Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Seeds of Destruction: It's NOT Just About Food

When first introduced to the notion of modifying food by inserting foreign genetic material, I inclined in favor of it.  After all, changing the genes of a plant to cause it to yield more, resist pests, and altogether serve us better sounded like a pretty good idea.  How attractive it must be to farmers that a GM seed should increase yields while providing its own internal pesticide.  But at the same time, knowing how often well-intentioned quests to mold nature have gone seriously awry, I gathered some facts before forming an opinion.  
Today the US seed industry is dominated by two multinational companies, Monsanto and DuPont, with BASF and Syngenta close behind.  Those who buy GM seeds sign contracts establishing how and when the crop can be grown and excluding the right to save seed for the following year (even though many GM seeds are engineered to produce infertile plants). 
These are the arguments often espoused in favor of GM foods: 
  1. That both locally and world-wide, hunger will be abated by the higher yields of GM crops;
  2. That fewer pesticides are used on them;
  3. That safety assessments on them have been numerous and fair, and that results have been highly positive; and
  4. That seeds from GM crops will not blow into or otherwise accidentally pollinate, and contaminate, neighboring fields.    
Let's briefly examine these points. 
GM crop yields --After its review of two dozen academic studies of corn and soybeans in the US, the title of a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists was telling:  "Failure to Yield:  Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops".  It concluded that herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant ("Roundup ready") corn did not show increased yields while insect-resistant corn increased yields only marginally.  Although yields in both crops have increased in the 13 years preceding the 2009 report, these scientists attributed the increases mainly to traditional breeding or improved agricultural methods.  The report also describes how, in industry assessments of GM crop yields, they manipulate the data by conflating different measures of yield.  

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