GMOs: Profit over people or a means to feed a growing global population

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are comprised of artificial DNA transferred from an organism of one species to that of a different organism. GMOs are a relatively recent revelation in the biotech industry; the first genetically modified organism, a tomato plant in which ripening could be delayed after picking, was developed in 1983. The transgenic Flavr Savr crop was approved by the (Food and Drug Administration) FDA of the US for field trials by 1987. Transgenic maize which could express resistance against insects was established by 1985. Flavr Savr tomato crops were permitted to be cultivated by the US Department of Agriculture in 1994 and another genetically engineered tobacco crop was given the green light to be produced commercially in Europe soon after. GM maize and Roundup Ready soya beans (resistant to the herbicide glyphosate) were then introduced in the UK in 1996. However, in the face of increasing scepticism and concerns over the safety of GMOs to human health as well as conventional and organic crops, two regions in Europe formed in 2010 in a joint declaration to protect agricultural regulations which safeguard traditional and low impact agricultural production methods at risk of contamination from GM crops. Today only one GM crop is authorised to be planted in the EU, maize MON 810, with many states opposing the cultivation of any transgenic crops. The market for GM animal feed is much more open with over 60% of feed and meal being imported mostly as soybean and soy meal. Since March 2015 EU member states have had the option to either inhibit or promote the cultivation of transgenic crops on their territories. Many states including Britain and France have since opted to ban GMOs for food or feed.

Courtesy of Foodmatters
Courtesy of Foodmatters

The book `GMO Myths and Truths´ by genetic engineers Dr John Fagan, Dr Michael Antoniou and researcher Claire Robinson underlined risks associated with GMOs identified by studies conducted on a broad range of genetically engineered crops. Many studies undertaken on rats and mice which were fed GM crops showed adverse effects on the health of experimental subjects such as allergic reactions and toxicity. For instance, GM Flavr Savr tomatoes fed to rats developed stomach lesions and ulcers. GM peas fed to mice lead to a sustained immune response were the rodents produced antibodies followed by inflammation against a GM protein. Furthermore, mice on a diet of GM soy expressed disturbed liver and testes function with unusual form of nuclei in liver cells. Allergies from GM Soy have increased markedly since their introduction in the UK, digestive enzymes are known to decrease in mice. An application to commercialise the maize crops MON863 and MON803 in Europe was rejected as data indicated all three strains showed toxic effects on kidneys and liver of rats. Reviews on over a dozen studies undertaken on GM crops including soy and maize intended for animal feed elucidated each variety caused toxic reactions to kidney and liver function. Bt corn varieties fed to cows and pigs in the US showed widespread sterility while sheep, buffalo and goats in India grazing on Bt cotton plants after harvest developed a deterioration in health and reproductive problems. The Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) attested that multiple yearly studies showed that serious health effects affiliated with GM crops such as infertility, immune conditions, enhanced aging, atypical insulin regulation and altered organs. The FDA refute these findings and claim there is no material asserting that GM foods were substantially different from conventional crops and that no safety studies were necessary.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

The development of GM crops has often been put forward as a means to “feed the world” by large multinational companies, although as highlighted by former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington, GM is not a quick fix to feed the world`s mouths. Political and economic stability are two key ingredients to alleviating food shortages, often lacking in developing countries where food scarcity, inequality and poverty are most apparent. The introduction of genetically engineered crops to developing countries directly influences the local environment, economy and livelihoods. The spread of GM crops may lead to a loss of local knowledge and sustainable agricultural practices harnessed over millennia. The commitment made by the GM industry to deliver farmers increased yields, drought resistance and decreased pesticide use have yet to be fulfilled. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD) which comprised over 400 scientists found that 70% of the globes food supply comes from small farmers and that sustainable agriculture was the only option to feed an ever growing population. Pests become resistant against insecticide encoded in cells of GM crops and after some years the concentration of pesticide use increases considerably to combat ‘superweeds’ with higher doses of pesticide further increasing costs. Farmers must use substantially more pesticides on GM crops (with considerably higher residues possible in food) were only the GM plants survive high doses of weed killer. Many varieties of GM seeds are more expensive than conventional crops as Round-up ready soybeans in South America and GM corn in the US in part due to increased resistance from pests including the European corn borer and thus lower crop yields. GM soy is the most commonly grown genetically modified crop in the US and South America yet has a lower yield than conventional soy. The insecticidal maize strain MON810 have found to give similar yields to conventional varieties in Spain. Strains of Non-GMO soybean were found to produce considerably higher yields than Round-up Ready GM strain in Brazil (and earned farmers higher financial benefits). Despite lower yields and higher costs, GM soybean strains have more or less pushed traditional strains out of the market. Agri-business corporations such as Monsanto negatively impact biodiversity as they buy up seed farms displacing conventional crop varieties to increase their profits and to increase their influence on global food supply. Traditional crops may disappear form markets if patented GM strains are let take over.

Organic and conventional farmers with crops growing next to GM counterparts can also suffer loses in yields if crops become contaminated by cross-pollination from GM crops which cannot be sold on markets. Hybridised transgenic seeds could be mixed with non-GM crops which could lead to a patent infringement to farmers who unwittingly plant contaminated seeds. Farmers are not allowed harvest GM seeds under strict patent rules by multi-billion dollar agro-businesses like Monsanto, who are keen to further increase profits. Legal action has been taken against farmers such as Percy Schmeiser who’s Canola crop was found to be contaminated with GM seeds. Schmeiser claimed he was unaware his crop was contaminated with GM seeds, it is possible the pesticide resistant GM seeds came from a neighbouring farm or the farmer bought a contaminated bag of seeds which survived his herbicide treatment. He lost the ensuing court case against Monsanto as he had not paid royalties for growing GM seeds in his crop. Concerns have been raised in Mexico where GM maize threatens a rich range of traditional maize cultivars, a study at the University of Berkelely found transgenic maize in local varieties of the crop and small scale subsistence farmers, a ban on planting GM varieties of maize soon followed. Maize is traditionally a mainstay of the Mexican diet and farmers and NGOs are keen to preserve the genetic diversity of the invaluable crop. Maize reproduces by open pollination which makes it particularly vulnerable to hybridisation with transgenic crops. Farmers are also fearful of legal action by seed producers against them if GM strains of maize are found in their crop. The main threat posed to endemic strains of maize come from imported transgenic corn mostly from the US. GMO contamination in organic crops is a widespread problem and GM companies are typically not accountable leaving organic farmers at risk of heavy financial loses. Safety concerns highlighted over the consumption of transgenic products to human health, increased costs, high pesticide use and threats to traditional and conventional crops are all major issues posed to livelihoods and the environment. Although, the struggle between the agro-industry, governments, activists, and society is likely to continue and intensify in the coming years and decades.


Cathal O'Brien
About Cathal O'Brien 1 Article
Cathal is an ecologist with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Biology from UCD and is currently a Masters student of Ecology at the University of Bremen. Previously, Cathal interned as a waste enforcement officer with Cork County Council and worked with Coastwatch Ireland marine litter survey. Cathal is most interested in freshwater, conservation and vegetation ecology and seeks to pursue opportunities in these fields.
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