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.
This represents the final transfer of the collective farming wisdom of the human race into corporate hands.
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 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.
Trying to pack a revolution into a seed won’t do when the entire system needs revolutionizing.
Genetically modified crops create the illusion of more and better choices when, in fact, they represent a narrowing of genetic ownership and a model 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.