I recently decided to take an epidemiology course to fill in gaps in my knowledge base. The entire online graduate certificate in Environmental Health looked interesting, so I applied for the entire certificate. Environmental Health was the first course that I took online at this flagship Florida university. The online experience would be a separate post in itself — the online course was mechanically flawless but grossly deficient in interactions and building critical thinking skills.
One of my class assignments was to argue in a paper against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Since the course and the textbook were too reductionist for my tastes, I argued using macroscopic arguments. I doubt the teaching assistants read it–like all other assignments in this MOOC, it received a grade with no comments. Various friends are asking me what I think of GMOs, and most students in the class and most of my friends think that GMOs are a great solution for our food problems, so I am reposting the paper here.
Corporations promote GMOs as the solution to world hunger through expanded global food sources. That hopeful argument is not based on evidence, and there are many arguments against widespread GMO use. Most science and policy arguments are reductionist. But Einstein said that we cannot solve problems from the same consciousness that created the problems. We must learn to see the world anew, from a larger scale to see a complete picture of the processes involved. Reductionist science is not the answer to the problems engendered by a finite biosphere with a human population in overshoot. Therefore, the arguments presented here address macroscopic arguments against GMOS, including the impact of peak oil production on the current developed countries’ system of industrial agriculture, the rapidly expanding pesticide treadmill that accompanies GMOs, replacement of natural biodiversity, water and soil loss or degradation, and expanding corporate domination, with increasing social inequity, loss of small farmers, monopolization and unsustainability of our food system, and the potential link between gut health and inadequately studied GMOs.
Feed the hungry or “cows and cars?”
Cassidy (2015) critiques the argument that GMOs can feed a rapidly growing global population this month in an Environmental Working Group paper. The author contrasts the reported need for a doubling in food supply in the next 50 years with the progress up to now in GMO crops, which primarily feeds “cows and cars” while expanding social inequity through monopolization and profit-making by large corporations. The expanding social inequity and loss of small farmers contributes to more poverty, which is the real source of hunger. Feeding cows and cars instead of people also puts added pressure on water use and soil degradation, while expanding nitrate pollution in our waters and nitrous oxide pollution in our air. Cassidy also argues that crop yields with GMOs are no better and are sometimes worse than yields of traditional crops. Holt-Giménez et al. (2012) add a different argument against the claim that GMOs can feed the world. We already grow enough food for a global population of 10 billion people, but because of social inequity and poverty, that food is not distributed evenly. Even if we expand food production faster than population growth, GMOs are not the answer.
High transformity agriculture
The most systemic argument against GMOs is the energy-intensive nature of high-tech agriculture that requires the extraction of profit, not letting Nature do the work through traditional diversity and seeds. Energy/emergy intensity of agriculture has increased many fold during the past century of agricultural industrialization (Rydberg and Hayden, 2006). Global energy production has plateaued and is forecast to decline, with a large discrepancy in available fossil fuels to support our current developed society (US-EIA, 2013). The Middle East retains about 2/3 of all proven reserves of oil, while the United States oil production peaked in 1970 (BP Statistical Review, 2014). These facts do not bode well for the sustainability of industrial agriculture, which has evolved to rely heavily on natural gas and fossil fuel subsidies for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, over-sized tillers and harvesters, and now tech-intensive GMOs that are necessary to stay ahead of plant blights that impact monoculture farms. The research, marketing, law, and other complex necessities of high-tech agriculture each demand more emergy from society, which takes resources from other needed societal supports. Renewable energy sources have less net energy, so renewables are unable to sustain industrial society in the place of non-renewable liquid fuels (Day et al., 2009). GMOs make us less sustainable, as they make our food system increasingly dependent on fossil fuel inputs and increasingly centralized and high-tech.
The pesticide treadmill
Tilman et al., 2002
The second controversial argument against GMOs relates to environmental health and the accumulation of increasing volumes of pesticides in the environment as a result of the pesticides treadmill. Annual proprietary seeds that demand concurrent use of changing, untested and expanding mixes of both fertilizer and proprietary pesticides leads to a pesticide treadmill (Tilman, 2002). The evidence on how much pesticide use is increasing globally varies greatly by report, ranging from a sympathetic meta-analysis report of a reduction in pesticide use by 37% over the past 20 years (Klumper & Qaim, 2014), to an increase of 7% over that same general period (Benbrook, 2012).
The information on global pesticide production is proprietary and not widely touted, but the evidence is visible in healthy, growing corporate profits. Corporate pressure may influence scientific reports through funding and publication bias. Pesticide-resistant super weeds develop, old patents expire, and new GMO seeds are repeatedly developed for new crop categories in hopes of expanding corporate markets and profits, leading to increased costs for farmers and increasing damage to the environment. What is the relevant endpoint if corporate survival mandates ever-increasing growth of herbicides, which kill plants, insects, and birds in the environment? The loss of creatures who eat crop-eating insects leads to the need for more pesticides, and around we go again.
Monocultures replacing natural biodiversity
How much is too much pesticide for the planet as a whole, given the additive toxicity of many pesticides and non-food uses? The third large-scale argument against GMOs is the loss of biodiversity, water, and soil nutrients/erosion, through expansion of pesticides, replacement of natural systems with industrial-scale agriculture, and over-fertilization and irrigation. Replacing natural biodiversity and insects with insect-free monocultures hastens the demise of our environmental support systems that we cannot live without—witness dead zones in the ocean, depleting and nitrate-polluted aquifers, and so on. Rockstrom et al. (2009) name biodiversity loss as our greatest problem, and Rhodes’ excellent recent article describing the linkages between the problems of biodiversity and soil loss with bee declines and other problems illustrates this. Additionally, chemical and GMO-based agriculture is fertilizer and water-intensive, adding to ocean dead zones and water shortages, which some claim as the biggest problem of the 21st century. In essence, the idea that we can outsmart Mother Nature and replace her biodiversity with a genetically new agricultural system is arrogant.
Unsustainable corporatization and centralization
Bradford, J. Dec. 21, 2007. Does less energy mean more farmers? The Oil Drum
The fourth large-scale argument addresses expanding corporate domination of seed patents, farm ownership, research, marketing, and so on. Fossil-fuel-based industrial agriculture winnows small farmers and creates a trend towards large-scale production with an inverse correlation between per capital farmers and energy intensity (Bradford, 2007). Since we are now beginning energetic descent, we will need more small farmers, less intensive methods such as agroecology, and less reliance on technology to become sustainable and avoid collapse of societies. The loss of small farmers adds to social stratification and inequality within the farming industry, but also in society at large, as regulatory capture by corporations leads to weakened regulations, more GMOS, more pesticides, and so on, in an autocatalytic merry-go-round. Feedback loops for policies favorable to corporations beget more large corporations, which expands unsustainable trends into overshoot.
Poorly studied GMOs and health
Benbrook, 2012, Environmental Sciences Europe
(Bt Corn in Acres planted and CDC data)
The fifth argument is the question of human health and poorly studied GMOs. The United States in particular places the burden of proof for regulation of hazardous chemicals on the Environmental Protection Agency and citizens to defend environmental health based on the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. Laws in the last decade in the European Union assume a more precautionary approach by ruling that the proponent of an activity must bear the burden of proof in showing safety. One must wonder whether there is a correlation between the new “disease” of gluten intolerance and the recent rapidly expanding production of GMO foods. We do not know the human health or environmental results of gene manipulation of our food are. A quick search of the literature suggests that there is much research on genetic treatment of diseases, but very little study of the questioned link between human health and GMO-based diets. The only studies so far consist of 90-day rat-feeding trials. A small, longer-term study in 2012 of rat health by Seralini et al. (2014) received great criticism and the journal editors retracted the article. Large corporations can pay for biased research, and can control publication and news media. Who will fund neutral research on GMOs and human health?
What is the energy basis of GMOs?
The claim that GMOs exist to feed the world is a false one, derived from corporations’ desire for profit. This post has raised energetic, ecological, social, and health arguments against GMOs. Other arguments include the unknown, unintended consequences of intentional mutation of the gene pool of our food, and the biased funding and publication of research.
In an era of population overshoot and resource scarcity, being able to fall back on our biosphere’s ecosystem services will be critical for a society that prospers. An industrialized, high-tech food system that requires increasingly complex research, laws, profit-making corporations, and annexation of natural systems into massive fields sowed with machinery, sprayed with poisons, fertilized with fossil fuels, and irrigated with our children’s aquifers while being supported by massive research labs to stave off the next pesticide-resistant insect is not a sustainable model. In my opinion, the only way to avoid collapse of our food system is to return to agroecological systems which show four systemic properties: productivity, stability, sustainability, and equitability.
The land company—that’s the bank when it has land—wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours, it would be good – not mine, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things – it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people were driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this (Steinbeck, 1939, Chapter 14).
As Steinbeck suggests in The Grapes of Wrath, there may be a point at which technology owns us, and takes us to a place from which we cannot return without revolution of the system. We’re going to need a lot more farmers and less technology in a future with less fossil fuel, and more sustainable and ecologically based agricultural practices. GMOs only move us further towards an unsustainable goal of continued growth for a global economy in overshoot.