17 Sep 2009: Opinion

Why I Still Oppose
Genetically Modified Crops

Introduced more than a decade ago, genetically modified crops are now planted on millions of acres throughout the world. But the fundamental questions about them remain — both about their safety and their long-term impact on global food security and the environment.

by verlyn klinkenborg

For the past dozen years, I’ve been writing editorials opposing the introduction of genetically modified crops. When I began, genetically modified corn and soybeans were still just getting a foothold in American fields. Now, of course, hundreds of millions of acres here and abroad have been planted to these new varieties, which are usually engineered to withstand the application of pesticides — pesticides usually made by the same companies that engineer the seeds. Even wheat and rice producers, latecomers to the genetically modified table, are feeling the pressure to convert.

There has been a frenzy in the grain markets in the past couple of years — a new volatility in futures and in prices on the ground — that seems to favor genetically modified crops. It makes sense. The cost of conventionally-grown grain goes up and up because there is less and less of it. This leaves the world open to the nearly unchecked proliferation of genetically modified varieties.

After a dozen years, I still oppose genetically modified crops. This may sound like sheer truculence on my part — a Luddite reluctance to accept the future. It is certainly dispiriting. Like many people, I feel, as I did a decade ago, that genetically modified crops were introduced with bland assurances of safety based on studies from small test plots, a far different thing from the uncontrolled global experiment we now find ourselves in the midst of.

Scientists are still discovering the extent to which genetic fragments from these new crops can drift into other organisms. There is no evidence yet of
This represents the final transfer of the collective farming wisdom of the human race into corporate hands.
catastrophic drift, where a genetic shard from a new crop cripples other organisms. But there is plenty of evidence to show that genetically modified fragments are turning up in places they’re not wanted. The worry is not just how widespread the altered versions of familiar crops, like corn and soybeans, are becoming. It’s also that many more conventional crops are being modified and that many more landscapes and ecosystems, yet untouched, will be planted with genetically modified varieties.

These crops close the circle on the farmer’s knowledge, finally eliminating, after 10,000 years, the farmer’s role in the genetics of agriculture. Genetically modified crops are rigorously licensed forms of intellectual property. Every seed is a binding contract with stiff penalties attached. This represents the final transfer of the collective farming wisdom of the human race into corporate hands. Only the minutest fraction of the DNA in a genetically modified crop has been modified. The rest is the result of the infinite elaboration of working farmers choosing their own seeds, season after season, over all those thousands of years.

But the trouble with genetically modified crops isn’t merely the fact that they’re genetically modified. It’s that they embody so completely the troubling logic of modern agriculture. They demonstrate the tendency of commercial seeds to drive out traditional, locally adapted varieties, a pattern that has been intensifying since the introduction of hybrid corn in the 1930s. They exemplify the consistent bias toward expensive high-tech solutions, when, in much of the world, simple low-tech solutions still make much better, and much more affordable sense. They foster the spread of commodity crops, grown for cash, in place of subsistence crops.

Genetically modified crops create the illusion of more and better choices when, in fact, they represent a narrowing of genetic ownership and a model
Trying to pack a revolution into a seed won’t do when the entire system needs revolutionizing.
of genetic diversity that is unattainable outside the laboratory. Because of that, they may well turn out to decrease food security, especially as new non-food varieties — crops genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals, for instance — go into production. The risk is enhanced by the licensing restrictions on genetically modified seeds that prevent independent research on their environmental impact. In effect, the GM seed industry is able to stifle research, even by agricultural scientists who are sympathetic to the technology.

Above all, genetically modified crops give the illusion of revolutionizing farming without actually changing much of anything. Farmers who plant them do spend less time — and less fuel — in the field, which is a good thing. But trying to pack a revolution into a seed won’t do when the entire system needs revolutionizing. Industrial agriculture is antithetical to diversity of every kind — biological, social, cultural, political. To understand its real effects on diversity you have only to look at Brazilian soybeans, a commodity crop, growing where there was once Amazonian forest.

There is no disputing the enormous productivity of industrial agriculture, as long as you measure productivity solely in terms of the relationship between yield and labor and pay no attention to the health of the land or the well being of the people who live there. But in pursuing the unrelenting logic of an industrial version of agriculture we have left a world of alternatives unexplored.

The human species is still running ahead of the Malthusian prediction that we will outgrow our ability to feed ourselves. But this is a deeply troubling time for agriculture, as even a quick scan of the headlines reveals. Soaring food prices in the poorest parts of the world, soaring profits in the richest, ongoing — and wholly unnecessary — subsidies, growing competition between food and non-food crops, the list goes on and on.

To Americans, the continued resistance to genetically modified crops in other parts of the world may look Quixotic, a refusal to accept a done deal. But it is more than resistance to a type of seed. It is also resistance to a model of agriculture whose failings are all too plain.

POSTED ON 17 Sep 2009 IN Business & Innovation Climate Pollution & Health Science & Technology Water Asia North America 


This is a very well written piece, and I respect your opinions. However, many of the arguments you make would apply equally to hybrids and to non-biotech seed that is protected under other forms of patents (such as PVP, Plant Variety Protection). I would like to hear your thoughts about these types of crops in relation to your arguments here.
Posted by Anastasia Bodnar on 17 Sep 2009

I would still be against it if it weren't for "intellectual property." But now farmers are having this huge problem with GMO crops contaminating their fields. Monsanto sues hundreds of US farmers each year and thousands internationally. These are people whose properties are illegally raided. The only way to determine if these crops are in fact Monsanto's is to spray everything with pesticides. What survives belongs to Monsanto. These companies are fully aware that seeds spread in nature and now even organic farmers are trying to fight off Monsanto's greed. Where will it stop? I think we need to pass tougher laws. I would ban them all together or limit it to greenhouse raised crops. It's too dangerous.
Posted by Krissy on 17 Sep 2009

Your article is very well written and speaks the truth about the take over of our food supply. People need to educate themselves and not allow Monsanto and the like to interrupt what nature has been doing for hundreds of years to make a buck.
Posted by Regan Caton on 17 Sep 2009

I heartily support this idea. Genetically modified crops producing system is inhuman as it maybe making us seedless, endangering human species in the long run. And, the way how seed companies are controlling seed in the name of patent-ship can create monopoly in the most important element of the world-THE SEED.
Posted by padam Pande on 18 Sep 2009

The question must be added, what will happen if they gained full market control of a species and their parent seeds farms failed?
With the decline in bees and soil carbon, annual rainfall and now governments will vote to leave climate change reversal to the kids and grand kids in 2020-50, don't expect much support from governments to stop GM companies from adding to the demise of mankind.
Robert Vincin in China
Posted by Robert Vincin on 18 Sep 2009

Thank you, it is especially nice to see a
reasoned summary of the gmo crops, on the
heels of the Borlaug tributes singing the praises
of agribusiness and their Green Revolutions.

I would disagree that the world's objections to
gmo crops seems Quixotic to Americans, when a
decade of proliferation in the food supply has
failed to inform most American consumers of
their existence. We have no public debate.

Americans have no labeling requirements for
gmo foods and no tools to exercise any free
market choices to show there is objection or

Ignorance of gmo ingredients is the cornerstone
of their success and like the deregulated
financial markets, operating free from oversight
or public awareness, the motive for short term
profits come with huge, long term social costs.

"These crops close the circle on
the farmer’s knowledge, finally eliminating, after
10,000 years, the farmer’s role in the genetics
of agriculture. Genetically modified crops are
rigorously licensed forms of intellectual
property. Every seed is a binding contract with
stiff penalties attached. This represents the final
transfer of the collective farming wisdom of the
human race into corporate hands."

Whose Green Revolution is that?

Posted by Pamela Drew on 19 Sep 2009

Here in Turkey, as the Parliament prepares to debate a proposed new biosecurity law this fall, many forums and platforms at all levels of society are standing up in opposition to allowing the use of GMO seeds or the use in prepared foods or clothing of ingredients from GMO seeds, and in keeping with the European Union, in support of clear labeling on all imported products containing GMOs in the ingredients.
Posted by Carol Ann Yurur on 19 Sep 2009

Appalling! The threat that small farmers in the Third World might rise above their station by having "grown [crops] for cash, in place of subsistence crops" that currently only allow them to grow enough to barely feed their families thus keeping them in their place, is truly frightening.

Thank you for protecting us Mr. Klinkenborg.

Posted by Kip Hansen on 19 Sep 2009

Thoroughly agree with everything you say.

Moreover, crops genetically engineered to withstand pesticides wind up fed to livestock and humans who are NOT geneticially engineered to withstand pesticides. Every day it seems new connections are being drawn between pesticides and illness, such as Parkinson's disease, lymphoma, etc.
Posted by Miranda on 20 Sep 2009

Thank you for a well reasoned article. You have clearly expressed the reasons for the acute discomfort I feel about GM seeds and crops. You are not a voice in the wilderness and you have inspired me to keep speaking out against this kind of industrial agriculture.
Posted by Susan Anderson on 20 Sep 2009

Do you feel the same about crops derived from mutagenesis? Most of the arguments you use against GM crops also apply to those derived from this older, more crude methodology. There are thousands of mutagenesis derived crops throughout the world, yet I do not hear any complaints about these crops, which are often used in organic, non industrial agriculture, even though in many cases they share many of the traits (patents, resistance to herbicides, etc.) that you criticize in GM crops.

So tell us, what is your position on whether we should be growing varieties derived from
Posted by Phillip from Guatemala on 22 Sep 2009

The piece is revealing and I now appreciate the way my own countrymen in India have been resisting introduction of GM crops. In agriculture science does play a significant role but that perhaps cannot beat the traditional wisdom of the farmers and their inherent genius to choose their own seeds for the soil that they are intimately in tune with. In any case, the risks with GM crops seem to far outweigh their advantage. I feel this piece should be widely circulated for fullest appreciation of the implications of farming of genetically modified crops
Posted by Proloy Bagchi on 23 Sep 2009

These GMO crops have accompanying deleterious effects on the environment that are documented and ignored! GMO crops, for one, reduce the amount of Jimson weed to zero - the major food source for Monarch butterflies. THe 100% disappearance of Monarch butterflies when GMO crops are introduced is documented. There are others..It is a huge con game by Monsanto, to conceal these studies..
Posted by trace on 24 Sep 2009

Klinkenborg’s arguments are crystallised in the following paragraph.

“These crops close the circle on the farmer's knowledge, … over all those thousands of years.”

In other words, the biotechs have selected a handful of the best varieties developed by farmers over generations, and modified them to their own corporate purposes. Once their patent protected soy, canola, etc. is grown in the field, every other freely used and native variety is contaminated and thus protected by the same ruthlessly enforced patent law.

With GM canola now on Australian farms, within five years, on-farm hybridisation to suit ‘the back paddock’ or ‘the other side of the hill’ will risk financial ruin for the farmer struggling to earn an honest living off the land.

How have we let the ‘powers that be’ and a few farmers with dollar signs in their short-sighted eyes, trade our heritage and breeding ingenuity for eternal obligation to the likes of Monsanto?

Posted by Robert Vickers on 24 Sep 2009

I would like to join the "thanks" about putting into words part of my disconfort about GM crops.
I think that the problem already existed with "conventionnal" breeding, but it intensified with the introduction of the GM version of the crops. 2008 figures show that 70% of the soybean grown worldwide is GM (source: GMO Compas). Could it already be too late?
Posted by Cilia on 06 Oct 2009

For those people that think hybrids are the same as GM life forms please go back to school or get some fundamental understanding of genetics. I do not want to eat crops that are expressing compounds that kill or injure insects. If you put poison ivy gene's in sweet corn to keep corn borer off I do not want to eat it. Not an accurate example but the point is made. Remember DDT was safe cigarettes were safe, agent orange was safe,PCB's were safe. All top notch scientists and government telling us all these past things were safe. Now we are being told everything corporations do to enhance profits are safe please at least lie with more clever method.
Posted by Bob Tallon on 09 Oct 2009

Great Article! I have been thinking a lot about this very issue lately. I have attached the url to my article that I wrote on opensalon.com.

Keep up the great work with all that you do! What is heartening is that people are starting to catch on about this. Let's hope that we can raise awareness enough to dramatically change this in the next few years.
Posted by Sara Knight on 11 Oct 2009

Great article Verlyn. We are having similar problems here in the UK with eradicating the use of GM crops. We simply do not know enough about them to continue down this road with any degree of certainty or safety.

The very point that "Scientists are still discovering" the consequences of GM growing should throw up massive warning flags. It is another classic case of greed vs common sense.

Posted by Team Tactics on 09 Nov 2009

Many of the arguments you make would apply equally to hybrids and to non-biotech seed that is protected under other forms of patents. Every day it seems new connections are being drawn between pesticides and illness, such as Parkinson's disease, lymphoma, etc.

Posted by Disloxer on 22 Nov 2009

Thanks for article! I've thought a lot about this very points lately.

Today, just four countries account for 99% of the world's commercially grown transgenic crops. Many others have been stalling over whether to embrace transgenic agriculture, but won't be able to put off the decision for much longer.

Posted by Philippe on 18 Dec 2009

The real problem about modified crops it will be when when we will outgrow the ability to feed ourselves, in that moment we will be forced to accept modified crops for food. If people will be informed well I think they will accept modified crops but only after we will not be able to feed ourselves. In future global warming will influence our food cultures, the desert is extending and we need to find cultures to be able to resit to global warming. Unfortunately I think that modified crops will be introduced on huge scale over 10-20 years.

Posted by pariuri sportive on 25 Jan 2010

You have forgoten several things about genetically modified grain, They have cause bad results in livestock feed for meat production. They are harmful to humans. The are not to be used for livestock feed or human consumption as mandated by the FDA. But they are in fact in our livestock feed and in our daily diet. I also believe that they are the reason for bees lose. My friend and his neighbors lost livestock because of the modified grain. They are now trying to get the seed company's who developed these grain to pay fore their lose. But all we have come up with is a cover up so that these company's can get rich without taking responseabilty for their action.

Posted by Kenneth Clark on 10 Mar 2010

Personally, I agree and encourage this idea. I don't believe technology is that close to make SAFE genetically modified crops. Just imagine, a terrorist plan to get into the crop line, and that will spread like wildfire, or even a chemical bug.

Posted by Joseph Morris on 20 Jun 2010

Genetically manipulated food crops are not fit for human consumption and should not be classified as food. No legitimate study has ever proven them to be safe or nutritious. The burden of proof is on the producers of such crops to verify their safety and, to date, all data has revealed that they are unsafe.

Claims that GM foods will end world hunger are baseless, propagated only by those that have a
financial interest in converting the world's food supply to their own patented varieties in order to control it.

That`s why i Still Oppose!

Posted by DauAnunturi on 24 Nov 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
verlyn klinkenborgABOUT THE AUTHOR
Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board at the New York Times, where he regularly writes editorial opinions about rural life. His most recent book is Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, Klinkenborg reflected on the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth.



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