Understanding the GMO debate: the real dirt on what’s happening to your food

by Maximus Thaler

Hello Slingshot! I’d like to take up the next 10 minutes of your life talking about the chemical glyphosate. (You can also follow along with the above video!)

Here is Glyphosate’s chemical structure. Its IUPAC name is (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine)

Glyphosate is by far the most heavily used herbicide in the United States, with over 200 million pounds used annually(i). So what’s all this chemical for? Well, it kills weeds.

Glyphosate is an enzyme inhibitor. Glyphosate stops the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase from doing its job, which is to help synthesize the amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine.(ii) There are twenty two amino acids that all creatures need to stay alive. Not having three means death.

So, if we don’t have any copies of this enzyme, then glyphosate shouldn’t do us any damage, right? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complex than that.

But, it’s important to remember that humans, and most other animals, don’t actually make 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase themselves. We’ve got mouths instead. We eat creatures (plants) that make fancy molecules like this, so that we don’t have to make them ourselves.

So, if we don’t have any copies of this enzyme, then glyphosate shouldn’t do us any damage, right? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complex than that.

Glyphosate was developed by the Monsanto corporation in 1970. For the last 46 years it’s been marketed under the name of Roundup®.(iii) But, Roundup® didn’t reach absurdly high levels of use until genetically modified foods became widespread.

Monsanto developed Roundup Ready® soybeans in 1994 and Roundup Ready® corn in 1996. These crops contain an alternative version of 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase, a version derived from bacteria and which is not inhibited by glyphosate. Today, Roundup Ready® genes are found in about ninety percent of the soybeans and seventy percent of the corn and grown in the United States.(iv)

Are you with me so far? Let’s pause here for a second, because it’s about to get pretty complicated.

There are four hot-button issues all tangled up together which make it extremely difficult to talk about this chemical without someone getting angry at you. And they should get angry, because a lot of this is pretty messed up.

So here’s the deal: Some people are upset about the use of genetic modification technology. Some are also upset about the ecological damage caused by monocultures. Others worry about the toxicity of herbicides and pesticides, and still others don’t like the way our food system has fallen under the sway of international corporations like Monsanto.

Here are those four issues in a list:

1. Corporate Oligarchy

2. Monoculture

3. Agricultural Chemicals

4. Genetic Modification

These problems are all intertwined, but they have very distinct solutions. Unfortunately, the public debate surrounding these issues tends to look like this:

It’s possible that propaganda like this might be true, but I think we owe it to ourselves to try to figure out why…

It’s possible that propaganda like this might be true, but I think we owe it to ourselves to try to figure out why, OK? So, let’s look at each of the four issues I raised above individually.

Issue #1: Is Monsanto bad?

Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. They are terrible.

Most of their terribleness comes from their legally recognized monopoly. In 2009, Monsanto was investigated for violations of anti-trust laws. (v) This investigation went nowhere, perhaps because Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas (along with several EPA and FDA officials) is a former Monsanto employee (vi). It should come as no surprise then that Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the 2001 court decision which found that “newly developed plant breeds are patentable under the general utility patent laws of the United States.”(vii)

Monsanto has begun to research Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), also known as terminator seeds—seeds genetically engineered to produce sterile offspring, so seed saving is impossible. 

What this means in practice is that Monsanto has an unfair amount of control over how farmers grow and distribute their crops. Their patents prevent farmers from hybridizing Monsanto seeds with heirloom varieties.(viii) It’s also illegal to save seeds from Monsanto crops to use for the following year, forcing farmers to annually buy new seed from Monsanto. (ix)

For developing countries outside of the US without such strict patent protection, Monsanto has begun to research Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), also known as terminator seeds—seeds genetically engineered to produce sterile offspring, so seed saving is impossible.

Thankfully, the international response to GURT was strong, and Monsanto halted research in 2006, (x) but the fact that this technology was even considered shows the ethical plane that Monsanto is operating on. Their policies make it harder for small farmers to make a living, and exclusively incentivize large industrial monocultures.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that Monsanto, as a corporation, is distinct from the idea of monoculture, or chemical use, or even genetic modification. Monsanto is terrible for political reasons, (the revolving door and unfair IP laws) and it might be possible for some version of the other ideas associated with the company to be applied sustainably in a different context.

For example, imagine a permaculture school which operates a lab, and uses open source methods to adapt the genomes of its crops to the local microclimate. Or, imagine a worker owned fungicide manufacturer, whose products are designed for targeted, ecologically sensitive use. There is no fundamental reason organizations like this couldn’t exist, but our current ideological landscape makes them difficult to conceive. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. As it stands, the agricultural chemicals and GM crops that Monsanto produces are inextricably tied to monocultures.

Let’s take a look at why that’s a problem.

Issue #2: Is monoculture bad?

The problem with monoculture is that it optimizes land use for machines, at the expense of biodiversity, human accessibility, and even yield. That’s right, even yield. Yields could be much higher if different species were planted amongst each other, to take advantage of different seasons and growth patterns and such (this is permaculture 101). But, we don’t often grow food like this anymore because it’s difficult to make a machine that can harvest one kind plant while leaving another kind intact. And so instead, we have thousands of acres occupied by loose grids of one kind of creature. This keeps prices low. But, this also keeps pest populations unusually high, so fields like this require a lot of pesticides. Like, a lot.

So, does that mean that agricultural chemicals are terrible too?

Issue #3: Are agricultural chemicals bad?

Well, it depends.

The vast majority of agricultural chemicals used in the US are used on monocultures. Thousands of acres are fumigated all at once, creating ecosystems of literally one species. Such “ecosystems” are unstable. It’s very easy for other organisms (“pests”) to enter and fill unoccupied niches. This forces the monocultural farmer to spray even more chemicals, creating vicious cycle. Here’s a stunning quote:

“[D]espite the more than 10- fold increase in insecticide use in the United States from 1945 to 2000, total crop losses from insect damage have nearly doubled from 7 to 13%”(xi)

Each season of monocultural production sees an increase of both pests and pesticide use in an evolutionary arms race. Clearly this use of agricultural chemicals is destructive. But, a monoculture is not the only place these chemicals can be used.

Let’s go back to glyphosate. A lot of the criticisms of Roundup® aren’t about the direct toxicity of glyphosate itself (although the surfactants it is mixed with are often toxic (xii)), but rather, its unexpected ecological effects. For example, glyphosate runoff has been shown to be particularly destructive to aquatic ecosystems. (xiii). But the only way that Roundup® could ever reach those aquatic ecosystems, when it’s supposed to be applied to just crops, is when it’s applied massively and repeatedly, over a huge area – monoculture applications.

Applying Roundup® to individual weeds with tenacious roots in your backyard garden likely isn’t going to do that much harm. If we chose to use these chemicals infrequently, for a specific pest in a localized area, we could protect our crops without bulldozing the surrounding environment. The goal is to use chemicals that are ecologically specific.

And, oddly enough, this is the promise of genetic modification.

Issue #4: Is genetic modification bad?

Let’s think about what’s been done to Roundup Ready® plants. They’ve been given an alternative copy of 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase, a copy that’s not inhibited by glyphosate. (xiv) Glyphosate can then be applied to these crops, and it will leave them alone, while eliminating the more harmful weeds nearby. This style of modification could allow for incredibly specific chemical control, if used properly.

Or, take another GM crop, BT corn. BT corn has been modified to produce a bacteria toxin which is deadly to caterpillars.(xv) It is not however deadly to other insects like beetles or grasshoppers, nor is it harmful to humans. The toxin is produced in the tissues of the plant, so there is no risk of it leaching into the environment, like what would happen if the pesticide were sprayed willy-nilly all over the place.

Basically, genetic modification has the potential of providing highly specific, ecologically sensitive ways of controlling pests and improving fertility. Unfortunately, the way we’ve been using it has increased, not decreased our ecological footprint.

Basically, genetic modification has the potential of providing highly specific, ecologically sensitive ways of controlling pests and improving fertility. Unfortunately, the way we’ve been using it has increased, not decreased our ecological footprint. But that has more to do with the politics of Monsanto and the economics of monoculture than it has to do with genetic modification itself, or even the nature of agrichemicals. Instead of designing crops to resist the application of a broad spectrum herbicide, we could design them such that our chemical use could be precisely targeted, or even unneeded. Instead of adding artificial fertilizers, what if we modified our cereal crops to form nitrogen fixing symbioses like beans? Could our vegetables form mycorrhizal relationships with edible fungi?

Instead of designing crops to resist the application of a broad spectrum herbicide, we could design them such that our chemical use could be precisely targeted, or even unneeded. 

This is why I get so frustrated with the GMO debate. The fact of the matter is that GMOs are not inherently evil. They’re certainly not going to give you cancer, although there are plenty of articles which will tell you otherwise.(xvi) The same goes for many pesticides (although not all). The problem with these technologies is not inherent, but that their development and use is controlled by terrible corporations like Monsanto, which use their power to expand a destructive monocultural food system.

For the last century or two, various voices (mostly corporate) have promised us that each new technology on the horizon is going to dramatically improve our lives. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Often, it feels like these technologies cause more problems than they solve. After so many high-tech innovations gone awry, we are right to be skeptical of the scientific establishment and their monopoly on facts. Research on potential toxins funded by the industries that make them should be received extremely critically, or flat out rejected. But (and this is a big but) just because these technologies pose a risk of harm does not mean that they will unconditionally cause harm in all contexts. Harm to a human body is different from harm to an ecosystem (those GM corn flakes won’t give you cancer, but they’re terrible for biodiversity). And technologies that harm ecosystems can also be used to heal them.

The enemy here is not science, and it’s not technology. It’s not GM, and it’s not agrichemicals. The enemy is the political and economic conditions which allow small groups of people to control the sustenance of billions. 

The enemy here is not science, and it’s not technology. It’s not GM, and it’s not agrichemicals. The enemy is the political and economic conditions which allow small groups of people to control the sustenance of billions. Were our food system local, diverse, and horizontally managed, the specter of these technologies would not look nearly so terrifying. 

1.  Source: http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-10/documents/market_estimates2007.pdf

2. see Wikipedia page on EPSP synthase

3. see Wikipedia page on Gylphosate

4. see Wikipeda pages for Corn and Soy, See also http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/business/energy- environment/04weed.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

5.  The Monsanto 2009 anti-trust investigation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_legal_cases#2009_antitrust_investigation

6. + 7. Monsanto & public officials conflicts of interest: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#U.S._public_officials.27_connections

8.  Monsanto Lawsuit in Canada: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_Canada_Inc_v_Schmeiser

9. On the lawsuit allowing Monsanto to patent seeds: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowman_v._Monsanto_Co

10.  On Genetic use restiction technology, aka suicide seeds: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_use_restriction_technology

11. see ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC COSTS OF THE APPLICATION OF PESTICIDES PRIMARILY IN THE UNITED STATES, Pimentel, 2005

12. See Glyphosate Poisoning, Bradberry et all, 2004

13. see THE LETHAL IMPACT OF ROUNDUP ON AQUATIC AND TERRESTRIAL AMPHIBIANS, Rick A. Relyea,  2005

14. Molecular basis for the herbicide resistance of Roundup Ready crops, Funke et all, 2006  http://www.pnas.org/content/103/35/13010.full

15. ‘Insecticide-Producing Corn’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_maize#Insecticide-producing_corn

16. see http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/07/15/new-study-links-gmos-to-cancer-liverkidney-damage-severe-hormonal-disruption/ for a typical example