The GMO Backlash

The GMO ProtestersGenetically modified organisms have spawned loud criticism all streaming from fears about the long-term safety of GMOs. That criticism has come in at least two areas –

  • A trade dispute between the U.S. and many of its trading partners over genetically modified crops.
  • Internal disputes between GMO farmers and organic farmers over lax safety and environmental rules and enforcement.

Frankenfood. In 1992 – as the first GMO crops were coming up for approval by the FDA – an English professor from Boston named Paul Lewis coined the term “Frankenfood” to vilify GM crops. Prof. Lewis could really turn a phrase –

“Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human flesh out of the lab, scientists have been bringing such good things to life… If they [the GMO corporations] want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.”

In reality, agricultural scientists have been making foods more productive or resistant to disease since the dawn of agriculture, and the movement really took off in the 1930s with hybrid crops. But in the 90s, ethical, environmental and food safety concerns merged with worries about mad-cow disease to produce a backlash against crop science gone too far. “Frankenfood” provided the frightening metaphor that was needed by the movement, and organic foods were promoted as the healthy alternative.

In Europe, in particular, the anti-GMO movement took off. The European Union banned the import or planting of any genetically modified crops in 1998, just two years after the U.S. approved Bt and Roundup Ready crops. Over the next decade, EU science committees studied GMO crops and concluded time after time that they were safe. But EU commissioners delayed the approval process, some say to placate their threatened farmers. The U.S. sued the EU in 2003 for unfair trade restrictions and won that case. By 2006, the EU required member states to open their doors to the importing of GMO crops, but many still refused.

Finally, in November 2009, the EU said that European farmers could plant Monsanto’s Bt corn variety, and was close to approving the planting of varieties from Pioneer and Syngenta. Even with approval from the full EU, individual countries were still resisting GMO crops.

But the reluctance to accept GMO crops was producing problems as well as controversy by 2009.

Europe, like the rest of the world, likes to eat meat. But Europe can’t feed its pigs and other livestock by itself. More and more soybeans and other livestock feeds were being imported to Europe from the U.S. during the first decade of the 21st century.

Where they could, European livestock producers imported non-GMO feed crops. But a zero-tolerance policy for any GMO materials in the shipments meant that several huge shipments were rejected in 2009 because trace amounts of genetically modified material was discovered. Prices for livestock feed shot up as well as meat prices. In addition, as more and more soybean fields in the U.S. are planted with GMO varieties, European livestock producers will find it harder and harder to find alternative sources.

GMO problems in the U.S. Even within the U.S., several controversies over GMOs have reached the boiling point since the turn of the century.

In 2000, a genetically modified variety of corn called StarLink developed by Aventis had been approved for use in animal feed only. But that year, the EPA found traces of the StarLink genes in corn tacos intended for human consumption. Some consumers and studies suggested that StarLink caused allergic reactions.

In 2001, the EPA decided to ban even trace amounts of StarLink materials into the human food chain. In the meantime, other competing varieties like Bt corn had taken over the market. But the fact that a GMO corn had crossed over into supposedly non-GMO food stockpiles provided fuel to critics, especially in Europe.

Another controversy centered around organic food producers.

While most production farmers here have embraced GMO varieties, there is a significant number of consumers who have not and are willing to spend a little more to find food that is grown organically – without GMO genes, artificial fertilizers or pesticides. The US Department of Agriculture adopted strict guidelines to ensure that “organic” foods didn’t come in contact with GMO varieties.

That took cooperation between neighboring farmers. But in 2009, farmers growing GMO sugar beets in Washington State, for example, refused to map out where they were growing the engineered crops. These farmers said they were afraid of ecoterrorism and burned crops.

Their organic growing neighbors were flummoxed and sued. Organic farmers pointed out that pollen from the genetically modified plants can travel significant distances, and if even a trace of GMO material gets into the DNA of their crops, their markets would dry up.

As of late 2009, the lawsuit was still pending.

Environmentalists were also concerned when it was revealed that as many as 25 percent of GMO farmers were no longer complying with federal rules intended to maintain the resistance of the crops to damage from insects.

Farmers and environmentalists have known for years that insects can mutate and build up a resistance to specific pesticides over several generations. So, around the turn of the 21st century, regulations were adopted that required farmers planting Bt crop varieties to plant at least 20 percent of their fields in non-Bt varieties.

The theory is that if an insect becomes impervious to the Bt toxin, it is more likely to mate with a nonresistant insect from the refuge, and the offspring would not be resistant.

But many farmers just couldn’t see the reason to plant 20 percent of their fields with crops that will get lower yields or require costly application of traditional insecticides. The regulations were voluntary. In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported that only 74 percent of farmers were setting up a big enough refuge for corn resistant insects, and that only 63 percent of farmers had their refuges close enough to their fields.

Again, the controversies both here and overseas seem set to continue.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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