Here you can find my updated standpoint toward genetically engineered crops.
In the European Union, every discussion about the admission of new GMO (genetically modified organisms) equals a battle between the EU’s or member states’ bureaucracies and various environmental groups and organizations. The most invoked arguments of the opponents of GMO (in agriculture – I will limit myself to this particular – highly controversial – area) consider the environmental and health aspects of genetically modified organisms, especially when they come into the food chain. No-one really knows what the long-term impact of these artificial creatures on human beings and the natural environment may be.
This is an important argument. But there also are strong socio-economic arguments against GMO. In what follows I will shortly present some of these aspects and emphasize their importance.
Socio-economic aspects of genetically-modified organisms in agriculture are highly versatile, but one can group them into three main categories: dependency of farmers (especially in developing countries) on producers of GMO seeds; contamination of fields without GMO; and ineffectiveness of GMO (of course, there are intersections between these three categories).
Let us begin with the dependency aspect. Peasants who decide to switch to GMO are exposing themselves to a high risk – they become highly dependent on the supplier(s) of their genetically modified seeds. Since the latter are patented, the producer is able to set conditions of usage that are beneficial to him.
For instance, more and more GMO seeds are so called Terminator ones, which means that they produce seeds only in the first generation (in the laboratories and fields of the producer) – the second generation, planted by the farmers, is sterile. Thus the farmers are forced to buy their seeds every season.* Even if there is no Terminator built-in, they often are contractually obligated to buy the seeds, instead of using those their plants deliver themselves.
Since GMO seeds are very expensive, this dependency often results in indebtedness, especially in developing countries. India provides a famous and sad example – hundreds of highly indebted Indian peasants have committed suicides over the last decade or so.
The second aspect I would like to discuss is contamination. This is especially problematic for farmers of certified organic products who happen to have neighbours growing GMO. For them to maintain their certification it is essential to keep GMO away from their fields. But this is virtually impossible when neighbours are growing genetically modified plants. Seeds can cover long distances flying in the wind – and the GM ones don’t look different from the “natural” ones. So, the organic farmers may lose their certifications without having done anything wrong. Furthermore, there have been a lot of cases around the world where producers of GMO filed charges against farmers whose fields where contaminated with their seeds – because of “counterfaiting”. It is not easy to prove that the patented seeds flew “by themselves” over the fields – but this is the only way these farmers can rescue themselves.
This shows that it is generally virtually impossible to keep GMO away from any area if there are enough farmers wanting to grow genetically modified plants in the neighbourhood. It is a threat not only for organic farmers, but also for the whole society: all the variations of plant arts created through interbreeding over hundreds of years are being lost. And the more monocultural plantations are, the more vulnerable they become.
The last problem to be discussed here is the ineffectiveness of GMO. Even though genetically modified plants mostly provide higher yields in the laboratory, outside in the field they seldom do. Furthermore, producers mostly claim that GMO means less pesticides and less fertilizers. But this has proven to be untrue as well. The reasons are manifold. First: GMO are mostly grown in monocultures which makes them especially vulnerable to diseases and pests. Second: pests are able to adapt. Far faster than one might think. Often they have no problems with the built-in protection mechanisms of GMO after just a few years (consider, e.g., that Monsanto is now developing the 3rd generation of its Bt cotton, since the 1st and 2nd generation don’t provide protection from moth larvae any more). Third: there are cases where these protection mechanisms have indeed done their job – but by eliminating one particular pest they indirectly have enabled others to attack the plants more intensively than they normally do.
Thus, you can see that the socio-economic drawbacks of GMO in agriculture are profound and reason enough to protest against their admissions – and, indeed, not to admit their cultivation. They impose danger over farmers and the society as a whole – especially in the developing world. At the same time, their environmental and health impacts are uncertain, and may be negative as well.
GMO should remain in laboratories. There it can be really beneficial (the production of many modern pharmaceutical products are unthinkable without genetically modified fungi and bacteria). But in agriculture we rather should draw from more traditional techniques and stop “playing God”.
UPDATE: * – Terminator seeds are not in use yet. Suppliers of GMO seeds agreed to not introduce them.
[see here for a more comprehensive text on the subject]
Related post: Climate Change Denialism and GM Food Opposition