We are in uncertain times, living through the calamity of a century. The frequency with which we hear the word “unprecedented” is, in itself, unprecedented. News stories seem to divide their time between crowded hospital wards and strained grocery stores. Retail grocers are, of course, an essential service. While half the world’s population has been asked to stay home, the food industry lurches forward to keep us going.
So how should we think about our food in such times? Should we count ourselves lucky just to have it? Of course we should — as not everyone is so blessed — but we must also pay that gratitude forward to build an equitable, healthy and secure food system for our children and grandchildren, one that can withstand the slings and arrows yet to come. And in this shining future, GMOs play no part.
The latin phrase ‘cui bono’ might be familiar to you, particularly if you work in the legal profession or if you watch a lot of TV. It means “who benefits?” — in modern parlance, it’s a hoity-toity way of sniffing out the main benefactor of shady deeds.
GMOs have been marketed by their creators as a boon to humanity, promising increased yields and pest resistance, adaptation to difficult growing conditions, and a silver bullet for feeding the world’s growing population. But, sales brochure aside, who really benefits from GMOs?
❌ Consumers: GMO commodity crops like corn, cotton and soy, have tilted the average diet towards inexpensive — but empty — calories. In 1970, the average annual consumption of corn was about 4.9 lbs per person. By 2016, each of us was knocking back 14.6 lbs of corn products. After grains, fats are the most popular food group, the majority of which come from GMO commodity crops, such as soybean, corn and canola. On the whole, North American consumers are overfed and undernourished, contributing to a variety of poorer health outcomes. Meanwhile, chemical compounds used with GMO crops such as Bt and glyphosate can be secreted inside the human body, including in breast milk. While the long term effects of Bt exposure are uncertain, glyphosate has been ruled a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Federal labeling of GMOs — currently in a voluntary compliance stage — fails to inform consumers about GMOs in their food. US Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Greg Ibach infamously suggested that new GMOs might be allowed into organic farming, a move which would negate the basic principles of the organic movement.
❌ Farmers: Do the promises of GMOs truly pay off for farmers? Not by a long shot. GMO seeds are more expensive, with restrictive usage agreements that prohibit farmers from saving seeds from their crops. GMOs have also failed to improve yields, and they’ve contributed to a dramatic increase in the fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow them: The use of glyphosate has increased 16-fold since the introduction of glyphosate-resistant GMOs. As insects and weeds develop tolerance to the pesticides, ever more toxic applications are applied to the food we will eventually eat. GMOs tie farmers to a chemical treadmill of costly inputs and the ever-present threat of contamination from neighboring farmland.
✔ Agri-chemical Corporations: Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! Yup, an elite group of mega-corporations now control the seed supply — and the accompanying chemicals cocktail — and they are doing a brisk business. This concentration of power dramatically reduces genetic diversity as seed lines are patented and uniformity is rewarded. As Josh Tickell explains in his excellent book, “Kiss the Ground”:
“The seven largest pesticide and genetic seed companies are raking in about $93 billion annually…. And all told, the “crop protection” industry of fertilizer, GMO, and chemical pesticide companies is growing nicely with about $350 billion in annual sales, mostly to farmers.”
Big agri-chemical’s latest promise is that GMOs are necessary to feed a growing population, despite the fact that 30 years of GMO crop protection has already failed to do just that: We already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, but malnourishment and food insecurity persist.
Mind Your Own Agribusiness
In the 1970, President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture unceremoniously told farmers to “get big or get out.” Putting aside for a moment the inherent jerkiness of threatening the people who grow our food, this approach was also deeply stupid: It removed protections for farmers and pricing stability measures that had been in place since the Great Depression. It picked a winner, and that winner was Big Ag. Ever since, farmers have been in the unenviable position of earning less and less even if they manage to produce more and more.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that strong-arm tactics don’t belong in the food system: They alienate allies and destroy communities; they attempt to subdue natural systems, to re-order them to suit humanity’s inclinations. Nature’s inevitable efforts to re-balance herself — including pest infestations on monocropped acreage and the superweeds and superbugs that evolve beyond chemical controls — are seen as new foes to be bested. Genetically modified organisms are some of our boldest and most misguided attempts at subjugation.
In the words of the incomparable Jane Goodall, “Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?”