Earlier this year reading the book Silent Spring opened my eyes to the impact of pesticides on our world. At the same time I watched the documentary Plastic Planet, a challenging look at the influence of petroleum-based products (plastics) on our environment and our health. These two items prompted me to ask myself a basic question:
Is the way we are living killing us and destroying the future of our planet?
Yesterday I saw another documentary (available on Netflix) that raised further concerns along the same line. This film – The Future of Food – examines the growing control that a few mega corporations have on our food supply. But that simple sentence understates the issues at stake. I had heard and read bits and pieces about Genetically Modified Organisms – GMOs. I had no real concept what this term meant and the role it is increasingly playing in our food production. In this post I want to highlight a few crucial elements of what is happening to our food supply.
Within my lifetime companies have begun to patent living organisms. Prior to the late 1970s or early 1980s such patents were regularly rejected by the US Patent Office. That is no longer the case following a court decision in that time period. Now companies can patent any type of living organism. They can place a patent on a particular strain of corn, for example. Or they can modify a gene in corn, tomatoes or any other organism and patent that gene. Once that patent is approved, the company then owns that gene and anyone who wants to use it must apply to that company for the right to do so and, usually, pay a fee for the privilege. This has already created problems among those working to find a cure for breast cancer, because some company patented a gene related to breast cancer and now requires significant payments for use of that gene. The potential impact on our food supply is enormous.
The idea of a company owning a gene or a particular variety of a crop is bad enough, but it gets worse. Once a patented genetically modified organism enters the world, the law states that any descendents – intentional or otherwise – of that GMO are also owned by the company. For example, if you as a farmer plant a field of unmodified corn but some GMO seed or pollen strays into your crop, even without your intent, and cross-pollinates with your own seed, the resulting seed crop is owned by the company that owns the patent to the GMO crop and you must pay them to use that seed. This has been affirmed by the Supreme Courts of both the US and Canada. If you don't want to use that cross-pollinated seed or pay the required license fee, you must destroy your seed supply and start with a new one. The implications of this are enormous, because once a crop enters the natural environment, no one can control how it cross-pollinates with other strains and even other species.
According to the companies, their goal is to produce better strains of crop that will be pest-resistant and more productive. The original GMO crops were modified to allow the spraying of pesticides that would kill everything but the actual crop. That was only the beginning. Now we have strains of corn that have been modified so that the corn itself is a pesticide, lethal to any pest that might try to eat the corn. Companies have also developed GMOs that neutralize their own reproductive cycle, so that the second generation of a seed would not be viable, requiring the farmer to purchase new seed every planting.
Despite their best intentions and their repeated affirmations of the benefits of GMOs, these modified plants raise serious concerns that the companies do not want to hear, much less address. No one knows what the long-term effects of these modifications will be on the plant world, much less on humans who consume these plants and their derivative products. We don't know because never before in human history have we messed with plant DNA as we are now doing with GMOs. This is not simply a matter of cross-pollinating the same or similar species to produce a different variety of a crop with certain characteristics. These new plants are genetically modified by combining snippets of DNA from entirely different organisms to create the desired resistance or other effect. They are introducing into a food crop bits of DNA from viruses, animals and who knows what else. They are creating plants that resist pesticides or actual produce their own pesticide, and then telling us that these products are safe for human consumption. The companies assure us these are safe modifications, although they actively thwart any efforts to critically research the impact of these manipulations or to require outside regulation of their activities. Whose interests are they really interested in advancing?
In future posts I will continue to explore the serious issues raised by genetic modification of plants and animals. The more I learn about this the more troubled I become. What can be done about it? At the end of this series of posts I will look at this question and suggest steps that we as consumers can take.