The global reach of genetically modified (GM) crops continues to grow, covering 190 million hectares and more than 10 percent of the world’s arable land as of 2017. The top three countries contributing to the production of GM crops are the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, with the United States responsible for an astounding 39 percent of the total global production. Since their introduction in 1996, GMOs have allowed a significant increase in agricultural yield, growing 22 percent more food on average on the same amount of land. As the world population continues to grow (predicted to be 9.9 billion in 2050), issues of global hunger and poverty become more and more salient, therefore this increase in food production is a meaningful accomplishment in an era of dwindling resources and environmental challenges. The bounty brought by the GM revolution has changed the lives of farmers and consumers all over the world, but the question of whether that change will be positive in the long term remains unanswered. Despite their clear economic and social benefits, GM crops have severe environmental impacts, causing just as many problems as they have the potential to solve. Weighing the costs and benefits of transgenic crops requires a deeper investigation into how these products are produced and how they are being utilized around the world, particularly in the United States.
Agrochemical company Monsanto is the developer of the herbicide Roundup and Roundup Ready GM crops. Monsanto’s GM products alone accounted for 92 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the United States in 2018.The company was acquired by Bayer in a recent merger, furthering the monopolization of the seed industry. By limiting seed diversity in the marketplace, the monopoly threatens the resilience of our food systems. Marketed as a package deal, Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup and glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready crops appear to work in perfect harmony to efficiently eliminate non-GMOs and maximize crop yield. This may be true in the short term, but in the long term this system has proved to be unsustainable. Weeds that are originally killed off by Roundup eventually develop resistance. By as early as 2012, 61.2 million acres of U.S. farmland were infested with Roundup resistant weeds. The task of combating these new superweeds leads farmers to apply even more herbicide, often resorting to older, less safe weed killers. These countermeasures serve as a bandaid, lasting only until a new breed of superweed emerges. Through this unsustainable cycle the use of glyphosate has risen almost 15-fold since the glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready crops were first introduced in 1996. Having been linked to over a dozen serious health problems, the proliferation of glyphosate poses a serious public health issue as the herbicide Roundup is easily spread from farms to surrounding communities via water or air. But this is not the only danger posed by Monsanto’s products.
Their transgenic Roundup Ready crops have a built in pesticide function that compromises soil health. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a type of bacteria related to those that cause food poisoning and anthrax that is used to kill specific species of insects. In the past, Bt was sprayed over crops as a pesticide, but Monsanto figured out how to use Bt genes to modify plants, enabling them to produce the Bt toxin themselves. The more GM crops are planted, the more Bt toxins are released into the soil, threatening the organisms that live there, reducing the population of soil bacteria, and potentially disrupting the rates of natural processes such as decomposition and nutrient recycling. Even the smallest changes to the diversity of the microbial community can affect soil health and ecosystem functioning, which are not only compromised by Bt toxins, but also by the agricultural methods used to cultivate GMOs.
The two crops that comprise the greatest crop acreage in the United States are corn and soybeans, and in 2018, 92 percent of corn crops and 94 percent of soybean crops were comprised of transgenic varieties. Corn and soybeans are typically planted in a monocrop fashion, meaning that the same crop is cultivated on the same patch of land year after year. Unfortunately, monocropping is not conducive to biodiversity or nutrient recycling. Over time the soil’s nutrients stores become so depleted that the land can no longer support healthy crops. Although GM crops have been shown to reduce the use of agricultural land due to their higher productivity, when they are planted as a monocrop the effect is quite the opposite, diminishing the amount of available arable land over time. As a consequence, we may be running out of space to grow our food.
A monopoly that does not watch over future generations
These environmental impacts alone should be enough to give us pause when it comes to GMOs. However, the monopoly over the seed industry ensures that they continue to be used in large quantities, threatening the sustainability of our food system and the economic lives of small farmers. It has become increasingly necessary for farmers to use Monsanto’s products in order to compete, but many small farms choose to use non-GMO products. Organic farmers use natural pesticides and fertilizers in order to steer clear of chemicals, keep the soil healthy, and preserve biodiversity. However, Roundup from industrial farms is easily transferred to small farms by rivers and streams or cross-pollination, and enough Roundup has the potential to destroy their non-GM crops. Even if there is insufficient Roundup to kill the crops directly, there may still be enough to create superweeds, compromising the integrity of organic agriculture and forcing farmers to abandon their organic principles all together. Roundup Ready seeds can be spread from farm to farm in a similar manner to Roundup herbicide, creating even more economic trouble for these farmers. Current laws not only fail to recognize the rights of organic farmers, but also award and protect patents on transgenic genetic material. Monsanto’s seed patents allow them to sue small farmers whose crops contain their seeds, even through inadvertent cross-contamination. The structure of the corporate agricultural system and its partnership with companies like Monsanto works against these small farmers in every way, crushing attempts at sustainable agriculture.
The debate over GMOs is not a black and white issue. Those who are pro-GMO are right that we need to figure out a way to feed our growing population and fight global poverty and hunger. But we cannot turn a blind eye to devastating environmental impacts to do so. In addition, tackling hunger and poverty is not as simple as growing more food. In fact, the data shows that more than enough food to feed the world is already being produced. But in 2015, 792.5 million people out of the world population of 7 billion were still malnourished. It is clear that “the solution does not lie in increasing the amount of arable land or yields per hectare, but in a completely different system in terms of food production, storage, distribution, and access” (Slow Food on GMOs). The current system has shifted economic power towards big business, degrading food sovereignty and concentrating profits and power into the hands of the few. It is hard to say the best way to dismantle this system, but it is the opinion of this author that we return to small-scale agriculture based on native crops and sustainable farming practices in order to preserve landscapes, protect local economies, and increase food sovereignty and security.
You might be wondering what you can do to help. If so, the steps below offer a jumping off point for building a better food system.
- Limit your personal food waste.
- Avoid processed foods containing GMOs.
- Buy from small-scale local farmers.
- Educate your community about the impacts of GMOs and corporate control.
- Join or donate to an organization near you to make your voice heard.
It is up to all of us to change the way our food is produced and to build a system that serves the many instead of the few. By committing to some or all of these steps, you support a long term, sustainable vision for the future of our food system.
Carly Bell, FEV volunteer (Connect-123)