I’ve never been too comfortable with the idea of genetically modifying crops. There are no proven negative health effects of consuming GMOs, and many people confidently assert that they’re our best bet for feeding a growing population. But I still have my doubts about the necessity of genetic modification.
Patenting of seeds
A few years back I learned about Monsanto, a company which engineers and sells expensive genetically modified seeds. They patent their seeds, so rather than saving seeds to plant the following year, farmers have to keep buying new ones. Farmers caught saving seeds have been sued by Monsanto. This seemed unjust; however, I reasoned that the fault lay with Monsanto, not with GMOs themselves.
The environmental impact
More recently, I learned about the environmental impact of this type of growing. Traditionally, farmers often grew different crops together to help fend off pests, and rotated crops to maintain soil health. But farmers who produce GMOs grow them as monocultures, which means they only grow one type of crop on a given piece of land. This has obvious implications for biodiversity; many important species depend on certain plants, and farmers may eliminate these to make way for the crop. Another issue is that if the crop fails, there’s nothing to fall back on. But this is more a consequence of industrial agriculture than GMOs specifically.
Since many GMOs are engineered to be resistant to certain pests, they can be better for the environment and the health of farm workers as fewer pesticides are used. However, their efficacy sometimes declines over time as pests adapt.
Some GMOs are herbicide-resistant; when farmers spray fields with the herbicide glyphosate (thought to be a human carcinogen), it kills weeds but not the crops. But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate, meaning more herbicides have to be used.
In fact, the increased herbicide use far outweighs the decrease in pesticide use in terms of environmental benefits. In 2003-5, UK government research showed that GMOs cause a fall in the numbers of butterflies, bees and seeds compared to conventionally grown crops.
Feeding the world
But could GMOs feed the world? Some evidence now suggests that GMOs haven’t led to a significant increase in crop yields. Additionally, at least 50% of the world’s grain is fed to farmed animals in rich countries. In other words, we only need to grow so many crops in order to sustain our meat-rich diets. In fact, we’re already growing more than enough food to end world hunger; we’re just feeding it to farmed animals rather than humans.
In an attempt to end Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, which kills 1-2 million people every year, scientists have come up with ‘Golden Rice’ – rice modified to contain beta-carotene. This sounds like a good idea, but why is this deficiency so common?
One reason is that many people formerly obtained beta-carotene from locally grown vegetables like sweet potatoes. However, much of the farmland in developing countries is now devoted to growing food for farmed animals. 82% of starving children live in countries where much of the food farmers grow is fed to the animals we eat in the West. Essentially, the creators of Golden Rice are trying to solve a problem partially created by monocultures with more monocultures. It doesn’t seem sustainable.
But what else can we do? It’s vital that we in the West adopt a plant-based diet. This will reduce the need for monocultures of grain and soya, and hopefully allow those in developing countries to grow nutritious food for themselves.
Though many claim industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world, there’s considerable evidence that smaller farms are capable of producing more food per acre than industrial ones, especially with the use of permaculture techniques. In Cuba, for example, the collapse of the USSR led to immense shortages of oil, fertilisers and other resources. The people responded by creating urban farms and gardens, mostly organic, and were able to feed everyone.
My main objection to GMOs is that they’re unnecessary, increase herbicide use and perpetuate unsustainable forms of agriculture. They seem more geared towards feeding farm animals than feeding the world. I personally think we need to move towards ways of growing food that work with nature, as that’s the only way we’ll achieve true sustainability.
What do you think?