There is one fact about genetically engineered foods that there is no debate about: no one wakes up in the morning eager to buy gene-altered food. There's good reason for this. Genetically modified foods do nothing for the "eating public". They provide no extra nutrition, flavor, safety or any other trait that people actually want. Instead, these food products only offer risks, which include potential toxicity, allergenecity, and lower nutritional value.
This presents a tough problem for the Monsantos of the world, who are pushing these GM foods. How can you sell something to the public that offers no benefits to them? And, because of their lobbying power, the biotech companies have ensured that their products are not labeled. So Monsanto's real request of the public is "be unknowing guinea pigs for foods that make us a lot of money and offer you nothing but risk."
Obviously this message is a PR nightmare, so Monsanto has come up with a spin that is old as public relations itself: "accept and buy our products because they will help the world." More particularly, their ads displayed in mass transit systems around the country and regularly on NPR claim that GM foods "will feed a hungry world" and "reduce the load of pesticides" used in agriculture.
Not surprisingly, both these claims turn out to be self-serving myths. Earlier this year the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a detailed report entitled "Failure to Yield". The report's findings were straightforward and incontrovertible. After 21 years of research, billions of dollars of investments in public and private funds, and more than 13 years of commercialization, GM crops have done nothing to significantly increase yield: so much for the "feeding the world's hungry" spin.
Now, a new report from The Organic Center, "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years", exposes the "less pesticide" myth. The report, which was released on Tuesday, was authored by Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading agricultural scientist. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also mention that Center for Food Safety helped fund the report.
It turns out that far from reducing pesticides, GM crops are a major reason for the massive expansion of pesticide use in recent years. This should not be a surprise. The majority of GE crops are "Roundup Ready," designed to survive heavy and repeated spraying with Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller. Roundup Ready crops have dramatically increased Roundup use, and spawned a growing epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds, which now infest millions of acres of American cropland. Killing resistant weeds requires more herbicides. How much more? Dr. Benbrook's study - based on official USDA data - shows that GE crops have increased the overall use of weedkillers in the U.S. by a massive 383 million pounds since 1996.
Sometimes even more chemicals won't do the trick. In the South, cotton farmers are reverting to the pre-industrial practice of "chopping cotton," or manual hoeing, to rid their fields of Roundup-resistant pigweed.
Never fear, the biotech industry has "killer" solutions to the Roundup-resistant weed epidemic - you guessed it, new crops resistant to different and multiple herbicides. Dr. Benbrook describes these "next-generation" GE crops, which are the true pesticide-promoting future of agricultural biotechnology.
For instance, Dow Agrosciences will soon bring us GE corn, resistant to 2,4-D, one of the weedkillers in Agent Orange - the dioxin-laced defoliant used during the Vietnam War. 2,4-D-resistant corn will undoubtedly increase use of this dangerous weedkiller, which has been banned in Sweden, Norway and Denmark due to its links to cancer and reproductive disorders. Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer and Syngenta all have their own new "herbicide-tolerant" crops in the works, some resistant to two and even three herbicides each. The inevitable result will be continuing increases in the use of toxic chemicals to kill "next-generation" weeds resistant to multiple weedkillers.
In the face of all this, many farmers are becoming disillusioned with GE crops. In many states, demand for conventional seed, especially soybeans, is outstripping supply. Among the reasons given by farmers for this historic switch are dramatic price hikes for biotech seeds, increased pesticide costs due to resistant weeds, premiums for non-GM supplies, and importantly, the ability to save and replant conventional seeds, which is illegal with Monsanto's patented GE seeds.
Thanks then to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Organic Center for debunking the myths about GM crops and foods. In terms of timing, the two reports released this year couldn't have come at a more crucial moment. Through careful scientific analysis they expose the false advertising that biotechnology companies are using in print and on our public radio airways.
We should all know what Monsanto and other companies are selling, and its not a solution to world hunger or a cleanser for the environment. What they are really selling is what they make best: chemicals. The biotech giants - Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow - are, without exception, major pesticide manufacturers. They have each bought up sizeable chunks of the world's seed supply, and are using biotechnology to make those seeds sell their pesticides for them.
It may be good for their bottom line, but its bad for us, the safety of our food, and the health of our environment.