In the past 25 years, genetically modified organisms have transformed the agricultural landscape, figuratively and literally. The greatest impacts have come from some of the earliest and most widely adopted GMO crops, which now take up over 90% of U.S. cropland. While the trend toward crop uniformity did not start with GMOs, this technology has certainly accelerated it, posing severe threats to biodiversity, food security and human health.
Why is biodiversity important?
Millions of years of evolution and cohabitation have left an extraordinary abundance of life on this planet. The word "biodiversity" includes all of Earth's living organisms — plants and animals, soil microorganisms, bacteria and fungi — plus all the genetic variation within those species and the ecosystems that are home and habitat to all of this life. These ecosystems can be incomprehensibly complex. The presence — or absence — of a single organism can ripple outwards to affect the whole.
A great example of this is shown in a short PBS video about wolves' reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. While the wolves were gone, dynamics between the plants and animals had fallen badly out of whack. Not even the scientists who planned the wolves' re-entry imagined the far-reaching effects: improved water quality, more pollinator habitat or stronger amphibian populations. With biodiversity restored to Yellowstone, there are more — and healthier — species in residence.
In the last century, human activity has devastated global biodiversity. Due to unsustainable resource use, habitat destruction and a changing climate, species are disappearing much faster than at any other time in the last 10 million years. The impacts aren't restricted to national parks or faraway lands, either — the loss of biodiversity poses dangers to both food security and human health.
How do GMOs impact biodiversity?
"Agriculture is this ironic field that requires genetic diversity to persist, but also is always reducing this diversity down. That reduction has to do with our modern system, with technology and the fact that you need uniformity in the field to make industrial-scale agriculture happen." — researcher Colin Khoury to Civil Eats
Industrial-style agriculture focuses on standardized processes, efficiency and resource extraction. It was already in place by the time GMO crops came on the scene. The practice of "monocropping" — cultivating a single crop, year after year, on the same land — might seem efficient, but it ultimately decreases both biodiversity and soil health. Monocropping also increases insect pests because, as Colin Khoury puts it, "If you have the same plants in the field, it’s a lot easier for a pest to 'unlock' that variety and eat it all. Diversity enables agriculture to deal with pests and diseases."
The most common traits engineered into GMO crops make these problems worse, such crops that generate pesticides within the plant cells. Sold as targeted tools that killed only particular insects, in practice, these GMOs have far-reaching impacts: The toxins can be far more potent than expected, and they never wash off.
Most GMO crops are engineered for herbicide resistance, so fields can be sprayed liberally with weedkillers that eliminate everything but the cash crop. Weeds are a huge problem for farmers — they compete with cash crops for nutrients, water and light. But diverse plant life also protects the soil from erosion and nutrient loss. It supports the pollinators and other beneficial insects that do so much of our agricultural labor. While "welcoming the weeds'' isn't a practical solution, neither is wiping out plant life with toxic chemicals. Between herbicide tolerance and built-in pesticides, GMOs are a double-decker biodiversity-wrecker.
For more on alternative, non-GMO farming systems, check out this recent blog
GMOs are widespread in grocery stores, with an estimated 80% of processed foods containing GMO ingredients. Given their ubiquity, it's surprising that fewer than a dozen widely cultivated GMO crops dominate North American agriculture. Of these, only 3 GMOs occupy most U.S. cropland, an area estimated in the hundreds of millions of acres. These 3 GMO crops — corn, soy and cotton — are herbicide-tolerant, pest resistant, or a combination of the two. They possess all the destructive traits that accompany traditional GMOs, and 3 of anything isn't enough to support biodiversity.
Of course, there are more GMOs in development and several crops are being added to the Non-GMO Project's high risk list within the year, but genetic modification will never provide the kind of diversity needed for a truly robust ecosystem. In the industrial model, diversity simply isn't the goal — uniformity is. "Sameness" is seen as the driver of productivity, even as surpluses of low-nutrient crops drive prices down and commodity agriculture leaves farming communities struggling to feed themselves.
Going non-GMO for a diverse and plentiful future
Perhaps the greatest folly of the industrial-style, GMO-reliant food system is that it so persistently tries to overthrow the laws of nature. The more humans try to monopolize the landscape, the harder nature pushes back to restore balance — it does this through weeds and pests and diseases. Changing our approach is no small thing. Simply accepting that change must occur requires accepting that stewardship and regeneration of the land have value that is equal to, if not greater than, the resources we draw from it.
If this seems difficult to take in, remember that we depend on biodiversity, soil and ecological health for our very existence. A system of extracting resources that fails to restore what is taken will ultimately fail to produce anything at all. Regenerative, non-GMO agriculture is the future.
We can choose to leave more life for future generations — that's what biodiversity is all about.