"There is absolutely no danger at all." The organic industry has actively and loudly opposed genetically modified (GM) foods. Genetic modification, also known as genetic engineering, alters the genetic makeup of living animals, plants, or bacteria by using recombinant DNA technologies to slice in genes and DNA from foreign plants, animals, or bacteria to change qualities or characteristics of the host organism. By far the most common genetically modified (GM) organisms are crop plants.
But the technology has now been applied to almost all forms of life – such as pet fish that glow under ultraviolet light; bacteria which form HIV-blocking “living condoms” by secreting proteins that might protect women against HIV; pigs bearing spinach genes so that the genetically modified pigs contain 20 per cent less saturated fat than normal pigs; goats that have been genetically modified with spider genes in the hope that their milk will be a plentiful source of the proteins required for spider silk; and farm animals that have been genetically modified with a gene from a nematode worm which would enable farm animals to make the omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish that are known to help prevent heart attacks rather than their high cholesterol fats. Any wonder why environmental activists and health proponents have labeled genetically engineered foods as “Frankenstein foods” and attacked the lack of long term studies into the risks of consuming GM foods?
Even though most consumers rarely make an Arugula Radicchio Salad out of their organic cotton exercise clothes, the organic movement has also strongly opposed the introduction of genetically modified cottons into the clothing chain for many of the same reasons. Having most of the GM cotton seeds being developed by the same large agri-chemical companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta who have doused our planet in toxic herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides further fuels the general distrust and suspicion surrounding GM cotton.
As in most environmental issues, genetically modified cotton is a highly controversial topic. To understand the churn and swirl of issues, it is sometimes helpful to examine and evaluate the issues from four perspectives:
- Scientific Research. Who conducted the research, who paid for the research, how independent were the researchers.
- Practical experience. Are there experiences and results from independent sources that collaborate or refute academic or research findings.
- Economic. Follow the money to see who benefits. Because politics are frequently more closely aligned with economics than ideals of democracy, justice, freedom or truth, political positions will give an indication of where the money is flowing.
- Ethical. This can be very slippery and easily influenced by the other perspectives or even in direct conflict. What are your ethics, religious or spiritual views? In the end, each of us must true to ourselves.
Scientific research and field studies on Genetically Modified cotton have been mixed in supporting claims for improved cotton plant resistance to disease, insects, weeds and drought. Bt cotton is the most widespread genetically modified variant of cotton. Bt cotton has an added bacterial gene that creates a toxin that kills American bollworms, a major caterpillar pest that destroys cotton plants.
After having conquered the U.S. cotton market in just a few short years, Monsanto, the giant agri-chemical company that owns the patent to Bt cotton, is focusing their drive for world domination on the huge agricultural markets of China and India. Advocates of Bt cotton say it lets farmers use less pesticide - typically one or two sprays per harvest as opposed to three or four sprays for conventional varieties. They argue this makes it cheaper and more environmentally friendly because the Bt toxin only kills moth and butterfly caterpillars. But no one has studied in detail the effect of the crops on non-target insects and other species, particularly birds. Eco-chains are delicate and vastly complex.
Another difficulty with Bt cotton is that nature is incredibly adaptive and the bollworm pests that Bt cotton was engineered to defeat are adapting and becoming resilient to the toxins produced by Bt cotton. Farmers are required to take resistance-control measures to slow the growth of resistance in bollworms. "If proper resistance management strategies are not implemented, the efficacy of pest management through Bt transgenic crops will be seriously diminished due to wide spread development of resistance," cautioned Dr. Fakrudin of the University of Agricultural Sciences in India.
Monsanto claims that Bt cotton typically yields around 30 per cent more than traditional cotton crops, but critics dispute this. In a recent study of studied 100 cotton farms in India, yields of the non-Bt cotton out-produced the genetically modified Bt cotton crop by around 16 per cent.
Another study in India documented that 71% of farmers who tried out a genetically modified pest-resistant variety of cotton suffered an average decrease in crop yield of 35%, compared with farms where traditional cotton was grown. The study says it also found that the new variety failed to live up to claims that it needed significantly less pesticide treatment, and that its cultivation was cheaper. When presented with these findings, a Monsanto representative suggested that the differences were due to drought. Perhaps the drought only occurred on fields growing genetically modified cotton.
Government-sponsored studies in China to research the effectiveness of genetically modified cottons in resisting insect pests actually showed an increase in secondary pests such as cotton aphids, spider mites and thrips. Farmers were forced to continue using chemical pesticides and the chance of insect pest outbreaks has risen because the insect community has been destabilized suggested researchers.
Genetically modified cotton variants also are supposed to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. For those unfamiliar few, Roundup is a mega-hit weed killer that people spread everywhere to kill anything green that they don’t want growing. It is the “Agent Orange” of the farm and suburbia crowd. Monsanto genetically engineered a strain of cotton so that farmers could douse their fields with Roundup and everything green would die except for their GM cotton.
Theoretically, the end result was supposed to be less herbicide usage. University of Tennessee scientists have documented a common farm and garden weed, marestail, developing resistance to Roundup on hundreds of thousands of soybean and cotton acres in Tennessee. As farmers have planted more and more Roundup Ready varieties since 1996, they've been spraying more of the weed killer, not less. This has contributed to weeds developing resistance to Roundup. If you use an herbicide on a continuous basis, a weed population can build up resistance to that compound and no longer be effective.
We can work in harmony with Nature or we can try to conquer Nature. Experience has always shown that trying to conquer Nature will always ultimately fail. Harmony is the only path to success.
Many have been seduced by the promise of genetic engineering to solve the terrible problems of growing hunger in the developing world. The faithful believed that GM crops would grow in drought regions, be impermeable to plant diseases and insects, be more nutritious, and grow more abundantly with higher crop yields. Unfortunately, genetically engineering is not the savior.
As farmers and agriculturalists gain more experience with GM crops, they find that any benefits that might be temporarily gained in pest reductions are soon lost as the pests adapt and require even greater levels of toxic pesticides which further deteriorate the health of farm workers and the environment.
And still the largest uncertainty concerning the potential genetic risks from playing God at the fundamental levels of genes and DNA remains. Without adequately understanding the consequences of indiscriminate genetic engineering, a few large agri-chemical businesses are gaining a monopoly of the world’s supply of crop seeds. As evidenced by their hard-nosed, hardball business tactics to force their control over global crops, these businesses are motivated by greed and not global benevolence.
What can we do? Join and support environment and consumer groups working promote sustainable farming and environment concerns. And use your shopping dollars wisely to buy local, eat organic, and wear purely beautiful and healthy clothing.