Current industrial agriculture aims to increase crop yields while reducing production costs – but the impacts of those goals can be detrimental to the environment, biodiversity, health and sustainability.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a product of industrial agriculture. Genetic modification is a gene-altering technology used to introduce new characteristics to a plant, which may improve its resilience to harsh environments, pests and pathogens.
Genetic modification sounds like a promising option on the surface but it raises ethical, political, economic, environmental and social concerns that steer many people away from growing GM crops.
GM seeds are most often designed to be resistant to Roundup, the brand name of a chemical herbicide produced by Monsanto. ‘Roundup Ready’ crops like soy, corn and beets have been altered genetically so they do not die after being sprayed with Roundup. This allows farmers to spray Roundup on fields to kill weeds but not the cash crop.
Corporate control of seeds
Monsanto was the world’s largest seed company, owning more than 80 percent of all GM seeds planted globally, until the company was bought by Bayer in 2018. Bayer is now the world’s largest seed and agricultural biotechnology company, and second largest agrochemical company, owning 33 percent of the global seed market and 23 percent of the agrochemical market.
Corporate control in the global seed market poses serious problems for small farmers. Today, just four companies control 67 percent of the global seed market, and more than 65 percent of the global pesticide market.
Monsanto’s Roundup and Roundup-resistant seeds initially offered farmers an easy yet effective solution to addressing crop threats. But Monsanto patented their seeds, claiming full ownership and control over them, which forced farmers using the Roundup system of crop production to re-purchase seeds every season rather than harvesting and saving them.
Monsanto’s seed patents led to an increase in their seed sales. Higher demand for Roundup-resistant seeds also meant higher demand for Roundup.
Since the introduction of GM crops in Canada, sales of herbicides sales have risen by almost 200 percent.
As the corporation made huge profits, many farmers began to suffer. If Monsanto’s seeds were saved and used again, or if fields became contaminated with a Monsanto patented seed, farmers and landowners began getting visits and threats from Monsanto representatives or investigators.
A report in 2013 found that Monsanto had 142 patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses. But farmers were fighting back, arguing that corporations like Monsanto did not create seeds, and that there should not be strongly controlled ownership over such vital resources that are essential for survival.
Farmers, researchers and concerned citizens also began raising concerns about the health impacts of glyphosate – the main ingredient in Roundup.
As of 2019, Bayer (previously Monsanto) was facing more than 9,000 lawsuits across the US, mostly from former gardeners and agricultural workers who believe that exposure to Roundup caused their cancer.
Glyphosate strikes a nerve for many people, including New Brunswickers. The harsh chemical is sprayed on clear-cuts in New Brunswick’s forests to prevent hardwoods and other foliage from competing with softwoods, which are easier to harvest for profit.
Glyphosate has been used on New Brunswick’s forests since the 1970s, and continues to be used today despite major backlash from the public.
Stop Spraying New Brunswick (SSNB) is an organization working to raise awareness and put an end to the use of glyphosate on Crown land. SSNB argues that the use of glyphosate is continually diminishing our natural plant diversity, which has negative impacts on biodiversity and wildlife populations.
The same can be said about the use of glyphosate (Roundup) on GM crops.
Use of GM seeds and Roundup has shown negative effects on soil, water and wildlife ecosystems. The expansion of GM herbicide-tolerant corn and soy, crops managed with the application of herbicides, has destroyed much of the monarch butterfly habitat in North America.
Monarch butterfly populations have declined by more than 97 percent in about 30 years. It is estimated that the species has lost more than 165 million acres of habitat largely due to the increased use of glyphosate which kills the common milkweed – the monarch’s only source of food.
On top of biodiversity loss, the use of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops has influenced evolution. Over the past 20 years, 37 weed species have developed resistance to glyphosate, and some insects are beginning to develop resistance to the toxins in GM crops.
Even when GM seeds are used without Roundup or other harsh chemical herbicides, the implications can be harmful.
Heide Hermary’s ‘Working with Nature’ explains that soil contains bacteria, which lacks a ‘nuclear envelope’ meaning the DNA of the bacteria loosely floats inside the cell. Bacteria can freely exchange cellular content including DNA, even if the genes are mutated.
Bacteria reproduce asexually – some doubling their population every minute – and can quickly build up populations resistant to every type of chemical control, which Hermary says can have serious implications on the growing of genetically modified plants.
Hermary highlights research from the Government of Australia, which found cotton plants that had been genetically modified with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) had leached Bt into the soil, causing an altered soil microbiology. He also notes a case where a German researcher found that genes from the pollen of GM rapeseed had transferred into the guts of honeybees.
GM crops also pose a threat to wild, non-GMO and organic crops through the risk of contamination. Contamination from GM crops can occur through pollination or seed escape, and can bear a great burden on farmers.
Many organic farmers spend considerable time and money maintaining their ‘organic’ title. When a GM crop contaminates an organic farm, it can put major financial burdens on farmers who are then unable to sell their organic crops.
There are many negative impacts of the unjust control and monopolization of seeds. Many companies now label themselves as non-GMO to show that they are not involved with the harmful implications of genetic modification.
Growing with organic, heirloom and indigenous seeds is an effective way to support plant, soil and human health, as well as social justice for farmers who have suffered under the power of giant corporations.
Hannah Moore is a recent graduate from St. Thomas University, currently working as a Food Security and Regenerative Farming Reporter for the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.