Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The problem with GMOs

Lately, genetically modified organisms (GMO), terminator, hybrid and heirloom seeds and patent rights have become more important for producers and consumers to understand. A number of GMOs are already in our food chain, and many more are awaiting their approval to be grown in Canada. Recently, I attended a protest against the University of Guelph's EnviroPig(TM), a GM animal, which they want to put into production on farms. Its claim to utility is much reduced phosphorus in its excretions (currently an environmental problem at large hog operations).

So what's the fuss all about? Why is genetic modification so controversial? What's at stake?

This is my stab at these issues, not on a super scientific level (you can all look up scientific papers on-line if you want the nitty gritty details) but from my perspective as an organic farmer whose goal is sustainable agriculture. I'm also going to stick with discussing plants, not transgenic animals or gene therapy, etc., which are all the results of recombinant DNA technology.

On a very basic level, farmers growing vegetables or field crops (grain/oil seed/soy/etc.) have the option of buying hybrid, GM or open (or self)-pollinating (OP) seeds. Of these three kinds, they can only save seed from OP crops as they're the only ones that breed true (given the right circumstances) and aren't patented (like GM and some hybrid seeds).

An F1 hybrid is the progeny of two homozygous parents. If you remember your high school or 1st year university biology, homozygous means that the two alleles for a given trait (like seed colour) are the same. This ensures that the F1 seed that results is very uniform genetically, reliably expressing the dominant parent characteristics for which it was bred. Producing stable F1 hybrid seed requires very controlled pollination, usually by hand, to make sure that each parent breeds with the other and not with its own kind. F1 hybrids grown and allowed to go to seed produce F2 seed, whose genetics would be a mix of the original parents and the F1 seed, which makes it very unreliable for reproducing F1 genetics. It is possible to stabilize a hybrid by breeding it over many generations until you've stabilized the original F1, essentially making it 90%+ homozygous. Some F1 hybrids are actually sterile (like a mule), which means no seed can be harvested from that crop.

Genetically modified seed has been created in a lab using recombinant DNA technology. It usually involves the insertion or deletion of a gene sequence. Insertions via bacterial or viral vectors are usually from a different species entirely (not plant at all). The first approvals for GM crops in Canada were in the 1990s. The first commercial cultivation of GM plants was in 1996. Currently, most of Canada's canola, corn and soybean crops are GM varieties. These varieties could have resistance to commercial herbicides (so they will survive herbicide application), be able to produce their own pesticidal proteins, or do both. The majority of these genetics have been developed (or bought) by Monsanto, and supposedly, their earliest patents start expiring in 2014. Globally, the highest percentage of GM crops grown are of corn, soy, cotton, canola & potatoes.

Open (or self) pollinating varieties, of which heirlooms would be a subset, set seed through sexual reproduction, aided by pollinators, such as insects, animals, the wind, etc. Some varieties are also self-pollinating. You can save genetically stable seed from many of these varieties, provided that you practice good seed saving techniques, such as isolation distances, buffer zones, removing genetically inferior plants before pollination, etc. to ensure that you're breeding true and for the hardiest plants. This type of sexual reproduction ensures genetic diversity and the production of plant varieties uniquely suited to the environment in which they're grown. Heirloom seeds are usually older varieties (50+ years old) which have mainly been preserved through the work of home gardeners for generations. Luckily for smaller vegetable producers like me, there are many heirloom varieties available commercially these days.

The pros to F1 hybrid seeds are their genetic reliability in terms of the traits that they express, as they usually produce more uniform fruit than OP/Heirloom varieties. That said, if the conditions aren't ideal in terms of moisture, heat units, etc., they won't do any better than other plants. The cons are that you can't save any seed from them and they cost more from seed companies than OP varieties (after all, they do require more effort to produce). Some would argue that they're less tasty or nutritious than OP varieties, probably because they've been bred more for size and shape (for mass production) than flavour.

As an organic farmer, I can't see any of pros to GM seeds. Since I don't use any herbicides, resistance to it isn't of any use to me. And I shudder at the thought that a plant is producing pesticides itself that could be killing a broad spectrum of insects that touch them, thereby destroying biodiversity of the insect population. Organic farming is about having healthy soils and resilient, biodiverse ecosystems. But for me, the biggest con of GM seeds, is letting their genetics loose in the environment, potentially contaminating plant gene pools beyond our ability to remediate. The arguments for how that can be prevented include terminator seeds (so that the plants can't reproduce at all) and large buffer zones. Terminator seeds scare me because nature always finds a way to sexually reproduce, which means the terminator gene could actually make its way into non-GM varieties and cause the genocide of those varieties. Large buffer zones are both unpredictable (high winds, far roaming insects and animals) and impractical (how much land would need to be used for buffering?). Also GM seeds generally cost a lot, and must be grown with specific chemical and water inputs, all large costs.

Open pollinated varieties have the benefit of being relatively easy to cultivate for seed and in many cases, of having been around for a very long time. Their plants and fruit have been eaten by generations without negative side effects. One of the reasons why GM organisms raise alarm bells for me, is that the technology is not that old and its products have only had a limited time to be tested for adverse effects. Consider that DNA recombinant technology was first practiced in the early 1970s and the first GM crops for commercial production were in 1996. That's only 15 years of limited, though hugely growing, production of GM foods. There have been studies that show that GM varieties of soy are much more allergenic than non-GM varieties, and there are worries that GM foods can contribute to antibiotic resistance. How many more children these days have allergies and sensitivities that weren't around when you were growing up? There may be few whole GM foods available for consumption, but they are definitely used in highly processed foods, like vegetable oils and breakfast cereals. New plant varieties are created all the time in nature, but GM varieties cross species boundaries with their genetics. Outside the lab, plants only sexually reproduce with other plants, not frogs or fish.

Currently, the Liberals are trying to pass a moratorium on allowing GM alfalfa into Canada (after another bill failed to pass). The Liberals, NDP & PQ would all vote in favour of this moratorium until more scientific study can be done, but the Conservatives have stalled a vote, twice now. The Monsantos of the world have many lobbyists and a lot of money to throw at political parties. The concern with GM alfalfa (other than just an overall concern with GMOs!) is that it could contaminate Canada's alfalfa supply, thereby jeopardizing our production of organic livestock or of closing markets to our alfalfa. This is a real risk, as GM flax has already contaminated Canada's flax supply, making it impossible to sell Canadian flax into GM-banning markets. Alfalfa is mainly pollinated by bees, who can fly very far indeed in their search for pollen. It is naive to assume that cross-pollination into non-GM alfalfa fields can be prevented. Organic production doesn't allow for any GM products/inputs at all and most grazing animals are fed alfalfa, either in the field or barn, along with other grains/grasses. Generally, Ontario farmers don't even grow alfalfa as a monocrop, as their alfalfa's usually intercropped with other grasses. A GM-alfalfa crop would be a monocrop that would be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide to get rid of broad-leaf weeds. So the likelihood of farmers even wanting to buy expensive GM-alfalfa seed and its partnered herbicide are low...but there's always someone...and before you know it, there wouldn't be any non-GM alfalfa in Canada.

Overall, I think GMOs are dangerous because there's too much that is unknown about their long-term effects on gene pools, people and the environment, especially weighed against their short-sighted benefits (high yields with expensive inputs).

At Black Sheep Farm this year, I will be growing 37 different vegetable crops, 91 different varieties in total. Of those varieties, 64 are open/self-pollinating, many being heirlooms, and 27 are hybrids. Clearly, I'm not a monocropping kind of farmer ;P I hope that all these different kinds of plants will attract many different insects to my field, so lots of pollination can happen and the insects can be in predator/prey balance. And I don't even really like bugs ;P What I do love is a biodiverse ecosystem. After all, variety is the spice of life!

2 comments:

Derek Ethier said...

Excellent post Brenda.

GMO crops have always struck me as one of those decisions that years from now, people will be incredulous that it was pursued with such reckless abandon.

Admittedly, I have been swayed by the yield argument and the need to feed the ever-growing population. Sadly, however noble the ideal, I'm sure the main goal is revenue for Monsanto et al.

Looking forward to this years crop! Hopefully we'll get to see you soon.

Brenda Hsueh said...

Check out this article for an alternative to GMOs and other industrial agriculture technologies to feed the world: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=54775.

I wish countries would prioritize feeding themselves before growing export crops, but that just isn't the way our current world economy works :(