Increasing global population coupled with reducing food production has made scientist and farmers to rethink of new strategy to improve food production. Genetically modified foods were first released into the market in early 1990s, with the first commercially produced food crop being tomato in 19941.
Genetically modified foods are produced from genetically modified organisms using genetic engineering technologies. GMOs have included both plant and animal products. Although some people argue that GMOs would help increase food production to counter the global hunger consistently experienced in most developing countries, I believe the consequences have greater negative impacts.
Producing foods through genetic engineering techniques raises several concerns which include ecological and economic concerns as well as safety issues, which raises the question of its sustainability. This document therefore explores the ecological, economic and safety issues that are associated with production of GMOs.
Those who support production of GMOs argue that it is able to increase the world’s food production to create surplus that is able to solve the world’s hunger crisis. In my honest opinion influenced by the available evidence, genetic engineering techniques can not solve the global hunger crisis.
A study conducted by Charles Benbrook who is a Chief Scientist of the Organic Center proved that genetic engineering techniques do not lead to significant increase in yields2. Beginning 1997 to 2009, there was a significant increase in the land used for cultivating GMOs; increasing from 17,000km2 to 1.34 million km2 across the globe3.
Despite this, there has not been any considerable increase in the world’s food production. In fact, the world food crisis increases yearly especially in the developing countries. I agree with those who believe that we are able to produce enough food using alternative forms of food production.
A study conducted by Soil Association in 2008 found that several scientific studies that had been conducted on genetically modified food plants had proved that the former do not produce higher yields as compared to conventional plants4. The report demonstrated that genetically engineered food production do not increase yields at the national, cumulative level.
According to the Soil Association, a report released by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2006 showed that the available GM food crops do not increase the potential yield of any hybrid variety; contrary to the general belief, the yield could even decrease5. This is a clear proof that genetic engineering techniques are not necessary in increasing the world’s food production, as opposed to what others have always argued since the average yield effects is negligible.
Other agricultural methods that have been consistently used and advanced have had higher contribution to the national and global crop yield increases over the past years as compared to the genetic engineering techniques. Data at the US Department of Agriculture shows that the engineered genes have only contributed about 14% of the increase in maize production since 1990s when it was first commercialized, which is slightly lower than the naturally occurring crop varieties by about 1%6.
These results are opposed to what its proponents have always used to convince the public to adopt the production and consumption of GMOs. Claims that genetic engineering significantly increases food production are based on partial information as well as analytically flawed comparisons aimed at hoodwinking the public.
Some scientists who have always pushed for the production of GMOs have consistently argued that the genetic engineering techniques have insignificant environmental effects. They have often claimed that genetically engineered crops use lower pesticides while increasing profitability to farmers7. United States for example, has witnessed significant increase in the adoption of genetically-engineered soybean, cotton as well as corn crops from 19968.
Other scientists have also supported the use genetic engineering techniques arguing that the method reduces soil erosion since there is limited tilling involved. However, the results of a comprehensive study conducted by Benbrook found that farmers who had used genetic engineering to produce Roundup Ready soybeans only achieved an average 5.3% increase in all the varieties after having used an average of 2-5 times more herbicides than other normal weed management systems9.
A report by the US National Academies released in April 2010 indicated that the use of engineered crops can cause glyphosate-herbicide resistant weeds, which in turn can damage the effectiveness of genetically modified crops.
Some weeds, especially canola which highly affect genetically modified crops contain herbicide resistant genes which are also genetically modified. Besides, some weeds that develop as a result of the GMOs production contain genes resistant to herbicides developed for the genetically modified crops and those manufactured for the naturally occurring crops10.
These wild populations which have genetically modified genes can spread to affect the growth of naturally occurring crops and plants in general. This means that production of GMOs can destabilize the ecology and easily compromise farming of the natural plants, particularly the naturally grown food crops. If genetic engineering technology continues, then farmers will find it very difficult to deal with pest and weeds management.
Weeds could become the major deterrent to adopting sustainable agriculture systems especially when they begin to dictate the crop production practices such as herbicide control, cultivation systems, row spacing among other practices. Although farmers have been used to dealing with variety of weeds, the question is how tough will it be to control herbicide resistant weeds that result from genetically modified genes?
The control measures that could be adopted to deal with such challenges may affect the health of plants as well as crop yields. Besides, these control measures are also likely to impact environment, and worse still, could cause both short-term and long-term effects on soil quality. This means that any lapse in weed management in just one year or farming season could have detrimental impacts on farmers.
Genetically modified Bt endotoxin can remain in the soil for more than one and a half years, and may be transferred into wild plants to become superweeds. A previous study had shown that GM plants are prone to genetic leakages; and this could increase the flow of genes to plants had proved that superweeds could grow in the nearby farms12, thus making weed management more problematic. outside GM farms11.
Weeds are known to have the capacity to adapt to various environments and evolve. This could certainly threaten the ecosystem.
Another study by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in the UK Furthermore, some weed seeds are usually dispersed by wind to long distances.
This complicates weed control, and therefore genetic engineering of crops could greatly affect weed management in future. Weed shift could lead to uneven maturation as well as drying of crops due high competition for nutrients, water and sunlight. This means that we may face more decrease in food production if no herbicide is found which can deal with the herbicide resistant genes in such weeds.
This may be possible since production of food through genetic engineering does not apply non-chemical weed management practices. In the wake of climate change, more improved drought resistant hybrid varieties need to be developed. Increment in food production can only be achieved if we can invest more in biodiversity intensification which is able to work with nature’s nutrients as well as water cycle.
GMOs should not be produced considering the environmental risks that they pose. If governments can prioritize agricultural as well as rural development especially in developing countries, then the global food crisis can be mitigated, and environmental sustainability can be achieved through proper methods of food production.
Production of GMOs has also been found to destroy the quality of soil. The soil as well as its fertility in addition to the organisms that maintain its fertility are very important aspects of our environment since we depend on it for agricultural production and other foods.
According to the Global Research, a scientific study that was conducted in Nagpur, Wardha and Amravati regions in India (regions that produce the highest GMO cotton in the country) showed that after just three years of GMO cotton farming, actinomycetes population in the regions covered by the GMO varieties had reduced by 17%13.
Bacteria in the same soil had also been reduced by 14%14. Both actinomycetes and bacteria are very important in breaking down the soil, cellulose as well as in creating humus. Microbial biomass reduced in these soil reduced by about 8.9%.
In addition, nitrogen fixing enzymes decreased by 22.6%, while acid phosphates which aid phosphate uptake by plants also declined by about 26.6%15. This research clearly demonstrates the looming environmental crisis that we face by producing GMOs. At this rate, just a decade of planting genetically modified crops (cotton GMO) or any that contains Bt genes could cause serious decline of soil organisms, thus leaving the soil infertile and incapable of producing food16.
The larger the acres of land we use to produce genetically modified crops with Bt genes, the more we increase soil infertility across the globe. These long-term effects of genetically modified crops should be a wake up call to review the sustainability of the technique.
What can be greater than one environment, especially now that we are fighting to conserve the environment and avert the increasing desert conditions that continue to spread? Farmers, who depend on land as their prime financial asset, certainly have something to worry about. If the contamination soil with Bt genes remains permanent, they may not have source of income.
Companies that manufacture bioengineered seeds as well as plants have always marketed them as environmentally friendly due to their ability to reduce toxic pesticide/herbicide use.
They use isolated examples to convince the public. However, the overall reality is precisely the reverse. Their primary intention is to sell more of their products. Planting of these carbon-copy seeds as well as plants have always required monoculture farming to make it easy for weed control practices.
Extreme monoculture, historically, has caused loss of adaptive means. Again in such situations, deadly plant infections spread easily and very fast. This could threaten the life of endangered species. In such cases, more herbicide is required to spray the plants as compared to conventional weed management.
Genetically modified crops are hyper-tolerant to and can be sprayed severally without drying up since they have alternative ways of photosynthesis. This could threaten the life of conventional plants as well as animals. Again, it could also lead to farm-worker illness. Battalion confirms that more than 14 people have died having ingested Roundup, although most of them have used the herbicide to commit suicide17.
This type of farming could result to genetic pollution. Genetically modified pollen can be carried by insects, wind, birds, bacteria and even fungi. Once released into the environment, it is not possible to make cleanup. This means that we can not contain genetic pollution. A study carried out in the US confirmed that 50% of strawberries grown within 50m of GM strawberry farm automatically assumed genetically modified gene markers18. This means that we could easily lose food from plants grown naturally.
Genetically modified foods may also have long-term health risks. Contamination of naturally grown food crops with that of genetically engineered genes through cross-pollination could cause long-term effects on human beings.
Gene mixing can occur in viruses and this could create more deadly viruses than the ones that occur naturally. For example, cauliflower mosaic virus that is commonly used in genetic engineering may become a super-virus if it mixes with GM cotton. Gene mixing is even more dangerous to the public considering that there is no legislation that controls it.
A study done by Hammond, Dudek, Lemen and Nemeth in 2009 on the safety of the genetically modified maize revealed that some patented crops ; NK 603, Mon 863 and Mon 810 which Monsanto claimed exclusive rights, can cause damage to the heart, kidney and liver of mammals19.
Another research that had been earlier conducted by a scientist at Rowett Research Institute had proved that genetically modified potatoes have lectin which can cause adverse effects on intestines20. Even though this experiment was done using rats, it is possible that these effects can be general and may have long-term effects on human beings who consistently use these GMOs for a long time.
Some researches have been done to prove that GMOs do not cause allergic reactions; however, the question remains as to whether it is possible to stop transfer of allergens from one food crop to another during genetic engineering. According to Batalion, about 25% of Americans suffer mild allergic reactions to certain foods, while more than 4% of Americans have serious allergies21.
This means that eating GMOs may cause health risks to them whenever food thought to be safe contain transferred allergies. The diminishing biodiversity in our foods could be a contributing factor to increased food allergies. The foods we eat are supposed to be for nourishment as well as vitality.
However, due to their unnaturalness, our bodies produce antibodies as well as white blood cells to defend them against the lack of vitality that result from the unnatural invasion from GMOs. These foods can also cause cancer risks. Genetically-altered growth hormone which is injected into dairy cows to stimulate their pituitary glands to produce more milk, poses greater risk of breast and prostate cancer by about 2-4 times higher than the normal causes22.
A research that was carried out by Monsanto’s scientists showed that even when milk was boiled for 30 minutes, only 19% of this hormone could be destroyed even though normal pasteurization only takes 15 seconds23. However, it has not been possible to prove this using a few instances of controlled chemical isolates. Genetic mutations rearrange the natural order, and such non-traceable influences may cause cancer.
Moreover, GMOs contain lower levels of phytoestrogen compounds which protect the body against cancer and heart diseases. Genetic engineering also threatens our natural food. If the GM fish currently being developed is released, then our local supply of fish could be greatly threatened.
Genetic engineering of food crops also raises the question of ethical behavior of some companies which produce them. A few multinational companies have for some time been manipulating the seed market. They buy up independent seed firms as well as their exclusive rights and then hike the prices.
Their interest as argued by critics who include farmers, consumers and corporate agricultural firms, is to consolidate the nation’s food system under their control. They argue that Monsanto, which is a global biotech company, uses unfair and sometimes illegal practices to control the seed market in the US.
They increase the prices of the seeds to discourage farmers from producing naturally occurring crops. This behavior is also likely to cause extinction of crop seed varieties as large bioengineering corporations continue to replace natural seeds with their patented seeds after buying small seed companies up. This means that we could become less prepared to climate change as we continue to depend on genetically modified crops and not drought resistant crops.
Despite these negative impacts associated with genetically modified food crops, more research need to done to reduce these concerns so that they can be grown alongside the conventional plants. More epidemiological studies need to be carried out to determine the real extent of health risks that engineered crops pose to the public.
Such studies would enable us detect any harm attributed to GMOs. There needs to be more real studies on gene transfer, allergy, and the effects that pesticides/herbicides used on GMOs could have on human beings exposed to them. These would enhance the development of standard policies to govern GMO commercialization, and ways of reducing the health risks. Again more research should include genetic modification of weeds to create more technical herbicide capable of controlling superweeds.
Batalion Nathan. 50 harmful effects of genetically modified (GM) foods. RAW-WISDOM, 2009. 25July, 2011, http://www.raw-wisdom.com/50harmful.
Benbrook, Charles. Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998. Mindfully Green, 13 July 1999. 25 July, 2010. http://www.mindfully.org/GE/RRS-Yield-Drag.htm
Dudek R, Hammond B, Lemen J and Nemeth, M. A. Results of a 90-day safety assurance study with rats fed grain from corn rootworm-protected corn. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 44, no. 2 (2006): 147–60
Field areas. Genetically modified plants: Global cultivation on 134 million hectares. GMO Compass, 2009. 25 July, 2011. http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/257.global_gm_planting_2009.html
Global Research. Monsanto’s Bt cotton kills the soil as well as farmers. Centre for Research on Globalization, 24 February, 2009. 25 July, 2011. http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=12432
Naik, Gopal, Qaim, Matin, Subramanian, Arjunan, and Zilberman, David (2006). “Adoption of Bt Cotton and Impact Variability: Insights from India”. Review of Agricultural Economics 28 (2006): 48
Randerson, James. “Arpad Pusztai: Biological divide”. The Guardian January 15, 2008. 25 July, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/jan/15/academicexperts.highereducationprofile.
Soil Association. New Soil Association report shows GM crops do not yield more-sometimes less. Soil Association, 14 April, 2008. 25th July, 2011. http://188.8.131.52/web/sa/saweb.nsf/195e597ae6f23abc80256ada0051a50f/3cacfd251aab6d318025742700407f02?OpenDocument
The US National Academies. The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. (Washington DC: Office of News and Public Information, 13 April 2010).
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. Economic Research Service, 1 July, 2011. 25 July, 2011. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/
US Food and Drug Administration. FDA Consumer Letter (September 1994): First Biotech Tomato Marketed. US Department of Health & Human services, September, 2009. 25 July, 2010, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/biotech.html
1. US Food and Drug Administration, FDA Consumer Letter (September 1994): First Biotech Tomato Marketed. US Department of Health & Human services, September 19944. 25 July, 2011, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/biotech.html
2. Charles, Benbrook, Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998. Mindfully Green, 13 July, 1999. 25 July, 2011, http://www.mindfully.org/GE/RRS-Yield-Drag.htm
3. Field areas, Genetically modified plants: Global cultivation on 134 million hectares. GMO Compas, 2009. 25 July, 2011, http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/257.global_gm_planting_2009.html
4. Soil Association. New Soil Association report shows GM crops do not yield more-sometimes less. Soil Association, 14 April, 2008. 25 July, 2011. http://184.108.40.206/web/sa/saweb.nsf/195e597ae6f23abc80256ada0051a50f/3cacfd251aab6d318025742700407f02?OpenDocument
7. Charles, Benbrook, Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998. Mindfully Green, 13 July, 1999. 25 July, 2011, http://www.mindfully.org/GE/RRS-Yield-Drag.htm
8. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. Economic Research Service, 1 July, 2011. 25 July, 2011, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/
9. Charles, Benbrook, Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998. Mindfully Green, 13 July, 1999. 25 July, 2011, http://www.mindfully.org/GE/RRS-Yield-Drag.htm
10. The US National Academies. The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. (Washington DC: Office of News and Public Information, 13 April 2010).
11.Nathan, Batalion, 50 harmful effects of genetically modified (GM) foods. RAW-WISDOM, 2009. 25July, 2011, http://www.raw-wisdom.com/50harmful.
13. Global Research. Monsanto’s Bt cotton kills the soil as well as farmers. Centre for Research on Globalization, 24 February, 2009. 25 July, 2011. http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=12432
16. Naik, Gopal, Qaim, Matin; Subramanian, Arjunan and Zilberman, David. “Adoption of Bt Cotton and Impact Variability: Insights from India”. Review of Agricultural Economics 28 (2006): 48
17. Nathan, Batalion, 50 harmful effects of genetically modified (GM) foods. RAW-WISDOM, 2009. 25July, 2011, http://www.raw-wisdom.com/50harmful.
19. Dudek R, Hammond B, Lemen J and Nemeth, M. A. “Results of a 90-day safety assurance study with rats fed grain from corn rootworm-protected corn”. Food Chem. Toxicol. 44, no.2 (2006): 147–60
20. Randerson, James (January 15, 2008). “Arpad Pusztai: Biological divide”. The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/jan/15/academicexperts.highereducationprofile.
21. Nathan, Batalion, 50 harmful effects of genetically modified (GM) foods. RAW-WISDOM, 2009. 25July, 2011, http://www.raw-wisdom.com/50harmful.
22. Nathan, Batalion, 50 harmful effects of genetically modified (GM) foods. RAW-WISDOM, 2009. 25July, 2011, http://www.raw-wisdom.com/50harmful.