The Folly of GMOs is Becoming (More) Apparent

Posted on July 11, 2013

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Man-made evolution in the form of GMOs is driving natural evolution… and Nature is winning.

Tom Philpott of Mother Jones is one of my favorite food journalists.  Not a “foodie” like we find on the Food Network; I mean he talks about food security, Big Agriculture, food-related laws, and global food production.  His latest, “Monsanto is Losing the Press,” is at once frightening and hopeful.

On the frightening side, he recounts “the declining effectiveness of GMO-seed giant Monsanto’s flagship products: crops engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides.”  You have probably heard of “Roundup-Ready” corn, designed to resist the herbicide Roundup; the idea was that farmers could kill weeds without hurting the corn.  Or perhaps Bt corn, so called because its DNA is engineered to contain the bug-fighting genes of Bacillus thuringiensis.

Well – it should not come as any surprise to the Darwinists among us that these weeds and bugs, coming under the environmental pressures exerted by these bioengineering feats, didn’t last too many generations… before they evolved.  Survival of the fittest, baby!  So now we have Roundup-resistant super-weeds to go with our Roundup-Ready corn; we have Bt- resistant rootworms, to go with our Bt corn.  It is no different from the antibiotic-resistant bacteria we have seen emerging in the wake of over-use of antibiotics.

But the really frightening thing is the farmers’ response.  They are responding to super-weeds by just applying more and more herbicide, and they are responding to super-bugs by applying various chemical pesticides (wash those veggies!!) – exactly what Bt corn was supposed to avoid.  But what else can they do?  As Mr. Philpott explains, in most counties of the US, roughly a third of farmers have no seed-buying choices other than Monsanto.    Also according to Mr. Philpott:  “As I showed in my post [last year], Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow together control 80 percent of the corn seed market and 70 percent of the soy market.”

I find this kind of short-sighted, monopoly- and money-driven science to be the scariest thing of all.  We have been “tampering” with our crops probably, oh, since agriculture was invented; but up until recently, that tampering was accomplished through cross-breeding and artificial selection (essentially, human-driven evolution).  Even so, we managed to breed a lot of nutrition out of our foods in favor of sweeter flavors, visual appeal, or ease of shipping.  Since the advent of genetic engineering – directly fiddling with an organism’s DNA, combining it with snippets of code from completely different species, even inserting animal DNA into plants – I suspect the potential for stupidly, myopically ruining the nutritional value of our food goes much deeper.  Another threat introduced by genetic engineering is the resulting loss of genetic diversity; the danger of monoculture practice is that we are just a couple of crop failures away from catastrophe.

As for the science behind Roundup-Ready and Bt corn, I fervently hope that Big Ag has learned something that the medical community is already painfully aware of:  when pressured, pests evolve, and then they pose an even bigger problem for us.  But as bad as our outlook is for the usefulness of antibiotics, what’s just starting to happen with our crops has far higher stakes.  We – human beings – still have a huge amount of biodiversity ourselves, which gives our species the capacity to survive epidemics just as we have in past centuries.  But the trend toward nutrient-poor monoculture crops is exceptionally dangerous, because it vastly diminishes genetic variation and takes away the capacity of our food crops to survive infestations.  And no one survives without enough food.

The hope in all of this, as Mr. Philpott notes, is that this sort of news has been breaking out of its confines in the agricultural trade journals and creeping more and more into the mainstream press, where the general public is made aware of it.  More consumers are becoming more concerned, and that is a good thing.  Consumers vote where it hurts:  with their pocketbooks.  I hope that they go even farther, and let their elected officials know that’s not the only vote they will be casting with these Big Ag practices in mind.

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