Genetically Modified for the People

i-3503d9253e9283857592d586ee8fb4b1-corn.jpgThe fight over genetically modified foods, whether they're safe, healthy, good for the environment, or just plain "unnatural," has been going on for a long time now. Most people in the scientific community agree that genetic modification in general is a good thing, able to create crops that need less water, less fertilizer, less pesticide, or that contain extra vitamins and nutrients that are otherwise difficult to come by in certain parts of the world. Many would also argue that fighting against such life-saving, often environmentally sustainable modifications is a sign of an ignorant anti-science backwardness. Two recent articles in The Guardian and The Economist show that the issues surrounding the acceptance of genetically modified food technologies are a lot more complicated than a simple rational/irrational or scientific/ignorant divide.

In The Guardian article, plant scientist Eoin Lettice points out that most of the genetically modified (GM) plants brought to market today primarily benefit giant multinational corporations rather than the consumer. Tomatoes designed to last longer during long-distance shipment end up tasteless and mealy, and the most common genetically modified foods are designed to be resistant to the weed killer that Monsanto produces, the chemicals in which may actually contribute to health problems (although the numbers in the one study are worst than shaky and a lot more work needs to be done). Moreover, Monsanto and other GM producing corporations aggressively patent their products, holding back research in plant science by not allowing university researchers to use naturally occurring plant gene regulatory sequences that they have patented, and forcing small farmers around the world out of business. Government delays in approving the use of GM products cause a lot of problems for these corporations, and it is in their best interest to make their products seem natural and good and their opponents seem crazy and stupid. Lettice puts it well when he writes:

Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I can't imagine many Irish or European consumers lying awake at night worrying about lost revenues for [the German chemical company] BASF. What Irish consumers are interested in, however, are real and tangible benefits from their foods.

For the most part, real and tangible benefits from current GM technology are not going to be felt by well-fed consumers in Europe and the U.S., but already GM technology has made an impact on the yields and quality of food produced by farmers in developing countries around the world. According to The Economist, 90% of the farmers currently benefiting from GM technology live in poor countries, where soil quality and access to water and fertilizer can make it difficult to grow at the high yields needed to feed the community. The spread of the technology has also made an impact on how companies like Monsanto think:

Attitudes are also changing at Western agribusinesses, some of which used to dismiss poor farmers as mere "seed pirates". As developing countries develop GM crops of their own, these firms are now pursuing public-private partnerships or joint ventures with local firms and otherwise softening their stance. Monsanto, a hard-nosed pioneer of transgenic crops, is donating its drought-resistant technology to a coalition called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, for example.

As plant engineering technology develops further, these issues will only become more important, and scientists around the world need to consider how their work and their support can go to real people, not just corporations.

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Good post! Your point that there are concerns beyond the science is the key here. And contrary to how many in the scientific community like to frame it, the laws governing how such technologies are used and how much weight is given to corporate vs. consumer concerns are integral to whether GMOs will ultimately solve problems or create more. We cannot cleanly separate science and policy lest the good work of scientists be exploited for the gain of a few rather than the benefit of all.

This raises some real questions, however. Noting from the economist article that the main uses are in Brazil and Argentina, where there is a great deal of highly industrialized agriculture, it is worth noting that just because 90% of farmers currently benefitting (and I haven't looked at the referenced study yet to see what the definitioin of "benefitting" is) from GM crops are in poor countries, they are actually poor farmers, rather than large scale industrial farmers producing for export.

Nor do I see, following the reference track back, any commitment from Monsanto to continue to donate drought resistant GM varieties - we saw in the Green Revolution the economic costs of transitioning farmers away from saved seeds with similar donations. Subsequently, however, the seeds ceased to be donated, and many small farmers found that their production costs rose, so that they were actually getting less value from their crops.

My relationship to GM is complicated - I'm not opposed to it. But I tend to agree with the IAASTD and the UCS who overwhelmingly concluded that the main drivers of increased agricultural production will probably be things we already have - and that the drive to produce GM crops may operate as a distraction from doing things like actually giving people access to good seed and fertilizer that already exists.


I am impressed to see a SciBlogger post something that acknowledges there's good reason to look sideways at massive corporations and the shit they are capable of. I am in favor of GM, vat-grown meat, stem cell research, the whole nine. I am good with animal experimentation and vaccination and all the other stuff that gives lefty cranks shivers. But you have to be pretty damn gullible to blindly trust in the magnanimity of corporations. These are entities that have proven superfund site after superfund site after Bopal disaster after Cubatao after banana republic how little regard they have for the good of humanity.
Rock on.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

In The Guardian article, plant scientist Eoin Lettice points out that most of the genetically modified (GM) plants brought to market today primarily benefit giant multinational corporations rather than the consumer.

That's an interesting and, on the face of it, credulity-straining claim. After all, the consumers are the ones buying them all and are the ultimate driving force that has caused crop production to switch over to GM crops.

Most likely, the advantage to the consumer is in reduced costs, which is something that's essentially invisible.

@lnvr - Reduced costs- Maybe. The invisible hand is supposed to make prices fair, but as a poor person I notice it makes prices the maximum that can possibly be bled from the desperate. Rent in my state, for example, is genuinely impossible to afford on one person's minimum wage check, has been for a long time, and has only gotten worse. They have us over a barrel - The only alternative is homelessness. So everyone has a roommate or lover, and more all the time are cramming multiple generations under one roof. The poor in the USA have a standard of living on par with former Iron Curtain nations, but with more variety to the lead-laced plastic horseshit in our hovels.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

Some issues with GM:

The concentration of seed sales in certain companies which then have inordinate power over the market- Monsanto for example uses it's legal and financial muscle to ruin farmers whose crops have been contaminated with GM from neighboring farms because they didn't buy the seed from Monsanto. That brings up two related points- The lack of genetic diversity from using just a few seed types leaves crops vulnerable to changing conditions, and the non-GM crops are being contaminated without the consent of the farmer. What happens when years from now long term effects are discovered and it's too late? Farmers who have traditionally saved seed from the previous year and thus had a free and location-proven seed stock now buy expensive seed that may not thrive in the local conditions. If they then decide to start saving seed again they will be sued by the seed company. In addition, while some GM seed may have benefits if indeed it is safe, some have quite dubious aims, such as allowing indiscriminate spraying of herbicides that won't harm the crop but will end up in our air, drinking water and bodies.

I have no problem with and am generally in favor of GM and the like. However, the Guardian article points out what I always though was the marketing flaw with the introduction of GM crops in the U.S. The companies promoting them targeted the farmers (agribusiness) and not us, the customers that ultimately eat the food. I have always thought this was poor and flawed marketing strategy because it is human nature to be risk averse, especially with food.

Why should I eat this new GM tomato when I have been happy with the original version? Its their job to convince me to eat the new one. It is not their job to slip in the new one in place of the old one, then try to tell me that its just as good when I raise a fuss.

Monsanto and the agribusiness get an "F" in marketing.

most of the genetically modified (GM) plants brought to market today primarily benefit giant multinational corporations rather than the consumer

Or, conversely, they benefit the farmer. If they didn't benefit the farmer (be that farmer Joe with his 1/2 acre, or farmer big evil corporation with their 1/2 million acres) they wouldn't sell. The current batch of GM crops is not remotely designed to benefit the consumer (well other than vistive soybeans perhaps, and maybe some minor others) although they may indirectly offer benefits (reduced insecticide use, use of less toxic and environmentally impacting herbicides, somewhat cheaper food/consumer goods) but categorically is designed to benefit the farmer - and does so (hence the massive adoption rate)

Sharon - I'm unsure of the numbers in South America on poor/small scale farmers benefitting as compared to large corporations (I was trying to dig out a post by colleagues in South America about an environmental project Monsanto is involved in which broke down average farm sizes of customers in Brazil, but can't find it - I seem to recall they all tended to be relatively large with some small farms in the mix) - the PG Economics report "GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-
2007" should answer the other questions however - the definition of benefitting could be increased profit, reduced fuel use, reduced environmental impact, increased carbon sequestering capacity of ag land - there's a whole bunch (lets also keep in mind that a farmer who isn't benefitting from utilization of a GM crop isn't going to use it) - I do know that all the data on India categorically points to improvements for acual bona fide poor farmers, rather than the vague assumption that because a farmer is poor, and its ag sector is positively impacted, that poor farmers must be impacted (although when you look at the numbers of adopters of the technology one has to assume that a lot of them are small scale at least, because there simply isnt that much acreage to account for that vast number of large multinational producers)

On the WEMA project - not only has Monsanto offered to supply its drought trait royalty free to the project (as far as I am aware that means use forever, although I could be mistaken here, that's the general gist I get though) but they are also supplying part of the breeding expertize for the first phases of the project which are non-GM (something widely overlooked about monsanto is that 50% of its R&D is channeled into conventional breeding) and non-patented and equally if not more likely to provide massive benefit to drought stricken areas.

What we already have may, or may not, contribute to increasing food production globally, but because GM tech may shift focus (I dont agree that it necessarily will) doesn't give good reason to avoid it - the impact of Bt technology on yield in less developed nations paints a perfect example of why GM should not be ignored in this arena - 30-150% increases in yield due to the adoption of Bt cotton could well be replicated across other crops (like Brinjal, should the antiscience crowd's recent victory be overturned)

On real tangible benefits - again the article utterly ignores farmers - oddly enough European farmers are still Europeans, and european consumers - it isn't just a handful of large corporations who you're giving the shaft by ignoring GM across Europe (in fact you're most likely lining their pockets regardless as big biotech is also generally big seed and big agrichemical - manufacureres of insecticides and herbicides are probably quite content that GM is kept out of many areas) but the farmers who would benefit from the technology (giving the shaft to big oil and big agchemicals in the process)

D - No, Monsanto do not use their power to ruin farmers whose crops have been contaminated. They may use their legal power to maintain a fair marketplace when farmers whose crops have been accidentally contaminated discover this contamination, select for it, and then plant 1000 acres of essentially stolen technology - but accidental presence of transgenes has never been a cause of anyone being ruined (not without some other circumstance, like the scenario described). The 'lack of genetic diversity' arguement doesnt really have a particular impact on GM crops - GM traits are introgressed into multiple diverse germplasms - there is no single strain of roundup ready, or Bt soy/corn/canola - the diversity can quite easily be equivalent to the diversity available in the non-GM version of the crop.

Which farmers have traditionally saved seed and won't be able to any more? You're erecting a completely false arguement. Farmers who previously used hybrids weren't saving seed (you cant save hybrid seed and get the hybrid benefit in the next generation), farmers who were saving seed categorically can - they just need to find a source of seed which is allowed to be saved, and then they can go ahead and do whatever they wish with it (which excludes the majority of non-GM commercial lines) - nobody gets punished for not using GM tech after using it, unless they deliberately break the rules. You seem to be paintign farmers as idiots also - no farmer in his right mind is going to go out and buy expensive unproven seed and completely jettison a locally adapted variety - they'll test new lines to see how they do, discard those that suck, adopt those that work well - the reason commercial hybrids and big-agri business owned varieties come to predominate is because they do the best (for what the farmer wants - be that yield, ease of growth or whatever - don't conflate 'best' here with 'tastes like it came out of my garden' because that isn't what the farmer necessarily wants) not because there is some global conspiracy to hoodwink farmers into a slave lifestyle.

I'd also note that there are no GM traits on the market designed to allow indiscriminate spraying of herbicides - RR offers the ability to spray herbicides far less frequency and with far better timing than the herbicide regimes which existed prior - comparison in a vacuum is meaningless, you can't compare the RR system to not using any herbicide at all - the two systems are pretty much diametrically opposed (which is why you'll never see RR adopted by organic even if organic were to grow half a brain and accept some GM technology) - it is also evident that the RR technology allows spraying of herbicides such that less harm is done ot your air, drinking water and bodies (appendix to the PG Ecomomics report tabulates environmental impact of various herbicide regimes, where RR performs way better than non-GM systems, and surprisingly to me another GM herbicide tolerance system does even better (glufosinate tolerance))

kurt9 - The point is however that Monsanto (and others) don't need to market GM crops to the masses - it's the same thing, and predominantly goes to feeding animals anyway - nobody markets new varieties of traditionally bred tomatoes to you - were you ever consulted over whether or not you wanted your toms to be resistant to certain fungi, or to viruses - both traits which can be introduced by breeding and both traits which will have an impact on protein and DNA sequences in the end product? No. You werent. (equally no end consumer has herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, fertlizers, tractors, irrigation techniques marketted to them - all of which arguably have the capacity to have a bigger impact on the end consumer than any of the commercially available GM lines) Are these marketed to farmers as just tomatoes, or are they marketed as fungi/virus resistant - I think it's obvious - the marketing is done to the actual consumer of the product at the point in the chain where the change is apparent. Once GM crops are grown, out of the field, and into the food supply - they're the same thing as their non-GM counterparts.

Ewan: "no farmer in his right mind is going to go out and buy expensive unproven seed and completely jettison a locally adapted variety"

True, but the factor you miss is generous upfront credit to those who will try these seeds (and in the case of RR ready corn), the pesticides and fertilizer to accompany them. Similar to getting someone into a house they can't afford, much attention is paid into getting the product sold, less to the ramifications when the farmer cannot pay for the increased costs through promised increased production.

Tony - so what stops a farmer, who once the credit for seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer (and I'm somewhat dubious on this front, I can see that a deal may be made for new seeds, and that there may be a deal made in the case of RR to bundle glyphosate in with the deal) dries up (assuming it does - given the competitiveness of the seed market I'd assume that once in place such incentives would need to stay there...), going back to non-GM or even non-hybrid seeds?

Looking at Bt cotton in India year by year there was a percentage of farmers each year who tried the tech out, and then didn't stick with it (although some did return to it >1 year later) which strongly suggests that the idea farmers get stuck with these seeds is entirely fictional - if this is the case in an area of the world where farmer education and capacity to obtain seeds from multiple sources is way lower than in the US for instance I don't see that this would be an issue at all - all any farmer would have to do is see how the seed performed in the year with the incentives, figure out whether they would make a profit or loss (and if a loss whether any time saved is worth that loss) without incentives, and then buy seed based on these figures - the idea that when the incentive disappears the farmers will blindly buy the same seed as last year is a tad absurd.

You all make really interesting arguments, which if nothing else point to how complicated and fraught this issue really is. I am definitely not an expert in any of these issues, my main point is to highlight this complexity and to point out that the issues at stake here are beyond simply "scientific" arguments.

Ewan, I would point you to Sharon's blog for a much more expert viewpoint on these issues: One of her recent posts makes the important argument that industrial farming has never been a truly free market enterprise due to government farm subsidies (not to mention actually anti-competitive behavior from large agribusiness)…. There is a lot more going on here than individual farmers choosing what works best for their fields.


I'm no expert on farm subsidies, and from what I've read it definitely sounds like that system may be in need of an overhaul - It would be better however if the facts of the matter were what was being discussed - under the current system GM crops benefit the farmer (and would do so even if the system changed), under the current, or a modified system commercially available GM crops would be safe, under the current, or a modified system farmer choice would be unaffected by the presence of GM crops - although if subsidies disappeared corn and soy at least would be nowhere near as likely to be utilized in such a widespread manner, and therefore customer(farmer) choice would likely decline precipitously.

I think there is a pretty strong arguement, if only from a national security angle, that food production should not be free market (despite being a corporate shill for Monsanto my views are generally relatively liberal) driven as this will utterly bugger up self sufficiency of a nation in terms of food - particularly a first world nation which can afford to pay for crops grown elsewhere (where they're probably needed) - whether or not the current system of subsidies in the US, or in the EU, is handled correctly or not is another matter.

In terms of GM crops and their adoption - I don't think it is much more than farmers picking what works best for their fields - they may be picking corn and soy over lettuce and potato due to the way the system is set up, but they pick GM varieties over non-GM varieties because at the end of the day they offer more bang for the buck. Farmers who don't adopt the technology either don't experience more bang for the buck, or ideologically oppose GM - which are both perfectly fair stances to take on the matter.

Oh and one last point - there is absolutely no reason that GM technology cannot be decoupled from industrial Ag practices - admittedly all GM in the US is produced along industrial ag lines (because organic rejects GM on principle, which imo is a ridiculous stance) but hopefully going forward this can change - Pam Ronald over at tomorrow's table is all about organic/GMO fusion - and offer another far more expert view on how this technology, decoupled from 'traditional' industrial Ag, still has a massive amount to offer.

There is an interesting article at the Skepticâs Health Journal Club about a former Pfizer microbiologist who claims she was infected during research by a genetically modified virus and is suing Pfizer. If you are interested there is more on it here,