Reasons to Say No to Genetically Engineered Crops and Food
1. Weed Resistance and "Super Weeds"
According to a series of studies in the journal Weed Science, at least 21 different species of weeds are be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s “Roundup-Ready” crops.
Fourteen years ago, while the biotechnology industry claimed that GE herbicide-resistance would decrease the overall use of herbicides, Beyond Pesticides argued that herbicide resistant crops would in fact increase the use of herbicides and the prevalence of herbicide resistant weeds. According to a study by Charles Benbrook, PhD, first in 2009, and then as a follow up in 2012, an increase in the amount of herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control “superweeds” on cropland planted with GE cultivars has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to roughly 90 million pounds in 2011. Dr. Benbrook notes, “Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent.”
Resistance issues are so out of hand that farmers have had to request emergency exemptions to use largely untested herbicides on resistant crops. In November of 2012, EPA granted an emergency exemption for the use of fluridone, an aquatic herbicide that has never undergone scrutiny for its effects on endangered species, on GE cotton crops in order to control resistant weeds. In July 2014, EPA denied the emergency use of propazine on 3 million acres of farmland. Although Texas cotton growers who use chemical-intensive practices were denied the use of this toxic chemical due to drinking water concerns, EPA notes in its letter that these Texas growers had otherwise met emergency criteria. However, we know that weed resistance in GE crop fields is predictable, and should be ineligible for emergency requests. Chemical-intensive growers in Texas and throughout the U.S. should not, as EPA is suggesting, simply move to another pesticide when their unsustainable practices lead to weed resistance. The hope that additional herbicides like will stem the tide of herbicide-resistant weeds is like feeding fuel to a fire in hopes it will go out.
A rational response to widespread resistance would be the adoption of ecological and organic management systems. Instead, industry’s “solution” to resistance is more powerful, more dangerous and highly toxic chemicals. Agrichemical companies are currently making an enormous push to bring combined herbicide-ready crops on to market. This includes Monsanto’s (produced in partnership with their “competitor,” agrichemical giant BASF) dicamba and glyphosate ready cotton and soybean and Dow’s 2,4-D and glyphosate ready corn. New GE crops will not “solve” resistance issues, but merely push the problems of weed management further down the road.
2. Insect Resistance
Genetically Engineered (GE) corn is infused with a toxin that is derived from the biological insecticide Baccilus thurengiensis (Bt). Bt is naturally occurring soil microbe that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has generally considered to be among one of the safer pesticides. When used in its naturally occurring form, it can play an important part in responsible pest management practices. However, when incorporated into crops it creates a host of issues that lead to insect resistance; undermining the responsible use of this least-toxic pesticide in the field. Though reports of insect resistance in corn have been observed since the late 2000s, a study published in the journal PLoS One in 2011 provided documented proof of this occurring. In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially announced that “corn rootworm may not be completely controlled by Cry3Bb1 in certain parts of the Corn Belt.”
Many in the GE industry tout increased refuges (ie. certain sections planted without GE crops) as the solution to corn rootworm resistance, however the industry’s own reporting from 2012 shows that nearly 41% of their farmers are not employing this “best management practice”. While industry places the blame on farmers and attempts to impose control and tight restrictions for “non-compliance”, the point remains that the idea of refuges runs contrary to the agricultural system inherent to GE crops. As opposed to organic farming, which requires that growers foster soil fertility, in practice, GE agriculture requires growers to ignore these ecological concerns, instead focusing on maintaining sterile landscapes free from any life but the intended crop. Any refuge area will be highly susceptible to crop loss, and so it is rational, given the confines of an inherently irrational system, for GE farmers to want to minimize crop loss in order to maximize yields. A shift to organic, ecological agricultural practices is needed.
The GE industry also claims that “stacking” different forms of the Bt toxin within the same plant will fix the issue. However, researchers have recently called this practice into question. A 2013 study published in PNAS shined light on the faulty logic and underlying assumption of the industry that if a pest is resistant to one Bt toxin then another, slightly different Bt toxin will kill it. Researchers discovered that things were a bit more complicated than that in the field. Yves Carrière, PhD, lead author of the study explains, “[O]n the two-toxin plants, the caterpillars selected for resistance to one toxin survived significantly better than caterpillars from a susceptible strain.” As indicated by the study, once an insect has developed a resistance to one from of Bt, the likelihood increases that it will rapidly develop a cross-resistance to new forms of the toxin.
Pollen from GE crops cannot be contained on the farm, as evidenced by the contamination of Oregon wheat fields with untested, unregulated, GE wheat. This issue brings to light the economic risks of GE agriculture. In response to this discovery, several countries where GE agriculture is illegal, including Japan and South Korea, banned imports of United States wheat.
Contamination can affect farmers within the U.S. as well. If an organic farmer’s crops are polluted with genetically engineered pollen, they may be required to forfeit their organic certification, which could cause devastating financial harm. They may also be subject to lawsuits and accused of patent infringement by GE companies. In 2012, the National Organic Standards Board, the diverse rulemaking body that provides recommendations on organic standards, unanimously voted to deliver a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack saying, “The NOSB...believes the USDA’s actions on genetically engineered crops have been insufficient to protect the organic industry...We see the potential of contamination by genetically engineered crops as a critical issue for organic agricultural producers and the consumers of their products. There are significant costs to organic producers and handlers associated with preventing this contamination and market loss arising from it.”
The issue at stake is where the burden to prevent cross-contamination lies. The NOSB letter continues, saying that those in the organic community “feel the developers of GMO technology should share the burden that organic farmers now assume in mitigating the gene flow between farms and should compensate organic farmers for genetic drift.” Not waiting for regulators to act, seventy-five family farmers, seed businesses, and agricultural organizations representing over 300,000 individuals and 4,500 farms filed suit against Monsanto. After an initial dismissal by a lower court, the farmers filed an appeal of the ruling. Two plaintiffs submitted sworn declarations in the case highlighting the prevalence of contamination by genetically modified seed. Both Chuck Noble, an alfalfa farmer from South Dakota, and Fedco Seeds, a seed distributor in Maine, have repeatedly discovered GE contamination in purportedly conventional seed they sought to purchase. To protect themselves from being contaminated, they have had to adopt expensive and time-consuming genetic testing procedures. In 2013, the Court of Appeals ruled on this lawsuit, dismissing it again, but binding Monsanto to a “promise” not to sue the plaintiffs for intended contamination.
4. Harm to Wildlife
Intrinsic to the spread of “Roundup Ready” GE crops is an increased use of the name-brand product. Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate have been linked to numerous adverse impacts on wildlife. A 2004 study published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found that tadpoles chronically exposed to environmentally-relevant concentrations of glyphosate formulations exhibited increased time to metamorphosis, tail damage, and gonadal abnormalities.
A 2012 study published in the journal Ecological Applications shows that Monsanto’s Roundup had the ability to cause shape changes in three species of amphibians – the leopard frog, American toad, and wood frog.
According to the study, “In wood frog and leopard frog tadpoles, Roundup induced relatively deeper tails in the same direction and of the same magnitude as the adaptive changes induced by dragonfly cues… [T]his is the first study to show that a pesticide can induce morphological changes in a vertebrate. Moreover, the data suggest that the herbicide might be activating the tadpoles’ developmental pathways used for antipredator responses. Collectively, these discoveries suggest that the world’s most widely applied herbicide may have much further-reaching effects on nontarget species than previous considered.”
In the natural environment, the presence of predators can cause tadpoles to change shape by altering the tadpoles’ stress hormones, causing them to grow bigger tails to better escape. But similar shape changes seen after exposure to Roundup suggest the weed killer may interfere with the hormones of tadpoles and potentially many other animals.
Lead author Rick Relyea, PhD explained in a press release, “It was not surprising to see that the smell of predators in the water induced larger tadpole tails...[t]hat is a normal, adaptive response. What shocked us was that the Roundup induced the same changes. Moreover, the combination of predators and Roundup caused the tail changes to be twice as large.”
Glyphosate has a strong potential to drift off-site where it can cause in situ harm to wildlife. A 2002 United States Geological Survey report found glyphosate in 55 out of 154 water samples from 51 streams in 9 Mid-Western states. The report found that glyphosate contamination endured from spring through to the fall, contrary to the quick degradation times claimed by industry. As evidenced, glyphosate persists in water where it has the potential to cause significant harm to non-target wildlife, particularly amphibians.
GE crop-induced herbicide applications are also indirectly affecting the health of beneficial species. Widespread applications of Roundup destroy sanctuary land and the plant species that support beneficial insects and other wildlife. A recent study reported on by The Los Angeles Times in 2013 shows a record decline in monarch butterflies, which can be directly related to the widespread use of glyphosate on over 120 million acres of GE corn and soy. Short-sighted use of this herbicide has caused significant declines in the amount of milkweed, the monarch’s main food source. Pollinator losses cause cascading effects in ecosystems. As Chip Taylor, PhD, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas notes, “The fruits, nuts, seeds and foliage that everything else feeds on... [i]f we pull the monarchs out of the system, we're really pulling the rug out from under a whole lot of other species."
5. Harm to Soil
In 2011, research published in the American Journal of Botany found GE Bt corn negatively interfered with the symbiotic relationship arbuscular mycorrizal fungi (AMF) form with the roots of corn plants. The researchers found that the Bt toxin decreased colonization of AMF on Bt plants compared to non-GE control groups. Tanya Cheeke, PhD, lead author of the study notes, “What makes our study unique is that we evaluated AMF colonization in 14 different lines of Bt and non- Bt corn under consistent experimental conditions in a greenhouse using locally collected agricultural field soil as the AMF inoculum.” Dr. Cheeke continues, “The use of whole soil in this study allowed each Bt and non- Bt corn line to interact with a community of soil organisms, making this study more ecologically relevant than other greenhouse studies that use a single species of AMF.” Dr. Cheeke’s next step is to observe how this impacts crops in the field, saying “In greenhouse studies Bt corn had lower levels AMF colonization, so now it is important to see if this pattern is also observed under field conditions.”
Bob Kremer, PhD, microbiologist at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has urged the government to look further into the potential for Roundup to contribute to fungal root disease in crops. In 2011, Dr. Kremer told a conference that Roundup impacts the root structure of plants, and that 15 years of research indicates that the chemical may be causing fungal root disease in GE crops sprayed with glyphosate. While noting to Reuters that research has not yet revealed the details of how this occurs, given the multitude of problems that are arising with GE crops, Dr. Kremer explains, “We’re suggesting that the potential certainly exists.”
6. Indirect Harm to Human Health: Pesticide Use
Beyond Pesticides’ “Pesticide Induced Diseases Database” provides access to a wide array of scientific studies on the dangerous health effects of pesticides. Glyphosate and Roundup, the herbicides which GE crops depend upon, are implicated in numerous adverse health impacts in human beings. Roundup formulations are of particular concern because the “inactive/inert” ingredients in the product have been shown to enhance the toxicity of glyphosate. One particular “inactive” ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, a surfactant used to adhere and allow glyphosate to penetrate into plant leaves, was shown to be capable of killing human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells, according to a study published in Chemical Research and Toxicology
Roundup and glyphosate formulated herbicides have been linked to numerous health problems including cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in three separate peer-reviewed studies (1,2,3) and a systematic review and meta-analysis, as well as ADHD, rhinitis, and hormone disruption. In an acknowledgement of the propensity for glyphosate to move through soil and into drinking water, EPA has established a MCL (.7ppm) for the chemical. Short term health effects include lung congestion and increased breathing rates. Chronic exposures at levels above MCL are likely to produce kidney damage and reproductive effects. Click here to see Beyond Pesticides’ comments to the EPA concerning the reregistration of glyphosate.
7. Direct Harm to Human Health: Consuming GE Food, Antibiotic Resistance
A quick primer: creating a GE crop is a crude process filled with trial and error. In order to transfer the genes a biotech company wants in its plants, a seed is first taken and split to uncover its embryo. Then, the company uses one of two methods, employing either “gene guns” or agrobacterium. With a gene gun DNA encapsulated in gold or silver particles is shot at the embryo. With the agrobacterium method a species of the genus agrobacterium, known for its ability to horizontally transfer DNA to plant cells, is used to infect the embryo of the plant in attempts to insert the new gene. At such a small scale this process is messy, so the only way the company can make sure that the gene was successfully transferred is to send an antibiotic marker gene along with it. Then the company can expose the plant’s embryotic cells to antibiotics, knowing that the cells that survive contain the DNA they want.
These antibiotic resistant marker genes are not inert or inactive when the plant is grown for commercial production. One study with rodents revealed that, once ingested, some of this DNA has the potential to remain in the body, where it can be taken into the blood stream. A separate mouse study found that this DNA could transfer to a developing fetus. Moreover, evidence suggests that in some instances antibiotic resistant DNA can be transferred from GE food to human intestinal bacteria. And, although the risk is low, the prospects are chilling; there is potential for these resistance genes to transfer to bacteria that can infect humans.
In goats fed Roundup Ready soybeans, a significant increase was seen in the enzyme lactic dehydrogenase , which generally signifies cell damage somewhere in the body. Studies with laboratory rodents fed GE food observed an increased risk in tumors and organ damage, and a decline in fertility.
In November of 2012, the nation’s largest non-profit health care institution, Kaiser Permanente, published in its print newsletter, Partners in Health, tips on limiting exposure to GE food, which although not a policy position, reflects the growing concern among the medical community regarding GE foods.
8. Lack of Labeling and Transparency
As it currently stands, the only surefire way to avoid GE products in the supermarket is to purchase certified organic food. Due to the numerous issues raised above, it should be a consumer’s right to know whether the products we are purchasing are grown in a way that can harm humans and the environment. On the campaign trail in 2007, President Barack Obama endorsed the idea that Americans have a right to know what’s in the food they’re buying, but he has yet to act on that pledge.
Despite the 91 percent of Americans in favor of transparent labeling, the GE industry has resisted attempts to provide this information to its customers, spending nearly $50 million dollars in 2012 to block California’s Proposition 37 ballot initiative that would have provided effective GE labeling within the state. Since Prop 37’s failure, the movement to label GE foods has not retreated, and large supermarkets and numerous other states have introduced policies that would label GE foods. Connecticut represents the first GE labeling law to pass through a state legislature; however the policy will only come into effect when four other states pass similar legislation. In recognition of the significance of this issue nationwide, a federal GE labeling bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate in May of 2013.
Apart from the labeling issue, the actions of the agribusiness industry are incredibly suspect. According to a report produced by Food and Water Watch, the U.S. State Department, in tandem with biotech company Monsanto, worked covertly to pressure foreign governments to accept GE crops, or reduce their oversight of GE agriculture.
9. GE Companies Are Unfair to Farmers
As noted above, GE crops force farmers to participate in the “pesticide treadmill,” requiring them to apply increasing amounts of more and more dangerous herbicides. This puts both farmers and farmworkers at elevated risk of chronic exposure and subsequent long-term health effects. USDA’s approval of new combined herbicide resistant crops would surely exacerbate farmer and farmworker health issues. (According to a 2008 report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that from 1998 to 2005, a total of 3,271 cases of farmworker poisoning occurred as a result of pesticide exposure).
Aside from the health risks involved are the economic and legal liability threats of GE agriculture. Over 60 countries have bans on the production and import of GE crops. Contamination events can cause significant economic harm to individual farmers, and even damage entire industries. In 2013 a farmer in Oregon discovered the presence of Monsanto’s illegal, untested GE wheat in his field, prompting countries around the world, including Japan, South Korea, and the entire EU to enact detrimental restrictions on the import of wheat. In 2012, U.S. wheat exports were valued at $18.1 billion.
The GE industry’s mistakes aren’t small change, and the 2013 incident isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2007 USDA recalled shipments of long grain rice due to samples that tested positive for – you guessed it – untested, unregulated, illegal GE contamination. The genetic delinquent in this case was Bayer, who negotiated at $750 million settlement over the incident after growers suffered huge losses due to allegations of “impure” rice.
The GE industry has a reputation for launching harmful lawsuits against small farmers. Monsanto alone has ruthlessly pursued farmers for alleged patent infringement.
A legal brief from the 2013 Supreme Court case Bowman v. Monsanto notes that as of December 2012, Monsanto had filed 142 alleged seed patent infringement lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in 27 states. Sums awarded to Monsanto in 72 recorded judgments total over $23 billion. The Bowman v. Monsanto case highlights the extent to which the company will pursue their legal interests against farmers. Monsanto argued that Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman infringed on the company’s GE soybean patent rights by purchasing from a third-party seed supplier instead of Monsanto, and benefited from successive harvests of the GE crop. Monsanto said Mr. Bowman’s plantings violated the company’s patent agreement that farmers are required to sign when they purchase GE seed. These patents mean farmers cannot save seed for future plantings and can be held liable if their crop is contaminated with GE material. Mr. Bowman lost the court case on the grounds that the company would have received “scant benefit” from its invention. Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety notes on the ruling, “The Court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers. The Court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics because it improperly attributes seeds’ reproduction to farmers, rather than nature.” This raises a legitimate question: can a corporation have sole rights to a living organism that reproduces naturally? Fortunately, for now, the court narrowly applied this ruling, reserving a decision on that question for a future case.
10. There are Practical Alternatives in Organic
Farming doesn’t need to be this way. Organic agriculture offers a viable, scalable path towards a future without chemical tainted communities, fields, foods, farmworkers, air, streams, and groundwater. Without exotic GE plants that must be created in a sterile lab, and grown under sterile conditions. Organic agriculture draws from thousands of years of farming knowledge, incorporating time-tested techniques that boost soil fertility, enhance wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and produce healthier, nutrient dense crops without the burden of synthetic chemical inputs and the numerous negative externalities.
Organic farming is healthier for people. A 2012 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that organic food provided distinct health advantages by way of reducing exposure to pesticides, especially in children. According to the report, “in terms of health advantages, organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease.” All inputs that go into organic production are subject to a rigorous review, overseen by a diverse panel of independent experts called the National Organic Standards Board.
A July 2014 comprehensive meta-analysis of organic foods published in the British Journal of Nutritionfound there to be more nutritional antioxidants and far fewer toxic pesticide in organic food than those produced conventionally. “It shows very clearly how you grow your food has an impact,” said lead author Dr. Leifert to The New York Times. “If you buy organic fruits and vegetables, you can be sure you have, on average, a higher amount of antioxidants at the same calorie level.” Numerous studies over the past 25 years show this to be the case. Also indicative of the overall health benefits derived from eating an organic diet, a 2013 study found that fruit flies fed on organic foods had increased fertility, resistance to oxidative stress and starvation, and lived longer than those fed on conventional foods.
Apart from the health benefits and potential risks averted by switching from a conventional, GE heavy diet to an organic one are the environmental benefits accrued. The absence of highly toxic and persistent pesticides helps fulfill the requirement under the Organic Foods Production Act that a farm’s crop production plan “contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility.” Studies show that organic agriculture is better for the environment. For example, organic methods of farming strawberries lead to healthier berries and soils, and result in improved pollination success. In terms of row crops, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab finds organic methods of corn and soybean production significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions coming from soils. In fact, organic systems, particularly no-till organic, sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit, and result in more fertile soil than conventional no-till, which is practiced in GE agriculture.
With organic agriculture, farmers receive a better profit for their hard work. A 13 year Iowa State University study released in 2011 found organic production returned about $200 per acre more than conventional agriculture, and produced comparable yields and healthier soils. Results like this show the potential for organic agriculture to become the mainstream method of food production. Polls show that, when given the choice, Americans prefer to eat organic food. The growth of the organic food industry market reflects this sentiment in American attitudes. During the height of the recession in 2010, reports showed that the organic industry generated more than 500,000 jobs in the United States.
For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see our program webpage. Beyond Pesticides works hard to maintain the integrity of organic food as the industry grows; join our efforts by signing up for action alerts and checking our Keeping Organic Strong page often.