The Pros and Cons of GMOs

From Golden Rice to genetically modified barley for gluten-free beer, GMO crops have paved a way for farmers to sustain agricultural needs that meet the growing demands of an increasing global population.


The Pros and Cons of GMOs

By Danae Kopanidis

At first glance, the positive opportunities that GMO’s create are evident. The World Health Organisation estimates that a quarter of a billion people in developing nations suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice is rich in vitamin A and has the potential to prevent up to two million deaths per year and half-a-million cases of childhood blindness.

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is prevalent in developing nations whose diets are predominately rice, maize or other carbohydrate-rich, micronutrient-poor food source. With limited fresh nutritious options, Golden Rice is able to provide β-carotene (provitamin A), which can only be added to rice seeds through genetic engineering (GE), which the body then converts into vitamin A. Golden Rice has the ability to significantly reduce VAD, preventing about a third of all under-five deaths.

GMO crops often require fewer chemicals, grow in a shorter time frame and use fewer infrastructure resulting in reduced environmental impact. GMO farming helps sustain a healthier environment through less environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion. A study conducted on reduced greenhouse emissions in GMO farming in 2011, states that the “reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions was equivalent to removing 10.22 million cars from the roads”.

If GMO farming can help reduce environmental impact and feed millions, why is there still a strong opposition to the industry?

Independent global campaigning organisation Greenpeace has been thrust into the media spotlight for their negative campaigns against the GMO industry. Recently, over 100 Nobel laureates signed and addressed an open letter to Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments stating that Greenpeace has “misrepresented the risks, benefits and impacts of genetically modified crops.”

Has Greenpeace’s campaign against the GMO industry been warranted or has it been based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data?

Who owns the seeds?

With farmers at the forefront of this debate, the distribution of GMO seeds seems to provide an avenue of profit for farmers. One of Greenpeace’s major concerns is that six large agricultural corporates (Dupont, Group Limagrain, Land O’Lakes, KWS AG, Monsanto and Syngenta) control up to 75% of the world seed market, essentially privatising the industry. In 2015 the leading seed and pesticide company (based on revenue) were Monsanto, whose profits reached $14 billion. Monsanto was closely followed by Syngenta at $13.4 billion.

What does privatising agriculture mean?

The privatisation and patenting of agricultural advances (gene traits, transformation technologies and seed germplasm), replaces traditional agricultural understandings of seed, farmers’ rights, and breeders’ rights.

Farmers are able to save, share and replant their non-proprietary germplasm (seeds) with complete freedom. When seeds are purchased from GMO suppliers a patent is signed to stop this freedom of trade.

Once a farmer has planted GMO seeds, the farmer is drawn into a cycle of future repayments to keep their business afloat. Monsanto, the largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seeds, states that patents must be used as, “Monsanto invests more than $2.6 million per day in research and development that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers”.

Greenpeace has raised concerns surrounding GMO distribution, as once the seeds have been released into the environment they cannot be recalled. GMO’s can spread and interbreed with non-GE crops, contaminating natural organisms and destroying farmers organic or non-GE certifications. In 2000, in Oaxaca Mexico, a collection of rural farmers wanted to get their maize (corn) crops organically certified. A microbial ecologist from the University of California discovered after collecting samples that the locally produced maize contained a tainted segment of DNA found in Monsanto’s glyphosate-tolerant and insect resistant maize. This example illustrates how GMO seeds can cross-pollinate with non-GE crops, having a serious effect on farmers who are seeking certifications to increase their income.

Greenpeace’s campaign has raised imperative points concerning GMO’s but has also issued misleading statements, which may convey that governments are somewhat negligent in protecting consumer’s well-being. Greenpeace claims that “there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health”.  This may be true in cases where a novel gene is inserted into an organism; for example, health effects of primary concern to safety assessors are the production of new allergens, increased toxicity, decreased nutrition, and antibiotic resistance. However, Greenpeace may be understating the role of governments around the world; many of whom have created a blueprint for GM products to be rigorously tested before human consumption. In Australia, any GM product undergoes thorough testing at the Department of Health’s Office of the Gene Technology to look at environmental and human health issues and finally will be analysed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

There is definitely a place for genetically modified food in today’s world, with the potential to provide a solution in addressing preventable diseases and relieve significant environmental strain; hence the GMO industry can play a role in a sustainable global future. If ‘the big’ agricultural corporations can prioritise farmer’s needs and consumer’s concerns, a platform of negotiation with NGO’s such as Greenpeace may be a viable pathway towards addressing issues of conflicting interests.

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