Searching for the Silver Bullet
By Melissa Hughes | Illustrations By Christina King 0
If you were looking for a cure for cancer, a more efficient car engine, a better way to see into outer space, you might logically start in the lab. But if you were looking for a better way to grow crops and feed an increasing global population, would you start in the Petri dish?
Some scientists claim that they have found the elusive silver bullet for agriculture. Need a plant that can withstand drought? Need to provide more omega-3s in the soybean? In just a matter of time, scientists claim they will produce plants that solve a multitude of problems, plants which increase yield, are pest and weed resistant, more nutritious, and even better for the climate. Scientists, and the companies that employ them, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in researching genetic engineering (GE).
Working with seed breeding and hybridization is nothing new. For centuries, agriculture has used plant breeding to accentuate the characteristics needed for a certain climate or region while minimizing less attractive characteristics. Breeding using GE has the same goal, but the method is slightly—yet significantly—different. Traditional reproduction or breeding occurs only between closely related organisms; for example, cats with cats and tomatoes with tomatoes—not tomatoes with wheat or fish. GE, on the other hand, takes gene fragments from multiple unrelated organisms and places them into the DNA of a plant, which then replicates itself in the plant and the plant’s offspring. Genetic engineering takes advantage of modern technology in the laboratory to do what would not happen in nature.
There is a rising group of concerns surrounding the use of GE technology that has many questioning whether GE really represents a “silver bullet solution” to global food security, or whether we need to get out of the lab and back into the field.
The Green Revolution
Every day, farmers are faced with a multitude of problems—too much rain, too little rain, poor soil, poor seeds, heat and cold, weeds and bugs. Before the mid-20th century, farmers worked with what they had by controlling irrigation, pulling weeds and using predators to manage pests.
The period after the Second World War is often referred to in agriculture as the “Green Revolution,” a time when technologies used in limited areas of industrialized nations were spreading to developing countries around the world. These technologies offered some relief from the challenges faced by farmers, allowing them to add fertilizer to poor soil, use chemicals against weeds and pests, develop more sophisticated irrigation systems, and plant crop varieties with less dependence on rainfall. As a result, food production across the globe increased dramatically, saving millions from starvation and malnutrition. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report entitled “Save and Grow,” food production tripled during the second half of the century, and the proportion of undernourished in the world decreased from 26 percent to 14 percent.
However, the intensive nature of the Green Revolution resulted in natural resource depletion, groundwater pollution and devastated biodiversity. This resource degradation means it will be even more difficult to feed an increasing population into the future, as many of the developing countries have no more acreage available for food production, and the lands currently in use are so poor that additional inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides will have a lessening impact and not result in increased yield.
The Illusive Promise of Genetic Engineering
The Green Revolution produced a much more “one-size-fits-all” attitude compared to traditional agriculture. Where, historically, crop rotations and plant varieties protected against disease and pest problems, now chemicals cured all agricultural ills. Farmers began choosing crops for their marketability and were incentivized by policies like crop insurance and subsidies to plant only certain crops—in the United States, that means corn and soybeans. According to the National Agricultural Center of the Environmental Protection Agency, of the 382 million crop acres in the United States, nearly half of the country’s acreage is planted in two crops—corn and soybeans, each grown on approximately 75 million acres. The next two crops are alfalfa (60 million acres) and wheat (53 million acres).
Not surprisingly, the companies developing GE technology have used this one-size-fits-all attitude as a springboard for its promulgation and their profit. Right now, the most successful GE crops are corn and soybeans. Approximately 95 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are Roundup Ready™ (engineered to resist the Roundup™ herbicide containing glyphosate, manufactured by Monsanto), and approximately 90 percent of corn is a combination of GE traits such as pest resistance and increased yield. In addition, a significant amount of the country’s cotton plants are genetically engineered to produce a toxin that enables the plant to resist pests. This means that, between all the commercially available crops, at least half of the acreage in the United States is planted with GE crops. With the USDA’s recent approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa, this number will certainly increase. As a result of this one-size attitude, farmers across the country purchase only a few varieties of seeds, leading to a potentially devastating situation if any of these varieties succumbs to a disease or bacteria. Some are even concerned that the presence of the new genes might cause the plant to be susceptible to natural attack.
More concerning for now, however, is the fact that the primary substantive, commercially successful trait has nothing more redeeming than allowing plants to survive being sprayed with herbicide. The herbicide tolerant plant survives, while all other plants die. Therefore—and this is important to emphasize—the only operative result of GE technology to date is the increased spraying of herbicides rather than using other traditional methods of weed control. Approximately an additional 318 million pounds of herbicides have been sprayed on U.S. crop lands over the course of 13 years, according to a 2009 report by The Organic Center (consumer summary).
So while the companies marketing GE seeds have hailed the new technology as the next generation of farming, their promises of “feeding the world” and better quality—the holy grail of the farming community—have largely been empty. In fact, many farmers now find increasingly resistant weeds invading their fields.
“With the massive spraying of Roundup herbicide and the pollen drift of herbicide tolerance to weedy relatives, we are seeing an epidemic of tens of millions of acres that are now infested with hard to kill weeds. As a result, numerous companies are rushing in with new herbicide resistant crops as Roundup Ready crops become obsolete because of resistance,” explains Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Some infestations of these “superweeds” are so bad in the southeastern United States, according to The Organic Center’s report, that farmers have been forced to resort to hand weeding to avoid damaging farm machinery or to abandon cropland entirely.
“So the dirty little secret about GE crops,” continues Kimbrell, “is that they do not increase yield or nutrient value, or allow for greater drought resistance; rather, they are about chemical companies selling more chemicals. The top five corporations selling these crops are Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta and Bayer. What do they all share? They are all chemical companies wanting to sell more herbicides.”
What if You Don't Believe in the Silver Bullet?
Even if it’s not a miracle technology, what’s so bad about genetic engineering? Some accuse the anti-GE community of being anti-technology “Luddites.” The concerns about GE are varied, and while they may be perceived as “Luddite,” many are not founded in an anti-technology belief (which was the basis of the historical social movement), but rather a concern that GE releases a genie that cannot be put back into its bottle.
One of the biggest concerns is regarding the safety of the technology and the proliferation of GE ingredients in human foods. These foods and their effects have not been extensively studied for safety before they were released for sale. Any examination done by the FDA or USDA is based on comparing the “new” plant to an old plant. If there are no significant differences (it looks the same, smells the same, same allergies) then according to the government, it must be safe.
Others feel that the insertion of additional DNA makes a difference on a molecular level, and that this, at the very least, must be studied before commercialization. Supporting these beliefs are a number of studies done on laboratory animals, demonstrating a variety of issues: organ damage, altered blood chemistry, reduced fertility, disrupted immune systems. But without extensive human studies, it is difficult—if not impossible—to move the government to consider reviving safety discussions on genetic engineering.
“The conventional wisdom has been, and remains, that Bt toxins in GE corn break down almost immediately in the human stomach and do not get into the bloodstream; hence, they do not pose any risks. This rosy scenario was always based more on blind faith than science, and now one  study has found evidence of Bt toxins in the blood of women, including umbilical cord blood,” said Dr. Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for The Organic Center. “A new round of testing is urgently needed to confirm the presence of Bt toxins in human blood. If this finding is confirmed, it will force the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a first-ever human reproductive impact risk assessment on GE corn. The agency will have to address, again for the first time, the mounting evidence that GE corn is likely contributing to childhood food allergies, along with a host of other autoimmune and developmental problems. In the interim, this new science dramatically strengthens the scientific case for all corn-based foods from GE corn to be labeled.”
Other concerns are based on people’s faiths, in their belief that changing genetics in the laboratory is against the natural cycle of life. Some believe that the practice of patenting new forms of organisms, as many of the companies have been allowed, is an improper use of the patent, and no one should “own” life forms. Farmers have often been placed in the unenviable position of being the patent’s keeper, meaning that if they improperly use the seed, or if they allow the seed to enter a neighbor’s field, they are subject to significant penalties. The contract between farmers and the company is printed on the side of the bag of seed and is formed once the farmer opens the bag. The contract is ongoing for years and even attempts to bind future owners of the land.
Beyond the Silver Bullet: Agriculture in the Future
The companies behind GE often promise to be the ones to feed the world in 2050. Focusing on the prediction that the population in 2050 will be nine billion people (the United Nations actually expects it to reach that mark in 2043), the companies have successfully made the question of “Who will feed them?” the forefront of agricultural policy. Any speech today on agricultural policy mentions 2050, USDA Secretary Vilsack routinely invokes 2050, and indeed, both the September 2008 and January 2011 issues of National Geographic mention the future of food and this bogeyman of feeding the world
As a result of this mindset, current policies which exemplify the “production paradigm”—increased yield with little regard for ongoing sustainability or impact—are given the benefit of the doubt, and research is done on an ongoing basis to support the policies. Where a farming method demonstrates that it increases yield, it is incentivized without studying wider, ongoing impacts or whether that yield can be achieved through other methods. Rather than doing research first and using the findings to shape policy, certain methods are often advocated for by companies seeking to sell more products— in the case of GE companies, seed and chemicals.
Those who question this “approve now and research later” method are often accused of being elitist (only those with money and time question where or how their food is grown). Everyone else is just happy to have food. While, of course, the problem of famine and widespread malnutrition is devastating, many believe the long-term solution lies in a holistic approach to agriculture.
Advocated in the FAO’s “Save and Grow” report, the holistic approach seeks to create a new paradigm by “produc[ing] more from the same area of land while conserving resources, reducing negative impacts on the environment and enhancing natural capital and the flow of ecosystem services.” This is not the silver bullet approach. This “ecosystem approach” uses “inputs, such as land, water, seed and fertilizer, to complement the natural processes that support plant growth, including pollination, natural predation for pest control, and the action of soil biota that allows plants to access nutrients.”
This approach is a revolution following the Green Revolution—a revolution which they say will meet the dual challenge of feeding the world’s burgeoning population and saving the planet’s natural resources. The report clearly says there is no single blueprint to solve problems; rather, a range of farming practices and technologies will have to be developed or reinvigorated. Many in the anti-GE community believe that relying on the “silver bullet” ideology will only lead to disaster, and it is critical to adopt this more holistic approach.
No one wants to be right about what they fear, especially when it involves continued world hunger or epidemics of food-borne illness. For the scientists working on GE crops, they passionately hope to develop traits that will increase yield or nutrition and that world food needs will be met. For the anti-GE community, they desperately hope that superweeds will not become more rampant and that the GE components of human food will not cause health effects.
With more than half of the world’s population under the age of 30 years old (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010), many will live to see the world’s population reach the predicted nine billion by 2050. With food as we know it on the line and a sense that time is running out, many people will fight passionately for what they believe in. But since no one knows whether GE will ever successfully create increased yields, let alone whether GE-caused health effects will emerge later in life, it may make the most sense to not bite the silver bullet and, instead, plan beyond 2050 and GE.
1 Benbrook, Charles. “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years.” The Organic Center. Nov 2009. organic-center.org/science.tocreports. html#cir
2 Aris A, Leblanc S. “Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada.” Reproductive Toxicology. May 2011. 31(4):528-33. Epub 2011 Feb 18.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21338670
Continue reading to learn what's happning now in the anti-GE fight.
What's Happening Now?
The anti-GE community is currently making an unprecedented, multi-faceted effort to shift the tide against the continued release of more GE crops into the environment and our food.
One main ongoing effort is led by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), whose litigation efforts have stalled or derailed the release of several key GE crops, including wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, tomatoes and until recently, alfalfa. CFS’s efforts have challenged the USDA’s approval methods and forced them to do a more thorough review of the economic and environmental harms of GE crops. Unfortunately, the USDA continued to be pressured by strong biotechnology corporations and their allies in Congress to push for faster, more streamlined releases of new GE crops. In recent months, that pressure has resulted in a rapid-fire release of Roundup Ready™ alfalfa, Roundup Ready™ bluegrass and GE corn designed for ethanol fuel.
To counteract biotechnology’s forces in Washington, D.C., several groups are relentlessly working to educate consumers, including Non-GMO Project, the Institute for Responsible Technology and GM Watch.
Groups have also been working for years to get consumers involved and have their voices heard in Washington, D.C., and an exciting renewed effort called the Right2Know March has great promise. The march will leave from the United Nations headquarters in New York City on October 9 and arrive at the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 16, World Food Day. The central focus of the march is a demand for mandatory labeling of GE ingredients in food—consumers’ right to know what is in our food. The march will also work in conjunction with campaigns for GE labeling on a state and federal level. With the 2012 election looming, it is a prime time to ask politicians to take a stand for consumers’ right to know.
- Support the Center for Food Safety by joining Organic Valley’s “Save Our Hay” campaign.
- Center for Food Safety
- The Truth in Labeling Campaign
- Right2Know March