Warning! A genetically engineered Chia Pet has escaped from an experimental farm and was last seen rampaging through nearby houses, rummaging through piles of opened Christmas presents, trying to find his lost siblings Shrubby and Fern. Authorities recommend that you stay calm, keep the hedge shears handy, and check your taste in gifts.
Warning—a real one this time—genetically modified plants may be coming to a field near you. Should you worry about this any more than your parents or grandparents worried about the post-WWII rise of chemical pesticides and other problems associated with "The Green Revolution"? We think so.
In the last Eco-Logical, we talked about the Green Revolution—the farming system that gained favor after World War II and that has become "the norm" in most parts of the industrialized world—noting some of the problems it has caused, including:
- reduced soil fertility,
- air and water pollution from chemical fertilizers and pesticides,
- loss of beneficial pest predators, and
- the rise of large-scale mono-cropping operations at the expense of smaller farms.
In the end, the Green Revolution will prove about as sustainable as Prince and the Revolution.
From the perspective of large agro-chemical companies—which are now also biotechnology companies—the solution to the decline of the Green
Revolution technologies (and company profits) lies in genetic engineering (GE) technologies. Using GE techniques, scientists will be able to manipulate plant genetics to allow the crops to overcome pests, diseases, poor soils, and unfavorable weather conditions. Or so they say.
If GE crops become even more widely adopted than they already are, we will add to the problems of the Green Revolution the following:
- Potential hidden allergy risks and other unforeseen adverse human reactions to GE foods.
- Increased genetic concentration of crop strains, thus reducing the disease and pest resistance offered by systems that employ many varieties.
- Further removal of the means of food production from the hands of farmers and citizens and into the hands of transnational corporations via legal prohibitions against saving seed for planting the next year.
- Incorporation of dangerous genetic technologies to prevent seeds from germinating the following planting year (so companies can make farmers re-purchase seed every year).
- Contamination of non-GE crops with genetic material from GE crops, thus potentially imparting troublesome GE traits into ALL crops.
- Loss of the use of Bt, an important natural pest control agent, as pests adapt to it via continual exposure through Bt corn, cotton, and potatoes (and other Bt-inclusive crops in the future).
It's too simplistic to say that all GM crops are definitely bad and that GE should be abandoned altogether. What is fair to say, though, is that the
tests run so far on GM crops have been inadequate to demonstrate the long-term safety of the crops as food or as components of a stable global agricultural system. As the Green Revolution begins its decline, agricultural companies see GE crops as a vital new source of income. As the companies rush to introduce new GE products into production, those who are supposed to be regulating the process seem all too willing to defer to the judgment of the companies requesting approval. Safety is taking a back seat to profits.
Applying research and technology to farming is essential to ensuring adequate food supplies and robust global agricultural operations. What has happened, though, is that the vast majority of the research and technology pursued by corporations has been geared toward marketable products. If, since WWII, all of the resources that were spent on research into chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and GE crops had been spent instead on improving non-chemical, non-GE approaches, farming would look a lot different today, and it would produce as much or more food—but without the environmental and social damage that the Green Revolution and its technologies have caused and that GE technologies may cause in the future.
We like to think that our governments are keeping us safe from harm, properly regulating industries and potentially dangerous new technologies. But it's often not so. Despite the good intentions of federal regulations, the US EPA is largely unable to protect us from the disastrous products of the pesticide industry, and as GE crops are queued up for approval, we're seeing similarly lax stewardship on the part of EPA, USDA, and FDA.
Only if we make a stink about it—a stink like we've just eaten too much GE cabbage-and-garlic soufflé—will the regulators and their congressional overlords find the strength to ensure the job gets done properly.