When GMOs were commercialized in the 1990s, few people knew about these novel organisms entering the food supply. Their development, testing and deployment had occurred with a startling lack of transparency. However, as early GMOs and their derivatives made their way into more and more common food products, folks in the natural foods sector started asking questions. Some of those folks went on to found the Non-GMO Project, North America’s most rigorous third-party verification for non-GMO food and products.
From time to time, people ask us why we do the work we do. What do we have against GMOs, anyways? The answer to that question is not short. From the unsettling origins of the GMO experiment, we've witnessed a complex web of negative impacts and downstream effects that start with this technology. The GMO food web and the technology driving it have evolved, and so do the consequences.
What's wrong with GMOs? We'll walk you through it.
Corporate consolidation and short-term studies
The first GMOs were developed by chemical companies with ingenious business plans. For example, Monsanto sold chemicals for decades before engineering herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" soybeans in 1996. By creating herbicide-tolerant GMOs, they gained restrictive utility patents on a major commodity crop and sold a lot more of their signature weedkiller, Roundup, a companion product to the GMO soy. The plan worked so well that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup have seen a 15-fold increase in use since Monsanto introduced its first GMO.
Very little was known about GMOs when they entered the food supply. Most people were unaware that everyday food products contained ingredients derived from novel organisms. Even fewer people knew that safety testing was mainly short-term feeding studies conducted by the same corporations who created GMOs and stood to profit from their adoption.
Without independent safety assessments, the long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown. Meanwhile, those utility patents helped solidify agricultural companies' growing seed supply monopoly. Today more than 60% of the world's seeds are owned by just four corporations.
The dramatic spike in herbicide use is a sobering outcome of GMO adoption, but it's not the only one. There are significant downstream impacts from adopting this technology and the chemical inputs that go with it. That business plan to sell more weedkillers alongside patented GMO seeds worked like a charm. Farmers sprayed more glyphosate more often, and subsequently, "superweeds" with evolved resistance to those chemicals rose up in response.
Herbicide tolerance wasn't the only GMO trait. Genetically engineered corn was created to produce its own insecticidal bacteria. Because the insecticide was constantly present as the corn grew, insect populations developed similar tolerance as the superweeds. It's a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: If GMO manufacturers pictured pristine landscapes that produced only the GMO crops they designed, they were engineering a certain kind of doom. Landscapes aren't meant to be pristine or monotonous, and nature rebels against a lack of diversity.
In the end, GMOs are antithetical to the kind of regenerative food system we desperately need to feed a growing population on a warming planet. Improving soil health, protecting biodiversity and curbing greenhouse gasses are critical initiatives to support human wellbeing. GMOs move us in the opposite direction, towards monocrops, homogeneity and chemical dependence.
The cultural impacts of GMOs
Some of the most damning impacts of an industrialized and engineered food system are cultural and social. Food is a basic human need. It's also a crucial element of the social fabric of communities worldwide. We gather for feasts and celebrations, expressing cultural identities through the food we share. Traditionally people ate globally diverse diets to reflect our cultural backgrounds. However, the types of foods we consume have consolidated over time to become more homogenous worldwide.
Last fall, author Diane Wilson talked with the Non-GMO Project about her book "The Seed Keeper" as part of our Speaker Series. Her novel explores Indigenous food sovereignty through the stories of four Native American women and the loss of traditional foods and cultural practices after colonization. "A very important part of the culture was displaced when tribes were moved onto reservations" and lost access to their foods.
"You move people onto reservations, you give them commodity foods that come in a sack, so it's high starch high fat, and immediately you see a shift in both the spiritual and the physical health of people and the emotional wellbeing because it's very compromising to your sense of self as an Indigenous person to be living in this way."
Wilson is enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation, and she works as part of the growing movement to restore Indigenous food sovereignty. "We're reclaiming that old relationship… and we're rebuilding the health of our communities by returning to those traditional foods."
Respecting and restoring food's cultural and social significance and the stewardship of natural resources goes beyond Indigenous communities. "It actually impacts all of us," says Wilson. "The work we've been doing in Indigenous communities has some great teaching and lessons for all of us."
New GMOs, new risks
Since the Non-GMO Project was established in 2007, the field of biotechnology has changed. New GMOs created with emerging and evolving techniques such as gene editing and synthetic biology are flooding the market — and with new technology comes unique risks.
Because these new techniques work in different ways than those used to produce traditional GMOs, they face fewer regulatory hurdles. Many products made from new GMOs won't require disclosure under the USDA's new bioengineered (BE) food labeling law, and that doesn't help keep shoppers informed about what's in their food.
The technology behind some new GMOs is cheaper and more accessible than traditional biotechnology techniques — there are even DIY CRISPR gene-editing kits for the at-home enthusiast! With fewer barriers to entry, fewer hurdles in the regulatory field and massive investment from venture capitalists supporting new GMO research, our work at the Non-GMO Project is more important than ever.
Agriculture is uniquely positioned in the environmental movement. Because everyone needs to eat, a sustainable food system is crucial for humanity's well-being. However, agriculture is currently responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and crops exposed to extreme weather events are vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.
Everybody wants a truly healthy food system — one that provides good food for all, and does so within the limits of the earth's resources.
The biotech industry would have us place all our eggs in their basket, promising silver-bullet solutions in genetic engineering. But these are expensive dalliances. They sound good on paper, magical even, but relying on biotech solutions to complex environmental problems is ultimately ineffective. Worse still, costly GMO development steals focus and funding from more promising initiatives, such as the adoption of agroecological farming practices.
With so many resources behind them, why do GMOs keep falling short? By examining the parts and ignoring the whole, the biotechnology industry bases its solutions on a reductive and distorted vision of the natural world.
Traditional GMOs and "Failure to Yield"
Some of the earliest GMOs were commodity crops engineered for herbicide tolerance or to produce their own insecticide. These traits, the thinking went, would reduce losses to weed competition or insect activity. With fewer losses, yields would ultimately improve. Despite the promises of agrichemical corporations, however, it hasn't worked out that way.
Multiple assessments of crop performance show no evidence that GMOs increase yields. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in 2009 examining 13 years of GMO corn and soy production in the U.S., and concluded that genetic engineering "has done little to increase overall crop yields." Genetically modified "soybeans have not increased yields," the report continues,"and corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop wide basis."
Moreover, the most prominent traits in early GMOs — herbicide-tolerance and the production of insecticide within the plant — have serious consequences. Herbicide-tolerance traits go hand in hand with the dramatic increases in pesticide use which in turn gave rise to "superweeds." Pest-resistant GMOs, engineered to produce insecticide in every cell, have dramatically increased the target pest's exposure to the toxin, resulting in "superbugs.''
Gene editing and crop performance
New GMO techniques such as gene editing are advertised as precise tools for modification, genetic "scissors" that cut only where we tell them to. There are, however, serious doubts about the level of precision that gene editing offers. As we've discussed before, off-target effects and unintended outcomes occur regularly in gene-editing experiments. But perhaps a bigger problem for gene-editing advocates is in the basic functioning of genetics.
Crop performance relies on a whole range of factors. The genetic makeup of the crop is one of those factors. Other factors include soil health, biodiversity within the soil biome and in the surrounding plants and animals, precipitation and storm activity, and the skills of the farmers tending the crops. Neglect in any one of these areas can impact performance, even in crops with the strongest genetic profile.
Gene editing works on a "one-gene-at-a-time" basis. DNA may be cut, silenced, or have new sequences inserted — hopefully at the desired location. A one-gene-at-a-time tool might seem precise, but it is only effective at addressing traits that are driven by one gene. There are many, many, many genes involved in complex traits such as high-yield, drought- or saline-tolerance or better nutrient uptake.
Simple traits — traits that can be affected by a single gene — are limited.
The performance of crops or livestock, or how they react to environmental stressors such as heat or drought — these are highly complex traits. Complex traits are determined by many genes working together. Some traits, called "omnigenic" traits, need all the genes to participate, every single one. Jumping in with the biotech tool of choice to modify all of the genes in specific and controlled ways is simply not possible.
Here's a visual tool to help explain the difference: Picture a DNA strand as a string of lights. Each light on the string is a gene. If we were to ask which genes are involved in higher crop yields, all the lights would shine. If we were to ask which genes are involved in more biomass and better growth, all the lights would shine. Which genes might contribute to salt-tolerance — you get the picture.
The complexity and interconnectedness of nature is present at a genetic level. With each step back from the microscope, those relationships continue, now between one species and another, now between all parts of the ecosystem. Nature is more than the sum of its parts.
Holistic solutions are the best solutions
Over the past 30 years, there have been increases in crop performance made through traditional crossbreeding and other agroecological practices, from looking at the totality of the genome, and the entirety of the landscape it occupies.
The idea that GMOs are the best way, or the only way, to feed the world is based on reductive science and an extractive mindset. The premise of this theory, how it casts food production and our relationship to our environment, is simply flawed.
We don't need GMOs to feed the world. We need to work with the land so that it can thrive — and we can thrive with it.