GM Food: mole turned beauty mark

I believe that in the Innovation series, I pooled together enough literature to demonstrate valid concern regarding future food and water security. The world is changing and this will cause increasing stress on already questionable agricultural and water management practices.

It is refreshing however, when one comes by others making similar calls, but also offering practical solutions to the problem. Here, I refer to a report by Jonathan Jones, on the BBC website, titled, Fussy Eaters – what’s wrong with GM food?

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “You don’t make friends with salad!”

In my case, it would be GM salad. Since I began this blog, I’ve had a wide range of people  follow my posts and tweets. Some people have found my work and followed it because of my agricultural/environmental focus. As always, I endeavour to return the favour and look over their work and tweets. In a few cases, this has led me to anti-GM posts which I ultimately comment on… soon to find that I have one less follower…

A little something I found years ago in a supermarket

The fact of the matter remains that we have been genetically modifying food (both plant and animal) since we became farmers. GM must be adopted as one of a number of measures that increase food security and certainly something that must be provided, along with improved agricultural practices to poorer communities under various support methods, for the benefit of all of our species. Why do I believe this? Jonathan covers it pretty well under the subheading of “Growing Demand”, but in short; how selective breeding allowed for food supplies to grow fatter than would be practical in nature, GM allows for specific efficiencie of water and nutrient uptake, resistance to disease and pests and quality of food supply – without trial and error on generational time spans. There is little to no evidence that GM causes harm (although I’m often referred to media reports that beg to differ and I’m not one to be swayed by media – time and time again they have been proven to be wrong, bias and sensationalists). The worst I’ve heard was nut allergies occurring as a result of nut proteins in GM grain supplies (although that was word of mouth). This seems pretty obvious and does nothing to argue why we shouldn’t genetically modify food.

Jonathan and I differ on one minor point regarding omega 3. The relative importance of omega 3 has probably been inflated, which was excellently explained by Geoff Russell, Trawling for snake oil. However, this is a problem of a different industry and something I’ll probably discuss in the near future when I again focus on the horrible condition of our oceans.

As I mentioned above, GM is only one of a number of ways in which agricultural practises much change to ensure food security. Another that I’ve focused on before is the ever increasing patches of monoculture. Henry makes some excellent points regarding monoculture, Nature avoids monoculture like the plague (we should too). A couple months ago, I wrote about a few case studies in a book I was reading at the time. It seems clear to me that more practical farming (and greater yield to effort/expense) comes from employing greater ecological services – by encouraging greater biodiversity on the plot, thus agriculture that suits the environment. The days of a hunger strike to protest against sustainability are gone. The ego of our control over nature has been shattered – Earth balances the books regardless of our alternate points of view.

With increasingly efficient GM crop, more appropriate crop selection and rotational practices to suit the particular landscape, we are likely to obtain greater yields with less damage to the land (ie. fertiliser pollution, excessive water needs/run off, top soil loss, biodiversity loss etc). As climate change increases, we will need ever greater understanding of the various geo-physical influences and increasing knowledge sharing between primary producers and academic groups to better develop and adapt. We cannot allow business-as-usual to continue.

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15 thoughts on “GM Food: mole turned beauty mark

  1. I’m not a fan of GM, but I’m even less a fan of extensive monoculture.

    The most striking image in my memory is from a program on bee deaths (apparently not as big a problem as we thought). A camera travelling through a huge peach orchard in the USA. It looked like something from a post-apocalypse movie. There was *nothing* in or on the soil apart from the bare trunks of the trees.

    Personally I would have thought that someone who relied on bees might at least have edged the roadsides with flowering herbs or indigenous wildflowers to keep the bees happy. Not a blade of grass to be seen. It was ugly.

    I’m used to the vineyards of the Barossa and Clare valleys. I know the roses on the ends of the rows are there for pest detection rather than the pleasure of tourists, but it just looks so much healthier. And many vineyards use the Mediterranean edgings of lavender, rosemary and cypress pines. Must be better for the bugs and the bees.

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    1. Creating corridors is a good idea – at least species can move and feed if we modify landscapes. Monoculture requires greater amount of water, nutrient input and sprays. It just doesn’t work.
      I’d suspect that much of the reason that you’re not a fan of GM is because of bad press. The truth is that GM food feeds millions without risk – in many cases the crops produce great yields and are healthier without excessive spraying. It’s hard, however, to wade through all the media output and find the truth (that’s why I largely ignore it – it’ll bite me in the rear eventually! lol) 🙂

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  2. Bad press??

    My (very personal) feeling is that if we reduce, modify or eliminate broadacre monocultures, the need for GM should reduce substantially.

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    1. Pretty much all you hear at large in the media puts GM in a bad light. The fact is, as soon as we starting cultivating, we started modifying. I personally don’t like pointless GM – like pigment alterations to make veggies “fun” etc, but I think it’s an excellent tool to obtaining the highest quality produce.
      Certainly it would reduce the need. The book I sometimes mention; Biodiversity: integrating conservation and production, does discuss that very subject. However, where it is GM for increased efficiency of nutrient and water uptake (ie. less run-off and pollution) and pest/fungal/viral resistance (less spray), I feel it is merited.

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  3. Yes and no. One of the primary drawbacks of GMOs is the reduction in genetic diversity. For example, the pollen and seeds from genetically modified corn is contaminating traditional locally grown corn species in Mexico and other places. Also, when companies like Monsanto create GMOs they do so to dominate the world market, feeding the people of the world is a secondary, public relations goal. / crops such as “round-up ready alfalfa” are resistant to their pesticide “Roundup.” They get to sell two monoculture based crops in one. See:
    http://ecosquared.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/usda-tom-vilsack-stand-up-to-monsanto/ for more details.

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    1. Adding to my own comment:

      Displacement of traditional farming communities is one of the principle causes of poverty in developing nations. The new Ag-techs are not compatible with customary practices, culture, affordability, and local ecological conditions.

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      1. Exactly… what I find most troubling is that much of the developing country agriculture is for developed countries consumers. Cheap fuel means that exploiting poor countries is more cost effective than growing local. Plus, as you’ve mentioned, the tech that is used on these farms.. There’s little to no concern, or even mention, of the long term effects on these places where impractical farming is allowed to occur. We’ll no doubt find that as oil prices increase, shipping and air travel prices make this method no longer so viable, that when this industry move back closer to home that in their wake there is a terrible degradation of landscapes – even bushmeat trade will not help these countries and whatever money that was pumped into the community through wages will amount to little on the global books (ever more so as costs increase to follow oil dependency). It’s appalling short-sightedness.

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  4. You’re dead wrong about GMOs. Listen to Henry S. Cole. The social, environmental and economic impacts of GM cultivation far outweigh some of the so called benefits of improved yield, tolerances etc. I’m currently looking out my window at a GM canola field that will be sprayed 3 times this season with glyphosate. The cost of the seed, chemical and other inputs will cost the farmer a few dollars less than what he’ll get when he sells his crop. That’s why he will need to use every acre he has and try to buy up and clear more land to plant next year. Rural communities, family farmers, environment and consumers have experienced GMO cultivation for 14 years here and there has been nothing but loss experienced…with one exception, the chemical supply companies and Monsanto have reaped record profits. You contradict yourself by promoting GM use and biodiversity at the same time. Anyone with experience with GM crops will tell you that these two principles are diametrically opposed. And get one thing straight please — Genetically Modified Organisms and Selective Plant Breeding are NOT the same.

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    1. I knew when I published this piece that I’d eventually attract hardcore No-GM advocates.
      Canola is a poor example crop and spraying would occur regardless of whether it is GM or not. What you discussing here is largely a socio-economic issue relating to cheaper imports which has forced many farmers to make unusual choices to ensure a viable future.
      How would GM cause a loss in experience? Unless you’re discussing selective cultivation and typical methods of crop protection required to guard against fungal, viral and pest infections, the standard farming techniques don’t change between GM and not GM crops – GM crops don’t plant and water themselves.
      Chemical supply companies do better with traditional crops that require extra attention.
      If you chose a better GM species, a grain perhaps – wheat would be a good one – you’d come to a different (not to mention clearer) picture on the benefits of GM. Understanding wheat genetics, plus native grass species will allow us to improve to wheat varieties here in Aust to those more compatible to soil and climate types. The referenced article in the post also discusses protection against fungal attack – meaning wheat is high quality without fungal toxins.
      I do not contradict myself at all; the two principles are not diametrically opposed. By promoting biodiversity and encouraging natural predators associated with GM crops, you can ensure decreasing crop loss to pest species (both due to an increased crop resistance and predation – without the need for sprays), you can encourage greater soil conditioning while having a crop that has greater efficiency of nutrient and water uptake (less irrigation and less fertilisers) and you can have great resilience to local climate (native land acting as a storm front buffer and species GM’ed to suit the local climate better). The principles go hand in hand.
      No, GMO and selective plant breeding are not exactly the same, however they have a wide overlap. Sure, the methodology is different, as is the time frame and quality of results. Selective breeding takes a long time and the results are at best a hereditary gamble. GM allows for great precision of results in shorter time frames. What scares people also is that it allows cross-species genetic transfer – this again is nothing really new – cells between species often transfer DNA, although in most cases this is at the detriment of usually the host (classic example being a viral infection), but it has also opened up a door that has been exploited by evolution since the first organisms started changing.
      I could put forward the classic example of just how related the two are; the banana. This is a radically modified species which looks nothing like its natural counterpart and is sterile (from selective plant breeding solely). Cloning is the only means of propagation and cannot continue forever. Without GM interaction this food supply will disappear from the markets.
      As for listening to Henry, I totally agree with him. However, the issue there is one of a private companies short-sighted monopoly of food supplies and of mismanagement (or maybe lack of forethought) of pollination processes. The second part of the argument (cross pollination) is similar to to that of introducing bio-controls for invasive species. You need to assess potential interactions of the new species (or GM varieties) before introduction of large scale. Of course this usually features low on the list of concerns of most industries. Again, this is more a social problem, not necessarily and environmental issue with GM.

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  5. Well, if canola is a poor example of current GMO cultivation, please provide me with a good one. Soya, Corn, Cotton, Papaya? The story is much the same for all. I am discussing a “socio-economic issue” relating to farming and farmers who have lost control of their resources to corporations, in my area, largely biotech firms launching their new technologies promising to alleviate all the farmers’ worries. GM’s cause a loss to farmers because, if you have ever looked into growing one, they are very highly regulated and extremely costly. There is a technology use fee that every farmer pays the plant breeder (in the case of canola, Monsanto) of around $15/acre. Without the patenting rights and revenues gained, GMOs would be useless to anyone.

    You’re also wrong about the farming techniques not changing between GM and non-GM. The non-judicial use of glyphosate (Round-Up) is now being directly linked to the increases in soil borne pathogens. http://www.grist.org/article/usda-downplays-own-scientists-research-on-danger-of-roundup/ Pathogens that cause a myriad of fungal diseases, of course, that will need to be treated with another chemical. It is yet to be seen what else is on the horizon for soils, weed and bug resistance. I suspect this is just the beginning. Of course, you won’t find out from Monsanto, they’re simply not doing the testing. Could you blame them?

    Consumers are experiencing perhaps the greatest loss of all, loss of choice. In North America, there is absolutely no legislation requiring products containing GMOs to be labeled. You, being a proponent of their use, probably think there is no inherent harm in consumption. However, it still represents an incredible breach of rights for hundreds of millions of people to know what they are eating. All the indications show that if one has a choice between eating GMO and non-GMO they will chose non-GMO.

    Chemical supply companies make money on volume, just like other businesses. The also are often the ones hired to do the custom spraying of these crops. There is nothing better for them that to maintain one mix in their tank for the day and spray 1000 acres with the same chemical. It’s alot more tedious and expensive for them to be moving from crop to crop, using different mixes on every one.

    Your GMO/Biodiversity combo is a pipe dream. Another clear example of misunderstanding the fundamentals of the industry. You’ve bought into the science and aren’t looking beyond. Unfortunately, if there is no economic incentive for Biotech companies, the science doesn’t matter. Do you really think they would encourage a production system that doesn’t require consistent use of their products?

    I guess my point would be that, in my opinion, you can’t separate the social, economic and environmental implications of GMO’s. They’re a package deal.

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    1. Your points still do not indicate why GM produce is bad. You’ve made the point that companies are making a monopoly of farming techniques – that, I agree, is an injustice to industry. However, the same has gone on for a long time. Crop variety seeds that are sold by a number of companies are purposely sterile to ensure continuous re-purchaser (even of non-GM produce) from year to year. The same goes for chemicals – as soon as something new is produced and tested, it’s patented and then sold under the guise that, “no farmer can do without it”. In truth, and I think you’ll agree with me on this, much of the current farming techniques are short-sight and promote unsustainable practices. The exploitation of the GM industry is just another part of this.
      Canola just isn’t a great crop regardless – that was my point there. Being in Aust, I’m not huge of a number you mentioned. However, I did provide a valid example; wheat.
      If GMO was useless to everyone, no-one would use it. For farmers to choose GM crops, they must feel that there is a benefit. Farmers are not mindless – I’ve got numerous case studies showing how innovative farmers, along south eastern Aust, have been over the past couple decades. The family owned farms in these parts are proud and want to stay viable and are competing against cheap imports and local massive monoculture farms. They won’t sit back and let a company tell them what’s good for them. They don’t let academics do it either… but they do listen and they do take things on board. Farming down this way has the image of being a “boom or bust” industry. This might make them unusually inquisitive.
      It’s all an arms race between pathogens and immunity. We would both agree that excessive spraying etc only helps to strengthen the weeds and pathogens. GM is just another way to protect crops, as is increasing biodiversity. My aim is less chemicals which pollute far beyond the plot. GM, when done well, should allow for less chemicals and other fertiliser inputs.
      I question why consumers would choose non-GM foods over GM foods. I suspect this is largely belief based rather than evidence based. For instance, it was only in the 1990’s that most of the US would drink fluoridated water largely because of strongly held myths. GM still has the image of playing god and resulting with “freaks of nature”. This is rubbish and not what GM food is about – I’m not advocating purple cauliflower for instance. People do have the right to know what they’re eating, however, GM isn’t an injustice here (although I will concede that labeling can help). Think about all the rubbish in heavily processed foods – have of the ingredient the consumer has never heard of before. Think of preservatives. Think of all the sprays that have been pumped out over traditional crops. Think about the heavy metals that are in the meat of longer living fish. Contaminated land also gets into meat of livestock. Picking on being unaware of GM or non-GM produce is selective, and doesn’t give fair assessment of the overwhelming ignorance of the consumer of consumables.
      I don’t think my GMO/biodiversity combo is a pipe dream such as I don’t think I’m dead wrong about GM in general. I could argue that you are looking at the social problems of the industry and not looking beyond this at the science. It is clear that we’re coming at it from opposite angles; mind is an ecological training and yours is from active involvement in producing organic foods. If you look over a lot of my posts, I don’t spend much time on the here-and-now, but I look forward and do make some hard points (I even go as far as suggest a massive change to my city, radically shifting where people live – this would upset a lot of people). The simple fact of the matter is, almost none of our practices work and will sustain future generations. We need to make hard decisions if we are likely to maintain, if not improve, standard of living. The combo I described is only a basic outline, but it is viable and it will achieve many benefits.
      As for there being no incentive for Biotech companies, again you’re mixing social problems with the science. Just because there isn’t a dollar to be made in achieving great sustainability doesn’t mean we should abandon hope. It’s a clear indicator that current business ideologies are fundamentally wrong and ultimately self-destructive. For too long ecological services have been seen as gaining something for nothing. If we are to maintain standard of living, we need to increase our awareness of the value of ecological services and correctly see them as an investment that provide returns on our actions.
      No, I don’t think any company is mindful of anything outside of there products and profits. A classic example is that on the back of cheap and abundant fuel, how many industries move to poorer countries to exploit cheap wages/taxes and little to no environmental/waste management? Business models are inherently stupid; little more than a lazy organism looking for easy food supply with little to no effort. It’s a poor system and still does nothing to say why GMO is bad.
      Indeed you cannot separate social, economic and environmental factors, however, just because current practices don’t work with the ideas that I and other suggest do not mean that our ideas are wrong, it asks the question of whether current practices are functional in the first place. I personally don’t think so and I don’t think the way forward is the way back. Older practices work for smaller communities and within environments that are far less damaged than many that we use today.
      It would be nice to have little organic farms all over the place, with each house working their own permaculture plots, however this will not happen – it is the same problem as you’re arguing is wrong with mine; we need a fundamental change in thinking, policies and practices before anything more sustainable would work. GM is not the problem here and in no way the “bad guy”. It is simply another tool that should be explored to help us attain greater sustainability in our practices. Genetics in general needs to be explored for a wide range of improvements to human health, species protection and long term sustainability.
      No-GMO thinking is not based on the science, it is selective arguments based on a system that already doesn’t work – which in no way is the result of GM. It’s time for a re-think, not a reduction in possible tools of improvement.

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      1. Interesting article, but not groundbreaking by any means. Many things need to happen in order to feed the 1 billion chronically malnourished people on the planet today. Agriculture, science and technology play a pretty minor role in this. GMO’s really don’t have a role. Reforms in public policy, global trade, agricultural subsidies, education for rural women, local control of resources, etc. These are things that can not happen within our current economic model, but are much more crucial to reducing hunger and poverty than developing new crop varieties. Interesting that they would readily call for a second green revolution as it was, by many accounts, the first green revolution that has contributed greatly to hunger and malnutrition rural developing nations.

        I still find it weird that you consider plant cultivation and GMO technology of the same lot. Do understand the patent laws that surround GMO seeds? Also, suggesting that they are healthier because they’re sprayed less often is a clear indication that you are very distant from any current agricultural practices. Maybe you should spend a growing season camped out next to a field of GMOs. Just a suggestion.

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      2. Definitely not ground breaking, but I felt that it summed up my attitude rather well – many that the way forward includes many different strategies, including GMO.
        I don’t really put them as the same – I don’t think I even made that claim. I have said the the overlap is great. I know that GMO seeds are patented. I also know that long before GMO appeared, agricultural suppliers monopolised chemicals and crop varieties and so feel that it’s hardly fair or accurate to make the wild jump between GMO and monopolies to refute the former.
        “Current agricultural practice” – I think you and I both agree that these practices are flawed. We both different views on the way forward however.

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      3. Although I still believe that genetic studies and incredibly important for everything from medical science to food security (and in a small way, I’m only reinforcing my previous point, that the problem is mostly privatisation), I recently watched The Future of Food, the one directed by Deborah Koons Garcia (I’d seen another, which when I googled about it, led me to this one) and concede that as things stand, GM should not be employed. That industry is able to patent genes (which I knew and disagree with) and then sue farmers when the gene appears in their crop (which I didn’t know about) is appalling – it’s like a smoker charging you for 2nd hand smoking that you unfortunately breathed in when they walked by. I also know about the chemical reliance and suicide genes (used to ensure return customers – a sick neoliberal behaviour), but to be honest, never put two and two together to realise the real threat of this appearing in wild crops (or in neighbouring farms).
        As much as I still think GM has important potential, what I saw has been occurring in the US and Canada (and probably even here in Aust) is disgusting. That our exchange was so heated, I apologise – I’m more aware now of what it has meant to farmers under the current system.

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