The following article appeared on the cover of the October 2013 edition of Northeast Texan.
You may have heard some things in the last few months about genetically altered “Frankenfoods,” the Monsanto Company that makes them, and the Monsanto Protection Act. A particular brand of chips available at any gas station sports a “non-GMO” label, but they taste like any other potato chips. So what’s all the fuss about? The answer to every question you have about GMO food production is, “It depends who you ask,” but there are some discernible facts.
Monsanto is the world’s leading provider of seeds produced with genetically modified organisms (GMO), biologically altered seeds designed to withstand certain environmental conditions, pests, or both. These seeds produce genetically modified food that Americans and their animals eat every day.
Statistical data about how much of our food is GMO vary widely. Monsanto reports that 90% of corn and 75% of soybeans grown in the US are GMO, though in 2011 the USDA reported slightly higher numbers. Sugar beets provide half the sugar in the US, and 90% of those beets are GMO; practically all canola and cottonseed oils are GMO. While the ear of sweet corn on your plate isn’t likely to be modified, nearly all processed soy-, sugar-, and corn-containing products (including high fructose corn syrup) are derived from GMO plants.
Farmers have been altering the DNA of plants since the dawn of deliberate agriculture; yet some are uncomfortable with the biotech way of doing things, which involves tweaking a protein or microscopically merging another plant’s DNA in a lab instead of a plowed field. Proponents of such technology argue that the lab method is more controlled and results are more predictable. The plants are studied on test farms throughout the country, and by the time the seeds are sold commercially, the results are, in fact, fairly predictable.
In agreement with Monsanto’s own statements, most farmers report an increase in yield as well as better quality products. Plants engineered to deter certain insects do reduce the amount and cost of pesticide used to combat that insect, but other methods are still required to fight other pests. In some cases, Monsanto has partially reimbursed farmers when their technology failed to perform as expected. That technology is patented, by the way.
Seed buyers must sign an agreement promising the company they will not harvest and replant seeds produced by plants from the purchased seeds, and they’re pretty serious about it. “We no longer have the mechanism to capture the seeds for replanting when we process the cotton,” says Chris Berry, Manager of Center Point Gin in Levelland. “The seeds are sent to be pressed for oil or used in animal feed.”
Critics are correct that Monsanto has even sued farmers for planting their GMO seeds outside the agreement guidelines, but Monsanto has only done this 112 times, and all were commercial farms whose violations were reported by neighboring farmers. Considering how many thousands of crops have been planted with GMO seed, that is a tiny number of lawsuits. Monsanto won every case.
It’s worth noting that at least two class action lawsuits are currently pending against Monsanto regarding tested-but-not-sold GMO wheat that found its way off test farms and into non-GMO fields, contaminating the crop. International buyers who insist on a “pure” non-GMO harvest (either by preference or that country’s legal stipulations) refuse to buy from those farmers, affecting the entire wheat economy. Monsanto denies any negligence that may have led to the GMO contamination.
Another part of the company agreement is that the buyer will not perform testing on the seeds. This includes giving seeds or the resulting plants as food to animals for research purpose, which complicates GMO food research. Monsanto has rarely provided their products directly for independent research. That means the few studies done on animals fed GMO products are automatically flawed because they can’t use “pure” products in their testing. No studies have been done on humans.
Monsanto explains that the proteins involved in genetic plant engineering are those known not to cause cancer or produce allergens. In fact, no significant studies have concluded GMO foods negatively affect human or animal health in any way. A long term study in Norway observed extreme occurrence in tumors in rats fed GMO corn; critics point out the rats used were genetically altered themselves, bred to be prone to tumors.
One study used 168 pigs, half of which were fed GMO corn and soybeans. When present, irritation of stomach lining was more severe in a higher number of GMO-fed pigs. However, higher numbers of “no irritation at all” were found in the GMO-fed pigs as well. In this fairly reliable study, as with most others involving GMO foods, statistics are all over the map and can hardly be considered reliable.
An ideal study would include feeding animals food quantities with a GMO/non-GMO ratio similar to the American diet, grown otherwise organically, in the same unfertilized soil. This would eliminate almost all variables except those being targeted for research. Since biotech companies won’t allow testing of their seeds, that study has not been done. As of yet, researchers are simply observing changes in the animals without determination of specific cause. Research is sparse, and reliable research is non-existent.
We do know that billions of meals containing GMO foods have been consumed since they flooded the market in 1996, and there has not been a single medical report filed as a result. In some cases, genetic modification has been directly beneficial.
A strain of corn has been engineered to produce higher amounts of beta-carotene, and Golden Rice was developed to combat Vitamin A deficiency in some Asian countries. Monsanto saved Hawaii’s papaya economy in 1998 when ringspot virus threatened to wipe out the entire industry’s crops. They put potato research on a back burner to focus on a GMO papaya that was resistant to the virus. These plants produce nearly 90% of US-grown papaya today, all of which comes from Hawaii.
All federal organizations that oversee Monsanto’s biotech activities have approved them and deemed them safe. The Food and Drug Administration makes no distinction between GMO and non-GMO foods regarding standards for health and safety.
These facts come into question when one considers that more than one official has left the government sector to work for Monsanto or vice versa. The company has been suspected of having a foot in the door because patents, legislation, and approvals have been made without proper research or other technicalities. However, Monsanto and all biotech companies must adhere to the same standards as other food producers; courts at all levels have upheld Monsanto’s adherence to that statement (including the Supreme Court and Justice Clarence Thomas, who worked for Monsanto in the 70s.)
The pending Agriculture Bill contains a segment referred to by the opposition as the Monsanto Protection Act. They say it allows Monsanto and similar companies like Bayer and Syngenta to skirt the courts when federal approval of their products is in question.
The Act does not allow them to circumvent the courts as much as it puts that decision back where it belongs – with the FDA, EPA, or USDA. Courts are not educated in matters of the bigger picture, like the effect of their decision on the food supply or the economic impact on farmers who already have the dubious seeds in the ground. The entire Ag Bill is not new but currently up for renewal as it is every year. At the time of this writing, it is still pending.
Last year, California’s Prop 37 would have required GMO-containing products to be labeled as such; its defeat was heavily funded by Monsanto. Under pressure from the public, companies like Whole Foods Markets already require their suppliers to label GMO foods accordingly. (Shoppers note: All foods labeled “organic” are also certified non-GMO.)
People on both sides of the fence support labeling in the interest of consumer choice. In Europe, mandatory labeling has resulted in grocers pulling GMO items from the shelves because informed consumers chose not to buy them, halting sales and making GMO products almost impossible to find. But remember that bag of potato chips? It turns out that all American potato chips are non-GMO because GMO potatoes are not grown in the US. The efficacy of labeling is debatable.
Monsanto also owns Roundup, the pesticide to which GMO plants are resistant. Environmentalists worry that overuse of Roundup is polluting our groundwater, and the health-minded worry about it showing up in our food. These are both legitimate concerns with any chemical applied to food plants.
Some question Monsanto’s ethics because they made Agent Orange for the government during the Vietnam conflict, and they have made other products that are now outlawed for safety reasons, including the pesticide DDT. In the case of PCBs, a chemical used in industrial applications, Monsanto took them off the market two years before the EPA did.
In conclusion… Has Monsanto unfairly benefitting from having friends in high places? Have GMO crops improved farm production? Is genetically modified food bad for you? Should it be labeled?
It depends who you ask.
One final word of clarification. When Northeast Texan asked me these questions, I set out to prove all the horror stories I’d heard were true. I admit I was somewhat disappointed when I simply couldn’t find the evidence and was forced to change my own stance. My opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of that paper, and they may not reflect yours. When you research for yourself, I encourage you to approach this issue like any other – with an open mind.