How GMCs affect you
Genetically modified crops (GMCs), also known as transgenic crops, raise some important ethical and practical issues. If you’ve ever debated whether GMCs are good or bad, or if you’re still sitting on the fence, then you could use a review of the benefits and risks of GMCs.
However, before delving into the pros and cons, one might wonder, How do GMCs affect me?
The answer is at least threefold:
(1) If you’re a U.S. resident, you might be interested to know that the United States grows much of the world’s transgenic crops. In 2007, the U.S.A. grew 54 percent of the world’s GMCs, making the United States the producer of the majority of transgenic crops.
(2) Many common foods in the U.S. contain GMCs, even if that fact isn’t advertised. Presently, the federal government does not require that GMCs be labeled as genetically modified. GMCs approved for sale in the United States include canola, chicory, corn, papaya, potato, rice, soy, squash, sugar beet, and tomato. However, transgenic corn, papaya, and soy are the three most distributed GMCs in the U.S. If you’ve eaten corn bread, corn meal, tortilla chips, popcorn, French fries, potato chips, soymilk, or even veggie burgers, then there’s a good chance that you’ve consumed GM food products.
(3) If you’re a Connecticut resident, you might be interested to know that, in Connecticut, 40 percent of organic handlers and 40 percent of manufacturers and processors of agricultural products do not test to ensure that foods that reputedly are not genetically modified actually are non-GM. According to a 2007 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, only 60% of organic handlers of agricultural products in Connecticut and only 60% of manufacturers and processors always test to verify whether foods claimed to be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) actually are free of GMOs.
Yet scare tactics overlook the irrefutable benefits of GMCs.
Pros of GMCs
Many GMCs are genetically engineered with pest resistance. For example, Bt varieties are transgenic cultivars containing a foreign gene that causes the crops to produce Bt endotoxin, a natural insecticide, lethal to such pests as the European corn borer. The endotoxin is derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Because Bt crops produce their own insecticide, the use of these crops lowers the need to use chemical insecticides, which might be harmful to the environment or to human health, in addition to being costly to farmers.
GMCs can also be engineered to possess herbicide tolerance. The most efficient herbicides also kill crops, but crops such as soy, cotton, and corn can be made tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup, is an herbicide that is effective in low doses, nontoxic to humans, and rapidly decayed by microbiota. Using the bacterium Agrobacterium tumifaciens as a vector for the gene that grants glyphosate resistance, scientists can create plants able to grow in environments containing a concentration of glyphosate 4 times higher than necessary to kill the wild type plant.
Other adaptations can be imbrued into GMCs, such as virus resistance and drought resistance. The agricultural supply company Monsanto Company, which sells Roundup and operates a site in Mystic, Connecticut, manufactures GM seeds with insect protection, herbicide tolerance, weather protection, and increased productivity.
Additionally, GMCs can be made with relatively nonadaptive traits that are, nonetheless, beneficial to humans. GMCs can be made more nutritious and given a propensity for higher yields than their non-GM equivalents. Thus, GMCs can increase the nutrition of the public, while increasing the profits of farmers. One example is golden rice, a cultivar of transgenic rice that contains extra beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A.
For another example, in an article in Scientific American, agricultural economists Terri Raney and Pirabhu Pingali describe studies of farmers who cultivated GMCs in developing nations. The research showed that the farmers had increased crop yields and spent less on pesticides. Although the GM seeds were more expensive than the non-GM seeds, the farmers’ profits from the genetically modified crops was more than the farmers lost as a result of the higher prices of the transgenic seeds. Raney and Pingali also report that Bt rice engendered better pest control and higher yields in China, GM soy increased productivity by an average of 10% in Argentina, and GM cotton decreased pesticide burns and sickness in the Makhathini Flats of the KwaZulu-Natal province in Africa.
Cons of GMCs
So, you might wonder, if genetically modified crops can be made hardier, more nutritious, and easier to care for, then what’s the basis to the argument against GMCs?
Research validates the environmental risks of GMCs.
GM crops can disseminate their foreign genes into the environment, such as by interbreeding with non-GM plants. One study reveals gene flow from GM creeping bentgrass, up to a distance of 21 kilometers from the bentgrass.
Furthermore, GM crops that produce their own pesticides could create tougher pests. This could happen because the pesticides that the crops produce could kill off most susceptible pests, leaving a large population of resistant organisms to survive and reproduce more pests that are resistant. To prevent this, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that farmers grow an area of non-GM crops next to Bt crops. Yet some farmers report being too tired to fulfill this requirement.
Moreover, the pesticides that some GMCs produce can spread through the food web and possibly disrupt natural ecological relationships. In a study published in 2005 in Molecular Ecology, James D. Harwood et al. of the University of Kentucky found that, probably through bioaccumulation and biomagnification, Bt endotoxin concentrates in nontarget arthropods, such as spiders, ladybugs, and damsel bugs. This could affect the survival rate of important predators of insect pests. In another study, it was demonstrated that Bt corn produced pollen toxic to caterpillars of the monarch butterfly, a favorite of wildlife watchers.
Scientific evidence also supports the health risks of genetically engineered crops to humans.
For instance, if a crop that’s allergenic is functioning as a genetic donor to a GMC, then the GMC can also cause allergic reactions. In one example, GM soy acquired the allergen 2S albumin from Brazil nut. Thus, the soy caused allergic reactions like the Brazil nut from which it acquired its genetic material.
What’s more, some GM crops can cause an allergic reaction even if that allergic reaction would not be caused by their genetic donors. In one study, published in 2005 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, GM peas were bioengineered with a foreign gene from a nonallergenic bean. Although the bean source of the foreign gene was nonallergenic to the mice in the study, the GM peas caused allergic reactions in the mice.
Debate continues over whether some genetically modified crops are toxic to humans. A controversial study published in 2009 by Joël Spiroux de Vendômois et al. in the International Journal of Biological Sciences concluded that three cultivars of Monsanto’s GM corn caused signs of toxicity in the liver and kidneys of rats. Monsanto gave a lengthy response, disputing the study.
Finally, GM crops are often more expensive than their non-GM equivalents. Monsanto has patented its Bt cottonseed in Argentina, which allowed the company to sell the Bt cottonseed at a higher price than non-GM cottonseed. As a result, few Argentine farmers have made use of the Bt cotton.