of the most popular and profitable genetically modified crops.
The dominance of Monsanto is likely to be reduced further in coming years. Genetic engineering once required the resources of an enormous corporation, but gene sequencing and genetic modification is becoming easier and cheaper, as the technology rapidly evolves. Smaller companies and start-ups are more capable than ever of creating genetically modified organisms. The biggest hurdle will likely be whether regulations will make it difficult or impossible for such small entities to successfully get genetically modified organisms approved.
There are also a number of genetic engineering projects underway which are not based on for-profit corporations and closed, patented products. These include research by universities, government agencies, private foundations and even “open source” genetic engineering. Golden Rice is a good example of genetic modification which is not aimed at commercialization, but rather at humanitarian goals.
It is also important to note that genetically modified crops are controlled by companies through the use of patents and patents do expire. Because the technology is relatively new, most of the crops are still under patent. One of the most popular engineered traits in GMO seeds is found in soy beans that are marketed by Monsanto as “Roundup Ready” and are tolerant of glyphosate herbicides. The patent on that genetic modification is set to expire in 2015. At that point, Monsanto will no longer maintain exclusive control of Roundup Ready soybean seeds and other companies will be free to sell seeds with this trait incorporated.
Ecological Impacts, or Lack There of:
First, let me take this opportunity to calm some of the most persistent fears of genetically modified orgasms: the genes inserted or modified in GMO organisms have never and will never suddenly jump into some other species. The genes that have been inserted into corn or soy are not going to end up growing in wild plants. Corn, for one, doesn’t generally grow very well when it is not intentionally cultivated. This is actually true of most agricultural plants. They have been bred to have characteristics that are different from their wild relatives and normally this ends up meaning they need to be provided with artificial growing environments.
The genes won’t get transferred to other species of plants because genes don’t do that. They certainly won’t affect the genes of animals who consume them or any animals at all. Horizontal gene transfer does exist, mostly in microbes and with viruses, and GM-opponents often use the existence of horizontal gene transfer to justify their claims of dangers of artificially-modified genes somehow entering the biosphere and being incorporated into other organisms. This just plain can’t happen.
There is some concern that insects might evolve resistance to some of the compounds that pest-resistant genetically modified crops produce. This is not unique to GMO-based methods of pest control. All methods of pest control have to contend with the prospect of resistance. It can happen with any conventional or even “organically certified” pesticide. It can also happen with mechanical or behavioral controls. Insects can, for example, evolve behaviors to avoid these, just as they can evolve chemical resistance.
The solution to this is to manage resistance by using multiple pest control methods and to use insecticide and pest control rotation. It can also help to omit certain pest control methods for periods of time, reducing the constant evolutionary pressure applied by one method of pest control. If anything, GMOs improve this by giving farmers another tool to provide diverse and varied pest control.
Similarly, you have probably heard of “Superweeds,” which are supposedly the result of glyphosate-resistant crops. These “superweeds” are really just weeds that have evolved some level of resistance to glyphosate. There’s nothing “super” about them, besides that. They don’t grow bigger or faster or spread any more than the weeds that are not resistant to glyphosate. In fact, they seem to be less hearty and fast growing than the weeds they evolved from. This is exactly what you would expect. If you keep applying the same herbicide to fields, then some of the weeds are likely to eventually evolve resistance.
However, like other kinds of pesticide resistance, it can be managed. For one thing, these weeds are likely to die off or become less prevalent if glyphosate is withheld for a period of time. It’s possible to manage the problem by removing these weeds by other means or by using combinations of weed-control measures. Already, there are genetically-modified crops under development which resist other classes of herbicides. By using these traits, multiple methods of weed control can easily be combined, thus reducing the problem of resistance.
The worst case scenario for “superweeds” is that they would get us back to where we started, before glyphosate-resistant crops were developed. It’s unlikely that it will get that bad, but if it does, it’s hardly an ecological disaster.
You may have also heard that GMOs result in more pesticide being applied or that GMOs and pesticides go hand-in-hand. This is not true. Actually, the opposite is true. While glyphosate-resistent crops may have resulted in an increase in the amount of glyphosate applied to fields (although it was popular even without these crops), they have certainly reduced the use of insecticides, especially in crops like corn and cotton. If you consider herbicides to be “pesticides” then you could make the case that pesticide use is increased, at least in that narrow circumstance. But, when it comes to insecticide use, it has been reduced, quite dramatically.
Some have tried to conflate the issue by claiming that GMO crops increase pesticide use because they produce their own pesticides. It is true that some GMO crops do control pests by producing bt toxin, a compound produced by bacteria that is toxic to insects. But it is hardly a traditional “chemical insecticide.” It is a natural compound that has been intentionally used for insect control for decades and unintentionally since the dawn of agriculture. It’s a biological control method that is even certified for use with “organic” crops and is well established to be harmless to humans. It’s in the soil of all farms. It’s cultivated for its anti-insect properties.
Despite this constant grasping for straws and general dishonesty, the balance of ecological impacts from genetically engineered crops appears to be quite favorable. In addition to the reduction of insecticide uses, their use has increased crop yields per-acre, thus reducing the area necessary for agriculture. They have also reduced the energy output necessary to produce a given quantity of product.
Genetically-Modified Organisms and The Promise of Genetic Engineering In Areas Other than Agriculture:
As noted earlier, genetically modified organisms and genetic engineering, though often demonized and opposed in all circumstances, represent a large and beneficial area of science and technology. Genetically modified bacteria and other microbes are used to create important compounds for medical use, such as human growth hormone and insulin. They are also used to produce industrial chemicals and food ingredients, such as citric acid. They do so efficiently and safely.
Genetically modified crops can go far beyond just creating better growing crops. They can be fortified with things like vitamins, as in the case of golden rice. Plants can potentially be modified to produce eatable vaccines or important and useful compounds. Genetic modification holds the promise of everything from hypoallergenic peanuts to wheat that can be eaten by those with celiac disease.
Genetically modified humans may be the next logical step. There are millions of humans who are living with genetic diseases. Genetic engineering and gene therapy has the potential to relieve such conditions by modifying the defective genes. Gene therapies have already shown some success in experimental applications. Two years ago, Alipogene tiparvovec (marketed as Glybera) became the first gene therapy to be approved by major national medical authorities. It is extremely expensive and only a limited number of individuals can benefit from it. However, it is only the first of what is likely to become an entirely new class of medicine.
As with any new and powerful technology, there is always a need for caution and new genetically modified organisms do need to be tested, which they are. But we certainly should not shun or fear this area of science. It’s natural that we would, of course. People feared and crusaded against electricity, aircraft and automobiles when they were introduced.
This entry was posted on Monday, December 8th, 2014 at 10:27 pm and is filed under Agriculture, Bad Science, Culture, Good Science, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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