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Genetically Modified Crops

Column by John Mattingly

Agriculture – November 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

I admit it, hands in the air: I’ve not only grown genetically modified (GM) crops, I’ve produced GM seedstock. To the surprise of some, I haven’t yet grown horns.

Many people argue that modifying and recombining the genetic material of various plants is hazardous to humanity because we don’t yet know enough about possible consequences. Put another way: because genetic alterations are at such a fundamental level of living processes, the precautionary principle is in order.

I don’t embrace this argument because it appears to me the trajectory of human innovation into the unknown is pretty much unavoidable. Every major leap in technological evolution, from fire to the atom bomb, the printing press to the internet, has started out with a lot of uncertainty as to consequences.

As one who’s been face to face with GM plants and seeds, I offer the following reservations about the process, matched by some reasons to go boldly forth.


1. Reduced security and diminished diversity. Most GM seedstock is patented and typically held by a corporation. The cost of breeding and amplifying genetically engineered seedstock is usually beyond both the financial and scientific capacity of an individual. The corporation packages the GM seed and related chemical in a single transaction with the farmer — that is, when a farmer buys Monsanto’s GM Roundup-ready corn or soybean seed, s/he must buy the Roundup from Monsanto. It’s a package deal. This means the seedstock of the U.S., if not much of the world, is headed in a direction of being bundled with their associated GM materials in a way that necessarily puts the bundle in fewer and fewer hands. This trend raises long term security issues, as concentrated seedstocks are vulnerable to destruction from accident, calamity, or intention.

And, the strategy of concentrate-and-control ignores old wisdom against putting too many eggs in a few baskets. “Old” varieties — the ones that don’t respond well to agri-business practices that optimize fertility, water, and weed/pest control — will likely vanish. If world agriculture encounters circumstances in the future in which optimizing inputs become scarce or prohibitively expensive, valuable varietal options may have been sacrificed.

2. DNA vector hazards. Recombining genetic material is both complicated and inexact. It involves biolistics (gene canons) that are more like a shotgun than a sniper’s rifle. Antibiotics are frequently used to prevent unwanted virus or bacterial invasions during cannon shots, but because of the basic imprecision of the process, it’s possible unwanted genetic combinations could result, or combinations that might prove harmful to other species, such as humans.

3. Gene-hopping. The amplification of many GM seedstocks involves the use of large colonies of bees for cross pollination, the bees fertilizing selected females with male plants carrying the modified genetic material. It’s possible for bees to pollinate a wild relative that is a pest. For example, in the amplification of GM canola seedstock carrying the gene for tolerance to glyphosate (Roundup), it is conceivable that a mustard weed (in the same family as canola) could receive the modified gene and become resistant to glyphosate, thus becoming a super pest. Or a pest that requires a new chemical to control, which amplifies reliance on more, and possibly nastier, chemicals.

Also, the cross-pollination potential means that non-GM fields neighboring a GM field may become unintentionally GM by way of wind drift, bees, or seed migration. There have already been several somewhat notorious cases involving this fact pattern.

4. Hidden dangers. As genetic material from one species merges with another, humans with allergies to the substance from transferred, imbedded genes may not know they are consuming a hazardous allergen. Labeling will help, but take a supermarket bulk tomato, for example, that has embedded flounder genes to allow it to make it undamaged through a frost. Unless there is a loud label on it, who’s to know about the flounder in the tomato? Too, genetic mixing could conceivably create allergic reactions in individuals formerly free of the problem.

In the field, increased use of herbicides on herbicide-resistant GM crops leads to a build-up of herbicides in the environment. It’s often argued, with some validity, that herbicides are over-used on GM crops, and thus magnify a possible mutagen within the entire food web.

Reasons to go boldly forth:

1. Conservation benefits. On balance, GM crops use less fossil fuel than conventional or organic crops because herbicide-resistant GM crops don’t require much ground work. Tillage and cultivation often result in erosion and always result in loss of carbon dioxide (CO2). Whenever a field is plowed, disked, ripped, or cultivated vast amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Not only is CO2 valuable in the soil, a component of carbonic acid that enhances fertility, CO2 sequestration is a big buzzword in the global warming alarm. Propagation of herbicide-resistant GM crops has a clear edge in keeping CO2 in the ground.

2. Adaptability and availability. GM enables the creation of a potential cornucopia of different foods. Though this kind of diversity might be more horizontal than vertical, GM has a lot to do with the availability of out-of-season foods, exotic and rare foods, and an increased supply of GM foodstuffs to humans on the edge of subsistence, due to the various resistances and advantages genetically modified into the plants themselves.

3. Better farmer balance sheet. A farmer growing GM crops usually makes more net income than under conventional farming strategies, in large part because of the reduced use of fossil fuels in groundworking operations, and thus the farmer has a better chance of stewarding his soil resources than mining them to stay in business.

4. Can’t stop it. GM already has the ag industry by the tail with a downhill pull. Whatever concerns may be articulated, and however legitimate they may be, it ain’t going away, so opponents need to think more about the best ways to control and monitor the risks rather than devoting pointless energy toward bringing it to full stop. As GM gains momentum, it will be argued that the risks can be managed, and that, on balance, they’re no greater than have existed prior to any great leap in agricultural innovation.

John Mattingly is a recovering farmer who can often be found in the greater Moffat area.