Unpacking why GMOs are "bad"

First, a plug: Add your voice to this Declaration of Farmer and Citizen Rights Regarding the Deregulation of Genetically Modified Alfalfa on Food Democracy Now. It just takes a minute! (The basic situation is that Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack just approved Monsanto's GMO alfalfa, which is bad on many counts, but especially because it threatens the organic meat and dairy industries who rely on organic grain, which is sure to be contaminated by Monsanto's seed.)

Second, an honest attempt to understand the underlying issues: Justin asked me this weekend why, exactly, this GMO alfalfa situation was such a big deal. I wanted to have some quick and easy answers, but I ended up composing an email to him so that I could include links and references.  So, I'm going to share this email here, though I am very far from being an expert on these issues, and still have a lot to learn.  Hopefully, it'll encourage others to share their knowledge and insights on this difficult topic.

So, Justin asked me the following questions: 
  1. Is the main reason that all of this is bad for organic growers simply that organic standards forbid GMO alfalfa and so contamination would lose organic farmers their "organic" brand and thus their livelihood?  That's the line this article seems to suggest, and I can see that point.  But if GMO alfalfa really spread its seed everywhere, it seems like eventually the organic standards would just have to change so that a little accidental GMO contamination didn't disqualify alfalfa from counting as "organic".  We've talked about this before, but my question is: why is "non-GMO" an important part of the "organic" brand?  Is it mainly health concerns about the unknown effects of consuming such things?  Is it mainly a food security issue: GMO crops are more likely to be wiped out in one fell swoop because of less genetic diversity?  Something about weird intellectual property rights to genes and giving Monsanto a stranglehold over our food system?  All of the above?  Do you know of a good overview of what's wrong with GMO and why Good Progressive People like us oppose them?
  2. Relatedly, I don't understand the bit about superweeds.  It sounds like a weed is a superweed if and only if it resists Roundup; I don't see any indication that superweeds are more "super" in other ways.  Organic farmers don't use Roundup, so superweeds wouldn't really be a concern for them.  So why is the fact that using Roundup on GMO alfalfa would generate Roundup resistant weeds an additional reason to reject this policy?
And my response:

Dorogoy moozh,*
Thank you for asking these questions and making me think about what I have to say in answer.  I tried to brainstorm some of my own ideas first, but then ended up looking to my guides (New York Times, Grist, Michael Pollan) for more, so I’ll be interspersing some of those links with my own reflections.
As you know, and as my “Frankenfoods or Lifesavers” unit plan** reveals, I myself think that this is a thorny topic that could use more measured reflection.
(1)    In response to your first question, I think that organic embraces non-GMO primarily because of the fallout from the Green Revolution, in which biotechnologies were used to increase agricultural production, primarily in India between the 1940s and 1970s, but which also necessitated a huge reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Since then, it has been the case that many modified crops end up needing much heavier doses of synthetic chemicals, which makes them decidedly non-complementary to organic agriculture. The other things you mention certainly also come in to play in evaluating the animosity toward GMOs. I certainly think the fact that Monsanto is at the head of it all and has done such morally questionable things as selling sterile seeds to farmers in the developing world in order to make them reliant on buying more seed from the company each year predisposes people to look askance at any developments that the company does offer.    Other reasons I’ve read about include unknown health consequences, lack of labeling regulations, the reduction of genetic diversity, lack of real success in increasing yields (as compared with conventional breeding practices).  I don’t actually know of one good overview that goes into these topics, but I’ll be on the look out.
One interesting book I came across in thinking about this topic is "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food," by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, who are, respectively, a plant scientist and an organic farmer, but who are also married.  They’re trying to advocate for a sustainable agriculture that makes room for GMOs and are puzzled by the reaction of opponents to considering this as an option. This NYTimes piece lays out their arguments pretty well. But, at the same time, as this Grist piece suggests, the answer to this debate may lie less in genetic engineering than in genetic modification of the old variety—conventional breeding. I suppose one of the issues is that there really haven’t yet been any GMOs designed that help to foster sustainable agriculture, such as one that would help plants take up nitrogen so that we won’t need to apply as much external fertilizer (which is what I did a research project and presentation about in college in my Plant Biology and Genetic Engineering class). As the Grist author writes, “The result is that the debate over GMOs as a sustainable solution remains entirely theoretical.” Which isn’t to say it isn’t a debate worth having! Just that we need to weigh the potential benefits with the potential costs taking into account what we have actually seen (or not seen).
(2) As for the question of superweeds, my first thought was that it was less about whether organic farmers themselves would be directly affected by Roundup-ready crops, than whether other non-organic farmers would end up needing to use heavier doses of more toxic herbicides if weeds become resistant to Roundup, which is pretty mild as far as herbicides.  (The NYT has this scary graphic that shows the spread of glyphosate resistance over the last ten years.) So organic proponents are concerned about the spread of toxic herbicides more broadly throughout the country.  Lots of different takes on superweeds here, including one by Michael Pollan, if you want to read more.
Ok, so now I’ve totally pulled a Justin and have been working on this email for more than two hours, though without the sort of clarity and precision that really “pulling a Justin” would offer.***
Love you,
It's a start, anyway.  Anyone have more they could teach me and Justin?

* Russian for "husband"
** In 2006, while I was earning a Master's in Teaching (in high school biology), I put together a unit's worth of lesson plans  that sought to introduce students to the science and politics of genetically modified foods. At the time, my biology background predisposed me to think that environmentalists were reacting too harshly to GMOs, giving the potential for them to contribute many "green" improvements.  So, I prepared this unit evaluating the two extremes--seeing GMOs as either "Frankenfoods" or "Life-savers"--and trying to determine whether there was some middle ground.  I now think that project was quite naive, but I suppose there was something there that might still be worth considering.
*** Justin is a philosopher, and is known around these parts for writing incredibly clear, thoughtful, long emails in response to others who seek his advice or provoke him intellectually.
**** Russian for "wife"


  1. Oh, I can't believe I am the first to comment on this post! I've been uncertain about the use of GMOs since my STL days. Initially, I thought GMOs would be a good way to use less farmland and water and, at the same time, provide more nutritious crops. After learning more about the tactics of companies like Monsanto, I believe otherwise. Thanks for bring this issue to my attention again and provide such excellent resources!

  2. You're welcome! GMOs are definitely one of those things that seem great in idea, but don't turn out to be so great in the real world. Let me know what other sorts of topics you'd like me to write about and provide resources for!

  3. Hi Anna! I was just looking over all your posts. I am really impressed with the recipe organization project. And the pizza pictures made me very hungry. This post caught my attention as my seminar today was on the topic of Bt eggplant in India. One additional thought I have as to why organic opposes GMOs: In organic regulations, allowed chemical inputs are allowed only if, and after, other holistic pest management approaches are used such as crop rotation, sanitation, trapping etc. Organic farming allows the spraying of Bt, but only as a last resort when other approaches fail. GMOs conflict with the organic philosophy because they either constantly express/release the chemical or are explicitly designed for use with chemical inputs. They are not a last resort, as they are built into the crop from the start, and therefore do not promote the use of biological, mechanical, cultural controls as first approaches. But it will be interesting to see if organic allows GMOs that foster sustainable agriculture, like your example,.. if they are ever developed

  4. Thanks for the feedback, REM! (I only just figured out who you were--before that I was just pretending you were Michael Stipe, passing through and sharing your knowledge of pest management).


Post a Comment