Whenever humanity begins to approach a global food shortage, we seem to come up with some new technology that drastically improves our food production. First it was the agricultural revolution that took place throughout the 1800s, which brought many new mechanical devices into use. Then, when researchers applied the knowledge of chemicals that they acquired during WWII to agriculture, the world entered the so-called 'green revolution' around 1943. This saw the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in farming, as well as the use of plant breeding to make powerful varieties of crops. Now, we appear to be well into a third revolution, as the 1990s saw the commercial rise of a technology called recombinant DNA. Organisms that undergo this procedure are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Whether we know it or not, GMOs have been grown in many countries for years. However, there is a problem with that: we didn't even realize they were being used. For a new technology that directly affects so many people, GMOs have slipped under the radar very well, leaving consumers entirely unaware of their potential dangers. Until American consumers have proof that GMOs are safe, or are able to decide whether or not to consume them, the technology has many hurdles to overcome.
A genetically modified organism is defined as any living organism whose genes have been modified using a technology called recombinant DNA methods. This is the process of extracting desirable traits from one plant's DNA and combining it with the DNA of another plant to produce a desirable trait in the new plant. There is a slight distinction GMOs and transgenic organisms: transgenic organisms are organisms whose DNA is modified with the genes of another organism of a different species to produce a desirable trait. There is also an important distinction between genetic modifications and plant hybridization: hybridization is the process of naturally breeding or cross breeding plants in order to produce desirable traits in plants of that species. For instance, a corn seed that has undergone plant hybridization will contain only naturally acquired, desirable corn genes, possibly from multiple types of corn plants. However, a GM corn seed will contain corn genes from multiple corn species, but will have acquired them through recombinant DNA technology. Finally, a transgenic corn seed will have undergone recombinant DNA technology, but will contain genes from more than just other species of corn; perhaps the genes from cacti responsible for their ability to survive without much water will be found in a transgenic corn plant, or the genes that give other plant species natural pesticides (Cunningham, 166-68). For the purpose of this paper, GMOs will be used to refer to both transgenic and non-transgenic GMOs.
GMOs were first approved by the FDA in 1994, and have since come to constitute a large portion of the food supply for North America. By 2000, over thirty GMOs had been given FDA approval and were commonly used (Fredland, 2). Recently, genetically modified animals have started to gain FDA approval as well. Currently, the FDA is reviewing a bid to allow genetically modified Alaskan Salmon to be sold commercially, and genetically modified pigs have already been made (Curieux-Belfond, 170). More and more of North America's farmland is used to grow GMOs each year, thanks in part to the increase in yield that the technology brings, but also because of the aggressive expansion of food enterprises such as McDonald's, Wendy's, and even Subway.
The benefits to using GMOs are quite apparent. For one thing, they are capable of what they advertise, namely they can greatly increase food production. Because almost all fertile land has already been settled in this country, the only way for most farmers to increase their yield without having to hire more workers is to buy seeds that can increase their yield. Because of this, many farmers have been more than willing to adopt the new technology, and few of them complain that the seeds don't work as advertised. An economic analysis of one variety of GM corn, called Bt corn, projected that farmers who planted the GM variety instead of non-GM corn could expect a 12% increase in revenue between the increased yield and the decrease in pesticides (Wu, 7-9). Of course, this goes hand in hand with the argument that GM crops will increase world food supply by artificially raising the number of crops that can be planted in any given area of farmland.
Secondly, as stated earlier, because GMOs are often built with natural pesticides in them, they can help cut down on the amount of pesticides that are sprayed on the plants, which can have environmental benefits as well as saving farmers' money. Another environmental benefit is that GMOs often require less water as well, which can potentially allow farmers to reduce the amount of water they waste.
However, both of these benefits have some flaws. As far the increase in yield goes, there are other expenses that many people, both the farmers and consumers, must pay to use GMOs. First, there's a technology fee for the seeds which the farmer must pay. The fee is not one time, but is attached to each bag of seed. Secondly, the farmer has to sign an agreement stating that the seeds that he/she is purchasing must be planted only in the year in which they were bought, and that they cannot be saved for any subsequent harvests (a practice known as saving seeds). This means that instead of being able to purchase a large number of seeds and using them over a long period of time, as well as using the seeds of the crops that they grow, farmers must buy seeds every year and simply discard any surplus (Monsanto v. McFarling, 3).
Furthermore, many of the crops that are frequently genetically modified are subsidized by the U.S. government so that if the market value falls below a certain price, the farmer will still receive a fixed rate on that crop (Cunningham, 172). Therefore, many farmers look for a way to simply grow more of the cheap crop that they already grow instead of trying new crops that have a higher market value (which is why the U.S. produces so much corn). Therefore, because GMOs tend to encourage farmers to grow the subsidized crops, taxpayers' money is also going towards the companies that sell GMOs.
Another commodity that is often subsidized is water, which is a flaw in the argument that GMOs save water. More arid growing regions, most notably California, are given water subsidies, but farmers usually use this as an excuse to use more water than they need to, and it does nothing to discourage the use of wasteful equipment. While GMOs technically require less water to grow, they generally aren't given much less. The same is often true of pesticides. One of the few places a farmer can turn to for knowledgeable advice on the amount of pesticides they should use is the company that sells them the pesticides, who are naturally going to be a bit generous with their estimates. Also, the reduction in pesticides per bushel of a crop is countered by the increase in production, which keeps the amount of pesticides that any given farmer uses pretty much the same (Cunningham, 172).
These concerns barely scratch the surface of the issue, however, as there are many other reasons that GMOs are potentially unsafe. First, there's the fact that there is little long term testing of the possible threats to humans that GMOs pose. To determine if GMOs are safe for the public, a standard called substantial equivalence is used. This states that if a GM crop is substantially equivalent to its natural counterpart, then it can be deemed safe for consumption (Kuiper, 430). There is also an idea that if a product has a 'history of safe use,' meaning that it has been commercially available and has not yet been proven to be the cause of any illnesses, then the product should be permitted to be sold, as long as it's not introduced into a foreign region (Constable, 2518-19).
While it sounds like these restrictions would be enough to ensure that the product isn't harmful, many researchers have called for more accurate toxicological, biological, and immunological reports to determine the effects of GMOs. The problem, however, is that these studies would take years, as well as an incredible amount of money, meaning that the seed companies have no desire to undertake such a project. If the FDA were to repeal its allowance for the commercial use of GMOs until better testing were conducted, the backlash from companies that deal in GMOs would be overwhelming, and because most of the American public is not concerned with the issue, the FDA sees no reason to require further testing (Millstone, 1-2).
There is another loose end that GMOs have not addressed in that, until companies recently started manufacturing sterile seeds, there was nothing preventing GMOs from reproducing with non-GMOs. There are still fertile GMOs being made as well, so the problem has not been fully addressed. The implications of this would be severe if any negative effects of GMOs were found, as there would be little that humans could do to prevent the spread of GMOs. Furthermore, organic farmers who would rather not use GMOs may have little choice if GMOs reproduce well enough.
For instance, Japan has recently found GM canola growing in the wild near the ports that process shipments of GM canola from Canada. While this might not seem threatening at first, what one must realize is that Japan has been very resistant to the idea of growing GMOs. In fact, Japan does not grow any of its own GMOs, and only imports several varieties of GM seeds, mainly canola, to be ground into oil, fertilizer, or feed. Because of this, the discovery of wild GMOs in Japan is already unsettling to the nearby residents. What's worse is that the plants were designed to be resistant to pesticides, so only the most toxic chemicals will be effective in reducing the GMOs' numbers. If these plants were to spread to the Japanese countryside, then there would be no way to prevent them from contaminating a large part of Japan's locally grown Canola (Frid, 3). A similar threat is also posed to the rest of the world. Luckily, many seed companies have made sterile GMOs more and more common (mainly because it forces the farmer to buy seeds again each year), but there are still many years' worth of GMOs that are fertile that have likely already spread to the wild in other countries.
The natural pesticides of these plants also pose a threat. Genes that produce natural chemicals in certain plants which serve as insect repellants have been extracted and placed into other plant species for some time now. When these natural pesticides occur in the wild, they are scattered over a large area. Therefore, when a bug or insect tries to eat the plant and realizes that it's toxic, it can simply go somewhere else for food. However, when these natural pesticides are found in large, concentrated areas (like on a farm), the pests that try to eat them have no alternative food source. Instead, the pests will simply keep eating the GMOs until they develop an immunity to the pesticide. The seed companies do not see this as a problem, because they can always find a new plant with natural pesticides for them to extract, but in doing so, they run the risk of creating a large number of highly resistant pests that could migrate to other areas. These pests would pose a large threat to the world's organic farmers, and could eventually pose a threat to even the non-organic farmers.
There are also many legal issues surrounding GMOs, including the mistreatment of farmers and labeling policies for GMOs. As if charging farmers multiple, exorbitant technology fees just to plant their GMO wasn't enough, seed companies also take full advantage of any breaches of contract on the farmers' part. As stated earlier, when farmers purchase GMOs from a seed company, they also have to sign a contract stating that they agree not to save the seeds for later growing seasons. As companies like Monsanto have proven, these companies are not only willing to defend their patents in court, but are willing to do so by suing their customers for all they can get. In 1998, a farmer named Homan McFarling purchased GM soybeans from Monsanto Company, signing the agreement forcing him not to save seeds and paying the necessary technology fees. However, he decided to save some of the seeds from the 1998 harvest and replant them in 1999. When Monsanto found out about this, they took the case to court.
After a long court battle that was settled in 2007, McFarling was sued for approximately $375,000 in damages and was forced never to use the seed technology in an unauthorized way again. McFarling had originally paid $6.50 in technology fees per bag of seed, but was fined at a rate of $40.00 per bag of seed (more than what he paid per bag when both the technology fee and the price of the seeds are taken into account). What's even more alarming is that the original damages estimate put forth by Monsanto in 1999 was $80.65 per bag, and in 2000, when they brought the case to court a second time, they lowered the estimate to $73.20 per bag. Both of these damages estimates are over ten times the original price that McFarling paid for the seeds (Monsanto v. McFarling, 3-5). While this is the most well known case of its kind, it's not the only one.
The other large issue that many consumers have been lobbying for recently deals with the fact that there is no way to distinguish which foods are and are not made using GMOs. Unlike organic foods, which require special certification in order to bear any organic labeling, consumers technically have no way of trusting foods advertising themselves as GMO-free. There is also little chance that a company that falsely advertised their foods as being GMO-free would be prosecuted because most consumers don't consider genetic modification to be a pressing matter. Also, because of the difference between transgenic organisms and genetically modified organisms, these labels can be pretty ambiguous.
There is a vocal minority of consumers, though, that feel that all foods containing GMOs should be labeled as such so that they can avoid them. A similar labeling method has been used in the UK, which is one reason that American consumers feel that they should also be able to choose. There are also many ethical arguments to be made regarding a GMO label. Supporters of GMO labels claim that without transparency in food companies' use of GMOs, Americans (and all humans, for that matter) lack a basic right to choose what we decide to do with our bodies (Pouteau, 10-11).
However, putting a GMO label into effect would pose several problems. If GMOs have spread into the wild and possibly contaminated farmers' seeds, determining if a food contains GMOs becomes an extremely difficult task. For another thing, many of the country's food companies feel that bearing such a label would hurt their business, especially if people begin to associate the label with being unhealthy. Unless consumers increase their requests for a GMO label on all GM food products, the food companies will be able to lobby against the label much harder than the public will support it.
It's clear that GMOs have the potential to be everything they're advertised to be: safe, economically viable crops that could benefit the health of the planet and its people. However, there is much that they have to prove before they can fulfill that promise. There is still a lot of research needed to prove that they're safe, they need to be manufactured by companies who treat their farmers with the respect they deserve, and consumers need to be able to choose whether or not to eat them. Perhaps if we had a better understanding of the health implications of consuming GMOs, we would be able to accurately determine whether a GMO label was necessary. Perhaps if the seed companies had not rushed a new, lucrative product to the market before thinking about the ecological implications of making fertile, transgenic plants, we would have no reason to be concerned that non-GMOs could get contaminated with transgenic DNA. As it stands, however, humans should be able to choose whether or not we want to support the use of GMOs in our food, but in the US we don't even have that option. GMOs are currently a product with very few, if any, redeeming values, and most Americans don't even realize that they support them almost every time they buy food.