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(Un)Greenwashing GMOs

The Non-GMO Project works toward a genuinely healthy food system that provides good food for all. Because everyone needs to […]

(Un)Greenwashing GMOs

The Non-GMO Project works toward a genuinely healthy food system that provides good food for all. Because everyone needs to […]

The Non-GMO Project works toward a genuinely healthy food system that provides good food for all. Because everyone needs to eat, a sustainable food system is crucial for humanity's well-being. However, agriculture occupies a unique position in the environmental movement, because it both contributes to and is directly impacted by human-caused climate change. 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.

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 holistic and regenerative 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.

"Failure to Yield"

As we adapt to the unfolding climate crisis, it's important to note how biotech's past promises around GMOs have diverged from the reality. Some of the earliest GMOs were commodity crops engineered for herbicide tolerance or to produce their own insecticide. The thinking was that these traits would reduce losses to weed competition or insect activity, and crop yields would ultimately improve. However, it hasn't worked out that way.

Multiple assessments of crop performance show no evidence that these GMOs increase yields. A 2009 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists examined 13 years of GMO corn and soy production in the U.S., concluding 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 insect resistance — have serious consequences. Herbicide tolerance has gone hand-in-hand with a dramatic increase in herbicide use and the development of "superweeds." Insect-resistant GMOs, which are engineered to produce insecticide in every cell, have dramatically increased the target pest's exposure to the toxin, resulting in "superbugs.'' 

While herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant GMOs were not necessarily imagined as climate solutions, their legacy remains relevant to our current environmental challenges. After all, as the climate continues to change, pests and diseases are forecast to spread into new regions, and you can bet biotech will be there with a product to sell.

Gene editing is the wrong tool for crop performance 

Newer GMO techniques, such as gene editing, are advertised as precise tools for modification, often described as 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. However, a bigger problem lies in the complexity of genetic functioning. 

Crop performance relies on a range of factors; an organism's genetic makeup is only one. Other crucial considerations include soil health, biodiversity within the soil biome and surrounding plants and animals, precipitation and storm activity, and the skills of the farmers tending the crops. Variability of these areas can impact performance, even in crops with the most robust genetic profile.

Gene editing tools have a limited scope. They can be used to intentionally alter a single gene or a handful of genes. DNA may be cut, silenced, or have new sequences inserted — hopefully at the desired location. However, there are many, many, many genes involved in complex traits such as drought- or saline-tolerance or better nutrient uptake. Traits that can be affected by a single gene, known as simple traits, are limited.

The performance of crops or livestock, or how they react to environmental stressors such as heat or drought, are highly complex traits, determined by many genes working together. A recent theory proposes that some complex traits might actually be "omnigenic" traits, which rely on the participation of all active genes, every single one. A targeted, one-gene-at-a-time tool such as gene editing overlooks the holistic nature of the system it tries to affect.

The complexity and interconnectedness of nature is present at a genetic level. With each step back from the microscope, those relationships continue. Nature is much more than the sum of its parts.  

Holistic solutions are the best solutions

GMOs have been deployed in our food system based on reductive science and an extractive mindset that casts our relationship with our environment as adversarial. On the other hand, holistic, regenerative and agroecological practices reflect the complexity of living systems, from looking at the totality of the genome to the entirety of the landscape it occupies.

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.

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