By Sera Deva
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their implications is a hot topic these days— both globally and in our regional community. These issues affect not only our health but also our environment and economy, yet most of us are still confused as we wade through the information, misinformation, emotions, strong opinions and scientific data. Here are a few thoughts that might help clarify some common questions about GMOs.
1. Why is genetic modification not the same as plant breeding?
Some scientists argue that genetic modification is simply speeding up the inevitable process of plant breeding, a practice we’ve been using since the dawn of the agricultural era. This is not the case. In standard breeding situations, genes are transferred mostly in sexually compatible species, and they are largely ‘simple’ crosses between plants selected for observable attributes. Genetic modification requires human-mediated insertion of genes into an organism from largely sexually incompatible species. Those genes can come from any number of organisms, and are often transferred through the vehicle of bacterial and viral DNA, which affects the organism into which it is being introduced in ways still not fully understood.
2. Why are there so few controls or regulations on GMOs in this country when we’re still unclear about the future implications?
As it is, the global policy-making systems have not caught up with our appropriate technology developments, e.g. the refusal of the US government to endorse green energy solutions. Historically, changes in food production have been accepted even more slowly. If food production technological practices get ahead of governmental oversight, it’s likely that they will remain inadequately regulated and find their way prematurely onto market shelves, potentially putting consumers at risk.
3. How does genetic modification (GM) technology affect the economics of developing countries?
In 2009, 14 million farmers in 25 countries grew GM crops commercially, more than 90 percent of them small farmers in developing countries. Although not all GM seeds are sterile, GM seed producers exercise a lot of legal power to make sure that offspring of GM seeds are not cultivated, thus creating dependency of farmers that use GM seed on those companies year after year.
4. Don’t we need genetically modified food to solve world hunger issues?
Abundance, not scarcity, accurately describes the supply of food in the world today. During the last 30 years of the 20th century, for example, over supply of grain markets pushed grain prices steadily downward. Many cases have been found that an increase in food production per head did not correlate with a decrease of food insecurity. World hunger is not a supply issue, but a distribution issue.
5. What are the environmental consequences of GMOs being used more widely?
The scientific studies surrounding genetic modification and environmental impact often ask more questions than they answer. A basic understanding of ecology and systems thinking suggests that whatever the consequences, they will intensely affect the ecological systems in the areas where they are introduced. Those consequences extend to animals, bacteria and fungi that breed, and therefore evolve, much more rapidly than humans do.
The breadth of the environmental impacts of genetic modification will not be known for many years, however GM crops are already affecting gene pools of corn, rice, canola, and soybean operations, cross-pollination putting farmers and their crops at legal and biological risk.
Organic Growers School provides practical and affordable organic education in the Southern Appalachians, building a vibrant food and farming community by boosting the success of organic home growers and farmers in our region. Handson training, workshops, conferences and partnerships strengthen and celebrate each grower’s move towards self-reliance. Learn more and see a bibliography of resources at organicgrowersschool.org/gmos-resources-bibliography.