GMOs and genetically modified discourses

 

 For this post, I decided not to follow my usual topic-selection process, and to go straight to a subject that I find particularly interesting: GMOs. I am writing this “article” in English, as I will look at this topic from an angle that involves an international point of view.

Most people with sufficient access to information heard about GMOs, and vaguely know what it is about. But the way it is talked about varies a lot, as well as regulations throughout the world. In western countries, policies go from strict regulation through different levels of control (France, Germany…) to non/less-regulated use (USA, Spain…), even neighbor countries can have very different approaches (check this to have the list of regulations in place in Europe, may they be central or local).

 

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“Why?” one may ask. Well, I think it is highly due to advocacy and lobbying, among other aspects like culture (on which communications can take its roots). I will cover both in the following article: I will first give a little glance of the context (I wouldn’t dare giving the whole context, I don’t think it is possible) picking a few things here and there, before highlighting examples of what GMO advocates use as arguments, with more or less success.

 

Context

What are GMOS?

Let’s start with a “definition”. A GMO is a “Genetically Modified Organism”, known as “Organisme Génétiquement Modifié” in French (yes, French is very much important). It is the result of a modification / manipulation of genes, like the introduction of a new gene (the so called modification) in the DNA of a plant (organism). Today, most of the debate focuses on genetically modified plants, as modified animals are not directly eaten yet (merely through drugs or other things. Please let me know if you have complementary sources).

The concept behind GMO is quite simple: you take a gene from an organism that has an “interesting” trait, and you put it in another organism, for it to have this trait, as you might know: the traits of an organism, its structure, the way it works is defined by its DNA and the genes that compose it. When you find out what gene gives what trait, you just need to take it and insert it somewhere else (technically, it’s not as simple, but that’s how it works).

 GMOs apparently first appeared in labs, in the 70’s when a gene, taken from a fish, was introduced in a tomato to allow it to resist frost. In the 90’s, Monsanto introduced a gene in different plants to allow them to resist to high quantities of glyphosate (that they brand as Round Up), because somehow, this herbicide did not only kill “weeds”, but also the actual plant farmers would want to grow (I know, so not predictable, right?). Plants carrying this gene are labeled as “bt”, for Bacillus thuringiensis. Monsanto created “Round up ready corn”, Bayer created “Liberty Link Corn” (resistant to glufosinate), Pioneer developed “Clearfield” (resistant to imidazoline).

All kind of GMO have been developed, to create crops that are resistant to specific things (including herbicides), crops that produce their own toxins to kill insects, crops that are resistant to a specific climatic condition…

Today, GMOs are increasingly used worldwide: “The global hectarage of biotech crops have increased more than 100-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to over 175 million hectares in 2013 – this makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.” (Even though the source, the ISAAA would have interest to show big numbers, these data are mostly verifiable as farmers go through corporations to buy their seeds). It grew to 181.5 million hectares in 2014. At this point, more than 73 million hectares of crops in the US were genetically modified, according to that same source, more than 42 million in Brazil and around 25 million in Argentina (the three main countries). The first European country in the ranking is Spain with more than 100 000 hectares. “Developing countries”, as labelled by ISAAA, counted for more than half of the crops for the past 3 years. The main crops genetically modified are soybean, cotton, corn (maize) and canola. ISAAA explains that “in 2014, 82% (90.7 million hectares) of the 111 million hectares of the soybean planted globally were biotech”, as you can see in their graph.  When you take a look at where soybean are mostly grown, using Wikipedia, you can see that the biggest GMO users are the same countries (yes, I dare quoting Wikipedia, even if it would make some of my past high school / old school teachers crazy) : United States (36%), Brazil (36%), Argentina (18%). Now, that’s a lot, if you ask me, especially when it comes to soy, an important element of the food chain, when directly eaten or fed to animals, as “a significant and cheap source of protein for animal feeds” (Wikipedia). Globally, some sources explain that GMOs are 10% of crops (that was in 2007. It’s growing).

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To me, 10% is already too much, for multiple reasons.

 

Why is a little GMO already too much of GMO?

First, the genetically modified seeds are patented. At least for a while, until the patent goes public. It means that farmers who use them do not really “own” them: they can’t use the seeds produced by the plants they grew.  They can only plant what is given to them. From a capitalistic point of view, it makes sense that a big company protects their inventions (although it looks more like a “combination” of existing things rather than an actual creation). And many farmers have actually started buying seeds to seed companies a while ago, before GMOs (in western countries at least). But ethically I believe that no-one should be able to claim a patent on living things and that someone who grows a plant should be able to reuse the seeds. In some situations, alternatives and traditional varieties come to disappear and leave farmers with little to no choice, facing debts after choosing what was shown as a “good opportunity”.

Second, the genetically modified plants contaminate their environment, with impunity in many places. We can take the example described by Russia Today (yeah, that source, I know), mentioning the decision of the US supreme court to refuse the claim made by farmers who wanted to protect their fields from contaminations by Monsanto’s patented crops. Although Monsanto publicly said they will not draw charges against farmers with contaminated crops for using their patented plants, these still contaminate the environment, modifying it drastically. So the actual amount of GMO plants might be a lot more than 10%, and a very difficult number to verify.

Third, because as I said earlier, being used for corn and soy, GMOs can be found in many “derivate” products (anything using corn syrup, meat when animals are fed soy…) with very little information to the consumer.  That’s especially true in the US.

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Note that in a few countries, local / regional legislations apply

Fourth, because there is no “very long term” study that shows that GMOs are completely safe. According to what I have found so far, and as explained on this blog, studies go up to two years (but please share if you have more info). Now, one might say: that’s also true for pesticides and all these stuff that conventional agriculture uses that are not tested in combination with each other. Yes exactly! But it doesn’t make it OK! As long as there is a doubt, a product that contaminates the environment enough to make it impossible to withdraw should not be used. Because we can argue that a polluted place can be cleaned and find its earlier stage after a while. But once GMO plants share their pollen with the nature around them there is obviously no coming back. Even if the use of GMO was labeled, as it is in quite a few countries, we probably still would be / are eating some as it spreads. And it is problematic, as consumers are not informed. Few studies actually do show that GMOs might be harmful, like this one that found some liver ageing anomalies on mice, or the well-known study of Seralini (mentioned here)… Although those studies are largely criticized and not everyone agrees that they actually show GMOs are dangerous, everyone should recognize that they at least introduce a doubt. And that should be enough to stop growing GM plants in open fields.

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That’s a short and incomplete contextualization, my own partial description of it. But it was necessary to go further with the analysis of the arguments of the many supporters of GMOs. Yes, they are numerous, and they have well-built discourses. The pillars of their speech are, I think: the “walk towards the future”, the “need to help and feed the world”, the “it’s gonna save the environment” and the “it’s completely safe”

 

GMOs and their discourses

Innovation is good. GMOs are innovation. And so GMOs are good.

This sophism (almost as good as the ones I do) is caricaturing one of the most prominent arguments in favor of GMOs. The rhetoric of technological advance is used in many different fields, whenever it comes to supporting “innovation” or “new technologies”. Usually, these discourses focus on the idea of “innovation” rather than the actual invention that is being made, or the subject of research. They claim new technologies are good, no matter what, and generally use the word “progress” as an explanation. We have to move forward, you see… Aaron Toscano, in his book Marconi’s wireless and the Rhetoric of a new technology writes : “Science fiction narratives provide visions of what could come and how audiences might deal with technological change. If technological change were not a social value, no technologies or innovations would be pursued. […] both positive and negative science fiction narratives present technology advancement as linear, always progressing process. This perspective is important for understanding that science fiction and popular journalistic discourse are forms of technical communication. Both use implicitly or explicitly progress rhetoric to acclimate audiences”. That’s a big piece of quote, I know. But it draws an interesting parallel between science fiction (here described as a more linked to the western world), a part of the “popular culture” and broad journalistic discourses on technology. No matter what the point of view is, it seems technology is always shown as an “always progressing process”, a mandatory walk towards the future, a future quite often shown as “better” (on the matter, this article, through a clear example, criticize the idea).

GMOs are, in supporting discourses, usually linked to the idea of “progress”. Like in this article about restrictions in China, against which a promoter explains: “China’s government has too many rules restricting the adoption of genetically modified food, and that’s ultimately hurting its long-term competitiveness in the sector”. In that quote, GMOs are described as a direct, unique and mandatory source of competitiveness. In this other article, a Doctor, after explaining that debates on GMOs are too full of emotions in Europe, says “Nevertheless, history almost always proves itself to be quite cyclical and there have been numerous other technologies throughout the last century which were met with derision and opposition, but which came to be implemented and, as such, are now an integral, and almost unnoticed, part of modern day life”. That way, he tries to undermine criticism, highlighting it as a result of “emotion” rather than actual analysis. And reason always ends up winning against emotion, because of progress, here described as a natural process (hiding human actions behind it). In other words, “GMOs will be implemented, as part of the logical advance of technology over archaic fears”. These discourses deny the existence of well-built criticism against GMOs and put Genetic modifications as part of the “better” future, a mandatory and “natural” implementation, when their development seem more related to active promotion by identified people and organizations.

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We have to feed the world, and genetically modified food can just do that!

As you know, the world population is growing. That’s no secret. It should reach around 10 billion by the end of century. And it will probably, according to specialists, stagnate there. This is often quoted as a reason for supporting conventional means of productivity in agriculture (chemical inputs), as well as GMOs. Indeed, some plants are engineered to resist insects, herbicides or water shortage… which can increase yields (productivity of the fields). That’s a fact I wouldn’t deny. But there are two things.

First, it is said (even though it is hard to calculate), that humans produce enough, as of today, to feed every human being. In 1996, says the FAO, quoted by the Economist, “the world was producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than most adults are thought to need (around 2,100 a day)”. We can find sources of hunger somewhere else, “Allowing for all the food that could be eaten but is turned into biofuels, and the staggering amounts wasted  on  the  way,  farmers  are  already producing much more than is required. More than twice the minimum nutritional needs by some measures. If there is a food problem, it does not look like a technical or biological one”, as explained in this article. A clear example is mentioned by The Economist: “Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, argued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3m people died, was not caused by any exceptional fall in the harvest and pointed out that food was still being exported from the state while millions perished. He concluded that the main reason for famines is not a shortage of basic food. Other factors--wages, distribution, even democracy--matter more”. Indeed, other factors than production itself seem to matter more. And producing more might not solve world hunger, if other factors are not addressed. And those factors are non-existent in the pro-GMO discourses, which claim genetically modified food could solve hunger. It is a highly emotional claim for such a rational practice, isn’t it? And it doesn’t even seem to work where GMOs already were implemented: "The potential of GM crops to serve the needs of the subsistence farmer is recognized, but this potential remains unfulfilled. No conclusive evidence was found that GM crops have so far offered solutions to the broader socioeconomic dilemmas faced by developing countries." (says a study published in Science and quoted here)

 

Second, because there are other ways to produce enough food to feed the world. By combining / alternating different plants, by managing the soil and all its components, by understanding the ecosystem of a farm as a whole… Some studies compare organic and conventional agriculture. Most of them find that the results depend on the products and environmental context (this study, this stuy or this one). Some of them, looking at things from an overall point of view conclude that it is possible to feed the world with organic agriculture: “Model  estimates  indicate  that  organic  methods  could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.” (here). And local, concrete examples exist. (This picture is about putting trees in fields, a win-win combination called “agroforestry”)

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It seems neither necessary to produce more, neither mandatory to use GMOs to feed the world. Why use a product which tend to diminish diversity of varieties and which is not proven to be safe on very long term (let’s say half a life time)?  It would make sense to say that the interest behind GMOs and the reason of their promotion are most likely linked to business. The strategy of Monsanto that works towards monopoly is a clear example of that, as well as their explanation of why they sue farmers, even if their website displays before anything else their goal to “provide the opportunity for food security for resource-poor farmers in Africa”.

 

GMOs allow a lower use of pesticides, they are so environmentally friendly!

The last pillar I will highlight (because I reached 6 word pages and I think I am becoming a tiny bit boring to read) is about GMOs protecting the environment. In any debated environmental topic, there is always a bit of greenwashing. For GMOs, it mostly appears when the focus of discourses is put on the lower use of insecticides. Some GM plants, called “Bt” (for Bacillus thuringiensis) indeed produce their own insect killer. As this study shows, these plants indeed require less insecticides as in conventional agriculture. But then again, one of the modifications made to GM plants was about making them more resistant to glyphosate, the herbicide, as explained earlier. Round-up ready plants accept more herbicide, and so, more herbicide is used: “Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilograms (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kgs (404 million pounds), or about 7%”. Focusing on lower use of pesticides while not mentioning higher use of herbicides in an argument looks like a “lie by omission”, and cannot logically be supported. Especially when such systems are advocated to farmers. This argument actually tends to be less and less heard, as many proofs tell a different story (like here, mentioning the appearance of resistant weeds and bugs, here or here).

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So, GMOs do not reduce the use of chemical inputs, on the contrary. And going further, the fact that they spread and alter, “contaminate” other plants in their environment can be considered as pollution.  Now that’s my way of thinking, but a humanely engineered (in labs, not natural breeding) species spreading through nature can for me be considered as pollution. Another alteration of nature by humans, with something that might be dangerous.

 

There are many doubts on GMOs, doubts that should drive us to keep them at a testing stage, not in open fields. And honestly, it would be more effective, according to me, to invest in research on organic techniques of growing food, to look for sustainable solutions that require no limited input. Yet, there is a lot of cash to be made with GMOs. That seems to be the actual reason behind all the support and lobbying it receives, being described as THE solution, as part of the natural progress and even as environmentally friendly.

I believe GMOs are not necessary, that there are better, sustainable solutions to be found elsewhere.

I made that conclusion short, so that it fits the usual format. Please share your thoughts and comments below or look for me on Twitter / Facebook if you have any additional or contradictory sources.

 

Additionnal documentaries :

- The World According to Monsanto : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6_DbVdVo-k

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