A Genetically Modified Future: Monsanto and You
March 13, 2015
by Kimberly Andrews
The term Genetically Modified Organism, or GMO, has become a buzz phrase over the last 20 years, but many people are still uncertain of what it really means. Controversy surrounds every facet of this technology, from the development of genetically modified (GM) foods, to the patenting of specific genomes, to the safety of the products, right down to whether marketed GM products should be labeled as such on store shelves. There is a mass of information for the average consumer to wade through in order to make an informed decision on whether he or she wants to put these foods in his or her body. Much of this information is provided by entities that have a vested interest in the topic, one way or the other. It is my opinion that the advent of genetic modification in the food industry began as an altruistic idea, but has been taken over by the individual desire for wealth and prestige. Should we be concerned that everyday foods are being genetically modified and are we really aware of which foods come from genetically modified seeds?
GMOs are living species whose genetic makeup has been altered in one way or another to yield a more desirable product. Scientists and farmers have been purposefully modifying plants and animals for centuries. Selective breeding and hybridization of plants is technically a form of genetic modification, as desired traits are observed in parents, who are selectively bred to promote the expression of that gene in subsequent offspring. These practices are typically not controversial, however it can take a very long time to develop a herd or crop that is superior to the original set. A genetically engineered organism has had its genetic material directly recombined through the addition or deletion of certain genes. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the food industry as it takes much less time for change to materialize using genetic recombination than with methods like selective breeding.
Through genetic modification, crops can be developed to tolerate a broader scope of growing conditions. These conditions include a broadened tolerance to drought conditions or colder temperatures. Crops can also be modified to have a more nutrient dense composition, such as a higher vitamin A concentration. Still other modifications made to crops include incorporation of genes to confer resistance to insects that threaten their existence. Commercial use of this technology began in 1994 with the development of the Flavr SavrTM tomato. This tomato was “enhanced” with a gene that prolonged the life of the fruit, ultimately reducing waste and growing sales. In 1996, the nefarious Monsanto began commercially producing corn seeds they had modified to be naturally resistant to a type of caterpillar known as the corn borer. This insect has plagued corn crops around the globe. The company inserted a gene, naturally present in the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, into the genome of the corn. This gene produced a protein that is lethal to the corn borer larvae. The resulting GM corn produced a natural pesticide, reducing chemical pesticide use, saving the crops of farmers. The benefits of GM food seem evident when looking at the two examples above. However, not all of the genetic modification projects are quite as positive.
The most common modifications made today involve the introduction of genes into seeds to confer resistance to herbicides such as Roundup®, produced by the aforementioned Monsanto. This company is often vilified in the news as a corporate devil. When looking at their website, however, they portray themselves as a “sustainable agriculture company” seeking to “empower farmers around the world” to glean the most from the land they have in an efficient and cost-cutting manner. With an exponentially growing population to feed and dwindling natural resources, this seems like a mission and vision one could get behind, right? As with most corporate entities, the truth is not so cut and dry. It is true that Monsanto is leading the way in revolutionary agricultural technology. They are forerunners in the biotech world, producing a myriad of different GM products. Upon closer inspection, the list of GM seed products produced by this company frequently includes foods modified to be tolerant to herbicides, also produced by Monsanto, rather than foods modified to contain higher nutritional value or other positive attributes.
One of Monsanto’s premier products is canola seed. This seed is available as both a winter variety and a spring variety and both come equipped with genes that make them immune to Roundup®. These modified seeds contain proprietary and patented genes, specifically the gene that makes them tolerant to glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup®. When farmers purchase this seed, or any genetically modified organism, they also must sign a licensing agreement regulating how they use the seed, and the corresponding patented biotechnology. These agreements state that the farmers will not give, sell, or save the seed for replanting in subsequent seasons. If a farmer’s compliance is thought to be in question they are reported, often by other farmers, to the seed manufacturers. The manufacturing company then builds a case around the farmer’s practices, including information from surveillance, seed purchase orders, and field analysis. If a case is found to be valid, the company confronts the farmer and they either settle outside of court with substantial monetary penalties, or they continue on to litigation. In Monsanto’s history, no GM patent infringement case that has gone to trial has ever been settled in the farmer’s favor.
Monsanto is perhaps the most well known company in the agricultural biotech arena, but it is by no means the only player in the game. There are a group of companies, known as the Big 6, that own the international seed industry (controlling roughly 73% of commercial seed sales in 2007) and have the corner on agrochemical engineering. These companies include Pioneer, a DuPont subsidiary based in the USA; Syngenta AG, based in Switzerland; Dow Agrosciences, based in the USA; BASF, based in Germany; and Bayer, based in Germany. For many of these companies, the primary GMO products involve modifications that make them resilient to the chemical products the company also produces. The concept of matching herbicide resistant crops and herbicide products is a marketing dream. The crops make the herbicide even more effective, reducing the workload of farmers to spray their crops. As both products are manufactured by the same entity, it is also a great corporate money-maker. Naturally, corporate research and development teams are going to spend more time and money on the money-making ventures, rather than the humanitarian ventures, such as developing more nutrient rich foods. As with any living organisms though, weeds and bugs can adapt. Insects are becoming immune to the modified crops and weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup®. What is the solution? Develop new herbicides/pesticides and modify crops with new genes that make them tolerant of the new products.
What began as promising technological advancement in biology is becoming a vicious cycle of chemical use and corresponding genetic modification to strengthen financial bottom lines. The FDA has established that the marketed GM foods are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). In other words, these products in and unto themselves have not been shown to cause direct health effects in human beings. The largest concerns revolve around the introduction of allergens into genetically modified foods. To date, no GM foods have been linked to allergic reactions. The genetic modifications have not been found to be harmful, but do we really want to change the genes in plants so we can increase the amount of chemicals we use on them, in turn increasing the number of chemicals we put in our bodies? It is also important to remember that GM foods are patented. Patent holding companies have the authority to approve or deny any research done involving these plants. This limits the research that public scientists can conduct on GM foods. Just because there is not a substantial body of research showing that these products cause harm does not mean we can assume these products are necessarily safe. The recommendation I have when deciding whether you want to support GMO products or not is to look at the big picture. Who is modifying the food? What is their end goal? How are these modifications improving the foods we are putting into our bodies? While genetic modification and engineering is a novel technology, it is not always necessary. Just because we can alter plant genomes for easier farming methods and techniques today does not mean we necessarily should.

Kimberly Andrews

Additional Sources:

1.       International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. (2013), ISAAA Brief 46-2013, Executive Summary: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2013. Available at: <http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/46/executivesummary/default.asp>.
2.       Monsanto. (2015). Monsanto at a Glance. Available at: <http://www.monsanto.com/pages/default.aspx>.
3.       Schneider, KR; Goodrich-Schneider, R; Richardson, S. (Nov 2014). The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Univerisity of Florida. FSHN02-2: Genetically Modified Food. Available at: <http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fs084>.
4.       Hasper, T. (15 Oct 2013). “Genetically Modified Foods: What Is and Isn’t True.” The Washington Post. Available at: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/genetically-modified-foods-what-is-and-isnt-true/2013/10/15/40e4fd58-3132-11e3-8627-c5d7de0a046b_story.html>.
5.       Lee, J. (26 Feb 2013). “CHARTS: World’s GMO Crop Fields Could Cover the US 1.5 Times Over.” Mother Jones. Available at: <http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/02/gmo-farming-crops-more-popular-than-ever-world-charts>.
6.       Leys, T. (13 Jan 2015). “Yes, We Have No GMO Bananas. For Now.” USA Today. Available at: <http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/01/13/iowa-trial-of-gmo-bananas-is-delayed/21678303/>.
7.       Hellmich, RL.; Hellmich, KA. (2012) “Use and Impact of Bt Maize.” Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):4. Available at: <http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/use-and-impact-of-bt-maize-46975413>.
8.       Biology Fortified. (2015). Genetic Engineering Companies. Available at: <http://www.biofortified.org/resources/genetic-engineering-companies/>.
9.       Shand, H. (2012). “The Big Six: A profile of corporate power in seeds, agrochemicals & biotech.” Available at <http://www.seedsavers.org/site/pdf/HeritageFarmCompanion_BigSix.pdf>.

This article was written by our newest guest contributor Kimberly Andrews - who is also part of our growing local contingency in Jamestown, NY.  All of us at Can the Man would like to commend Ms. Andrews on remaining diligent through the last few months and producing such an important and well-written article!