Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Food allergies are rampant in the United States, but can the phenomenon be tied to Genetically Modified Organisms?

U.S. intellectual property regulation dictates investigations for patent infringements. The genetic material in GMO seeds is patented and protected. Does this threaten the freedom of non-GMO farmers to retain their own seeds for next year’s crop?

Crops are genetically modified for the realization of this one basic goal: feed 6.7 billion people every day. Water shortages, soil nutrition limitations, pests, and politics, to name a few obstacles, make this goal impossible. GMOs are designed to overcome the first three impediments. They enable environmental stewardship through resource conservation, especially through no-till practices (see benefits from  post “…Determined to Succeed!”). We’ll discuss the health and political implications of GMOs.   

It seems everybody knows somebody with a life-threatening allergy to foods like nuts, milk, soybeans, wheat, and corn. Consumers and even scientists assume that Bt, a gene spliced into seeds that promotes the plants’ resistance to insects, provokes allergic reactions in humans. Because plants are producing their own pesticides (Bt toxins), many suppose that humans are developing allergies to foods containing the compound. While biotech companies claim the Bt protein is destroyed by our stomach acids, other reports claim that allergic reactions have closely coincided with the use of Bt pesticides. Bakshi (2003) described public allegations of allergic reactions to GMOs. Some GMOs that have caused allergic reactions in people did so because a gene from a Brazil nut (a normal allergen-containing plant) was spliced into a soybean. People that were then allergic to the soybeans were so because they had an allergy related to the Brazil nut, but unrelated to the fact that it was a GMO. The author concedes that allergens, such as those from nuts, milk, and gluten, are easily tracked and identified, so that GMOs found to contain these proteins are not released to the human food supply. Given that proteins are not ever absorbed into the body in their original form but rather digested down into peptides of short amino acid chains, it is also unlikely that animals that consume non-food grade GMOs can pass along the allergens to human consumers.  

 In summarizing the safety of GMOs and the rigor with which safety and allergen testing is conducted, I will not proceed to “re-invent the wheel” after Monsanto has composed explanatory websites that are both candid and clear. After being quite frankly impressed, I encourage you to visit Monsanto’s Issues and Answers page.

Small farmers who do not purchase GM seeds fear “bullying” by Monsanto for free-blowing pollen that contaminates their crops. A group of organic farmers filed a pre-emptive suit in March, 2011 against Monsanto in order for a precedent to be set against prosecution for the trespassing of pollen into non-GMO crops. Monsanto has stated that they have “not ever sued and has publically committed to not sue farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields”.

Trade sanctions by the E.U. against U.S. grown GMOs hinder U.S. provision of food to starving peoples in Africa. American donations of foodstuffs are rejected because of restrictions imposed on GMOs. At Texas A&M, the late Dr. Norman Borlaug “genetically modified” wheat in the 1960s through extensive laboratory-based plant breeding, creating the dwarf wheat variety that keeps an estimated one billion people alive today. For more sources on cumbersome world politics and GMOs, read Pray et al., 2007 and Paarlberg, 2010 . Some E.U. officials concur with pro-GMO Americans that the current politics that reject GMO products for starving areas of the world are unsustainable (Davison, 2009) .

It seems the most underlying fear is that non-GMO participants sell products that our future world’s demands might make obsolete. In our world, I understand that the market is “always right”. What do you Think?


  1. This all sounds convincing, except for the fact that all of the information is being taken from Monsanto. Wikipedia, which is the most impartial research tool I can think of (obviously not perfect, but pretty dang good), gives a description of Monsanto's history that reads like a script to a horror film where the bad guy always wins.

    As for the "genetic modification" that was performed by Dr. Borlaug, he was using selective breeding, not actually going into the genes and splicing qualities in or out of them, or so it sounds from the description you used. Monsanto claims to be saving the world from hunger, but the truth is that they genetically modify seeds to only produce well when used in conjunction with their pesticide and fertilizer. Seeds grown that way DO produce well, but the seeds are not allowed to be saved and used the next year. This is a huge problem for small time farmers, or those in 3rd world countries, who don't have enough money to keep going back to buy the seeds/pesticides/fertilizer, and eventually rack up a ton of debt. Not to mention the fact that pesticides and fertilizers kill everything living/healthy in the soil, depleting it of its good and nutritious water-retaining properties and allowing the fertilizers/pesticides to run off into nearby streams.

    Until Monsanto can genetically modify plants to fit particular indigenous regions, and change/adapt each year depending on the pests/climate, I'd say small and 3rd world farmers are much better suited to continue planting biodiversely like they have been all along.

  2. Thanks, Rachel. You're correct about Borlaug and his selective breeding program not technically being a GMO. What he achieved was a dramatically altered wheat plant. Critics at the time made the same assertions as they do today of GMOs: his wheat strain relied heavily on synthetic fertilizer, as the high productivity was wholly dependent on high synthetic fertilizer inputs. Also, dwarf wheat has significantly shorter tillers and hollow stems (which hold the head of wheat) so that people in Asia and Africa who depended on heavy straw production to feed their oxen who plowed their fields...could not keep their oxen fed. In its second year and following, dwarf wheat was not planted quite as much to account for all the farmers who used animal force to farm. The problems and the arguments against genetic modification and its precursor, aggressive breeding, have been the same for 30 years since Borlaug until now.
    You might find this interesting on Glyphosate from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate, where it talks about "Effects" and "Other species". At Tx A&M, everyone from soil, crop, weed, and microbial scientists called Glyphosate (Round-Up) "Microbe Candy". Soil microbes uniformly love it, and it has never caused shifts in microbial populations since it is a compound that is easily degraded for energy (from glycerin) by all.
    You mentioned soil health, and a major component of that is soil carbon content (organic matter). Studies have shown that no matter how much organic matter you accumulate over time (by composting, manuring, etc.), the more you till the land, the more it all gets rapidly degraded once this matter is exposed to oxygen by tilling. Anything published (there were over 5 papers) by Wright and/or Hons from 2004 - 2005 demonstrates this. Glyphosate and genetic engineering for Roundup Ready species allow for soil conservations through no-till weed control, which organic farming...I cannot stress this enough...must heavily, heavily rely on tillage to control their weeds. For as much as they add carbon to the soil through manuring and composting, it cancels out with the tillage that must take place (Johnson et al., 2007).
    I hope this was helpful, and I'll continue to answer questions about this. During my tenure at A&M, I was biased about everyone in East Texas converting Bermudagrass to Native Prairie, which is more stable against fertilizer needs (i.e., skyrocketing prices) but less productive for feeding cattle. Additionally, I tried for two years during this long drought we’ve had in Texas to get a stand of Native Tallgrass Prairie growing and failed miserably. Nothing grew but sunflowers and johnsongrass (an introduced weed)…I did get a few bunches of Sideoats, yay! Where I'm leaving off is that no system is perfect: biodiversity is stable but less productive given its independence from chemical inputs, and GMOs are highly productive but less stable if not given the inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides its requires for high productivity. I’d rather communities themselves choose what works best for them in their situation rather than foreign political forces make the decision. Thoughts?

  3. Monsanto certainly doesn't have a clean record, and as with any powerful entity from Monsanto to Michael Pollan, a close watch should keep everyone accountable.