Monday, May 02, 2005

'Standing in the way of progress'

The unfolding saga over whether a small California biotech company will be allowed to plant rice that produces human proteins shows how much resistance there is to the idea of essentially growing living pharmaceutical factories that could contaminate human food supplies. First, brewing giant, Anheuser-Busch, the country's largest buyer of rice, threatened to boycott all rice grown in Missouri where the planned field trial was to take place. Then, the brewer relented, no doubt under pressure from the state's pro-biotech governor. Then, it was the turn of Missouri farmers to object which sent the company to North Carolina where opponents will again try to block planting of the rice.

Even if the activists, concerned food processors and farmers win this one, they will be accused of standing in the way of progress. But, let's see what that phrase really means.

If we had known in 1930 that turning the automobile into the primary form of transportation in the United States would within 75 years send our domestic oil supplies into decline, make us dangerously dependent for fuel on countries far away that don't particularly like us (and lead to two wars with them), help to hollow out our major cities, create huge sprawling suburbs that are unsustainable, pollute the air with lead and smog, contribute substantially to global warming, kill up to 50,000 people a year and maim many times more than that, lead auto companies to intentionally destroy light rail and other forms of public transportation across America, and help bring us close to a peak in world oil supplies in the first decade of the 21st century, would we have gone ahead with the experiment?

Now, what do we already know about the dangers of genetically modified crops?

1. They breed with wild relatives, spreading their traits unpredictably.
2. They are marketed primarily to force farmers to use specific brands of herbicide and pesticide and to buy seeds every year from the maker.
3. They can create new undetected allergens in crops that are sometimes life-threatening.
4. They can be made not to bear useful seeds with what is called terminator technology. This prevents farmers from keeping their seeds, a hardship for poor farmers in developing countries. It also risks spreading sterility to natural relatives.
5. They have already contaminated organic crops which are prohibited from having genetically modified genes in them.
6. They will be used to produce pharmaceutical compounds and could pass these traits on to the same species used for food.
7. They cannot be effectively separated from non-genetically modified grains in the food supply chain even after harvest.
8. They can adversely affect insect and wildlife populations, some of which are beneficial to farmers.
9. There are alternatives that can provide the same or better results from traditional breeding techniques.
10. Genetically modified crops are controlled by fewer and fewer corporate giants making all of us more and more dependent on them.
11. The GMO seed makers have successfully prevented people from choosing non-GMO foods by keeping all labeling off American food. (If these crops are safe, what's the worry?)
12. These seeds have led to lawsuits against farmers whose fields were contaminated with GMO seeds by the carelessness of the haulers and adjacent farms. These innocent farmers were successfully extorted out of money for having "stolen" the intellectual property of the seed makers.
13. No feeding studies are required on genetically modified foods for adverse reactions or long-term safety. We just plain don't know if they are safe.

What is it about genetically modified foods that makes anyone except those who profit from them believe they are going to turn out to be a great boon to mankind? Who's really "standing in the way of progress" this time?

[For a good synopsis of the problems with GMO crops check out "The Future of Food," a documentary, and a recent article entitled, "The GMO Menace".]

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


Anonymous said...

What a consistent list of dangers of genetically modified crops you've provided. I'll refer to it in my blog, in portuguese. Thank you. Octavio Lima (

Anonymous said...

Reading your list is the first time I've understood the 'fuss' about GMO. Thanks, --Cameron

UNplanner said...

Well I do understand the problems with GMOs but apparently the agricultural commissioner for my county thinks differently. The County Supervisors are or have debated a resolution promoting GMO technology.

This is the mindset I have to work with here.