GMOs: Food, Money & Control: Part III

Charles W. Elliott

(In Parts I and II of “GMOs: Food, Money & Control,” we explored the failure of the leading U.S. state proposal to require labeling of GMO foods (California Proposition 37), the control of crop seeds through GMO patents and licensing, the loss of seed and crop diversity, and the increasing domination of the seed industry by biotechnology firms.  In this post, we examine GMO contamination of other food crops and the impacts of GMO technologies on pesticide use.)

“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe. —John Muir

Despite pervasive human intervention, the dynamism of the natural world overcomes virtually all artificial boundaries and limits.  We directly experience nature’s refusal to stay within the lines we draw. Plants penetrate concrete sidewalks; moving water inexorably surmounts or breaks through barriers; nature retakes land abandoned by humans.

Seed dispersal and plant cross-pollination are examples of this dynamic movement in the natural world.  In fact, the plant world depends upon it.   The notion that we can control genetically modified organisms requires a willful blindness to this fundamental fact of nature.

“Guilty by GMO Contamination”

Genetically modified crop seed can contaminate other crops. Seed movement, pollen flow and other causes result in “gene flow”, the transfer of genes from one population to another.  This occurs in a variety of natural ways: via birds, animals, flooding, or wind.  It can also result from human activities such as farm or seed cleaning machinery, spillage during transport, and other human errors throughout the production process.

Transgenic contamination cannot be recalled.  Genetically modified plants continue to reproduce where the seeds are sown or blown and where plants are pollinated. Their traits are passed on to subsequent generations of crops. They also reproduce in nature where genetically modified varieties can forever alter wild relatives, native plants, and ecosystems.

This process is virtually inevitable:

Scientists generally expect that if a GM variety of a crop is grown near non-modified varieties, gene flow will be a fairly common occurrence. It is well known that pollen from, for example, one variety of corn (conventional or transgenic) can spread to an adjacent field containing another variety and create a hybrid. There are plenty of documented cases of this kind of spontaneous “crop-to-crop” gene flow occurring between transgenic and conventional varieties of corn and canola. The likelihood of gene flow through pollen drift will depend on the specific crop.[1]

In fact, the risk of gene flow between GMO crops and conventional or organic crops is considered so high that Monsanto has disclaimed any liability for such contamination, and has described the phenomenon in cross-pollinated crops as “well known and is a normal occurrence.” [2]

GMO contamination is not a merely theoretical concern; it is already a problem.  In one well-reported GMO contamination fiasco, the corporate chemical giant Bayer A.G. and its global affiliates agreed to pay U.S. rice farmers $750 million in damages caused by the 2006 contamination of the nation’s rice crop by Bayer’s experimental and unapproved genetically modified “Liberty Link” rice.[3]  Bayer’s contamination of the rice supply threatened the entire U.S. rice export market. Rice futures plummeted by $150 million immediately after the contamination announcement. European Union nations halted acceptance of shipments of rice from the U.S. that hadn’t been extensively tested to show they weren’t contaminated. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines imposed a strict certification and testing regime on all rice imports, and Russia and Bulgaria imposed bans on imports of U.S. rice. [4]

The problem is not limited to a few well-publicized market-wrecking incidents. Research performed by the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org) found that seeds of traditional varieties of corn, soybeans, and canola were “pervasively contaminated” by GMO crops:

The study found that the seeds of traditional varieties [of corn, soybeans and canola] bought from the same retailers used by U.S. farmers are pervasively contaminated with low levels of DNA sequences originating in genetically engineered varieties of those crops. This conclusion is based on tests conducted by two respected commercial laboratories using duplicate samples of seeds of six traditional varieties each of corn, soybeans, and canola. One laboratory detected transgenically derived DNA in 50 percent of the corn, 50 percent of the soybean, and 100 percent of the traditional canola varieties tested. The other laboratory detected transgenically derived DNA in 83 percent of the traditional varieties of each of the three crops.[5]

The GM Contamination Register (http://www.gmcontaminationregister.org/) indexes more than 200 other publicly reported contamination incidents from 1997 to the present around the world.

GMO contamination can threaten the livelihood of farmers of traditional and organic crops. If organic crops or conventional crops are tainted with genetically modified material, “farmers can lose their crop certification, their customers and markets, their reputation, and the ability to sow the crop of their choice.”  [6] Conventional farmers are concerned that GMO crops may endanger sales to some of their overseas markets. See, Have Transgenes, p. 7. Regulatory and market restrictions on the labeling and sale of GMO crops in other countries create concerns that gene flow from GMO crops may make U.S. crops unacceptable in those markets. European Union policies require food and animal feed containing more than 0.9 percent of “approved” GM content to be labeled as genetically modified. For non-approved GMOs, the threshold is “zero” and thus requires that cargoes containing non-approved GMOs are returned to the port of origin or are destroyed.

In one case, U.S. food (supposedly a “non-GMO” soy flour) contaminated with GMO material was forced to return to its port of origin. [7] In another case, Canadian organic crop producers “have been unable to certify canola crops as organic for the EU market because of the extensive potential for cross-pollination between GM and organic crops; these producers are losing a lucrative and growing market.” [8]

But the implications of GMO contamination extend far beyond market concerns:

The recognition that the seed supply is open to contamination by low levels of a wide variety of genetically engineered sequences has broad implications. In general terms, seed contamination is important for two reasons. First, seeds reproduce and carry genes into future generations. Every season of seed production offers new opportunities for the introduction of new genes. In the case of genetic engineering, transgenic sequences that enter the seed supply for traditional crop varieties will be perpetuated and will accumulate over time in plants where they are not expected and could be difficult to control. Second, seeds are the  wellspring of our food system, the base on which we improve crops and the source to which we return when crops fail. Seeds will be our only recourse if the prevailing belief in the safety of genetic engineering proves wrong. Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level.[9]

Moreover, hundreds of novel genes have been engineered into crops and field-tested. These include genes for the creation of so-called “pharma” and “industrial” crops that are genetically engineered to produce drugs, vaccines and industrial chemicals.  Examples include proteins, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, vaccines, and compounds used to manufacture paper, plastic and detergents.[10]

The problem of GMO contamination also creates legal confusion and unforeseen legal liabilities. Because United States patent infringement law does not require a showing of intent to infringe, farmers can be sued if their fields are contaminated and the patented GMO seed from the contaminated crop is saved and planted.  Monsanto and other corporate giants have investigated and sued farmers whose fields were contaminated by neighboring GMO crops or when a previous year’s GMO crop sprouted in fields planted with conventional varieties the following year. An investigation by the Center for Food Safety showed that “the industry also sues farmers even when they were never presented with, and hence never signed, a technology use agreement at the time of seed purchase.” [11]

Failed Promises: Failure to Yield

Although the advent of agricultural genetic engineering more than two decades ago arrived with promises of increased yields and reduction of world hunger, these promises have largely failed.  The only independent study of transgenic food crop yields concluded that, unlike traditional breeding techniques, transgenic crops have failed to increase yields. [12]

No commercial transgenic crop has been engineered for increased yield, nutritional enhancement, increased fertilizer use efficiency, or many other promised traits.  Instead, the biotechnology industry is focused on enhancing its bottom line.  Rather than concentrating its efforts on reducing world hunger, agricultural biotechnology firms have commercialized a small number of transgenic commodity crops that produce insecticides or withstand direct application of herbicides. Much of the commercial transgenic crop acreage is engineered to give crops the ability to survive intensive spraying of a single broad-spectrum herbicide: Monsanto’s RoundUp®.

“Rounding Up” the Corporate Bottom Line: More Herbicides and “Superweeds”

In this perfect marriage of business models, Monsanto has managed to create a fantastically expensive technology that allows it to control food crops with patents and license agreements while also significantly expanding the use of its primary chemical herbicide, RoundUp®.  Monsanto uses genetic engineering primarily to develop patented “Roundup Ready®” crops for use with its own Roundup® herbicide. American soybeans, corn, canola, and sugar beets are now largely Roundup Ready®. This has made RoundUp’s active ingredient, glyphosate, the most heavily used chemical pesticide in history.[13]  Overall pesticide use has increased by 404 million pounds in the 16 years since transgenic crops were first released, largely due to the massive increase in glyphosate use with Roundup Ready® crops.[14]

This increase in the use of glyphosate-based herbicides is associated with widespread environmental contamination.  Glyphosate was found in 60 – 100% of rain and air samples tested in Iowa and Mississippi by the U.S. Geological Survey, and nearly every stream, river, and reservoir in heavily farmed regions contains glyphosate and its degradation products. [15]

Roundup Ready® crops have also worsened an ongoing epidemic of glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.”[16] Given the widespread reliance on glyphosate-based herbicides, the emergence of herbicide resistant weeds is perhaps one of the most serious challenges facing American agriculture.

Since 2000, glyphosate-resistant weeds have infested approximately forty to sixty million acres of cropland. [17] As a result of this superweed infestation, farmers are forced to use more Roundup® or more toxic herbicides, and to mechanically remove the weeds through soil-eroding tillage operations.[18]  The biotechnology corporate response to this problem is to offer more of the same, only worse: more genetic engineering to make crops simultaneously resistant to several herbicides, including the more toxic herbicide 2,4-D. [19]  Approval of these “stacked trait” crops with resistance to multiple herbicides will inevitably lead to large increases of ever-more toxic herbicides and consequential environmental contamination.

Another Vision: Sustainable Agriculture

We can reject this industrialized, technology-based way of growing our food. There is another way.  Indeed, there has always been another way –sustainable agriculture based on both ancient knowledge and modern practices that respect the natural environment, make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles.[20]  This approach to agriculture recognizes the need for sustainability in three inter-related domains: environmental, economic, and social. This ecosystem approach includes options such as long-term crop rotations, returning to natural cycles that annually flood cultivated lands (thus returning lost nutrients indefinitely), soil building and soil conservation practices (e.g., minimization of soil erosion through no-till farming, creation of wind breaks to hold soil, incorporation of organic matter back into fields), reduction of use of chemical fertilizers, and utilization of integrated pest management programs.

This approach to agriculture also respects and protects smallholder farmers, traditional cultures, and the human relationship with the natural world.  In the long run, it is the only sustainable way to feed a growing human population on a small and increasingly warmer planet.


[1] “Have Transgenes, Will Travel: Issues Raised by Gene Flow from Genetically Engineered Crops”, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, August 2003, available at: http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/ wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Food_and_Biotechnology/food_biotech_transgenes_081803.pdf

[2]  Monsanto Co., 2005 Technology Use Guide, at 17 (“Since corn is a naturally cross-pollinated crop, a minimal amount of pollen movement (some of which can carry genetically improved traits) between neighboring fields is well known and is a normal occurrence in corn seed or grain production.”). The Monsanto 2005 Technology Use Guide can be found at: http://goo.gl/PsJ3g

[3] http://www.bayerricelitigation.com/

[5] M. Mellon, J. Rissler, “Gone to Seed – Transgenic Contaminants in the Traditional Seed Supply”, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004, p.1 . The report is available at: http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/ our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/gone-to-seed.html

[6]  Center for Food Safety, “Seed Giants v. U.S. Farmers, A report by the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds” (2013), p. 7. The report is available at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Seed-Giants_final.pdf

[7] Davison, J., “GM plants: Science, politics and EC regulations”. Plant Science 178 (2): 94–98. doi:10.1016/j.plantsci.2009.12.

[8]  Belcher, et al., “Genetically modified crops and agricultural landscapes: spatial patterns of contamination”, Ecological Economics 53.3 (2005): 387-401. The report is available at http://www.saveourseeds.org/downloads/ belcher_contamination_2005.pdf   (last accessed February 16, 2013).

[9] “Gone to Seed – Transgenic Contaminants in the Traditional Seed Supply”, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004, p.2.

[10]  For a list of pharma/industrial crops, see UCS, “Gone to Seed”, p. 36; Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (PIFB),“Harvest on the Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology”, (2001) Washington, DC: PIFB, pp. 53-63 and references therein; Union of Concerned Scientists, “Pharm and Industrial Crops: the Next Wave of Agricultural Biotechnology” Washington, DC, pp. 3-4 and references therein, available at http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/ food_and_agriculture/pharmcropsucs403.pdf

[11] Center for Food Safety, Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, (Washington, DC: Center for Food Safety, 2005), http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/pubs/CFSMOnsantovsFarmerReport1.13.05.pdf, pp.37-45.

[12]  See, Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists, “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops” (Apr. 2009),  pp. 1-5 .The report is available at http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/failure-to-yield.html.   Monsanto disputes these claims, asserting that genetically modified traits have indeed increased yields of various crops. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/do-gm-crops-increase-yield.aspx   These reported Monsanto claims are largely based on analyses by PG Economics Ltd, a UK-based independent consultancy that “specializes in analyzing the impact of new technology in agriculture.” http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/pdf/focusonyieldeffects2009.pdf. Its work has been criticized as relying on biased data and using faulty analyses.  See, “Cooking the Books: A Methodological Critique of PG Economics’s 2011 Global Report on GM Crops,” http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/briefs/cooking-the-books/. For more information about critiques of the UCS study and UCS’ responses, see http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/48-2009/11340-responses-to-qfailure-to-yieldq-critics.

[13] EPA, Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage: 2006 and 2007 Market Estimates, tbl. 3:6 (Feb. 2011), available at: http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/pestsales/07pestsales/market_estimates2007.pdf

[14] Benbrook, C., Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the U.S. – The First Sixteen Years, 24 Envtl. Scis. Eur. 24 (2012), available at http://www.enveurope.com/content/pdf/2190-4715-24-24.pdf; Brian Clark, “Pesticide Use Rises as Herbicide-Resistant Weeds Undermine Performance of Major GE Crops, New WSU Study Shows”, Wash. State Univ. (Oct. 1, 2012), http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/2012/10/01/pesticide-use-rises-as-herbicide-resistant-weeds-undermine-performance-of-major-ge-crops-new-wsu-study-shows/

[15] Feng-Chih Chang, Matt F. Simcik, P.D. Capel, 2011. “Occurrence and Fate of the Herbicide Glyphosate and Its Degradate Aminomethylphosphonic Acid in the Atmosphere,” Envir. Toxicology  Chem., Vol. 30, pages 548-555.

[16] Comm. on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Econ. & Sustainability, Nat’l Research Council, “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States”, 82 (2010), available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12804; Stephen B. Powles, Gene Amplification Delivers Glyphosate-Resistant Weed Evolution, 107 Proc. of the Nat’l Acad. of Sci. 955, 955 (2010).]

[17] Melody M. Bomgardner, War on Weeds, Chemical & Eng’g News, May 21, 2012, at 20, 20-22 (see map), available at http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i21/War-Weeds.html;  Benbrook, supra note 7, at 4 .

[18] Benbrook, C., “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years”, pp. 28-30, 34-36, 40 (The Organic Center, 2009), available at http://www.organic-center.org/science.pest.php?action=view&report_id=159n; Georgina Gustin, Resistant Weeds Leave Farmers Desperate, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 17, 2011.

[19] See, Green, J.M., C.B. Hazel, D.R. Forney and L.M. Pugh. 2008. “New multiple-herbicide crop resistance and formulation technology to augment the utility of glyphosate”, Pest Manag. Sci. 64:332-339; Benbrook, C. 2009. “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: the First Thirteen Years”, The Organic Center, Boulder, Colorado, http://www.organic-center.org; Gray, M.E. 2011. “Relevance of traditional integrated pest management (IPM) strategies for commercial corn production in a transgenic agroecosystem—a bygone era?”, J. Agric. Food Chem. 59:5852-5858.

[20] Detailed information about sustainable agriculture is widely available.  One good source is “Applying the Principles of Sustainable Farming: Fundamentals of Sustainable Agriculture” from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a program of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, available at: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=29

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