Biotech crops continue to spread across the world but that does not necessarily mean GMOs and bioengineered food are good for people and the environment.
When I began my quest, at the beginning of July, to learn more about GMOs and bioengineered food, I did not have a preconceived destination. I did know that I wanted to attempt to filter out the noise surrounding this highly controversial subject to find some useful information for you and me so we could each form our own opinion and decide if we wanted to take further action or not.
It was while I was writing GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It? that I decided to write a 4-part series hoping to find a balance between too little and too much material. The second and third posts, GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones and GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Laws and Regulations, illustrated how we got to where we are today and gave an overview of how the EPA, FDA, and USDA handle their regulatory authority and responsibilities in the United States.
Originally, I thought this fourth and final post in the series would cover general environmental issues, but when I had it mostly written, I realized that I wanted to focus on one specific issue—the proliferation of pesticide use on a massive scale, not just in the U.S. but across the entire world, driven by increasing adoption of genetically engineered (GE) crops and spurred on by agrochemical companies.
Pesticides are Everywhere and in Everyone
One of the creepiest commercials I can ever remember seeing is the one that portrays an attractive 30-something family man as a hero because he wipes out a single dandelion growing in a crack in his driveway using the handily attached spray wand on his gallon-size jug of Roundup.
Pests and weeds (bugs and plants people do not like) have been around forever, are ubiquitous, and contribute to healthy ecosystems. Of course, there needs to be some kind of balance between us and them. Yet, humans seem to have developed a zero-tolerance for these constituents of nature and are on a mission to try to eradicate them by spraying pesticides everywhere.
So what is a pesticide?
The word pesticide is derived from the Latin pestis (deadly contagious disease; a curse, bane) and cide (killer or act of killing). It is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of substances that humans use to kill living plants, animals, and other organisms that we do not want living in our buildings, yards, playgrounds, parks, or agricultural fields and orchards. Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill plants, rodenticides kill rodents, fungicides kill fungi, and so on.
Non-GE crops may be sprayed with pesticides, too, but GE crops with built-in pesticide tolerance (especially to herbicides) actually promote pesticide use because they can withstand heavy and repeated spraying with pesticides.
65% of the GE crops approved in 2017 were genetically engineered with herbicide tolerance contributing to the global pesticide market that is valued at about $65 billion per year and growing.1, 2
Pesticides and People
The widespread acceptance of pesticides results in billions of pounds of pesticides being sprayed on agricultural fields and orchards all over the world, as well as in our homes and yards.3 Just in the U.S., there are over 16,000 registered pesticides and not that long ago, the EPA approved huge increases in what is called “tolerable” pesticide residues on crops and food.4, 5
In the real world, which is where everyone lives, we are exposed to pesticides in our air, water, and food every day.
In 2015, the World Health Organization designated glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup) as a probable human carcinogen (meaning it probably causes cancer in people).6 Monsanto, the company that created Roundup during the 1970s, is facing more than 5,000 lawsuits in the U.S. alone.7
This is just one example.
Pesticides and the Environment
Pesticide makers want you to believe the pesticides only kill the targeted pest or weed but that is a gross oversimplification.
You have likely read about how neonicotinoid pesticides are endangering the bees and butterflies that pollinate our food crops and orchard trees as they go about their business. If we kill off nature’s pollinators, a lot of the food you currently buy at the grocery market will disappear, but even more worrying is that no one really knows what kind of a chain reaction could occur in the wild.
Another less publicized issue is dead zones in waterways and estuaries where no aquatic life can survive in the water or on the adjacent land. This, in turn, leads to erosion and flooding. Dead zones are created by fertilizers and pesticides running off fields and orchards into streams, rivers, and lakes. Pesticides kill organisms in the soil and you cannot grow plants or trees in the dead soil, therefore, fertilizers are applied to rejuvenate the soil and then pesticides are sprayed to kill bugs and weeds, which kills the soil.
Superbugs and superweeds are already evolving that can withstand the pesticides we try to kill them with, which causes a twofold problem. First, fields are sprayed more often and with a greater array of more toxic pesticides. Second, agrochemical companies race to invent poisons that are even more powerful. Then the pests and weeds evolve and the cycle continues.
Palmer amaranth (pigweed) is one weed that has evolved to resist herbicides and is now considered a superweed.
This led to the development of GE crops that can tolerate a more powerful herbicide called dicamba. This herbicide endangers people and as it drifts from fields where it is being sprayed dicamba settles on other crops and plants and kills them, too. This is just one superweed problem that has spurred state and federal investigations and lawsuits.8, 9
What Can You Do?
After wading through and digesting five weeks of research and discussing it with my family, I came to the conclusion that genetic engineering technology could probably be used to benefit society and even the environment, but I believe that our current approach to feeding the world is endangering people and the environment, while lining the pockets of a handful of multi-national corporations focused on quarterly profits.
We need to change.
It is up to each one of us to care enough about ourselves, our children, and the people of the future to take action to change the world. Governments and corporations only change when people say, “we are not going to take it anymore,” and demand change through their actions.
Farmers are on the front lines. Just like everyone else, they are trying to make a living, and they may feel they have no choice but to accept GE crops and the harmful agrochemicals they require. Farmers should not have to go to work wearing hazmat suits.
Let’s help farmers make a living providing healthful food to eat while protecting themselves, their families, us, and the environment. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Even if you can only do something occasionally, it all adds up.
- Buy certified organic food. It is GMO-free and good for the soil.
- Shop at the farmers market where you can actually talk to the people growing your food.
- Make more meals with whole ingredients (packaged foods contain many GMO corn and soy products).
- Shop at grocery stores that sell local and regionally grown food. Co-ops are a great source.
- Donate your time and/or money to an organization, like Agrarian Trust, that helps young farmers who want to practice sustainable agriculture get access to farmland.
- Eat vegetarian meals more often (a lot of GMO corn and soy crops are used to feed livestock animals).
- Pass up fast food and make your own lunch sometimes (fast food contains a lot of GMO corn and soy).
- Sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share and get fresh seasonal food every week during the growing season.
- Tell your elected officials that you want to eat pesticide-free food.
- Let food companies know why you stopped buying their products and what they need to do to win you back as a customer.
“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if by knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
Reader Note: At the end of this post, in the resource sections, I listed the books, films, and websites I used throughout this series as well as articles specific to this post. You can find other resources in the previous posts.
Featured Image at Top: Farmer Spraying Pesticide on His Crops Using a Drone – Photo Credit iStock/baranozdemir
- Breast Cancer Awareness Month – Our Environment
- Environmental Impact of Eating Meat
- GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It?
- GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones
- GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Laws and Regulations
- Living Downstream – Book Review
- Organic Food – Healthy Soil is Good for the Environment
- Organic Food – History
- Organic Food – USDA National Organic Program
- Organic Food – USDA Rules and Regulations
- Organic Food – What Does the USDA Organic Label Mean?
- Silent Spring – Book Review
- Vat Meat, Cultured Meat, In Vitro Meat – Would You Eat It?
- Brief 53: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 06/26/18 (p. 107)
- Whitewash – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 (p. 236)
- Pesticides Use and Exposure Extensive Worldwide – by Michael C.R. Alavanja, Ph.D., National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2009
- Whitewash – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 (p. 229)
- Food Fight – by McKay Jenkins, published by Avery, 2017 (p. 280)
- IARC Monograph on Glyphosate – World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer
- Monsanto Ordered to Pay $289 Million in Roundup Cancer Trial – by Tina Bellon (Reuters), The New York Times, 08/10/18
- This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms. Instead, it’s devastating them – by Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, 08/29/17
- Challenging EPA, Monsanto Over the Crop-Damaging Pesticide “Xtendimax” – press release, Earthjustice, 2018
Resources – Books
- Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet – by McKay Jenkins, published by Avery, 2017 – (This book is easy to read and understand and provides a good overview of GMOs and genetic engineering.)
- Modified: GMOs and the Threat to Our Food, Our Land, Our Future – by Caitlin Shetterly, published by G. P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2016 – (In this book, the author tells her story of being allergic to GMO corn as she travels across the country interviewing both pro-GMO and anti-GMO people.)
- Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food – by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak, published by Oxford University Press, 2008 – (This is an interesting book written by a couple, Pamela is a pro-GMO university plant geneticist and Raoul is an organic farming university professor.)
- Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 – (The focus of this book is the herbicide glyphosate.)
Resources – Films
- Consumed (This is a fictional anti-GMO movie that may help some viewers get a grip on the situation.)
- Food Evolution (This pro-GMO documentary contains some useful information.)
- GMO OMG (This film covers the issues associated with GMOs like corporate ownership of the food system)
- Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives (This anti-GMO documentary contains some useful information.)
Resources – Websites and Articles
- Center for Food Safety (This is an anti-GMO social media site.)
- Glyphosate Herbicide Found in Many Midwestern Streams, Antibiotics Not Common – U.S. Geological Survey
- GMOAnswers.com (This is a pro-GMO website funded by the biotech industry.)
- Non-GMO Project (This is an organization the certifies food as not containing more than 0.9% GMO ingredients)
- Pesticide – Wikipedia
- The Economic of Glyphosate Resistance Management in Corn and Soybean Production – U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, April 2015
- The UK’s Royal Society: a Case Study in How the Health Risks of GMOs Have Been Systematically Misrepresented – by Steven Druker, Independent Science News, 08/14/17