Do we eat genetically modified (GE) foods? The quick answer is: almost certainly. Remember that the vast majority of US corn and soy come from GE seed, and that these crops are generally used as feed for cattle, hogs and poultry, or otherwise used in the many processed foods found in grocery store aisles. Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop grown in the US and is most commonly used to feed dairy cows and beef cattle.
So, if you drink milk, eat beef, enjoy the occasional slice of bacon with your breakfast, order chicken in your Caesar salad or ever indulge in processed foods, cereals and desserts with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin, THEN GE crops are most certainly a part of your food chain. How’s that make you feel?
What’s worse, you can’t be sure when you eat them or in what form, because there is no requirement to label foods with GE ingredients. As discussed above, the release of GE alfalfa also puts several organic foods at risk for contamination—further eroding our choice as consumers to avoid GE foods if we wish to not eat them. Moreover, little research has been conducted to examine whether GE foods — in and of themselves — present risks to human health. These might include such effects like allergens or toxins, but whatever the potential effects, it seems prudent that this be investigated rigorously before GE foods hit the market. Many countries, including countries of the European Union, Japan, Australia and Brazil, have banned the cultivation of GE crops or require labeling of GE foods as precautions.
Feeding the World? The Silver Bullet That Misses the Target — Defenders of GE crops argue they are desperately needed to feed the world’s ever-growing population and address world hunger. Some have accused critics of GE technology of being shortsighted Neanderthals at best, and irresponsible at worst. This is, however, not the case. There are GE seeds being sent to Africa that are engineered just for those conditions and given freely (today) by the Gates Foundation. But these seeds are patented and can only be obtained under patent – legally they can’t be harvested from the previous year’s crop and reused. There are many ramifications to such GE engineered foods and seeds.
To date, GE crops have actually done little to address hunger worldwide—yield results have been mixed globally, and are nominal for America’s family farmers. A recent study of historical yield data in the US found that herbicide-resistant genetics in GE corn and soy didn’t increase yield any more than conventional methods. Perhaps more importantly, the GE varieties hitting the market aren’t focused on yield in the first place. Developing a crop for herbicide resistance or biofuel production is quite different than selecting for plant traits that encourage plant growth, drought resistance or other traits that would actually help address food security worldwide. Moreover, companies haven’t invested their dollars in the staple crops of food insecure populations worldwide, such as millet, quinoa or cassava. We will need much more than Roundup Ready alfalfa to solve world hunger.
The Seedier Side of GE: Who Benefits — So if farmers, eaters, the environment and the world’s undernourished won’t appreciably benefit from the government’s recent GE green-lighting parade, who will? As mentioned above, most GE crops hitting the market are developed by multinational companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont and Dow Chemical to increase their sales and push their related pesticides. For example, Roundup Ready crops are all engineered to withstand Monsanto’s toxic herbicide Roundup. With Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets on the market, Monsanto can expect increased profits from its new seeds, as well as increased sales of Roundup herbicide to douse all those new seeds.
GE crops are also patented, which grants several privileges to corporate seed giants. For example, companies have repeatedly restricted independent research on the risks and benefits of GE products, which is perfectly legal under patent law, but severely limits objective examination of the efficacy and safety of GE crops. If that weren’t bad enough, patents have given companies the power to pursue lawsuits against farmers for illegally “possessing” patented GE plants without a license. Monsanto has famously sued thousands of individual farmers for patent infringement when their fields were contaminated with GE genes. And Monsanto held the market captive for years through their influence in not allowing healthy non-caloric sweetners to be added to US products after they developed artificial sweetners with dubious health results. User friendly? Consumer friendly? Not according to many healthy food groups and citizen watch groups. Nation of Change has a series of articles out right now on the internet about Monsanto’s business practices that put them in an altogether unfriendly light.
With the power to own and patent genetics, seed companies can demand even more control over the market as a whole. The seed industry has suffered enormous concentration of power in the past few decades, with at least 200 independent seed companies exiting the market in the last fifteen years and four companies now controlling over 50% of the market. This consolidation means farmers have far fewer options for seed varieties. Meanwhile, farmers have seen the sharpest rise in seed prices during the period in which GE crops rose in prominence. This is, indeed, a double edged sword – with both the farmer and public are being hurt by both edges of this sword.
In this sense, the deregulation of new GE varieties comes as a slap in the face to the farmers and eaters who put their trust in the USDA and Department of Justice as they examined antitrust abuses in our food system this past year, including specific investigations into Monsanto and the seed industry. The newest wave of GE products will only further corporate control over our food supply, putting the interests of corporations far before the needs of farmers and eaters.
The Bottom Line? — Surely, this is a lot to take in. We know! Genetic engineering is a complicated topic, with a broad set of consequences for our society. There are many questions left unanswered about how GE will impact farmers and eaters, and even less clarity about how these impacts will be managed. Until our regulatory system and the biotech companies themselves properly address the risks inherent in GE crops, farmers and eaters have a right to reject them. Releasing GE crops into the fields without mitigating their risks is gambling with our health, our environment and livelihoods of family farmers as well as local control over local foods. This is not just a global issue. This is very much a local concern that will affect our lives in the near future – especially in terms of foods you are already eating and don’t even have a choice to know that they are genetically engineered! With the vitamin content robbed in so many GE foods and their health risks unexamined, many are questioning whether the public really benefits in commercially developed GE crops and seeds. If nothing else, it certainly gives food for thought!