Genetically Modified Food . . . or Messing with Nature

June 15th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Genetically Modified Food . . . or Messing with Nature

Very simply put, genetic engineering involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. For example, genes from an arctic flounder that has “antifreeze” properties may be spliced into a tomato to prevent frost damage. Those who are proponents of genetically modified (GM) food argue that GM crops can potentially produce higher crop yields. Even though the initial costs of GM seeds are more expensive GM proponents argue that it’s a more economical farming solution; the thinking being that they reduce the need for pesticide and herbicide use as well as reduce the labor needed to grow crops. Accordingly, the expectation is that there are improved financial gains as a result.

For those who oppose the use of genetically modified crops, there is much to dislike. A worrisome issue in GM foods is the ability of a food to trigger allergies in humans. Another potential downside to GM technology is that other organisms in the ecosystem could be harmed, which would lead to a lower level of biodiversity. Given that some GM foods are modified using bacteria and viruses, there is a fear that we will see the emergence of new diseases. The list of what not to like about GM foods could continue on for quite a while. Perhaps most troubling about this method is not even what we know, but more what we don’t know. This is perhaps what’s most troubling; there are many factors and variables that scientists are concerned about, and we really won’t know or understand the fallout from them until after many years of observation and testing under real world conditions. By that time, Pandora is well out of the box, and the problems have become exacerbated and even unfixable.

It is beyond ridiculous to be taking chances on our food supply with such an unknown and unproven method. In a May 3, 2010 article in the NY times William Neuman and Andrew Pollack write:

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weed killer Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

The first resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Since then, the problem has spread, with 10 resistant species in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres, predominantly soybeans, cotton and corn.

The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds.

Roundup — originally made by Monsanto but now also sold by others under the generic name glyphosate — has been little short of a miracle chemical for farmers. It kills a broad spectrum of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact.

Sales took off in the late 1990s, after Monsanto created its brand of Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed. Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States.

But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.

Now, Roundup-resistant weeds like horseweed and giant ragweed are forcing farmers to go back to more expensive techniques that they had long ago abandoned.

At some point we will hopefully learn that solutions that present themselves as quick, easy, inexpensive, and a panacea for all ills, simply don’t deliver. When it appears that they do deliver, it’s usually not in the way we were hoping. Exhibit A – The Gulf oil catastrophe.