The Environmental Impact of Genetically Modified Foods
The debate around genetically modified organisms (GMO) is huge and heated on either side. One of the major considerations when arguing against the use of GMO products is the potential for environmental harm. What exactly are the environmental risks to consider in regards to GMOs?
First of all, it is important to understand what a GMO is precisely. The World Heath Organization (WHO) defines them as organisms whose DNA has been altered in a non-natural way. GM plants are usually changed to be insect resistant, virus resistant, or herbicide tolerant. With these changes come some potentially problematic environmental challenges.
Firstly, toxicity is a huge issue surrounding chemical pesticides and herbicides, used commonly with GMOs, in addition to the toxicity inherent to these plants. GMOs may be toxic to non-target organisms, bees and butterflies being the most talked-about examples currently. Bees are hugely important in the pollination of many food crops, but are unfortunately extremely endangered by modern agricultural techniques, such as GM crops. Monarch butterflies are specifically at risk from GMO maize plants. In addition to bees and butterflies, birds are also at risk from pesticides, and work as biological control agents and pollinators, again, like bees.
Furthermore, the longterm effects of GMOs are not certain. Pests that are targeted by these agricultural methods can adapt to pesticides and herbicides, in addition to the DNA changes in GM plants to make them ¨resistant.¨ This means that they will not always be effective, but their toxic legacies will remain.
Cumulative effects of products such as GMOs are important to take into consideration. Evidence also suggests that small genetic changes in plants may produce even larger ecological shifts, meaning that there is potential for GMO´s to become persistent and weedy in agricultural conditions, since they are modified to be resistant to some modern agricultural techniques. This can also mean being invasive in natural settings, where GMOs, of course, do not occur naturally. It is not impossible for new, human modified, plants to become invasive species in delicate, natural ecosystems.
Finally, biodiversity, while it is critical in all ecosystems and to the sustainability of all species, is put at risk by GMOs. When GM crops are planted, generally in a monocrop fashion, many heritage seeds are no longer used. The nature of GMOs means fewer weed flowers and, therefore, less nectar for pollinators. Toxins released into the soil through the plants´ routes mean fewer soil bacteria, which are integral to healthy soil for plants to grow without the use of chemical fertilizers. Toxic residues are left in the soil of GM crops. Nutrients are not returned to the soil in mono crops and from GMO foods, meaning that soil is becoming dry and void of all nutrients, generally integral to the growing process. A cycle of dependence on GMO seeds and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is then created in order to grow a single crop. In addition to soil issues, the irrigation used to grow GM foods naturally carries all of these problems into water sources and into the air. This exposes different bacteria, insects, and animals to the same problems.
All of these impacts must be taken into consideration in the larger picture; GMO´s DNA may end up in soil, compost, animal feed and byproducts, and other living organisms from insects to larger pests. Bees can transport pesticides, herbicides, and DNA through the air into the environment. Once a plant is introduced in an agricultural environment, it is reasonable to assume it will become part of a larger ecosystem, meaning the problem of environmental damage done by GMOs is much larger than simply potentially harming our health.
Aside from environmental issues, GMOs are the topic of social and ethical debates as well. It goes without saying that we live in an inter-connected world, where the way we interact with nature can cause a complex array of consequences. Being informed on the food we are consuming, and the way modern agricultural techniques are affecting the environment, is one effective way of consciously interacting with the natural world.
Genetically Modified Organisms
A genetically modified organism (GMO) has had its DNA decoded and manipulated to create something different than what has developed naturally. The technique used is called genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology. Creating GMOs involves taking DNA molecules from inside the cells of different organisms and combining them into one molecule to create a new set of genes. These new genes are then inserted into the cells of a plant or animal to produce characteristics the recipient never had.
For example, scientists can take a trait of a bacterium such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and genetically insert its DNA into another organism to create a new molecule. They then insert that novel gene into living plant cells such as corn and soybeans to create a completely new set of genes and a food plant with modified characteristics.
Why is this a problem worth our concern? We have no idea of where this may lead. Even the strongest supporters of genetic engineering admit there is great uncertainty concerning these processes and their consequences. As the reports of almost all research results in our popular media say, “Further research is needed.”
Besides the unknown consequences, many people are troubled by the ethical problems of “playing God.” When you decode the DNA of a living organism and manipulate it to create a new and unique being, an ethical debate is inevitable. Bioengineering has been called the final frontier. The scientists doing this work, however well intentioned, have been accused of tampering with the natural evolution of all living things on earth. These new plants, sometimes called transgenic plants, are highly valued by many conventional farmers and people in poor, Third World countries, because they require fewer people and less money to produce, are often more durable and disease resistant, and may forestall mass hunger and starvation.
Who could be opposed to all those benefits? No one, but the question is not whether GMOs are good or bad. The problem is the mass distribution and marketing of GMOs when so little is known about their impact on our health and the environment.
Throughout most of human existence, we have evolved alongside the plants we have grown in natural ways. In the 1990’s, genetically modified (GM) foods were introduced to the marketplace. GM foods changed our relationship with plants significantly. GM products typically are those commodity crops such as soybeans, corn, canola and cottonseed. These plants are everywhere, and a plethora of foods now contain some ingredient from GM production.
The real issue is not legality but ethics. Seventy-five percent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain some GM ingredient. Eighty percent of soy and forty percent of corn is genetically modified. GM products are here, but no regulator required anyone to tell us. Food packagers are not required to disclose if a GM ingredient is present in their products. If genetic modification is completely safe, there should be no objection to a labeling requirement. Perhaps only rebellious, resistant consumers can force GM product labeling.
I am not against modifying and improving on what Mother Nature gave us. I love and respect the brilliant work of Luther Burbank, for example, who worked carefully for many years to produce hybrid plants with just the right traits before releasing them to the public for mass consumption. (According to a wikipedia.org entry, Burbank created more than 800 strains and varieties of plants during his 55-year career.) I am sure he would have wanted no part in genetically modifying plants, which I imagine he would consider “cheating” because it avoids the hard work and research usually invested to make a plant best fit for consumption.
I am all for improving a plant’s productivity and health potential provided we do not harm the ecosystem. But genetic modification goes far beyond hybridizing two different plants within a species to create a new and improved variety.
While I support developing and using hybrid varieties, I also believe we must all grow heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables while they are still available to us. An heirloom plant is one grown in earlier periods of human history before large-scale industrial agriculture began the widespread use of hybrid species. (People disagree on the definition of heirloom. Some say 50-100 years old. Some say when hybrids became dominant in U.S. farming after World War II, which ended in 1945, we no longer had true heirloom plants.) We should foster heirloom seeds and plants as good stewards of the environment and to maintain what is left of our food biodiversity.
I enjoy growing several kinds of tomatoes every year. Most are heirlooms, but I experiment with a few hybridized varieties, too. I appreciate the tireless hard work of horticulturists in their efforts to bring new and improved varieties to market. Still, this is simply helping nature create in a shorter time what she might have eventually developed on her own. For example, taking pollen from one plant and using it to manually pollinate another is the breeder’s way of speeding up a natural process to achieve taste, sugar, nutrient content, color, disease resistance or other desirable characteristics. As a gardener, you should always focus on growing heirloom varieties first. However, growing some hybrids is safe for human health.
Biodiversity should concern us all. We can potentially consume about 80,000 different edible plants, yet only 200 to 300 are offered in the supermarket, including the spice rack ingredients. These relatively few plants make up about 90 percent of our food. This lack of diversity makes our food supply vulnerable to even slight changes in our environment. This is another example of giant agribusiness narrowly pursuing high profits at the expense of our health and safety.
The coexistence of GM plants with conventional and organic crops has raised significant concern in many European countries. There is separate legislation for GM crops and a high demand from consumers for the freedom of choice between GM and non-GM foods. There are requirements to separate foods and feed produced from GM plants from conventional and organic foods. European research programs continue to investigate appropriate tools and rules. At the field level, biological containment measures to segregate GM and non-GM agriculture include isolation distances and pollen barriers. I believe there are only a few winners from what I just described, namely, the conglomerate biotech companies, giant agribusinesses and attorneys who represent both. Attempting to regulate and contain genetically modified foods instead of simply banning the process seems to create political confusion when what people want is a delicious, healthy meal at the end of the day.
Normal plant evolution occurs through natural selection. Plants with specific characteristics in their genes can retain nutrients and survive under a variety of environmental pressures like high winds, poor air quality, extreme temperatures and rainfall. Plants that are naturally adapted to the difficult conditions are able to survive. Other plants within a species that lack the traits needed to survive those pressures do not reproduce. Eventually their less-favored traits perish out of the species.
By choosing gene combinations in plants and repeatedly breeding those combinations for crops, we interfere with natural selection and alter natural evolution. The fundamental basis of organic gardening is balance. Living organisms evolve over long time periods as their environmental conditions change. If we throw off the evolution of plants in one environment, everything that interacts with the plants, such as predators or organisms with a symbiotic relationship, may be thrown off balance as well. It might take us thousands of years to know the full environmental impact of “playing God” by tampering with the natural evolution of a plant or animal species.
To understand what practices are best for mankind and the natural world requires knowing many fields of study. Genetic modification and its implications are too new to have been well studied. What we can say with confidence: The effects on plant, animal and human health are largely uncertain. Throwing off the balance of nature carries high risks, although much more research must be done to determine the net effects of GM products. Because of the relentless corporate drive for profits, biotechnology companies spend money on researching how they can bioengineer animal and plant species, not the bioethical or long-term health implications for animals and humans. Therefore, the call and pressure to step back and take the long-range view must come from the organic and environmental communities and health conscious consumers.