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An Alternative to Genetic Engineering

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Because U.S. national organic standards and industry practices do not allow the use of genetic engineering in the production and processing of organic products, organic agriculture gives consumers who wish to avoid genetically modified foods a choice in the marketplace.

Although genetic engineering (GE) proponents claim GE crops will cut pesticide use, this is not necessarily true. On the other hand, organic agriculture does reduce such exposure because it avoids the use of toxic and persistent pesticides.

  • GE crops have resulted in a large increase in pesticide use and have filed to increase yield or tackle world hunger and poverty, according to a 2008 report released by Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety. According to the report, four of every five acres of GE crops worldwide are Roundup Ready (RR) varieties, designed for use with glyphosate, a weed-killing pesticide. U.S. government data reveal a 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate on soybeans, corn and cotton in the United States from 1994 to 2005, driven by the adoption of RR versions of these crops.
    Source: “Who Benefits from GM Crops? The Rise in Pesticide Use,” Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety (www.foei.org/en/publications/pdfs/gmcrops2008Q-A.pdf), February 2008.
  • Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans “clearly require more herbicides than conventional soybeans, despite claims to the contrary,” Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center wrote, citing data also showing that “RR soybean cultivars produce 5 percent to 10 percent fewer bushels per acre in contrast to otherwise identical varieties grown under comparable field conditions.”
    Source: “Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success: Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant Defenses and Yields,” by Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper, Number 4, 2001, available at www.biotech-info.net/troubledtimes.html.
  • Since the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, glyphosate use has soared. It was applied on 20% of U.S. farm acreage in 1995; four years later, on 62%. “Some farmers now plant Roundup Ready crops year-round, rotating corn and soybeans; they may apply glyphosate four to six times a year on a single field.”
    Source: “Biotech Soybeans Plant Seed of Risky Revolution,” by Stephanie Simon, latimes.com, July 1, 2001.
  • Genetically engineered (GE) crops do not necessarily reduce pesticide use, according to a World Wildlife Fund Canada report. The report notes that U.S. data show that farmers planting GE crops have often actually increased their use of herbicides and insecticides.
    Source: “Do Genetically Engineered Crops Reduce Pesticide Use? The Evidence Says Not Likely,” World Wildlife Foundation Canada, Toronto, Canada, March 2000.
  • The use of genetically altered Bt corn should be handled with restraint and thoughtfulness, cautioned researchers John Obrycki of Iowa State University and colleagues (including John Losey at Cornell University) in an article, “Transgenic Insecticidal Corn: Beyond Insecticidal Toxicity to Ecological Complexity.” “Unlike the use of transgenic potatoes and cotton, the use of transgenic corn will not significantly reduce insecticide use in most of the corn-growing areas of the Midwest,” they concluded, adding that data suggest “that the Bt plantings (of corn) are not being used as a replacement for insecticides but in addition to them.”
    Source: “Transgenic Insecticidal Corn: Beyond Insecticidal Toxicity to Ecological Complexity,” BioScience, May 2001.
  • A report, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” prepared by Charles M. Benbrook shows the planting of GE crops in the United States since 1996 increased pesticide use by about 50 million pounds. In the first three years of commercial sales, GE crops reduced pesticide use by about 25.4 million pounds. However, during 2001-2003, over 73 million more pounds of pesticides were used on GE. 
    Source: “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” November 2003.

Meanwhile, a United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization conference in Rome, Italy, in May 2007, reported that a large-scale shift to organic agriculture could help fight world hunger and bring environmental improvements.

  • Speaking at the conference, researchers from Denmark reported there would be no serious negative effects on food security for sub-Saharan Africa if 50 percent of agricultural land in food exporting regions of Europe and North America were converted to organic agriculture by the year 2020. A similar conversion in sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, would reduce the region’s need to import food, according to Niels Halberg of the Danish Research Center for Organic Food and Farming. He pointed out that African farmers reverting to traditional agricultural methods would not spend money on synthetic chemicals and would be apt to grow more diverse crops that are more sustainable. If the crops were certified organic, they could then export any surpluses.
    Source: “Organic Agriculture and Food Security,” a United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization conference, Rome, Italy, May 2007.

On the other hand, scientists dispute whether GE crops will solve hunger problems in the world.

  • “The vast majority of GE crops are used to feed animals in rich countries rather than people in poorer nations. For instance, South America’s expanding GE soybean plantations produce soy meal for Europe’s livestock industry, and have reduced food security by displacing poor farmers and reducing land area planted to food crops like corn and beans for local consumption.”
    Source: “Who Benefits from GM Crops? The Rise in Pesticide Use,” Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety (www.foei.org/en/publications/pdfs/gmcrops2008Q-A.pdf), February 2008.
  • A study released by Third World Network-Africa (http://www.twnafrica.org/) concludes that genetic engineering does not address the real causes of poverty and hunger in Africa nor will it solve these problems.
    Source: Aaron deGrassi (Institite of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK), “Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence,” released by Third World Network-Africa 2003 (http://allafrica.com/sustainable/resources/00010161.html)
  • A crop science expert at the Institute for Food and Development Policy has rebutted the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Report 2001 claims that genetically modified crops may provide an answer to cutting malnutrition in poor nations. Peter Rosset warned that GE crops are likely to do more harm than good in developing nations. The GE approach, for instance, is to produce single, genetically uniform varieties, which ignore the needs of farmers in complex habitats. “Hands-on participatory plant breeding, where farmers themselves take the lead, has been shown to be far more effective in producing the multiple crop varieties needed by poor farmers in marginal environments. Furthermore, the risks associated with GE crops are likely to impact poor farmers more than rich farmers.” These risks include crop failures and pollen transfer to weed populations that could result in virus and insecticide resistance, superweeds, and new pathogen strains. Rosset added, “It is not a lack of technology which holds such farmers back, but rather pervasive injustices and inequities in access to resources, including land, credit, market access, and other anti-poor biases.”
    Source: “Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger, and Lagging Productivity?” by Peter Rosset, available at http://www.foodfirst.org/.
  • There is already more than enough food to feed everyone; poverty and inadequate allocation of resources are the major hurdles. According to a U.N. Food an Agriculture Organization report, the world can produce enough food to meet global demand in the year 2030 without the use of GM crops.
    Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Economic and Social Department, Agriculture towards 2015/30, Technical Interim Report, April 2000, Rome, Italy.
  • “The notion of ‘feeding the world’ following the Northern industrialized model of agriculture is a simplistic, misleading cliché. What matters is access to food or to the means to produce or buy it. Achieving food security means eradicating poverty, which also hinges on the economic and political environment. Claims that the world’s hungry can be fed if the agribusiness giants of the North are allowed to provide genetically engineered crops are both hypocritical and cynical. Hypocritical because these claims are still far from practical implementation. Cynical because poor farmers are not in a position to buy expensive seeds and developing countries do not have the institutional means to deal with the considerable risks involved,” according to a study commissioned jointly by Greenpeace and Bread for the World. Instead, the study found more than 200 examples of sustainable, productive agriculture resulting in genuine improvements in people’s livelihoods.
    Source: Recipes Against Hunger—success stories for the future of agriculture, Greenpeace International, September 2001.
  • Farmers in the Philippines have voiced fears that GE rice seeds introduced by the government will displace indigenous rice seeds traditionally used by farmers. Farmers in the Cordillera region reported that one GE variety required more chemical fertilizers and pesticides than native varieties, and another GE variety resulted in decreased yield.
    Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 16, 2001, based on a study conducted by the Cordillera Women’s Education and Resource Center.

There are also concerns that GE crops adversely affect the environment.

  • An article published online Oct. 9, 2007, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes that by-products such as pollen and detritus containing proteins from GE Bt corn can enter streams near cornfields and affect the ecosystem. Emma J. Rosi-Marshall of Loyola University was lead scientist for the search.
    Source: “Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems,”
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct. 9, 2007, online.
  • The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has warned that the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) disrupts the natural processes of evolution. In the report, the U.S. think tank argues that there is a serious gap in the understanding of how the entire genetic structure of a living being functions within an ecosystem.
    Source: Ecology and Genetics: An Essay on the Nature of Life and the Problem of Genetic Engineering, by Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Apex Press, 2001.
  • In a report released August 2000, Plant Research International BV at Wageningen University and Research Centre found “Controversies and knowledge gaps appear to be present at all levels of biological organization ranging from the levels of DNA and cellular metabolism to organism and ecosystem levels.” The report was commissioned by Greenpeace International.
    Source: “Crops of Uncertain Nature? Controversies and Knowledge Gaps Concerning Genetically Modified Crops, An Inventory,” by A.J.C. de Visser, E.H. Nijhuis, J.D. van Elsas and T.A. Dueck, Plant Research International BV, Wageningen, August 2000, Report 12.
  • The varieties and uses of genetically modified crops have grown much more rapidly than the ability to understand or appropriately regulate them, according to a report from the Wallace Center at Winrock International. The report recommends greater public research funding, revised research policies, and a better regulatory system to ensure that the development and use of genetically engineered crops deliver public environmental benefits and avoid ecological hazards. For instance, it urged greater attention to traits that are of potential long-term environmental benefits, such as crops with greater tolerance of pest damage rather than tolerance to pesticides, and crops with lower water and irrigation needs.
    Source: “Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment,” Wallace Center at Winrock International, Arlington, VA, February 2001 (available at www.winrock.org/transgenic.pdf)

Already, researchers have noted ecological changes due to GE crops:

  • A 2008 report shows the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) corn has caused a drastic reduction in organic corn cultivation and is making their coexistence practically impossible in Spain. Corn production is integrated in cereal cooperatives, which cover the production chain from the sale of seeds and inputs to commercialization, including technical advice. This system makes it difficult and expensive to segregate GM from organic and conventional production.
    Source: Rosa Binimelis of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Institute of   Environmental Science and Technology, in the April 2008 Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.
  • Reports in 2008 showed that glyphosate-resistant johnsongrass has been found in both Arkansas and Mississippi. As such, it is the first glyphosate-resistant warm-season grass found in the United States, and is believed to have developed with the increased use of Roundup Ready crops in these areas. The University of Arkansas and Monsanto confirmed the resistant johnsongrass in southeast Arkansas, while Monsanto and specialists at Mississippi State University confirmed a cash near Clarksdale, Mississsippi.
    Source: “Glyphosate Resistant Johnsongrass Confirmed in Two Locations,” March 12, 2008, press release from Monsanto.
  • The French government in January 2008 banned the growing of GE corn variety MON810 due to concerns about safety, particularly to earthworms and microorganisms in the soil. Subsequently, the government suspended any use of GE corn crops in France.
    Source: Jan. 25, 2008, BioFach Newsletter.
  • Bt-resistant bollworms have been found in more than a dozen cotton fields in Mississippi and Arkansas seven years after the commercial introduction of Bt-cotton, according to research published by B. Tabashnik and colleagues.
    Source: “Insect resistance to Bt crops: Evidence versus Theory,” in the February 2008 issue of Nature Biotechnology.
  • Research conducted at Lund University in Sweden found that genetically modified crops can remain in the soil for ten years, in spite of efforts to eradicate them.  Following up on trials conducted in 1995, in which an oilseed rape crop was genetically altered, the research found that “volunteer plants,” or plants spawned from the altered crops, persisted ten years after the original trials took place.
    Source: Tina D’Hertefeldt, Rikke B. Jørgensen and Lars B. Pettersson, “Long Term Persistence of GM oilseed rape in the seed bank,” in Biology Letters, Vol. 4, No. 3, June 23, 2008.
  • Research published by the Royal Society in the United Kingdom in 2005 showed that GE crops can contaminate the land for up to 15 years after they have been harvested. As reported in the Oct. 9 issue of The Independent, government research financed by GE companies and Margaret Beckett’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs examined five sites across England and Scotland where modified oilseed rape had been cultivated. They found significant amounts of GE plants growing even after the sites returned to cultivation of non-GE crops.
    Source: “GM crop ‘ruins fields for 15 years’,” in The Independent, Oct. 9, 2005.
  • A study at the Max Planck Institute for Soil Microbiology in Germany has shown that planting genetically modified potatoes changed the bacterial communities in soil. Although admitting the findings do not indicate whether the observed alterations will be detrimental to future plantings on the site, researchers urged that GM crops should be removed from field planting until the changes are evaluated. It is already known that subtle changes in microbial ecology can have devastating long-term effects on soil fertility, the availability of nutrients, and even on the promotion of pathogens such as nematodes, fungi, and harmful bacteria.
    Source: “Use of the T-RFLP technique to assess spatial and temporal changes in the bacterial community structure within an agricultural soil planted with transgenic and non-transgenic potato plants,” by Thomas Lukow, Peter F. Dunfield, and Werner Liesack, FEMS Microbiology Ecology, Vol. 32 (3), pages 241-247 (2000).
  • A study by researchers at New York University and the Instituto Veenezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas in Venezuela has shown that plantings of Bt corn can result in the release of the Bt toxin into soil through the plant roots. They also found that the toxin persists in the soil for at least 234 days after the crop is harvested.
    Source: “Transgenic plants, Insecticidal toxin in root exudates from Bt corn, Nature 402, page 480 (Dec. 2, 1999), brief communications, by Deepak Saxena, Saul Flores, and G. Stotzky.
  • A scientific study by a University of Bordeaux professor has found that sediment in the Richelieu River, a tributary of the St. Lawrence River in Canada surrounded by fields of genetically engineered Bt corn, contains concentrations of Bt that are five times higher than in nearby agricultural watersheds.
    Source: Le Devoir, Dec. 18, 2001, Page 1, "Pollution par les OGM dans le fleuve Saint-Laurent: La toxine du maïs transgénique Bt a contaminé les sédiments fluviaux," by Pauline Gravel.

Other potential risks and costs associated with GE crops include:

  • Researchers at the Committee for Independent Research and Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) based at the University of Caen, France, found that rats fed Monsanto’s GE corn MON863 for three months showed signs of liver and kidney toxicity. The GE corn in question is genetically modified to express the Bt-toxin (Cry3Bb1), which enables the plant to be insect repellent to the corn rootworm pest. This GE corn is approved as a food and feedstuff in Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines and the United States.
    Source: Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
  • Feeding genetically engineered (GE) Bt corn to pigs has resulted in reports of sow breeding problems in Iowa, according to an article in the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman. The article noted that the common denominator: all of the operations fed their herds the same Bt corn hybrids. Laboratory tests revealed their corn contained high levels of Fusarium mold. One of the producers subsequently switched back to regular non-GE corn, and his herd no longer had the problem.
    Source: Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman, April 29, 2002, edition.
  • GE crops are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy $12 billion since 1999 in farm subsidies, lower crop prices, loss of major export orders, and product recalls, according to a report, “Seeds of doubt: experiences of North American farmers of genetically modified crops,” published by the Soil Association. The report also noted that widespread GE contamination at all levels of the food and farming industry is a major problem.
    Source: Soil Association, “Seeds of doubt: experiences of North American farmers of Genetically modified crops.”
  • The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) has cautioned health authorities to consider the increased consumption of genetic modified foods as a possible explanation for the two- to ten-fold increase in food-related illnesses in the United States in 1999 compared to 1994. "Health authorities should be on the lookout for new viruses and bacteria that could evolve by the horizontal transfer and recombination of viral and bacterial genes in genetically engineered crops," ISIS warned, noting that unknown agents caused approximately 81 percent of food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations and 64 percent of food-borne deaths in the United State in 1999.
    Source: Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report, Nov. 3, 2001, Institute of Science in Society.

Many consumers would like genetically modified foods to be labeled.

  • An ABCNews.com random poll of 1,024 adults conducted across the country during June 2001 showed that 93% favor mandatory labels on genetically modified foods, with 57% saying they’d be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified, and 5% saying they’d be more likely to purchase it. At the same time, 52% said they’d be more likely to buy food that is labeled as having been produced organically.
    Source: ABCNEWS.com, June 2001.
  • Seventy-five percent of Americans polled by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology want to know whether their food contains genetically engineered ingredients, according to a poll conducted in January 2001 and released during March. Of those polled, 46% did not know what to think about the safety of GM foods; of those with an opinion, half believed GM foods are safe, and half believed they are unsafe.
    Source: Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (http://www.pewagbiotech.org/).