The debate over the safety of genetically modified foods has been raging for almost two decades, when GM foods were first introduced to the public in the early ’90s. But it’s not just the possibility of detrimental side effects that has people worried — genetically modified foods and the business behind their creation has proved troublesome in many ways. Here are ten problems and major issues with genetically modified foods.
1. Lack of research
One of the biggest problems with genetically modified foods is the lack of independent research on the subject. If GM foods were confirmed as being detrimental to consumer health, these would be further outlawed all over the world (they’re already banned in several countries). Should they be proven harmless, many companies profiting from the more recent “organic” craze that has swept entire nations largely due to the controversy over GM foods would then fail, as the illusion that organic products are more nutritious and generally “better for you” than GM products would dissipate.
However, there just doesn’t seem to be enough research done on the subject to satisfy many scientists and consumers alike. There are now a countless variety of GM foods in our supermarkets and new strains continue to pop up — larger fruits, more pesticide-resistant varieties of vegetable, numerous fruit hybrids — and it’s difficult (and costly) to conduct in-depth and time-consuming studies on every single variation. Additionally, it seems that the studies that have been done are inconclusive at best.
First published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012, Seralini’s study was recently retracted by the editor of the publication — but why? Criticized as being “substandard” by some and “groundbreaking” by others (peers and scientists alike) and allegedly withdrawn due to concerns over the study’s small sample size, Seralini has accused the withdrawal of “[reeking] of industry pressure.”
A possibly unrelated but strange coincidence is the fact that former Monsanto employee Richard E. Goodman was hired onto the editorial team of Food and Chemical Toxicology only months before the retraction. He denies any involvement with the retraction of Seralini’s study.
Previously, Monsanto had conducted its own 90-day study on the effects of GM corn on rats — significantly shorter than Seralini’s study and debatably biased because it was generated by the company that has the most profitable interest in continuing to market and sell GM corn and other GM foods. Though the rats in that study were documented as showing no adverse effects from the GM corn, there is still debate that three months simply wasn’t a long enough trial period and a lot of unhappiness that the study wasn’t conducted independently.
Because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), responsible for approving these new GM foods, does not always require testing on foods that are called “substantially equivalent” to foods that are already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (i.e., a new form of GM tomatoes could be considered substantially equivalent to a previously approved form of GM tomatoes despite key differences in the genetic makeup), there is a serious lack of testing when it comes to the vast amount of GM foods that dominate our supermarkets.
The Union of Concerned Scientists agreed that there is a lack of sufficient research regarding the health effects of GM foods. Because Monsanto contractually stipulates that those purchasing GM seeds are forbidden to conduct independent research on them, there is a chokehold on the possibility (or impossibility) of conducting studies and finding new information on GM foods.
Superbugs and superweeds, a consequence of GM foods, are becoming a bigger and bigger problem. GM foods containing pesticides within their genetic makeup or that are genetically engineered to withstand pesticides (e.g., Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready” corn) are beginning to spurn the evolution of new, stronger, poison-resistant breeds of weeds and crop pests.
RoundUp Ready crops have effectively killed off weaker weeds, allowing the stronger ones to thrive. A study by scientific journal Environmental Sciences Europe estimates that 404 million pounds of pesticides have been used on American fields between 1996 and 2011, but the effectiveness of this so-called dousing is questionable due to the rise of pesticide-resistant organisms — especially because poisons like RoundUp are possibly harmful to animals and even people breathing the air that these pesticides may drift off on.
Scientific journal Weed Science issued a report stating that 2,4-D (a herbicide) is losing effectiveness against weeds such as waterhemp that are learning to tolerate the poison just like the crops genetically engineered to do so. And rootworm, an insect that feeds on corn, is beginning to grow resistant to the Bt toxins contained in GM corn crops, as recognized in a report published by The Wall Street Journal. Another report published by Food and Water Watch accused biotech crops of “bolstering the pesticide industry” — RoundUp-resistant crops encourage the use of more pesticides, then pesticide-resistant weeds and bugs begin to thrive, which encourages the use of pesticides, and the cycle continues.
3. Stronger pesticides
GM foods have inspired stronger weeds and pesticide-resistant insects, and the solution to that problem has been to create even stronger pesticides to eradicate these crop parasites.
A study by scientific journal Environmental Sciences Europe estimates that 404 million pounds of pesticides have been used on American fields between 1996 and 2011 (since the GM crops were introduced to US farmers) — a 7 percent increase in about fifteen years. The solution has been to merely increase the usage of herbicides and try to create even stronger crops. But if plants and insects have evolved to resist poison to a certain level already, what’s to say that they cannot further evolve to resist these new, stronger pesticides, and when does the cycle end?
Charles Benbrook, conductor of the study and research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, says that farmers are using 25 percent more herbicides every year to kill the same number of weeds.
4. Bee deaths
Despite some research, it is still ultimately unknown whether bees have been dying off in droves due to neonics, a insecticide introduced to farmers in the 1990s. Mass bee deaths have claimed 30 percent of the bee population in the past six years. Is this due to neonics? The biggest problem here is that no one really knows.
In the past, mass bee deaths have been linked to parasitic varroa mites. Now, many point the finger at neonics even though they are allegedly less toxic than previously popular organophosphate pesticides.
The European Food Safety Authority said that neonics (or neonicotinoid pesticides) were responsible for killing off a remarkable amount of the bee population and banned further use of them in Europe for at least two years (a judgment made in mid-2013). EFSA has also noted that the same pesticides may even harm the brains of unborn children.
5. Monsanto versus Studies
Every study on GM foods conducted by none other than Monsanto itself has pointed to the safety of its own crops, but the few independent studies that exist often say otherwise. Besides putting a lock on their patented seeds and literally outlawing their usage for independent study, Monsanto has also been caught allegedly attempting to discredit studies that cast GM foods in a negative light. This is doubly troublesome, as the only way to completely ensure the objectivity of a study would be to have it conducted by an independent party. Currently, most studies surrounding GM foods are controversial at best.
Some believe that former Monsanto employee Richard E. Goodman’s hiring at a magazine that soon after retracted Gilles-Eric Seralini’s study, which seemed to expose the harmful effects of consuming GM corn, to be more than a coincidence. The company has been suspected of lying about “sabotage” by environmentalists and of properly disposing of all of a certain strain of GM wheat after the seed began infesting non-GM crops. The company’s seemingly unethical practices coupled with a lack of adequate studies about GM crops is a disturbing issue.
Monsanto has brought lawsuits against small business and individual farmers accused of “stealing” seeds or illegally “planting” its branded seeds without permission, most of whom have extremely meager means when compared to the behemoth company and were most likely victims of accidental and nearly unavoidable cross-pollination, rather than thievery.
As stated by Monsanto itself, the company has “only” filed suit against 145 farmers in the United States since 1997, but leaves out that it has have pursued more than 800 patent infringement cases, also against farmers. Over 700 settlements have left Monsanto receiving payouts from hardworking American farmers. Their bullying is such an issue and so widely recognized as unethical that a federal appeals court goaded the company into a binding promise not to sue farmers whose crops were accidentally contaminated with GM seeds that they did not purchase for themselves.
7. Monsanto’s chokehold
Monsanto has an absolute chokehold on the GM food industry in a number of ways:
- No independent is research allowed on patented GM seeds.
- Farmers purchasing Monsanto’s seeds must sign a contract promising they will not replant seeds, meaning that they must repurchase costly amounts of seeds each year and hurt their own financial livelihood in the process.
- Monsanto controls 80 percent of the GM corn market and 93 percent of the GM soy market.
- Monsanto dominates approximately 40 percent of the seed market in the U.S. and 20 percent abroad.
Monsanto’s monopoly on the GM seeds industry is unsettling, at best.
8. Revolving door
Monsanto, worldwide dominator of the GM foods industry, has been accused time and time again of operating a rather sinister “revolving door” deal between itself, branches of the American government, and a number of companies making concerted lobbying efforts to keep GM foods on the shelves and educational labels off GM products. There certainly exists some unfounded hype regarding this issue, generated by sourceless and sensationalist alternative news sources, but that only (sadly) works to discredit an issue that is, at its core, very real.
As noted by the Food and Water Watch report: ”Monsanto’s board members have worked for the EPA, advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and served on President Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. … The prevalence of Monsanto’s directors in these highly influential positions begs a closer look at how they’re able to push the pro-GE agenda within the government and influence public opinion.”
Monsanto employees have gone on the work for the Food and Drug Administration, Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congress, Senate, the White House, and to advise American vice presidents. What does Monsanto have to say about all of this? Just that their employees graduate from their company to these government jobs because, basically, they hire “the best of the best.”
9. Monsanto’s past evils
Monsanto’s unethical practices and cutthroat business tactics have been at play for decades. The company’s disregard for potential consequences is a major problem that, with or without GM foods, is troubling in itself. Forget the discrediting of studies, bullying of American farmers, and even lawmaking efforts to put the company and its decisions above the law.
Most people know that Monsanto is largely responsible for the deaths and deformations of thousands in Vietnam after manufacturing and becoming one of the largest U.S. suppliers of the defoliating poison Agent Orange for use during the Vietnam War. The horrible effects of Agent Orange can be seen today in the many children still being born with health defects due to the chemical.
Monsanto also used PCBs, a toxin that is now linked to multiple health issues and was eventually banned because of its harmful effects on humans. Monsanto has been fined for contaminating entire communities with this toxin.
10. Force feeding
Although many are absolutely convinced that GM foods are harmless, many countries have outlawed them entirely. Some are so opposed to it that they will go as far as to deny GM food donations even when many of their citizens are literally starving to death. It’s unethical and unrealistic to try and force these nations into accepting food which they believe would be harmful both to the residents and the agriculture of their countries, so why go the rather reprehensible route of lambasting them for these choices instead of attempting to devise a practical solution that does not involve forcing upon them that which they do not trust? Profits may not always be high when it comes to helping our fellow man, but it is undoubtedly more humanitarian.