The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) prohibits all “genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and their derivatives”. According to the Organic Exchange, none of the organic growing standards established by any government allows for GMO crops. In April, 2009, Germany announced a plan to ban all GMO crops in the country, citing concerns of the environmental impact, making Germany the latest in a string of EU countries to outlaw GMO crops. And during a public comment period in 2000, the Organic Trade Association generated 275,000 letters against GMOs being included in the National Organic Program (NOP).
Why the fuss? After all, GMO crops were developed to help us meet the demands our burgeoning population makes on our limited resources. How can that be bad?
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are plants, animals and microorganisms which have been altered genetically. Here’s how the National Orgtanic Standards Board puts it: “Genetically engineered is defined as: made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes. Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro-and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes.”(1)
The benefits of genetic engineering in the agriculture sector is great, according to its proponents. GMO crops have been hailed as a way to increase yields by protecting against pests, drought and disease. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has put forward the arguments for GMOs in agriculture, (such as increased yields and better resistance to pests and other stresses – which reduces dependence on chemicals needed for crop protection. They also list the arguments against GMO crops. There is great debate about the pros and cons of this relatively new product.
But before looking at some of the reasons so many are opposed to genetic engineering, let’s look at the issues pertaining to fiber crops only – and to cotton specifically:
Shortly after GMO cotton was introduced, GMO cotton producers, citing advances based on new GMO cotton and supported by a series of Cotton Incorporated conferences on sustainable cotton, portrayed conventional cotton as the new “sustainable” choice and organic cotton as an old and inadequate solution that is “as out-dated as last year’s fashions.” (Editor’s note: They also redefined the term “sustainable” to include “growing profitability.”)
GMO cotton was quickly adopted by cotton farmers, and millions of hectares of GMO modified cotton has been planted worldwide since its introduction in 1996.
Why did so many farmers pay for GMO seed – which cost more – and plant this new crop? Bottom line: they were told that there was more money to be made from GMO cotton. GMO cotton was supposed to have higher yields at the same time it was helping to reduce costs. Cost savings in chemicals and manual labor was estimated at between 15 – 30%. How did it reduce dependence on chemicals:
- GMO cotton was engineered to reduce insect pests so farmers could reduce their chemical dependence on pesticides, and buy less of them. The gene coding for Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the cotton. Bt is a protein that acts as a natural toxin to the larvae of certain moths, butterflies, beetles and flies (including the dred bollworm) and is harmless to other forms of life. When the larvae feed on the cotton they are killed by the Bt protein – thereby eliminating the need for a broad spectrum insecticide.
- GMO cotton was designed to be resistant to herbicides so that weed killers could be liberally sprayed on crops without worrying about killing the cotton plants. It was genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate (marketed as Roundup in the USA and manufactured by Monsanto – remember this fact) which is a broad-spectrum herbicide, and toxic to humans at concentrations far below the recommended agricultural use levels. (2) Studies link glyphosate to spontaneous abortions, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.
Not only could they make more money, but GMO cotton crops were also promoted as helping tackle world hunger and poverty, and helping small farmers. If you were a cotton farmer, how could you resist? They didn’t: Today 86% of all United States cotton, 68% of all Chinese cotton, and 76% of all Indian cotton (three of the major cotton growing countries) is now GMO cotton. (3)
Initial results seemed that all they promised was true – early studies in 2002/2003 reported that pesticide and herbicide use was down and yields were up (by as much as 80%) for GMO cotton (4). But these results were short lived. Recent reports are full of data on GMO crops requiring ever more doses of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests which are mutating faster than even their worse case scenarios had envisioned, and becoming resistant to the genetic modifications found in GMO cotton. A study published by the Institute for Science in Society reports that Bt cotton fields rarely have studies done on what the crops do to the soil itself; they found that soil growing Bt cotton had significantly fewer beneficial soil enzymes in the soil (which makes nutrients available to plants) and total biomass was reduced 8.9%. This, they conclude, could even lead to dead soils, unable to produce food.
What about the promise of reduced chemical dependence on pesticides and herbicides?
It was always thought that pests would eventually evolve and develop a resistance to Bt. It wasn’t a question of whether resistance would happen, but how quickly it would evolve. The Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in India published the (then currently held) opinion that, “with the current rate of increase in the area under Bt cotton, it is likely to take about 11 – 12 years for the pest to develop resistance to Bt cotton. However, with implementation of proper strageties as suggested by CICR, it is possible to delay resistance by at least 30 – 40 years if not more.” Worse case scenario was thought to be three years.
Yet in 2008 the University of Arizona published some of the first documented cases of bollworm resistance to Bt. Professor Bruce Tabashnik, a renowed insect researcher and the primary researcher of this study, said “our results contradict the worse-case scenarios of some experts under which resistance to Bt plants was expected in three years. It is no surprise that, after a while, pests can develop biological strategies against insecticidal agents and become thereby insensitive: as a rule, even advantages that have been established in a plant by conventioinal breeding methods only have a limited time span of effectiveness.”
According to a 2008 study by Friends of the Earth, independent studies have demonstrated not only that pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999. Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading U.S. agricultural sicentist, conducted an “exhaustive analysis of USDA data on pesticide use in agriculture from 1996 to 2004. His conclusion is that over this 9 year period, adoption of GM soy, corn and cotton crops has led to use of 122 million more pounds of pesticides than would have been used had GM crops not been introduced.”(4)
With regard to herbicides, GM cotton crops were engineered to have a resistance to glyphosate – the primary component in Monsanto’s patented week killer called Roundup. Roundup is Montsanto’s biggest product, accounting for about 40% of their estimated 2002 revenue of $4.6 billion. Monsanto sold its GMO seeds under the brand name, “Roundup Ready” because farmers could spray the herbicide directly onto their fields and not have to worry about killing their crop. The popularity of Roundup Ready crops skyrocketed, and the use of Roundup also skyrocketed. In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, according to the Center for Food Safety. That led to a host of “superweeds” developing a resistance to Roundup. Farmers were told that in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds they’d have to apply other chemicals, often in combination with higher rates of glyphosate. In 2005, Monsanto recommended farmers use several additional herbicides with Roundup, including Prowl (pendimethalin), metolachlor, diuron and others. In fact, recent data shows resistance to herbicides in general, and herbicides used in GMO crops in particular, has escalated at exponential rates, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.
According to the Friends of the Earth study, cited above: ” When forced to admit that herbicide-tolerant crops increase overall pesticide use, biotech industry apologists quickly fall back on a second claim: the increasing use of glyphosate has reduced use of more toxic herbicides, and so is a benefit to the environment. While this was true in the first few years of Roundup Ready crops, a look at recent trends in herbicide use undermines this claim.” For instance, 2,4-D is the second most heavily used herbicide on soybeans; it is a herbicide that formed part of the defoliant Agent Orange, and has been associated with health risks such as increased risk of both cancer and birth defects – and use of 2,4-D more than doubled from 2002 to 2006. Likewise, use of atrazine (which is linked to endocrine disruption, neuropathy, breast and prostate cancer and low sperm counts) rose by nearly 7 million lbs (a 12% increase).
And according to the Friends of the Earth study, “It is important to understand two key facts about weed resistance. First, resistance is defined as a weed’s ability to survive more than the normal dose of a given herbicide rather than absolute immunity. Higher doses of the herbicide will often still kill the resistant weed, at least in the short term. The second fact follows from the first. Weed resistance is not only the result of using an herbicide excessively, it often leads to still
greater use of that herbicide.”
And the promised yield increases? Often, the answer depends on weather and growing conditions rather than types of seed planted. Average cotton yields in the United States were stagnant from 1996 (when GM cotton was introduced) to 2002 (when it made up 76% of cotton acerage); there was a record yield in 2004 and 2005 but these increases were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions. (5) In fact the question is really whether the yield for U.S. cotton is lower than it would have been had it not been Roundup Ready seed! (6) Other parts of the world had similar or worse results.
Another facet of this discussion should include the fact that GMO seeds are expensive: in India, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed was selling for twice the price of non-GMO seeds. GMO seeds cannot be saved and used for next season’s crop. The high price for the seed led to farmers in India often having to take out loans from moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates. In a poignant article in the New York Times, Somini Sengupta published a discussion about the rash of suicides by Indian farmers – 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003 – and lays the blame on a combination of rural despair and American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds.
According to the Friends of the Earth, GM crops do not fulfill their promise.
- GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.
- GM crops increase pesticide use and foster the spread of resistant “superweeds”.
- GM crops do not yield more and often yield less than other crops. (7)
- GM crops benefit the biotech industry and some large growers, but not small farmers.
But why is the Organic Trade Association and GOTS so adamantly opposed to GMO crops? Why are European countries like Germany banning the sale and planting of GMO crop? And why did the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) release a position paper calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods? That’s next week’s post.
(1) Organic Materials Review Institute, http://www.omri.org/OMRI_GMO_policy.html
(2) Benachour N and Séralini G-E.. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells Chem. Res. Toxicol. , 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105
(4) Qaim, Matin and Zilberman, David, “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Croops in Dveloping Countries”, Science, 2.7.03
(4) “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, Friends of the Earth, issue 112 Agriculture and Food; January 2008, page 7.
(5) Meyer, L., S., MacDonald & L. Foreman, March 2007. Cotton Backgrounder. USDA Economic Research Service Outlook Report.
(6) Friends of the Earth, op cit.
(7) “Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering”, Agence France Presse, April 14, 2009