By Ryan Vineyard
In response to “Possible benefits of genetically modified food” (3/3/2011):
It is hard to deconstruct Ms. Levine’s argument, as the only cogent argument I could detect went along the lines of “GMO’s are good because it’s food.’ Accepting the fact that they are indeed food then leads us to why they are being produced by farmers, and their effects on health. In the end, Ms.Levine concluded that GMOs are indeed good for production, and indeed, humanity; a conclusion that is dangerous on the premises Ms. Levine set down.
Ms. Levine started her argument by discussing the employment of GMOs; i.e., why farmers “chose” to plant GMO products. It is true that market forces initially played a major role in GMO production. The promise of higher quantities and quality of produce for a relatively inexpensive price drove farmers to turn to GMOs. There is an important caveat that Ms. Levine ignored, however, that is that GMOs are patented. If a farmer uses GMO crops, he cannot produce his own seeds from the crop; as that is piracy under US law. And the funny thing about nature is that you cannot truly control it. GMO crops spread pollen like any other plant, to the point where crops near a GMO, via inter-breeding, eventually become the patented property of an Agricultural firm. Many farmers don’t choose to plant GMOs in the first place, but are eventually forced to (via pollination) if their neighbors are using GMOs. The same is true if a farmer tries to switch back from GMO production. Again, the same “nature” rule applies, as pollen does not respect the legal confines of a farmer’s property. Farmers are eventually forced into GMO use under threat of lawsuit from agricultural companies, as their crops eventually begin to hold patented genes even IF it is not purchased from an agricultural company.
It is very expensive for a farmer to defend himself from a GMO-related lawsuit, especially given the significantly higher resources of an agricultural mega-firm. The cost is prohibitive, leading most farmers to simply surrender, and acquiesce to the demands of the agricultural firm to avoid an expensive lawsuit. The argument that farmers have turned to GMOs as a manner of choice may be correct to an extent, but thereafter farmers virtually have little choice. Market alternatives no longer exist for a GMO farmer. They must become a customer of Monsanto (which controls 90% of the GMOmarket), or go out of business. Sure, this practice has been challenged in courts a few times (Monsanto v. Schmeiser); yet Monsanto’s patents have largely remained intact. Ms. Levine asserts that the “seed monopoly” indeed doesn’t exist. If this isn’t a monopoly, then I am Batman.
Another sad side-effect of the GMO industry is the demands it puts on the land. Most GMO crops have a tendency to demand more water than natural crops, a demand many farmers in the third world cannot meet. An alarming trend of suicides amongst third world farmers (especially in India) has resulted. Other production problems have also arisen. Phosphorus, a non-renewable mineral used as fertilizer, is expected to hit its peak production soon. GMOs, through increasing the size of fruit and animals alike, puts an additional strain on the land by requiring greater quantities of fertilizer to achieve a successful harvest. With Phosphorus reaching its peak in the near future, we may eventually see a price-related boom in food, as fertilizer becomes scarce. Sure, there are other sources of fertilizer. But none are quite as abundant as phosphorus to cover a fraction of the landmass currently used in agricultural production. When coupled with the fact that this nation has become reliant on GMOs to feed our families, it doesn’t take an economist to figure out that we are heading for trouble.
There are a number of health concerns, yet they differ between products. Consuming a GMO is nothing like using a cell phone; cell phones are harmless. Ask any member of our esteemed Physics department if cell phones can cause cancer, and they will laugh you out of their office shortly after saying “no!” I’m not terribly sure about the effects of GMOs on health, but I do know that the EU has banned most GMOs, citing risks to human health. In truth, many GMOs have been engineered to withstand powerful pesticides, pesticides which are then used in abundance by farmers to kill weeds. The health of the ecosystem is also to be considered, as many GMOs have been engineered to be resistant to “pests”, or other factors that otherwise would have controlled crop population naturally. Many nations have cited this as a cause for banning GMOs, as the lack of natural controls or predators could cause an uncontrolled population of an organism to ruin local ecosystems.
To me, the GMO debate does not sound “inconclusive”. Alarmingly little has been done, as the agricultural lobby remains one of the strongest in the nation. Testing and regulatory efforts have, untilrecently, been stymied under the Bush Administration. Little national attention is paid to GMOs, and theFarm Bill that regulates America’s agriculture is still very much a creature of the biggest food companies.Without serious reform, and increased regulatory efforts, GMOs will not contribute in a long-term and meaningful way to humanity. Indeed, economics, science, and many health concerns point towards atrend that may in fact harm us. I encourage Ms. Levine and others to conduct some academic researchinto GMOs, as speculation masquerading as knowledge may be just as dangerous as unregulated GMOs themselves.
Ryan VineyardPresident of the College DemocratsChairman of the THCManager of Europa House