What I’ve learned about GMOs

What I’ve learned about GMOs

I did a presentation on GMOs  for our local AAUW discussion group and thought ‘why waste all that reading’ – so here’s a quick overview of what I learned. I read the following books: Mendel in the Kitchen by geneticist Nina Federoff, which was ranked more anti-GMO in this helpful article by Nathanael Johnson on grist.org, and Food Inc. (2003) by journalist Peter Pringle, which was more pro-GMO. I also read the Nature journal’s thorough articles on GMOs (May 2013), plus a recent book Creation How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford (2013), a fun read on current theories of how life began and where it’s going. IMG_3917

Overall, I continue to be concerned about the environmental issues surrounding GMOs (genetic modified organisms which result from genetic engineering or GE) — but I also came away with some positive potentials. I’m also more aware of how the biotech industry, with the help of U.S. regulatory agencies and legislation, sabotaged themselves with their decisions.

While this is very simplified, here is some of what I learned:

  • Early genetic scientists did some significant genetic tinkering, such as Luther Burbank who used tweezers and scalpels to develop millions of varieties. Scientists who followed used radiation and mutant-causing chemicals to produce varieties that are similar to the modern GM techniques. For example, Rio Red grapefruit occurred by exposing the grapefruit bud to neutron radiation, while seedless watermelon has the colchicine chemical added to interrupt the seed development.
  • As we all know, this subject is very polarized, and depends on how you frame the issue. As Federoff of Mendel in the Kitchen’s asked,

Which view will seem right to you depends on what you consider conventional – and how you define the ways of nature?

Food Inc.’s Pringle put it another way:

“The biotech companies like to say that GE is really only an extension of the traditional art of cross breeding, as practiced by Mendel in his monastery garden. The modern advantage is that GE is more fastidious and targeted, with results more predicable and by implication, safer…. The opponents hotly dispute this. They accuse the companies of distorting the realities of traditional breeding and turning a blind eye to the possibilities for genetic, environmental or human harm that could result from inserting an alien gene into a plant’s genome… In contrast, traditional breeding is the mixing or recombination of genetic material occurs between two plants that share a recent evolutionary history…. “

  • Mega-brief GE history: 1984 was a pivotal year, when research showed plant cells could incorporate foreign genes. This unleashed much research by the big companies, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta (formerly Astra Zeneca), formerly chemical and insecticide companies that saw potential in seed production. Today a majority of GM crops are sold in 5 countries: US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. Today in the US 95% of all sugar beets are GE herbicide resistant, 93% of all soy and 85% of all corn, 90% upward of all cottonseed and canola oil. In corn, there’s no separation of GMO and non-GMO corn in elevator grains.
  • The primary pro-GMO argument is meeting population growth demands.  The stats always surprise me: the 3 billion people in 1950 have more than doubled to 7.2b in 2013, with 8.5 to 9 b expected in 2050. Limits to food production include acidic soils (30% of world), high salinity (7% – much in Africa), and of course continual drought issues.

However…. one thing missing from what I read was the need for population control. Animals and humans who were responsible for the gathering (and growing) of their food have long regulated their reproduction based on food availability.

  • U.S. regulation history has caused a negative backlash: Loose regulation for GMOs began during the 1990-1992 Bush ‘de-regulation years. Biotech wanted some government regulation to assure safety but really wanted a set of regulations with little teeth. The final policy in 1992 employed a term called ‘substantial equivalency’ – if the new foods were substantially equivalent to an old food, they were considered safe. A further weakening occurred when responsibility for oversight was divided among three agencies – the FDA, EPA and the Department of Agriculture.
  • Europe reacted differently, creating a collision course between U.S. and European policy. The U.K. was especially wary after the Mad Cow Disease epidemic resulted in human deaths and over 4 million cattle being slaughtered. Many European scientists countries thought the new foods needed a full risk assessment. Most importantly, they determined that “a GM food that is substantially equivalent to a conventional one does not mean it is safe.” More labeling and testing was required. After some 1996 GMO shipments, the EU closed door to GM crops.

Because Africa — where the need for greater food production is high — exports to Europe, the European stance affects them.  The 2002 African drought with millions at risk of starving provides a good example. Three countries refused GMO crop donations from the U.S.. Two finally accepted GMO corn that was milled so seeds couldn’t be used.  But a long history of distrust also played a role.  Food production had greatly increased worldwide prior to GM crops with advent of fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds. However, this largely bypassed Africa because their farmers couldn’t afford these. Also complicating things were differing laws in Africa regarding property rights from the biotech companies like Monsanto (see below).

  •  Major patent problems:  The biotech companies established broad patents on everything – processes, seeds, changed genes – aided during the Reagan administration years.  Also, corporations made agreements with universities, such as the Berkeley arrangement with Novartis, which slowed the sharing of information. The result is ¾ of plant patents are with companies, ½ of those multinational companies. In addition, Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis bought many companies that were doing patenting or development.

This created a backlash – A good example is Golden Rice, rice with beta-carotene to provide Vitamin A (by inserting daffodil gene into rice) to relieve blindness and death in many poor countries. The project took 10 years and 60 scientists – but ended up with 70 corporate patents over all aspects of its development. The Rockefeller Foundation invested $100m. The result: Golden Rice became very controversial and ended up getting sold to Novartis, but never launched – which shows great need for reform.

  • Ten-fold increase in herbicide use and superweeds – While the main goal of GM foods was to produce food, the result has been mostly insect resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops. Herbicide tolerance means herbicide can be applied without killing the crop plant.
Herbicides have impacted milkweed, the monarch's host plant (Monika Moore photo)

Herbicides have impacted milkweed, the monarch’s host plant (Monika Moore photo)

As a result, while pesticide use has decreased slightly, herbicides have risen dramatically: glysphosphate (most commonly known as Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto, whose patent expired in 2000) increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.  It’s estimated to double in 2025. (One well-publicized recent result: NYTimes article on herbicides and monarch butterflies)

With rising herbicides, weed resistance has created superweeds, with 24 glysphosphate resistant weed species identified since the 1996 introduction of herbicide- tolerant crops.

  • Other issues brought up include:

Transgenes (genetic material transferred by GE techniques from one organism to another) spreading to wild crops or organic crops, which is especially concerning in centers of crop diversity, such as India and Mexico. For example, in Mexico, research showed that 1-10% of native corn might contain transgenes. The issue got very divisive – and likely occured from farmers planting transgenic corn that was banned.

Issues with the ‘seed police’ – With my Wall Street work, I have more of an understanding of this issue. GMO seed companies need to charge for their use. For ex, any farmer growing Monsanto’s Bt corn or canola signs a ‘technology use’ agreement and pay Monsanto $15 or so an acre. They can’t use the seed from the corn, which Monsanto says is to recover the millions spent on research and development, which I can understand some. Also further generations of a GMO crop aren’t the same as the first. Lawsuits regarding this have upheld Monsanto but have created heroes for anti-biotech forces. (google Percy Schneiser in Canada)IMG_3918

My takeaway: Because I’m most concerned about the environmental effects I will continue to support GMO labeling efforts and primarily eat organic foods, which assure non-GMO.  I do acknowledge there are positive GMO possibilities. For example, nutrient boosted GM foods, and drought resistant crops (farmers lose 10-15% on average to drought). Others are biofuels, the making of synthetic diesel fuel out of vegetable matter by speeding up the natural process. And even things like products like orb-weaver spider fibers manufactured for materials of great strength and elasticity, such as for wound healing.

About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. Paul Cherubini says:

    Article is simple minded and internally conflicted. Example: it acknowledges that Roundup has devastated weeds (e.g. milkweed) then turns around and says it had created super weeds. Are Monsanto and farmers really that dumb? Of course not! The “super weed” problem is a minor nuisance to the farmers in relation to the huge overall weed control gains they achieved by growing Roundup Ready crops. So you won’t find any farmer association groups that are angry with Monsanto or GMO technology.

  2. Monika Moore says:

    Hi Linda,
    Easy to understand and well written. Thank you for using my picture. If at any time you need pictures of butterflies for a story I would be happy to provide them for you. Shared on facebook. God Bless, Monika Moore

  3. It’s true most farmers are most focused on profitability so I do think most association groups are supportive of Monsanto and GMO technology. I’ve interviewed some Midwest farmers for a writing project and found that to be the case, but there are members among Practical Farmers associations and organic farming associations that are concerned. Re Roundup, resistance is a common reaction in much of science – look at antibiotics being effective in killing bacteria but resistant bacteria is a side effect. There’s many sides to this complex issue.

Speak Your Mind