GMO vs Organic Food & Farming
Every now and again I receive valuable feedback from my website readers and channel viewers. This has often shed light on issues that people are concerned about. And at times I've been able to discern areas of debate, confusion and even misinformation.
Recently this has come to my attention within the realm of GMO research and implementation. Genetic engineering has changed the world. For the better? For the worse? Wherever you stand on this topic, you have to admit one thing. Change has come.
"GMO is not new" ...?
This is the first layer of misinformation which seems to have taken root. GMO proponents try to push the idea that genetic engineering is not really much of a change. In fact, 'farmers have been genetically engineering crops for thousands of years.' Really? They've been Genetically Modifying organisms? This simply is not true. Let me explain why.
Genetically modified organisms are the result of human or artificial manipulation. 'Wait! So are hybrids!' Hold up, this is not the same process. Genetic engineering isn't the same as selective breeding. GMOs result from a completely different mechanism: Gene Technology.
Note the definition provided by the World Health Organization1: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called "modern biotechnology" or "gene technology", sometimes also "recombinant DNA technology" or "genetic engineering".
HYBRIDS: are derived from a cross of 2 different (although compatible) lifeforms. There are two parent organisms which, through sexual reproduction, create offspring. The offspring inherits traits from each parent and may be quite unique.
But a farmer or breeder who creates a cross, must work within the framework of the genes that are available in the parents. And the hybrid can only result from sexual reproduction. Even with human intervention, this is still a very natural process. In fact, many hybrids could occur in nature without any artificial interference.
Years ago, Wired2 published an article describing research that shed light on how corn was cultivated by the ancient Aztecs. Biotechnology giants tried to use the research as a means for confusing people -blurring the lines between agricultural breeding and genetic manipulation.
So what are the mechanisms used in modern genetic engineering?
GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS: are a product of gene technology. This is a relatively new science which has made amazing discoveries over the last several decades. Gene technology has taught us about gene expression providing remarkable insights into DNA, RNA and the way they work. Scientists can now use genetic markers to better facilitate conventional breeding programs.
In addition gene technology can modify a gene or even introduce a new gene that had never been in a host organism. These techniques are what researchers have used to develop modern GMO crops such as HT or Bt corn. They've taken genetic material that was not inherently found in corn and introduced it. On a cellular level, the original organism is genetically altered.
Gene technology has provided a new set of tools, allowing people to bypass conventional reproductive methods. The natural barriers separating one kind of organism from a completely different kind are ignored. And thus we hear about genes from a fish being introduced to a tomato. These transgenic organisms are new creations. This practice is something very different from what breeders have done in centuries past.
Why does it matter?
That's a good question, isn't it? GMO advocates have tried to create a perception that genetic engineering is just an extension of ancient agricultural processes. Why would they want to do this? Even the smallest amount of research will show that these methods are very, very different. So why muddy the waters? Consumers love NEW and exciting things. Shouldn't they love this new, revolutionary way of shaping life?
It's a propaganda technique which strives to rationalize a radically new way of approaching breeding and agriculture. If a method is sound, safe and effective then it should speak for itself. Don't shroud a technology in mystery. Don't try to associate it with natural techniques that people have been comfortable using for centuries.
Genetic manipulation through gene technology should be able to stand on it's on merits.
What has it produced?
According to the USDA3 genetic engineering "has helped to make both insect pest control and weed management safer and easier". In addition, it "has been used to protect crops from devastating diseases." These are current applications of GMO usage. This actually doesn't sound too bad at all.
Then there are further promises about the future of this technology. "Advances in biotechnology may provide consumers with foods that are nutritionally-enriched or longer-lasting... Crops with the ability to grow in salty soils or better withstand drought conditions are also in the works".
These certainly sound like noble endeavors. You can review the entire list of all completed Biotechnology consultations on Genetically Engineered foods evaluated under FDA's 1992 Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties4. But let's just take a moment to look at the two biggest modifications which have been on the market for years.
HT GENE (weed management): If you see a reference to HT corn, the "HT" means herbicide tolerant. ...Wait! Herbicides kill... plants. Why would you spray an agricultural crop with a chemical that kills plants!? Weed management. Just spray the whole field and kill everything. Well, kill everything except the crop that has been engineered to survive.
So the widespread adoption of this particular modification doesn't do anything to improve yield5, food quality or nutritional value. These GMOs are called RoundupReady (glyphosate resistant) or Liberty Link (glufosinate resistant). They are designed to support a particular cultural practice. Farmers are spraying our corn, soybean, rapeseed, and cotton crops with plant poison.
Bt GENE (insect pest control): In GMO crops, the addition of the Bt gene serves a very different function. This modification "has allowed for a significant reduction in the use of persistent, synthetic pesticides that may contaminate groundwater and the environment." That sounds pretty benign, right? Well, what exactly is this Bt gene?
Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which a type of soil-dwelling bacterium. It creates crystal proteins which are toxic to caterpillars and other types of insects. Basically, when they consume it they get food poisoning and die. For the last century, Bt has been used in many sprays as a form of organic pest management.
But now, with gene technology, we can completely bypass the whole application process. We have strains of corn, potatoes, cotton and peanuts which can produce their own Bt proteins. These transgenic plants have genes from bacteria that allow them to make their own pesticides. It is generated internally within the cell tissues. If the targeted insect eats the plant, it dies.
On one hand, it's really a miraculous innovation. But some have questioned the safety of these products. What do these proteins do to humans when consumed? Thus far, there has been little or no scientific evidence proving the Bt gene to be harmful to mammals. Rather, the biggest issue with Bt GMOs is the development of resistance in insects. And this is a very real problem. In fact weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate6, which threatens the effectiveness of HT GMOs as well.
Is it safe or not?
Naturally, as consumers we are first and foremost concerned about the safety of transgenic foods. There have been many claims made about the adverse effects of eating GMOs. But there seems to be little scientific evidence to back those claims. Regulating authorities seem to agree that genetically engineered produce is safe to eat. Is it all a cover up? You'll get a broad range of answers7, depending on who you ask.
To complicate the issue further, many scientists blame the HT varieties for causing the real harm. Researchers link GMOs with all sorts of problems from Autism to sleep disorders to inflammatory bowel disease8. The issue is not with the altered genes or their resulting proteins. Rather those GMOs containing "HT" genes allow our food to be sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, the active chemical found in Roundup.
Glyphosate has been shown to be toxic to human placental cells. And those toxic effects increase "with concentration and time or in the presence of Roundup adjuvants. Surprisingly, Roundup is always more toxic than its active ingredient."9 The residues from Roundup persist in the harvested crops. For example, glyphosate and its breakdown product was detected in GMO cultivated soy beans10. But neither organic nor conventionally cultivated crops showed such contamination.
Something else to ponder is that glyphosate is a registered antibiotic. Doctors are trying to reign in the use of prescribed antibiotics. People are avoiding meat and dairy from antibiotic fed animals. But meanwhile, farmers are spraying a known antibiotic all over the ground. What damage do you think this is doing to the microbes in our soils? What about the beneficial bacteria in our own digestive systems?
Even if you feel that consuming non-HT GMOs is safe, there is reason for questioning some practices of modern agriculture.
Video: Food Hazards?
GMO's vs NonGMO vs Organics
Should safety be the only question?
What if 100% of all scientists in the whole world agreed conclusively that all GMOs on the market are completely safe? What if there were ZERO complications, including NO allergic responses? Would this lay the topic to rest?
Perhaps there are other questions worth asking.
GENE OWNERSHIP: Should anyone be entitled to own a patent on life? If a patent owner's GMOs pollinate an organic growers field, who is at fault? Should the patent owner sue the organic farmer for infringement? Or should the organic farmer sue for contamination? It's like the owner of an iMac having their OSX system infected by a virus that automatically installs Windows. And then Microsoft comes to your house demanding that you pay a licensing fee!
Lifeforms proliferate and spread beyond the scope of our control.
ETHICS: This is a matter of personal opinion. But my view on this issue really centers around the ethics of genetic engineering. Just because we CAN do something, does that necessarily mean we SHOULD?
On one hand, I love science and what it teaches us about the world and our universe. But on the other hand our capabilities should not be the sole factor limiting our actions. Understandably, many people have a different view, especially on GMO technology. But consider a different subject matter.
What about human cloning? What if we could successfully clone a human with ZERO side effects, even enhancing the clone? Should we do it? Would that be ethical? Would it be wrong to create a clone of Elvis Presley? Who determines this? The next of kin? Would you want a clone of YOU, walking around committing crimes?
Science can be used for learning and for betterment of humanity. But humans inevitably debate whether a certain application of science is right or wrong. Is it moral? We each have our own thoughts, based upon our world view.
I believe humans are stewards or caretakers of this planet. It's one thing to research and learn about the fundamental mechanisms upon which life is built. It's another thing to assume a role that was never intended for us. To work outside of the framework of natural reproduction or propagation is a little presumptuous.
My Personal Opinion:
So, what's my personal view on this whole genetic engineering debate? Are GMOs going to save the human race from starvation? Should we embrace this type of engineering as perfectly safe? Or should we vote with our dollars by buying NON-GMOs and Organic Foods when possible? What is the official Albopepper position on this topic?
I initially researched and wrote this article an entire year ago. Since then, I've read many debates. I've seen lots of propaganda both for and against GMO foods. Pro-GMO advocates love to push GMOs as perfectly safe. They lash out against others, calling them "fearmongers". As noted at the beginning of this article series, they claim: "GMOs are nothing new. Humans have been genetically engineering crops for centuries".
Well after hearing both sides and doing plenty of research, I've finally reached a moment of clarity. I don't care if GMOs are safe or not. That's not the issue. I don't care if they actually offer a few real benefits to our crops (drought tolerance, disease resistance, yield increase). Let's go back to the original rationalization that began this whole discussion.
An Ancient Heritage
Human beings have NOT been creating GMOs for centuries, but they HAVE been selectively breeding plants and animals for desired traits. The huge wealth of variety we see in flora and fauna is at least partially due to the domestication and cultivation of crops and livestock.
SELECTIVE BREEDING: Natural selection has always played a role. With each successive generation, a wild plant strain is just a little more adapted to the local area in which it had grown. But human intervention (artificial selection) adds a whole new dimension to the process. Breeders might include a wild strain as a parent plant to gain some if its hardiness. It might offer disease resistance, drought tolerance or general vigor. But by crossing it with a cultivated strain it's possible to assimilate the best traits of both parents.
HYBRIDIZATION -> HEIRLOOMS: Improved varieties may start as hybrids. Over multiple generations they could even become cherished heirlooms. We can breed the varieties that are fit for an ever changing climate. Plants that are locally adapted. We can have increased yield. These improvements can even spill into the world of perennials. Zone hardiness could be improved. Some annuals could be bred to acquire perennial traits allowing them to come back every year! All of this can be achieved using good old sexual reproduction. And any backyard gardener can do it.
So what do we need GMOs for? Why should we need to manipulate traits at the genetic level, bypassing natural safeguards? Well for most of us, it doesn't matter. Because "we" can't do any of that. The average farmer or home gardener does not have the facilities and resources of a huge biotech company. So if we chose to support GMOs, what we're really saying is: "Let somebody else do it."
Take Back Control!
We are relinquishing our control of our food to corporations that care only about making money. We are deferring to their judgement which focuses on chemical controls within a monocultural framework. Is that really what humanity needs to survive? Haven't we learned the dangers of relying on monocultures for food production? I don't want to see a repeat of the great famine that struck Ireland after all of their potato crops were destroyed by blight.
SUPPORT LOCAL GROWERS: As soon as people begin to accept personal responsibility for their food production, the issue of GMOs evaporates. For that fundamental reason alone, I would never support genetic engineering of crops! I support seed-saving efforts. Preservation of polycultural farming is where resiliency occurs. Conventional breeding programs offer more promise than we may realize. We need more people growing their own food. We need more farmers and seed saving companies, preserving precious heirloom strains.
I envision a world where everyone has a measure of input into their personal food supply. People would eat produce that is locally grown. They'll eat fruits and vegetables when they're in season. New varieties with unique tastes, shapes, colors and sizes will never stop emerging. And it will all be accomplished without the reliance on GMO crops.
...But We Need GMOs To Survive!
Understandably, my personal views may come across as idealistic and out-of-touch. There are more and more people living in urban areas who simply cannot grow their own food. Additionally, what about all of the impoverished populations who live at the brink of starvation? Surely, they don't have the luxury of visiting some local farmer's market and selecting all organic produce! And this doesn't even account for the projected population explosion that we expect in the years to come.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN? GMO advocates love bringing up the whole "Golden Rice"11 thing. This is a GMO rice that was engineered with genes that make a precursor to vitamin A. It promises to help many malnourished children, since vitamin A is vital for preventing childhood blindness. Although it had not yet been implemented, for years Golden Rice was the poster child for why we all desperately need GMOs. I'm surprised they didn't simply call it Soylent Orange. Seriously though, there are so many Vitamin A rich plant foods. Yet, we need to use rice as the vessel for delivering this nutrient? This just underscores the level of imbalance and injustice inherent in our society. No scientific discovery will ever cure humanity of greed and disparity.
WHERE DO OUR GMO's REALLY GO? In the meantime, where have our GMOs really been going? They've been used in processed foods and as feed for livestock. In fact, the greater majority is going into the animals we eat. Yet, when you calculate the calories put into those animals verses the calories we get by eating them, there is a massive loss of resources. Growing animals is very resource intensive and results in significant entropy. In the process, we damage our environment and even our own bodies. Right now, our planet would make more than enough food to adequately nourish everyone. But to do so, people would need to just eat plants!
POPULATION vs APPETITE Right now, the challenge of feeding our planet is not an issue of population. It is an issue of appetite. The "Western" diet is pervading societies from America to China. As people consume more and more animal products, their disease rates go up. Water usage, pollution and land mismanagement become greater issues. People cite climate change as a reason for pushing GMOs. But growing GMOs for animal production has really been a large driver of climate change.
Do you enjoy a traditional "Western" diet? Do meat, dairy and eggs occupy a large portion of your plate? If so, looking to GMOs as the solution for feeding our planet might seem appealing. After all, it doesn't really require any personal action on your part. But starting in 2018 I decided to take my health into my own hands. My diet is now completely plant-based and I enjoy many physical benefits as a result. Best of all, in this process I've also reduced the load that I place on our planet and its resources. If you care. I mean, if you are really truly worried about our future... then I encourage you to do the same.