Two decades have passed since GM crops were first introduced—and most of their supposed benefits are yet to come to fruition. In fact, they may be more trouble than they're worth. Learn about the issues associating with GM crops, and what you can do to avoid consuming GM foods.
“To turn a blind eye to 40,000 starving people around the world is a moral outrage. We have an ethical commitment not to lose time in implementing transgenic technology.”
—Klaus Leisinger, Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, 1999.
You’ve probably heard this before. It’s all over the news: We need genetically modified, or GM, crops to feed a growing global population and to help protect our environment. A bit of investigation into the reality of GM crops, however, reveals some major problems with this claim.
Wrong solution to the wrong problem
To begin with, relying on genetic modification as the solution to world hunger ignores the real root problem: hunger is caused by poverty and inequality. People are hungry because they don’t have enough money to buy food or enough land to grow it, and because of bad food distribution and poor infrastructure for farmers. The fact is, we already produce enough food to feed more than the world’s entire population—and we waste one-third of it.
If we dig even deeper, we find out that GM crops have actually broken many of the promises they came with. Twenty years after they were first introduced, we can see that GM crops have not increased crop yields or farmers’ incomes, and they have not been better for the environment.
GM crops have not increased yields or farmers’ incomes
So far, around the world, studies show that yields have not consistently increased with the introduction of GM crops. Although the US grows 40 percent of all the GM crops in the world, yields from soy and corn have not increased because of the introduction of GM herbicide-tolerant varieties.
In India, yields from GM insect-resistant cotton have not been consistent from one year to the next, or from one part of the country to another. Farmers in regions of India with low rainfall and marginal soils, for instance, have seen drastic crop failures.
When GM cotton fails, farmers suffer terribly. By August 2012, the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture concluded, “After the euphoria of a few initial years, [GM] Bt cotton cultivation has only added to the miseries of the small and marginal farmers.”
The effects of these GM cotton failures on small farmers was made worse by the fact that the seeds, which are patented, cost a lot more than conventional and traditional seeds. This makes it even harder for farmers to earn money from GM crops.
In India, a packet of GM cotton seeds can cost anywhere from three to eight times as much as the cost of conventional hybrid seed. Similarly, in Canada, GM seeds are more expensive than non-GM seed.
Many farmers around the world continue to grow food from ancient and traditional seed varieties that are already suited to local conditions and environmental stress. These seeds are more effective and less costly than GM seeds.
GM crops harm the environment
GM crops have also not held up to their promise to help the environment. In particular, GM crops have increased the use of chemical herbicides.
A well-known study by Charles Benbrook looked at US government data and found that GM herbicide-tolerant crops have increased herbicide use by 527 million lb (239 million kg) in the past 16 years in the US.
Overall, pesticide use in the US was 24 percent higher per acre on GM crops than it was on conventional fields. Similarly, in Argentina, glyphosate use increased from 8 million litres in 1995 to over 200 million litres by 2013.
The heavy use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide called “Roundup,” in Canada and the US, has led to the emergence of “superweeds” that are resistant to glyphosate. There are now 28 weeds around the world that are glyphosate resistant; 14 of them are in the US, and four are in Canada.
As a response to glyphosate-resistant weeds, biotechnology companies Monsanto and Dow have developed GM crops that are tolerant to the older herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba. These GM crops will only make the problem worse.
In fact, the widespread use of GM 2,4-D-tolerant crops is projected to increase the use of 2,4-D by 50 percent. As is the case with many agricultural chemicals, exposure to 2,4-D has been linked to a number of serious health problems.
Rising herbicide use is a stark reminder that GM crops do not fit into sustainable, healthy farming. They are instead short-lived products that are creating new problems for farmers and the environment.
Genetically modified crops were launched with attractive promises that are still being repeated today. However, after 20 years, these promises remain unmet. Instead of helping to solve the problems of hunger and reduce pesticide use in farming, GM crops are making these problems worse.
Through our food choices we can support farmers who do not grow GM crops or use chemical herbicides. Their farms keep our food system diverse, sustainable, and healthy.
How to avoid GM foods
- Eat certified organic food—it’s one sure way to avoid GM ingredients. Organic farmers do not use GM seeds or feed GM grains to their meat and dairy animals. Organic food is also made without using chemical pesticides.
- Read labels as there’s also some labelling of non-GM foods. Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label on packaged foods. nongmoproject.org
- Avoid processed foods with corn, canola, and soy ingredients (unless labelled organic or Non-GMO Project Verified). These three are the main GM foods, along with sugar from sugar beet.
- Eat whole foods to avoid eating most GM ingredients. There is some GM sweet corn in the grocery store, but the only other possible fruits and vegetables are GM papaya from Hawaii and some types of GM squash from the US.
For details and updates please see cban.ca/gmfoods.
Learn more about CBAN’s ongoing projects
GM crops: Two traits in four crops
Four GM crops—corn, soy, canola, and cotton—make up 99 percent of the world’s GM crops. The other GM crops on the market—GM sweet corn, papaya, squash, white sugar beet for sugar, and alfalfa for animal feed (US only)—are grown in very small quantities.
Over 99 percent of these four GM crops are engineered with one or both of two traits: herbicide tolerance (plants are engineered to tolerate the application of particular herbicides, which means that farmers can apply that chemical widely, killing weeds but leaving the GM crops standing) and insect resistance (plants are engineered to produce a toxin, which kills certain insects).
News update—GM apples
In March 2015, Health Canada approved the growth and sale of the “non-browning” apple in Canada, following the lead of the US Department of Agriculture.
The GM “non-browning” apple is genetically modified to keep it from going brown after being cut. A small BC company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) was recently granted approval to use the GM trait in Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples. Soon after, a larger US agriculture biotechnology company called Intrexon Corporation announced its agreement to acquire OSF.