The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of GMO’s from a die-hard organic farmer

The following article is by a colleague who, as a decades-experienced organic farmer, has first hand knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding genetically modified or genetically engineered crops and their impact. Because this topic is so crucial, it’s published here as a three-part short series. Sources are attributed at the end of the series.  You’ll want to be sure to read it all.

GMO corn pic

I guess I’m just an old confused farmer, but I’ve been concerned about GMOs and the future for a while . Initially, I was optimistic. However the rapid growth and the way Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) are being used has me worried. So far, the debate hasn’t provided clear solutions. As a food eater, I want to know all about the food I eat. Therefore, I’ve tried to look at the issues from both sides.

Let’s start with three terms that place GMOs in a biological context.

Open Pollinated plants: For centuries gardeners and farmers have been improving plant and animal species through natural selection. If plants of the same species breed by pollinating (like squash) with the aid of insects and wind, their offspring will be the same as their parents, as will the many species that are self pollinating, like tomatoes. Over the years these plants have adapted to a variety of climate and soil conditions as well as to different blights and pests, resulting in thousands of varieties. We can save and sow these seeds. Heirlooms are seeds saved for many generations.

An isolated species will essentially clone itself, but it can cross-pollinate with nearby plants of the same species creating a new variety – a first generation hybrid (F1-hybrid). The hybrid plants could be just like one of the parent plants or slightly different. At first Nature selected the strongest and most productive offspring, later man helped.

Selective Hybridization: F1-hybrid varieties are produced by seed companies to gain certain desirable characteristics by selective fertilization or hand-pollination. These hybrids are often more productive and uniform in size and color – just right for the supermarket. Seed companies own the patent to the hybrids they develop. If you grow these hybrids and save the seeds, they won’t be like their parents. The main disadvantage of patented hybrids is that growers can’t save their seeds, so we end up buying new seeds year after year.

G

Genetically engineered sugar beets

Genetically engineered sugar beets

enetically Modified Organisms (GMO):  GMOs are essentially hybrids bred in laboratories. Food scientists take one tiny gene from one organism and splice it into another totally unrelated organism, thus making a new plant or animal never seen before. Take for example corn: Inserting a (nicotoid) gene from tobacco into corn creates plants that will kill worms that eat them. In addition scientists have created plants that withstand the herbicide Roundup. When Roundup is sprayed over the crops, weeds die, but the soybeans or corn don’t. Roundup becomes inert but the chemical components remain on what we eat.

A second way to genetically modify plants is Genetic Engineering (GE). With a process using chemicals and specialized techniques, food scientists can change the genetic makeup of a plant variety. Modern wheat is an example. It’s technologically not a GMO because chemicals are used to change its genetic nature. Almost all of the wheat we eat in bread, pasta, and cakes comes from four GE wheat varieties, all approved by the US Department of Agriculture

It’s hard to get the data, but it’s safe to say that GE and GMOs are already in over 80% of all processed food, unseen because we have no label requirements, except for fresh fruit and vegetables. Here are some sobering facts:

  • Five years ago, 91% of soy, 88% of corn, 75% of canola oil, and 90% of animal feed were GMO.
  • Today 100% of sugar beets and a majority of wheat are GMO.
  • Unless stated as non-GMO, natural foods can contain GMO ingredients.
  • Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, that sell natural products with in-store labels, will not publicly release their non-GMO affidavits because they don’t want us to know which company is making the product for them.

Part I: The Good

GMOs could have enormous potential for application in agriculture and pharmaceuticals. In addition to increased production, new strains of food crops with enhanced nutrients, disease and drought resistant capabilities could help improve the world’s food supply. New strains of plants could be used to fight human diseases.

It’s documented that most GMOs perform poorly in drought conditions. Water issues are going to get much worse, so it seems possible that some crops could be genetically changed to flourish in drought conditions. This would especially benefit Australia and Africa. Another use of genetic modification is that “bad” traits of plants and animals can be eliminated while keeping the “good” traits. In abstract, I support the science of the genetic altering processes if it would benefit everyone.

GMO (no)

Recently I heard about a positive use for GMOs. Medical scientists have successfully genetically altered human white blood cells to block infection by the HIV virus, which enables them to attack the virus, showing promise for fighting—perhaps curing—AIDS.

I would like to list more humanitarian benefits of GMOs, but they’re hard to find. I’m not sure why but most independent sources discuss only the problems. Of course, GMO crops benefits the biotech industry in sales of seeds and chemicals, large corporate farms in increased yields, the food processing industry in obtaining cheaper crops, and the public in access to cheap processed foods.

Part 2 outlines the serious negative effects that GMO’s and GE crops have and could have on farmers and on our food. But there’s more. Part 3 will reveal the ugly side of this scientific experiment we humans have become unwitting participants of. You won’t want to miss these!

The author of this 3-part series is Wayne Kessler, an organic farmer in northern California who teaches and guest lectures about organic farming methods at his local community college.

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