For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.
The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO), crops and foods is enveloping the whole planet. Farmers, scientists, professors, government ministers, elected representatives, environmentalists, peasants, indigenous peoples, and many other sectors are in heated argument regarding the pros and cons of this technology. Leaders of the business, scientific and academic communities, and political leaders, are being pressed with increasing insistence to speak up on the issue.
The makers of GMO crops, in use in agriculture since the 1990's, hold that their novel seeds help fight world hunger, aid farmers by reducing costs, and make agriculture more sustainable by reducing agrochemical use. For the future they promise crops with enhanced nutritional content and "climate-ready" supercrops that will resist the ravages of climate change. But critics state that these crops have not lived up to their promises, that they present unacceptable ecological, economic and public health risks, and that there are sustainable, socially just alternatives for feeding the world's hungry.
GMO's are the product of genetic engineering, a laboratory procedure that creates genetic combinations that would be impossible through conventional breeding. Most GM crops have been engineered to be resistant to herbicide.
As I have said before on Counterpunch, this issue is of particular importance to Puerto Rico, given that this Caribbean island nation is host to GM crop field experiments and seed breeding operations of biotech corporate giants like Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta and Bayer (http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/06/23/puerto-rico-biotech-island/). These crops are concentrated mostly on only five municipalities in the island's south and west.
This agricultural gene revolution has yet to live up to its promises. Almost 20 years after the introduction of GM crops, farmers are still fighting pests and weeds, they are still using toxic agrochemicals, and there are now more hungry people in the world, not less.
Claims of benefits to farmers were challenged in a 2103 study by researchers of New Zealand's University of Canterbury published by the
International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. It concluded that "the biotechnologies used in north American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to western Europe. A conspicuous difference in choices is the adoption of GM seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe."
Also in 2013, a study on herbicide-tolerant GM crops in the US by Food and Water Watch examined US Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, and has revealed that herbicide use has increased substantially since the latter half of the 1990's. Alongside this, these crops have given rise to herbicide-resistant 'superweeds'. "(herbicide)-resistant superweeds are appearing in more states across the country covering as much as 61.2 million acres... the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds found three times as many multiple herbicide-resistant weed infestations in 2011 compared to a decade earlier."
"Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields", according to a report of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
In addition, the safety of GM foods is far from being a settled issue. "No long-term safety tests in animals are required by any regulatory agency", says UCS's Doug Gurian-Sherman. "In some circumstances, 90-day... tests may be required in Europe. But 90 days is far short of the one to two years that usually satisfy long-term safety test requirements."
In October 2013 an international group of scientists led by the European organization ENSSER issued an open letter declaring that there is no scientific consensus on GM food safety:
"As scientists, physicians, academics, and experts from disciplines relevant to the scientific, legal, social and safety assessment aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a 'scientific consensus' on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is 'over'. We feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue."
One signatory, Professor C. Vyvyan Howard, a medically qualified toxicopathologist based at the University of Ulster, said: "A substantial number of studies suggest that GM crops and foods can be toxic or allergenic, and that they can have adverse impacts on beneficial and non-target organisms. It is often claimed that millions of Americans eat GM foods with no ill effects. But as the US has no GMO labelling and no epidemiological studies have been carried out, there is no way of knowing whether the rising rates of chronic diseases seen in that country have anything to do with GM food consumption or not. Therefore this claim has no scientific basis."
Less than two weeks after its release, the open letter had been signed by over 200 scientists.
If GM foods are safe for consumption, then why is industry so vehemently opposed to labeling these products so that consumers can choose to buy them or avoid them? In 2012 the US state of California held a referendum on GM food labeling. Proposition 37, which would have made labeling mandatory in the state, was narrowly defeated by a $46 million campaign. The money for the anti-labeling campaign came from biotechnology corporations like Monsanto and Dupont, and food processors like General Mills and Coca Cola. Meanwhile, polls show over 90% of Americans want GM foods labeled.
The state of Vermont passed GM labeling legislation earlier this year, incurring the industry's wrath. In June the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), one of the most powerful business lobbies in the USA, sued Vermont for its heinous crime.
"After years of good old-fashioned work, and playing by the rules, the grassroots labeling movement achieved its first real victory this year, when Vermont passed the first no-strings-attached law requiring mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms", according to a statement by the US Organic Consumers Association. "But the rules mean nothing to the rich and powerful companies like Monsanto and Coca-Cola, who belong to one of the country's most powerful lobbying groups-the GMA."
Puerto Rico is no stranger to GM food labeling. In 2001 senator Fernando Martín, of the pro-independence PIP party, presented a bill to this end. It died a quiet death on the Senate floor. Last year, PIP senator Maria de Lourdes Santiago presented a similar GM labeling bill, PS 524, which has the support of senators of the other two PR political parties.
If the makers of GMO's want the public to accept them in their food, they should have some faith in their product and trust the consumers' ability to make informed choices. They could start by dropping their opposition to labeling.
Ruiz-Marrero is an author, investigative reporter and environmental educator from Puerto Rico. He is a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program and a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology. He runs two bilingual blogs, both founded in 2004. One is devoted to biosafety and biotechnology (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/) and the other one, Haciendo Punto en Otro Blog (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/), is a hodge-podge of items of progressive and activist interest. Ruiz-Marrero also directs the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor (http://energyandenvironmentmonitor.blogspot.com/). His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz.