Friday, December 13, 2013

Why the GMO promises are hollow

Resistant weeds in a soybean field, Pana, Ill 2012
Many promote GMOs as a main solution for future food production. However, among those engaged in actual farming you rarely hear such bold statements. For sure, the uptake of GMO crops in the United States and a few other countries is great. But we are not talking about any break-through technologies here; we are talking about technologies that can save farmers a few dollars per acre, in the same way as pesticides. The reality in the field is, so far, very far from the discussion about feeding the world that is used by GMO proponents.

There is a growing problem with weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate, the most common herbicide used by American corn, soybean and cotton farmers. New strategies are needed to combat them, according to David Mortensen, professor of weed ecology at Penn State. During the period since the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops, the number of weedy plant species that have evolved resistance to glyphosate has increased dramatically, from zero in 1995 to 21 in 2013. The reported acreage infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds has risen from 32.6 million acres in 2010 to 40.7 million acres in 2011 and 61.2 million acres in 2012, according to Mortensen[i].

When I visited farmers in Illinois and Mato Grosso in Brazil 2012, I realized that the “new strategies” is to combine roundup with nastier herbicides such as paraquat in Brazil or atrazine in Illinois. Paraquat was banned in the European Union since 2007. The ingestion of small to medium amounts of paraquat may lead to heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure or lung scarring within several days to several weeks. If a person survives the toxic effects of paraquat poisoning, long-term lung damage is highly likely. People with large ingestions of paraquat are not likely to survive according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[ii]. It is exported from Switzerland where its use also is forbidden. More than 3 million liters of paraquat is used in Brazil, mainly in GMO soy plantations. According to the rhetoric for GMO proponents, use of herbicides would be lower when herbicide resistance crops are grown, but this is clearly not the case. In Brazil, the use of herbicides has increased from 7 kg per hectare to 10 kg and a survey in the state of Paraná show that farmers growing GMO soy use more pesticides than farmer that don’t grow GMO soy[iii]. Atrazine, which is commonly used in United States to deal with glyphosate resistant weeds in corn is also prohibited in the European Union. It is an estrogen disruptor and is suspected of causing birth defects. Atrazine was found in 80 percent of drinking water samples taken in 153 public water systems in United States[iv].

As a rule, GMO technology has a limited potential to radically increase yields; there is simply no “high-yield” gene that can simply be put in place in the various crops, if there were such simple traits, they certainly would already have been developed through the normal process of evolution[v]. High yields are a result of many synergetic factors of which the genetic factors are only a small proportion and the genes involved are many. The same is the case for many other GMO promises. Frost tolerant potatoes have been talked about for decades, but are still far away. There is apparently some progress in draught tolerant corn, but the size of the challenge is perhaps best understood when realizing that ag-tech giant Monsanto has to team up with competitor BASF in order to have the muscles to realize this, and again, there will be trade-offs. Draught tolerance will come at some kind of “cost” for the plant, or for the farmer[vi]. “One can never change only one thing” as Garret Hardin says. And in few areas is that as apparent as in our food and farm system. 

GMOs have the potential to solve certain technical problems, problems that in most cases have also other solutions. And those other solution compete with GMOs for research funds and attention. The biggest danger with GMO in my view is perhaps not health effects or super-weeds bringing havoc to nature. Bigger dangers with GMO are the increased reliance of farmers on purchased proprietary technology and that because of very high development costs, GMOs will lead to fewer varieties and even more monoculture. In addition, the outcrowding effect of GMO research is massive. BASF is investing around EUR188 million annually in plant biotechnology research[vii] and Monsanto invested more than US$1.5 billion in 2012 on research of which a very large proportion is for biotech[viii]. It is a field that can much more easily attract funds than solutions based on local resources and on-farm solutions, as there is no money to be made from such solutions, while the GMO solutions are based on proprietary technologies. It may also make people complacent in facing the problems we actually have. If the knee-jerk response to any agriculture challenge is that we will fix it with GMOs we are in serious problems.

Lately the strategy of GMO proponents is to promote them as a solution for poor farmers in developing countries. In this way they use moral arguments against the opponents, making it look like that those that are against GMOs are to blame for that people are starving or that some are blind because of vitamin A deficiency. As explained above, I think they have no basis for their claims. I have worked long enough in developing countries to know that the problems poor smallholders face are of a different nature and more often rooted in economic and social conditions than in agronomy. In any case, existing technologies can very well solve the problems which GMOs are supposed to fix. 

Some proponents of GMOs dismiss the objections with that they are not really rooted in fear that GMOs would be harmful for environment or for human health but that the resistance is a protest against capitalism, privatization and globalization. I tend to agree with that. I don’t exclude that GM technologies could produce some useful traits in the future. I am not convinced that it can justify the risks and the enormous investments. And in general I believe that the patenting of genetic materials, GMOs or not GMOs, is fundamentally wrong, unjust and yet another step towards full privatization of nature. GMOs or not GMOs is essentially a political and ethical choice and not a choice of technology.

This is an draft extract from my upcoming book.

[i] Brown, Diane, 2,4-D and dicamba-resistant crops and their implications for susceptible non-target crops, Posted on November 7, 2013 Michigan State University Extension, accessed 13 December 2013.
[iii] GM crops push up pesticide sales in Brazil, AgroNews, 13 Augusti 2012
[iv] Still poisoning the well, Wu, Mae, Mayra Quirindongo, Jennifer Sass, and Andrew Wetzler, NRDC, April 2010
[v] Bengtson, Jan, In which ways could modern biotechnlogy be part of sustainable agriculture, , Sveriges Utsädesförenings Tidskrift 1-2013
[vi] Bengtson, Jan, In which ways could modern biotechnlogy be part of sustainable agriculture, , Sveriges Utsädesförenings Tidskrift 1-2013
[vii] May 23, 2013, 7:11 a.m. EDT, BASF, Monsanto to launch new GM corn in U.S.
[viii] Monsanto Corporate Profile 6 September 2013,

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