Yours truly doesn’t profess to *know* anything about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), not having researched the subject, although he thinks the chasm between the reporting and the fear cannot be overlooked. (Notably this New Yorker story from last year, called Seeds of Doubt, in which Michael Specter politely and almost apologetically reported that a slew of peer reviewed scientific studies from around the world have found no health impacts and identified no harmful biological mechanisms to human health in GMOs themselves.)
Dr. David Katz, of Yale, put it a little more spikily, pointing out that among the safe and accepted genetically modified organisms in our common experiece is the tea rose and the dog, which is a genetically modified wolf.
But even if GMO impacts on human health have not been found that’s not to say that their impacts on natural systems and agriculture have no consequence. Far from it. Nor does that let manufacturers such as Monsanto, who profit mightily from their use, off the hook. This month in Harper’s, contrarian and leftist Andrew Cockburn writes a remarkably sharp piece about a seemingly different subject — invasive species — in which he shows that the fiercest scientific opposition to invasive species, from a famous ecologist named Peter Raven, allied with a personal faith in GMOs that was enormously useful to Monsanto.
The piece is called Weed Whackers. In it Cockburn shows that GMOs and glyphosate are very much intertwined in history of action on invasive species.
For his part, Raven spoke publicly about the virtues of GMOs. The company’s grand scheme was to genetically modify crops — particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton — to render them immune to the glyphosate in Roundup. This would allow farmers to spray weeds without killing the crops. Teaming with Life featured a Monsanto photograph of a flourishing bioengineered plant next to a pathetic nonengineered plant obviously about to expire. “Major companies will be, are, a major factor if we are going to win world sustainability,” Raven told an interviewer in 1999. “There is nothing I’m condemning Monsanto for.” (In his conversation with me, Raven defended his former patron even more stoutly, noting Monsanto’s many civic philanthropies and absolving the company of any ill intent: “They obviously have no interest in poisoning everybody or doing something bad.”)
I asked Raven whether his efforts to protect the natural world didn’t clash in some way with his support for something very unnatural: GMO technology. “What’s natural anymore?” he replied. “If we’re going to play God, we might as well be good at it.”
With the backing of Al Gore, an admirer of Raven’s, and support of the Clinton administration, in the 1990’s GMOs were encouraged by federal anti-invasive prioritization that promoted new formulations of Round-Up, Monsanto’s leading herbicide, for “habitat restoration markets.”
Even if well-intended, surely the prospect of massive applications of herbicides to the natural landscape for the sake of wildness has to give pause. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” and all that. Chris Clarke for KCET points out that the National Resources Defense Council has petitioned the EPA to cut down on the use of Round-Up to save the Monarch Butterfly.
A large environmental group is charging that a dramatic increase in the use of a popular weed-killer is the culprit in the last decade’s plunge in monarch butterfly numbers, and the group is asking the EPA to clamp down on the chemical spray to save the butterfly. But are they blaming a symptom rather than the real cause?
On Monday, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced it had petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start an urgent review of its rules for use of the weed-killer glyphosate, trade-named Roundup, which it says is behind the die-off in monarch butterfly numbers.
The EPA’s last Roundup rules were released in 1993, and since then use of the pesticide has multiplied by a factor of 10. And that’s the same factor by which numbers of monarch butterflies have fallen in the last decade or so. Many scientists agree that there’s a direct link between Roundup use and the die-off of the popular butterfly.
Clarke thinks that loss of habitat devoted to corn for ethanol is also a factor (and the NRDC doesn’t deny it).
So that’s one alarming surprise: that GMOs may be indirectly responsible for killing millions upon millions of butterflies, which was not what drove activists to call for GMO labeling on foods.
The second surprise came when the august New England Journal of Medicine this week announced it had grave doubts about GMOs, but again, not for health reasons relating to consumption of GMOs themselves, but for health reasons relating to glyphosate, which is now considered by research to be carcinogenic. In particular the journal is alarmed about a new herbicide containing the notorious 2,4-D of Agent Orange fame, which is coming to the market designed to overcome increasing resistance of weeds to glyphosate.
In an editorial, the journal notes:
…widespread adoption of herbicide-resistant crops has led to overreliance on herbicides and, in particular, on glyphosate.5 In the United States, glyphosate use has increased by a factor of more than 250 — from 0.4 million kg in 1974 to 113 million kg in 2014. Global use has increased by a factor of more than 10. Not surprisingly, glyphosate-resistant weeds have emerged and are found today on nearly 100 million acres in 36 states. Fields must be now be treated with multiple herbicides, including 2,4-D, a component of the Agent Orange defoliant used in the Vietnam War.
The first of the two developments that raise fresh concerns about the safety of GM crops is a 2014 decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve Enlist Duo, a new combination herbicide comprising glyphosate plus 2,4-D. Enlist Duo was formulated to combat herbicide resistance. It will be marketed in tandem with newly approved seeds genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, 2,4-D, and multiple other herbicides. The EPA anticipates that a 3-to-7-fold increase in 2,4-D use will result.
The journal calls for a reconsideration of the approval of Enlist Duo, and it calls for labeling of GMO foods.
Speaking of GMO labeling, perhaps most surprising — and ironic — of all, was the revelation in the Wall Street Journal today that manufacturers of foods without a genetic component, such as salt, are paying for “non-GMO” labeling.
The WSJ writes:
While the U.S. government and most major science groups say evidence shows that GMOs are safe, consumer concern has grown so strong that some vendors of products like blueberries and lettuce are paying for non-GMO labeling even though their products aren’t among the small number of crops that are genetically modified in the U.S.
In a twist of fate, the lack of a GMO label is driving food sellers to label foods as non-GMO.