Is GE Food Necessary on a Warming Planet?

Last week, GreenBiz ran a story about Arcadia Biosciences entitled “Biotech Food as a Necessity in a Warming Planet.” The story describes the California company’s efforts to develop new crops such as rice that has been genetically engineered for improved nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). The idea here is that, according to Arcadia CEO Eric Rey, “When you can grow more food using the same inputs of land, water and fertilizer, everyone — farmers, consumers, hungry people and anyone who cares about CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere — is better off.” Farmers today use $60 billion worth of nitrogen fertilizers, much of which ends up in rivers and oceans causing dead zones as the result of runoff.

So what’s not to like? No one can argue that there are severe shortages of food, water and energy in various parts of the world that are certain to become more widespread and more severe under the triple threats of a growing population, a rapidly warming planet, and the depletion of fossil fuels. Reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer, much of which comes from natural gas, required to feed us would surely be a good thing. Right?

But as Albert Einstein once said “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”

This is surely the case here. Indeed, if you think about it, pretty much all of the problems that bio-engineering is trying to solve were the result of mankind’s tinkering with natural systems in the first place.

For example, why do we need so much nitrogen fertilizer? No one needed to add fertilizers to the South American rainforest or on the African savannah or the native prairies of North America. These ecosystems flourish under local conditions without any help from humans. Fertilizer becomes necessary in a mono-crop environment, like our current food system, because of soil depletion. The same is true of insecticides. It’s the monocultures that attract the insects from miles around. If you filled Central Park with nothing but candy from one end to the other, do you think you’d have any trouble getting kids to show up? Herbicides are only required in monocultures, which often consist of  plants that are not native to the area. In nature, plants grow symbiotically with other plants.

As Wes Jackson points out, in natural settings these services are provided by cooperation within the ecosystem. We destroyed those services when we plowed up the land and planted monocultures. We did this thinking that we were smarter than nature, when maybe we’re not nearly as smart as we like to think we are.

The mental model that created this mess we are in today was largely developed in the agricultural sector. Remember the Green Revolution? All those fertilizers and pesticides to the rescue. But what is the result? We now have more people than the planet can possibly sustain.

Isn’t it possible that this, like many of the great advances of the past two centuries came about as the result of short term thinking, either solving the problem immediately ahead of us, or finding a way to get rich quick?

So the question that must be asked of these bio-engineered foods, is the same question that must be asked of any proposed solution, be it in the food sector, or the energy sector or any other sector that has a broad impact on both our society and the natural environment that supports us. Does it stand up to the long view? Will our grandchildren and their children be glad that we did this? Will it pass the test of seven generations that the Native Americans used?

Here are some of the concerns that have been raised about genetically modified foods.

  • Unintended environmental harm. Because we are tinkering with the innermost workings of life itself, of which we have only a superficial knowledge, we really have no way of predicting what might happen once these modified organisms get loose in the environment. As one example, BT corn, one of the first GMO foods, caused a high mortality rate among monarch butterflies.
  • Evolution keeps on working. There is no reason why these organisms won’t contribute to the selection of super-insects that can withstand the pesticides and weeds that will inherit herbicide tolerance and become super-weeds. Then what?
  • Cross-pollination occurs. Neighboring plants may take on characteristics that while desirable in one species might be undesirable in another. Plants and animals taking on these characteristics might be less fit to survive in the wild.
  • Unknown health effects. Some animal studies have shown substantial physiological changes when compared to animals fed non-GMO versions of the same food. All of these studies have been contested by a very aggressive industry. Effects on humans are nearly impossible to distinguish from thousands of other factors.
  • Proliferation of pathogens. Recently, a very serious new pathogen was found in much higher concentrations among GMO crops.

Given the large numbers of risks involved, it is difficult to use the word “responsible” and GMO-foods in the same sentence. This, of course, is the reason why they are largely banned in most European countries. To do the kind of exhaustive testing that would be required before these new species could be released responsibly would be cost-prohibitive. And I’m not talking about the watered-down test protocols that certain government agencies now staffed by former bio-engineering executives have decided to settle for.

Yes, our food system has an excessively large footprint and needs desperately to change. But as a species, I think that arrogance has taken us about as far as it is going to take us, which is to the brink of disaster. It’s time for us to realize that this planet with its spectacular natural resources is not a blank canvas for us to paint upon, but rather an example for us to follow.

[Image credit:Rice: Agrilifetoday: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

4 responses

  1. Great article, thanks for writing. GMOs are something in dire need of real discussion! So, for my first post on Triple Pundit, let me add my two cents.

    For full disclosure – both my parents are relatively famous PhD scientists, my dear mother currently working on stem cells to cure cancer, and my father has spent two decades working on malaria and then another decade on a radically sexy new process for genetic modification. I’ve done work in immunology on multiple sclerosis and malaria, before getting a bachelor of science in Neuroscience from Brown. I still read scientific journals in my spare time for fun. So, from one perspective, I may be biased in favour of the accelerating progress of science. Or perhaps I’m just well informed. For the past five years, however, I’ve been founder/CEO of KOMAZA, a forestry social enterprise working in Kenya to get dryland farmers out of extreme poverty and to revive their dying environments, so I have a pretty good understanding of the challenges of being a subsistence farmer living in extreme poverty in drought-prone Africa (of all people to benefit from genetically modified crops, the 2.1 billion people living on drylands are in most need for drought resistant and more nutritious crops). That being said, KOMAZA currently uses no GMOs with our farmers (which would be impossible, even if I wanted to, because they’re not yet approved for use in Kenya).

    You bring up some good points. But there are also some great counterpoints.

    You rightly observe that “No one needed to add fertilizers to the South American rainforest or on the African savannah or the native prairies of North America. These ecosystems flourish under local conditions without any help from humans.” But the problem is that that is now past tense – our human population has boomed way beyond what natural ecosystems can sustain. Yes, this was a problem created by man’s technology; had we maintained a population of a billion or so people, we wouldn’t be facing many of the problems we have today. But by the end of 2012 we’ll have 7 billion people living on the planet. Since we can’t go back in time, what are we going to do about it? Natural agricultural systems, without fertilizers and insecticides, have no hope to feed our current and future population. Again, you rightly point out that “We now have more people than the planet can possibly sustain.” But then you propose no solutions and instead attempt to discredit one of the few promising solutions in our collective quiver. You imply that the only way forward is to reduce the human population to that which can be sustained by completely natural ecosystems. Most experts agree that a sustainable human population given only natural ecosystems would be between 500 million and 2 billion people. So, if you want to undo all of “mankind’s tinkering with natural systems” and return to the days of pre-science, you must accept that you are proposing the mass-murder of 5-6 billion people, a feat that would make even Hitler blush. I’ll assume that this wasn’t on your agenda, but it is necessarily implied by arguing such miracles as the Green Revolution are somehow bad.

    To address the specific concerns you have raised about GM food:

    • Unintended environmental harm: Humans have been tinkering with life itself for millennia, ever since the domestication of crops and livestock (actually, long before then). Imagine if today someone took a wolf and tinkered directly with its DNA to make a Chihuahua – everyone would go nuts. But we’ve made that incredible genetic and phenotypic change in only a few thousand years with selective breeding. Are Chihuahuas some scary genetic abomination? They might be a little feisty, but they’re not monsters. To address your specific example of environmental harm, you provide the often cited case of the monarch butterflies killed by GM Bt corn. But, with all due respect, you have failed to do sufficient research. This horror story emerged from a one-page note submitted to Nature in 1999 titled “Transgenic Pollen Harms Monarch Larvae” which claimed that 44% of monarch caterpillars fed pollen from Bt corn died; the story made the front page of the New York Times and is still regularly given as damning evidence against GM foods. But while the publicity stopped there, the science did not. Subsequent exhaustive field research detailed in six papers in PNAS in 2001 showed that GM Bt corn would kill, at most, three monarch caterpillars out of ten thousand (i.e. 0.03%). Peter Raven, a much respected environmentalist, co-wrote a PNAS paper that argues that, because the major harm to monarchs is from habitat loss and use of pesticides, and “considering the gains obviously achieved in the level of survival of populations of monarch butterflies and other insects by eliminating a large proportion of the pesticides applied to the same crops, the widespread cultivation of Bt corn may have huge benefits for monarch butterfly survival.” For every example of publicized GMO environmental harm you can provide, I am pretty sure a further study of the science will shoot it down.

    • Evolution keeps on working: By applying your argument (i.e. we shouldn’t do something that evolution can eventually work around), we would have never approved the use of any antibiotic, against which bacteria inevitably become resistant. Do you think the use of penicillin was/is a bad thing, despite the fact that it’s saved millions of lives from death by syphilis, staph, strep and the common tooth ache, just because now many bugs are resistant to a drug discovered in 1928? This is the nature of drug development – it’s an arms race between man and evolution and, historically, we’ve been winning. Although many bacteria are penicillin resistant today, science has stayed ahead of the curve, always managing to invent a new antibiotic that out-smarts the current bacteria. Fortunately, the pace of science is increasing exponentially, whereas evolution is relatively slow. While people might scream “But one day the bugs will outsmart us!”, they haven’t really in the past, and science is always getting faster, better, stronger, harder. Pretty soon (next few decades) we’ll have a pretty good understanding of all the major mechanisms of life and be able to play God much better than we do now. This concern (don’t do stuff because evolution will eventually work around it) is, in my mind, a wholly unconvincing argument. Given the lifecycles of insects are orders of magnitude longer than bacteria (and insects don’t have many of the cool genetic tricks that bacteria have that let them evolve in hyper-speed), insects will become resistant to GM pesticides much much much slower than bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. So, if we’ve been able to stay ahead of the evolutionary curve with antibiotics against super-evolving bacteria, we can easily stay ahead of the curve with the relatively glacial evolution of insects. Monsanto, etc. have more than enough profit incentive (and some pretty amazing science) to stay ahead of the curve; if (likely when) some bug becomes Bt resistant, I have no doubt Monsanto will have a new solution in a matter of a few years, if they don’t already have one up there sleeve. This is not even remotely a problem, science will always prevail here.

    • Cross-pollination: The nail in the coffin for your specific argument here is: if “plants and animals taking on [outcrossed] characteristics [are] less fit to survive in the wild”, then evolution will not favor those handicapped plants/animals, and those that didn’t get the new genes will prosper while outcrossed individuals die out, leaving the original species to thrive. But that’s never really been the risk of outcrossing. There have been some studies that have suggested a risk of outcrossing of genes from GMOs to conventional crops or wild species. But gene outcrossing has been a tool of man’s traditional breeding for millennia. But far beyond that, outcrossing is one of the normal tools nature has used since the dawn of time to increase genetic diversity, thereby increasing the strength of the population at large. Outcrossing itself is not a bad thing – what counts is the impact of the genes that are transferred. Imagine that we developed a GM corn that had a cure to cancer, and then that gene outcrossed into all corn; then all corn would cure cancer – surely that’s not a bad thing. The real question is not “Will GMOs cross-pollinate?” but instead “Will new outcrossed genes pose a real threat?” The answer to that question is the cumulative cost-benefit of the answers to all these other questions.

    • Unknown health effects: Hrmm… what studies are you reading that show substantial physiological changes in animals from consuming GMOs? This has been an area that has had a ton of scientific research, and all that I’ve come across (in any peer-reviewed journal worth reading) has concluded that there are no verifiable health effects from consuming GMOs. Europe is notorious for being the strongest adherents to the precautionary principle (don’t do anything unless we can prove 100% there is no potential for harm… a philosophy which would have prohibited man from the use of fire – ouch!). The European Commission (with no funding from corporations or others with conflict of interest) has done extensive research over the past decades and, trying as hard as they could to find negative health impacts from GMOs (following the precautionary principle to the letter), they have come up empty handed time and again and have thus approved the farming and human/livestock consumption of many of GM crops in Europe. A good article, “The Real GM Food Scandal”, published in Britain’s Prospect magazine rightly summarizes “the fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world’s leading experts—the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the [British] Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue—has confirmed this.” Americans have been consuming GMOs for decades without any verifiable health impacts whatsoever. 93% of rapeseed (canola oil) and soybeans in the USA are genetically modified. 86% of corn in the USA is GMO. When’s the last time you drank something containing high-fructose corn syrup? Chances are that’s GMO. When’s the last time you grew a third eye? I’ll assume never. Indeed, GMO foods are regulated so much more strictly than non-GMOs that they likely pose less health risks than non-GMO foods. No GMO would ever be approved for human consumption if it had the same allerginicity profiles of many non-GMO foods that are sold in supermarkets all around the world. For example, a small number of people are strongly allergic to non-GMO peanuts or kiwis – non-GMO foods are rarely tested for allergenicity, but GMO foods always are (very strictly so). Thus, in many respects, GMOs pose less health risks for consumption than non-GMOs.

    • Proliferation of pathogens: This claim is so fresh and untested by science that it should not yet be brought into the mainstream dialogue. The author, Dr. Huber, himself admitted in his follow-up letter to the European Commission that his “letter was not intended for public distribution.” It takes time for science to reach anything close to a conclusion. In order for any “discovery” to hold any water, it must be proven again and again by other scientists. Only then should it be regarded as serious. In Dr. Huber’s letter to the EC, he mentions “a deterioration in the plant health of corn, soybean, wheat and other crops” and tries to draw a connection between those problems and the expansion in genetically modified versions of those crops. But these GMOs have been in use for several decades, and the problems he’s citing are much more recent (suggesting little to no correlation). He has no real evidence to connect the two; one of his three appendices that he provides for “evidence” is a brief note from some anonymous Podunk Michigan veterinarian that can be roughly paraphrased as “My pigs are dying, I don’t know why, maybe it’s GMOs, maybe it’s witchcraft, help me please!”. It is highly speculative (read: BS) to identify a problem, have no idea what’s going on, identify something that maybe correlates, and then assume causation. Please don’t interpret this counterpoint to be an attempt at a conclusive argument that there are not new, potentially dangerous pathogens associated with GMOs. There might be; the science on this specific question has barely begun. My point here is that until this hypothesis has had decent supporting data published in a decent journal, and then – most importantly – verified by many other independent scientists, it should not be added to the public debate on GMOs. The public can’t tell the difference between one potentially crazy scientist’s hypothesis (most likely BS), an initial paper with some shred of potential evidence (potentially BS, like the first report of dying monarchs), and the flood of follow-up research published in leading journals by other scientists. Only when dozens, scores, or hundreds of scientists reach the same conclusion with years of super solid data should the outcomes then become fodder for public discussion. Oh yeah, hundreds of real scientists with decades of data have reached the same conclusion on GM foods – to date, there are no known risks worth getting uppity about.

    There are two types of risks in this world: those that the more you know, the less concerned you are (like nuclear power and GMOs) and those that the more you know, the more concerned you are (like influenza and CO2 emissions). In order to educate oneself on GMOs in particular, I highly recommend reading Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out Of Africa, by Robert Paarlberg. Also, a wonderful book of broader scope, The Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by the preeminent environmentalist Steward Brand, addresses a core and very critical question of your article: “Does it stand up to the long view?” It just so happens that, in addition to being a strong proponent of GMOs, Stewart Brand is co-founder of the thought-provoking Long Now Foundation, dedicated to fostering thinking that looks far beyond “the test of seven generations that the Native Americans used”, defining long-term thinking in the framework of the next 10,000 years (i.e. ~400 generations!). Personally, I would rather adopt a long view of 10,000 years than a couple hundred, and those who think about thousands of years are fairly unanimously in favour of GMOs.

    In short, everything in this world should be decided by detailed cost-benefit analysis based in evidence. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and we must accept tradeoffs in an intelligent and pragmatic manner. The only way for us to learn more about the safety of GMOs is to work with them. The safety of GM foods must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. This has been done, very rigorously to date, at must continue – we cannot give GM foods a blanket thumbs up, and we must continue to be extremely diligent in ensuring GMOs have no serious negative impacts on the environment and human health. If they do have negative impact (none found to date), we can’t just stop there – we need to then decide if the costs outweigh the benefits. But most importantly, we must not allow rumours of rumours of rumours to inform public perception on GMOs, one of the potential savours of our species and planet. We must refer to good science, not to bloggers citing bloggers who build their case on yet more uninformed bloggers. Or, if you don’t want to go read the raw data, at least read what the WHO, European Union, and pretty much every other major independent scientific institution in the world has concluded – GMOs are an integral part of our future and we must learn to apply them, certainly with caution, but (given we’ve looked far and wide for risks and found none), with increasing investment, research, development and distribution. We can only do that if politicians, and thus the public, are open to further GMO research. And we can only achieve that if we expose the myths as just that and force people to face what experts say about our world’s current problems and how we can best overcome them.

    I will be a little disappointed if this long comment doesn’t get a bit of pushback. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to write yet another four page reply. So, while I hope that much more discussion ensues, given that I can’t afford to elaborate much more, I would encourage anyone interested in GMOs to at least read those two books (Starved for Science & Whole Earth Discipline), peruse some of the reports published by leading international science agencies on this topic, and always seek answers from hundreds of experts (not one rouge “expert”) and solidly proven and re-proven evidence in any area of debate.

    1. Great comment, Tevis.

      I think you raise a darn good point that many sustainability advocates are afraid to address – the “bogey man” aspect of GMOs. The fact is, many of GM’s most ardent critics have barely basic scientific literacy.

      That said, I think there are a few big issues that shouldn’t be forgotten:

      1) The patent issue – I’m sure you know about the notorious behavior of Monsanto with regards to protecting its patents (many of which are only legal due to their incessant lobbying of congress). They are so fast to sue farmers no one is really sure how many farmers are actually doing anything illegal and how many have legitimately grown Monsanto’s patented grains by accident. Should all these patents really be upheld? Should it really be legal to control seed saving?

      2) I suspect there is more to know about the risk of cross polination and ecosystemic impacts of GMOs than is being released. All you have to do is think about rabbits and cane toads in Australia to see how quickly an invasive species can cause a disaster! Would companies be held liable for such things?

    2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I don’t have time to go through point by point and I am not as familiar with the literature as you clearly are. But I don’t buy your argument on cross-pollination, because it’s not fair to spread characteristics of organisms raised under controlled conditions to others living in the wild. Take salmon for example. Genes that make the fish produce more meat, also make them slower which would be deadly for fish in the wild. As for health effects and pathogens, that is the heart of the problem. It is nearly impossible in today’s environment to separate among the hundreds of factors we come into contact with every day. But the fact is, cancer rates are way up, as are allergies and many other health issues that were rare or non-existent. What causes them? If we only knew.
      So, you are right; it all comes down to risk. Interesting that you should mention nuclear power alongside GMO food, even in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The bottom line for me is it is reckless to be dispersing these organisms into the environment and our bodies while knowing as little about their impacts as we do. Approval should be limited to much more severe cost-risk-benefit analyses and only after thoroughly exhaustive (and transparent) testing has been done.

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