Greggor Ilagan, county council who initially sought to ban GMO in Hawaii, rethinks his position after deciding to learn about GMO himself through scientists, rather than self-styled “experts.” Image credit New York Times
There has been so much GMO food (genetically-modified organisms) hate going round the internet for as long as GMO has been around. Scary pictures depict GMO as a sort of “Frankenfood” that will ultimately give us all cancers and destabilise society. In fact, the New York Times just reported on how Hawaii passed a bill for vote to ban all GMOs on Hawaii, with much support from policy-makers and the voting crowd. Unsurprisingly, the ones most worried about the passing of such a ban are the papaya growers of the island, and county council member Greggor Ilagan, who undertook an effort to actually learn about what GMOs are, found many of the misconceptions he had about genetically-modified food debunked.
While it is true that not everything is known about GMO, the fight against GMO is, if one were to look carefully at the vitriol thrown against the technology, is half-parts resisting the actual technology itself, and half-parts decrying the unscrupulous practices of the corporations such as Monsanto that control the industry. It is important to not to lump corporatism with what is perceived to be the ills of GMO foods, because they’re separate things.
But the sad thing is, the “evidence” given against the science of GMO have mostly been disproved, yet these untruths still are touted around as legit reasons to completely throw GMO out the window. For example:
- Gilles-Éric Séralini and a group of French researchers published a peer-reviewed study that rats fed GMO corn developed giant tumours and died prematurely — This is one of the most often cited study as to why GMO will kill us all. The study has been criticised for many reasons: 1) The rats chosen for the study were of a strain extremely prone to tumours. 2) Sample size problems. Where the OECD recommends at least 50 rats for carcinogenicity studies per testing group, Séralini only used 10, making it results more likely to be error-prone. 3) Statistical cherry-picking: Séralini did not publish crucial information about the study. The journal that published Séralini’s paper has since retracted it.
- Judy Carman, Australian researcher, claims that pigs fed GM corn and GM soybean meal showed increased incidence of stomach inflammation. This too has been debunked for the following reasons: 1) While they showed pictures of GM-fed pigs with stomach inflammation, the pigs that were fed non-GM food actually developed more inflammations than the ones fed GM-food. 2) The pigs were subject to terrible living conditions, and that 60% of pigs of both groups developed pneumonia anyway, evidence of bad husbandry. 3) Statistic-fudging: The researchers separated the groups into different bands of inflammation and ran separate statistical tests so that their P-values could limbo underneath the P < 0.05 mark to be confident in. That is, they went fishing for the right values to validate their hypothesis, which was chosen after the experiment run–stomach inflammation.
- GMO food causes autism. A mere error of confusing correlation and causation, something that can happen.
- GMO crops pollinate with weeds, passing on their foreign-inserted genes, causing superweeds. GMO crops do not pollinate with weeds (except in rare cases, but that’s a different story). “Superweeds” are caused by improper and excessive use of the pesticides, without rotating types of pesticides used, nor were there other forms of weed control practices used other than pesticides. This led to the weeds gaining a resistance to the pesticides. Unfortunately, because of these superweeds caused by excessive use of pesticides, farmers end up having to use more and more pesticide to kill off these resistant strands, sometimes reverting to the use of pesticides that these GM crops were supposed to phase out.
- The foreign-introduced genes in GM-food will be passed onto humans when we ingest it, possibly leading to health complications down the road. There are no conclusive studies that have proven this. On the other hand, there have been no studies that can conclusively say that there are absolutely no risks to eating GM-food, but as far as studies can show up to this point, they have been proven safe enough to eat.
Now, we move on to the criticism of the corporatism aspects resulting from the GMO industry.
- GM cotton has led to farmer suicides in India. Vandana Shiva, an environmental and feminist activist from India, repeated an alarming statistic: “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she said. Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds, containing a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, cost five times that of local varieties. This caused scalpers to mix the Bt seeds with conventional ones to sell them at lower prices, and the sham seeds usually result in crop failures, adding on to the farmers’ financial problems. But while the total number of suicides in India grew from just under 100,000 to more than 120,000 in 2007, the number of farmer suicides remained constant at around 20,000 per yer. Yields actually grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains.
- Monsanto will sue you for growing their GMO if the pollen blows through your field and sprouts. Monsanto has shown no evidence of intentionally bringing a lawsuit against a farmer whose field was accidentally pollinated. Monsanto has filed suits against 145 farmers since 1997, for intentionally planting their patented seeds without having purchased the rights to do so. They’ve only proceeded through trial in eleven of the cases, all of which they won. The idea of “Monsanto suing for accidental cross-pollination” came from the 1999 case of the Canadian canola farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who claimed that his 95% GMO-seeded field was an accident. The judge eventually found Schmeiser to have intentionally planted the seeds, but since he derived no benefit from the planting, did not have to pay any damages.
- Corporations like Monsanto make seeds that are sterile, and force farmers to constantly have to buy seeds from them each planting. From NPR: “This idea presumably has its roots in a real genetic modification (dubbed the Terminator Gene by anti-biotech activists) that can make a plant produce sterile seeds. Monsanto owns the patent on this technique, but has promised not to use it.””Now, biotech companies — and Monsanto in particular — do seem to wish that this idea were true. They do their best to keep farmers from replanting the offspring from GMOs. But they do this because, in fact, those seeds will multiply.”However, relying on corporations for seeds isn’t new. By the time Monsanto got into the seed business, most farmers in the U.S. and Europe were already relying on seed that they bought from seed companies. This shift started with the rise of commercial seed companies, not the advent of genetic engineering. But Monsanto and GMOs certainly accelerated the trend drastically.
- The majority of our foods are GM already. Actually, not quite so. Currently, only eight crops (alfafa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and zucchini) are widely-grown GM, with some others at risk for contamination. Of the GM crops, corn and sugar beets have a lot of derived products made from them, such as aspartame, amino acids, high-fructose corn syrup, and xanthan gum, amongst some.
I’m sure I’ve missed out on some of the criticisms, but these are the usual suspects raised against GMO.
I’m certainly uneasy with the monopoly these major corporations have over our food production methods, when only one or two major companies supply the majority of seeds sold to farmers. I can certainly understand the companies’ desires to patent their seeds, since they’ve spent time and money into researching them, but not all GM work like Monsanto. Looking at Hawaii’s GM “Rainbow” papayas, it was developed primarily by scientists at academic institutions, has no patent protecting it, and it was a model for how the technology could benefit small farmers. This GM almost single-handedly saved Hawaii’s papayas from an outbreak of the ringspot virus in the mid-90s.
But just because we’re uneasy with the corporation, doesn’t mean the science of GMO is bad. What we should work towards is better regulation of standards and rigorous testing of GM food, and creating a framework of ethical standards that straddles a balance between profit for the corporations as well as understanding that such technology is ultimately created for the benefit of mankind and ending food shortages, not a mere means to a pretty penny. The fear-mongering of sensationalised untruths against GMO is only going to hurt not only the farmers, but ultimately the people as well.