‘Genetically modified organisms’, or ‘GMOs’, have hit the world by storm over the past 15 years – according to gmofinside.org1, 1999 marks the year that over “100 million acres worldwide [were] planted with genetically engineered seeds”; Chassy (2007: 170) notes that between 1997 and 2007, over a billion acres were planted with “transgenic crops bred using modern biotechnology”. Such crops are ones where at least one gene from a different organism’s DNA has been inserted into the DNA of the crop2 for various purposes, for examples, to make the crop more resistant to a given bacteria or infestation from certain insect. The new organism is then deemed the intellectual property of the corporation3 that funds the DNA splicing, and the corporation typically patents the GMO, alongside the necessary chemical products that the corporations develop for application to their patented GMOs. An example of one such chemical product is Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’, which was developed alongside their GM corn, canola, cotton, soybeans, squash, and papaya – farmers therefore commit themselves to using Roundup, which is designed specifically to kill weeds in crop fields, when growing GM seed – the GM crop, however, has been genetically engineered to resist the poison. Notably4, “Monsanto is… the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds on the planet, accounting for over 90% of the GE [i.e. genetically engineered] seeds planted globally in 2003”. A record 17.3 million farmers grew GM crops in 2012, up from 16.7 million farmers in 2011.

GMO supporters frequently state that there is no scientific evidence that supports scepticism towards the use of the GMOs – British Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, as an extreme case in point, argues instead that there was compelling evidence “that GM crops could benefit farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy”5. Such a view is diabolically misleading, as the following from the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER)6 makes clear:

“As scientists, physicians, academics, and experts from disciplines relevant to the scientific, legal, social and safety assessment aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is “over”.”

In case it seems that the controversy surrounding GMOs is simply to do with differing views about the consensus of GMO safety, consider that various studies have been conducted that explore links between the chemicals associated with GMOs and defects in human and animal health – the Children of Vietnamese Veterans Health Alliance7, for example, lists 101 scientific studies (and provides links to the studies) that link the use of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, with various conditions, such as ‘acute poisoning’, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hairy Cell leukemia, rhinitis, myeloma, altered testosterone levels and testicular morphology, cytogenetic damage and induction of pro-oxidant state, genotxicity, glyphosate-induced parkinsonism… the list goes on. Of course, these incidences put glyphosate under the spotlight and not GMOs exclusively, but as has been suggested above, Monsanto’s Glyphosate (as well as the pesticides and fertilisers associated with various other corporations GM crops) and GM food crops go hand-in-hand – “Worldwide, around 650,000 tonnes of glyphosate products were used in 2011, and sales were worth around US$6.5 billion in 2010, more than the value of all other herbicides combined. And its use keeps increasing…”. 8 In reviewing the general situation regarding the use of GMOs specifically, and not the associated chemicals, the ENSSER, quoted earlier, shows without question that the proverbial jury is still out when it comes to the safety of GMO foods; another example – the claim that there is scientific consensus regarding the safety of GMOs “is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue”9.

ENSSER also points out that, contrary to ‘pro-GMO’ views, there are studies that show the use of ‘Bt’ crops to adversely affect “non-target” and “beneficial organisms” – this has nothing to do with Roundup or Glyphosate, and everything to do with GMOs exclusively. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, “a bacteria that naturally produces a crystal protein that is toxic to many pest insects”10 – the relevant gene from the bacteria is inserted into the DNA of a relevant crop so that every cell of the plant is resistant to pests. Various sources11 report, however, that pests have adapted to Bt crops, and have become Bt resistant in the period of about a decade. This indeed puts all Bt crops at risk of immanent failure, which is a global food security threat, raises questions about the foresight of GMO corporations and proponents, puts into doubt any claim that GMOs are a safe bet for solving global food problems, and even elevates the current widespread use of GM crops to a prominent position on the list of factors that threaten global food security.

With regard to general ecological issues and the use of GMOs, ENSSER has the following to say:

“As with GM food safety, no scientific consensus exists regarding the environmental risks of GM crops. A review of environmental risk assessment approaches for GM crops identified shortcomings in the procedures used and found “no consensus” globally on the methodologies that should be applied, let alone on standardized testing procedures.”

The Executive Summary of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD) synthesis report of 200912, sponsored by the World Bank, corroborates ENSSER’s statement above:

“[A]ssessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology, many of which are as yet unknown.”

Despite the unknown risks, GMOs, as shown at the outset of this sub-section, are grown en mass in many countries around the world. Wherever these GMOs are grown, the following environmental concerns are relevant, as explained at responsibletechnology.org13:

“GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable. For example, GM crops are eliminating habitat for monarch butterflies, whose populations are down 50% in the US. Roundup herbicide has been shown to cause birth defects in amphibians, embryonic deaths and endocrine disruptions, and organ damage in animals even at very low doses. GM canola has been found growing wild in North Dakota and California, threatening to pass on its herbicide tolerant genes on to weeds.”

The same source points out that

“GMOs cross pollinate and their seeds can travel. It is impossible to fully clean up our contaminated gene pool. Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The potential impact is huge, threatening the health of future generations. GMO contamination has also caused economic losses for organic and non-GMO farmers who often struggle to keep their crops pure.”

One commentator, distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University Nassim Nicholas Taleb, makes the bold claim14 that GMOs could cause “an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet.” The same source quotes Taleb with a lengthy but essentially thought-provoking description of the situation regarding GMOs:

“Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) There is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of arbitrarily taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become “natural”. [i.e. evolving over thousands of years in a natural ecosystem, or at least breeding over several generations.]”

“What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global. I do not wish to pay — or have my descendants pay — for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there — our non-naive version — simply because we would only discover errors after considerable and irreversible environmental damage.”

It is therefore hardly surprising that in “more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.”15 This, however, does not mean that the threat is diminishing – GM crops are still being grown en mass in various countries, GMO proponents continue to misconstrue information about the scientific status of GMOs, and the above threats to human beings and the wider ecology of the planet hit home even harder considering various ‘other’ information about ecological degradation, such as loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions and climate change, deforestation, loss of topsoil, water, landfill waste, associated pollution, toxic and chemical waste. 

1http://gmoinside.org/gmo-timeline-a-history-genetically-modified-foods/ accessed 30 June 2014