The term GM foods, or genetically modified foods, refers to the genetic altering of plant’s basic characteristics, primarily, at least in the recent past, to enhance yields for large scale agriculture production.
Understanding the logic of modern agrigulture often begins with understanding its language. Beginning with the catchall term, biotechnology, the concept of GM foods expands to suit the needs of many audiences.
- Agricultural Biotechnology
- GE Foods – Genetically Engineered Foods
- GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms
- Transgenic Crops
Industry and farmers know them by an entirely different vocabulary. Roundup Ready Canola (Produced by Monsanto), LibertyLink Corn (Produced by AgrEvo) and Novartis Seeds Roundup Ready Soybeans (Produced by Novartis Seeds) refer to products produced by biotech companies operating in today’s US market.
GM Food Benefits
Biotechnology’s promise of a biology based agriculture revolution, similar to the post-WWII chemical based green revolution, begins with an implicitly optimistic assumption. Changing pest management strategy from principles based heavily on the use of pesticides and chemicals to principles based heavily on biology, will increase crop yields necessary for a growing population along with minimizing chemical and pesticide use.
Past problems with chemical based agriculture often read like a series of best selling books. Starting with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, when the dangers of pesticide use, particularly DDT were first made popular knowledge, the hidden costs of the green revolution were unveiled. The problems with chemical farming are not limited to pesticides. Nutrient rich chemical fertilizers sprayed on the fields eventually leached into the riparian and coastal water systems causing problems.
Consider the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists consider nutrient over-enrichment the bay’s primary ecological problem because of exorbitant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus streaming into the bay from surrounding farm lands and rivers. This excessive introduction of fertilizers in the water creates algae blooms (large carpets of algae on top of the water), which in turn prevent sunlight from penetrating through the water hindering underwater plant growth. Decaying algae, in turn, float to the bottom of the water and start absorbing the oxygen necessary for sustaining underwater plant and animal ecosystems.
Biotechnology does not promise to solve these problems over night, rather it offers incremental improvements. One good example of incremental change deals with pesticide use. If a farmer plants BT corn and during the season a pest problem develops, the farmer will not need to spray his BT crop. The scenario holds true with the other product most used on the commercial market, herbicide resistant crops, which actually go hand in hand with herbicide use. Their advertising hook is the promise of reduced pesticide use.
Risk of GM Food
Escape scenarios stand out as the most potentially problematic GM foods issues. Pollination produced by GM crops gets caught in wind currents just like pollen from most plants, creating unintended consequences such as creating new plant hybrids, with some GM plant characteristics. Some sectors of the Mexican corn industry, for example, express concern that the introduction of GM corn in the country harms the genetic integrity of Mexico’s many native corn varieties.
The term “superweeds” commonly attaches to the escape scenario and refers to the fact that hybridized plants have the potential to crowd out an ecosystem’s native plants. Superweeds pose problems for agriculture interest in most areas. A recent U.S. Government publication on the issue, Invasive Plants Fact Book says,
“According to the U.S. Congressional Office Technology Assessment, there are at least 4,500 species of foreign plants and animals that have established free-living populations in the United States since the beginning of European colonization. Of that total, at least 675 species (15%) cause severe harm. In economic terms, 79 species, or 12% of total harmful species, caused documented losses of $97 billion from 1906 to 1991 (Office of Technology Assessment 1993).”
The problem with escaped genes from BT crops is further exacerbated by the potential high rate of reproduction of the unintended new plant. In a review of the recent scientific literature on the reproductive habits of herbivore-resistant crops, Marvier and Karieva (1999) concluded that such crops tend to produce more seeds, and by extension have higher reproductive rates than their non herbivore cousins
The authors further note
“a survey of historical records for past invasions by weeks in the northwestern United States indicated that the median time lag between the first record of a weed and the onset of widespread infestation was on the order of 30-50 years”.
A 2013 poll published by Ipsos Reid, a Canadian consulting firm, notes that
Six in ten (63%) Canadian growers ‘agree’ (16% strongly/47% somewhat) that ‘weeds in my field are getting tougher to control’, which is up 7 points from the first wave of the poll in March 2012.
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