The term "non-GMO food system" is, on its own, a little vague. It identifies most clearly what it is not. Genetic modification is used to engineer a specific trait in an organism to achieve a particular outcome, such as crops that are tolerant to herbicide applications. But the practice fails to take into account the unintended consequences and peripheral damage those traits can cause. What might truly comprehensive and inclusive solutions look like in our food system?
Replacing GMOs means embracing a variety of systems and approaches — finding new‚ or in some cases, very old — methods to reverse the harmful effects of monocropping, monoculture and monopolization that come with the use of GMOs in our food system. When you choose non-GMO, you're supporting a diverse and holistic approach to food production — one that respects farmers' rights to save and grow crops of their choice.
A non-GMO approach to weed control
The earliest GMO crops were engineered to resist herbicide application. That way, farmers could apply chemicals to their fields that eliminated weeds but left their cash crop — GMO corn or soy — unharmed. In the short term, farmers saw a benefit from this technology, but 25 years later a host of harmful consequences have become obvious.
Since the introduction of GMOs, the use of the herbicide that most often accompanies them has increased 15-fold. Weeds have become resistant to these chemicals, and desperate farmers apply greater quantities and even more toxic formulations to try to get ahead of the problem. Killing weeds with such brutal efficiency has devastated beneficial insects populations and reduced biodiversity.
What seemed like a silver bullet solution was actually a game of whack-a-mole, causing a cascading series of problems for farmers.
Read more about the impacts of herbicide tolerant GMOs here
Adam Chappell was one such farmer. Chappell was growing conventional cotton, corn and soy when herbicide-resistant superweeds threatened his family with bankruptcy. With the high costs of GMO seed, pesticides and fertilizers already devastating his family's finances, Chappell took a bold step in an entirely new direction: regenerative agriculture. He planted cover crops to suppress weeds, diversified the crops that he grew and eventually welcomed cattle onto his land. The benefits were obvious: Weeds couldn't get a hold in the fields and the soil was protected during the rainy season from erosion and nutrient loss. Fertilizer costs went down, too, as the cover crops supplied some of the nourishment the soil desperately needed. A few years later, the soil is healthier and Chappell's operation is profitable again.
Perhaps the most important part of Adam Chappell's story is that he isn't now — and never has been — staunchly anti-GMO. He's a practical man, using what works for the land and for his bottom line. He changed how he did things because GMOs weren't working for him. Through outreach and his work with the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, Chappell is sharing that story with other farmers who are facing the same challenges.
That's just one regenerative success story. There are many more out there, from Florida's citrus groves to Gabe Brown's regenerative revolution in North Dakota, networks of farmers sharing their experience and knowledge.
A non-GMO approach to insect control
Another trait of early GMOs was resistance to insect pests. These crops were engineered to generate their own insecticide, so pests that came for a feast found a mouthful of poison in every bite. These GMOs were greenwashed as an environmentally-friendly way to reduce pesticide use. In practice, the GMO approach to insect control has proved just as short-sighted as weed-control.
Integrating insecticide into the structure of the plant has significant impacts: The insecticide doesn't degrade like an external application would. It cannot be washed off. This ubiquity ultimately reduces the effectiveness of the insecticide. It's in the plants all the time, persisting in plant residues and impacting soil microorganisms (tiny impacts that can have massive consequences). And, just as superweeds have evolved to outpace herbicide-tolerant GMOs, targeted pests have begun to show resistance.
Read more about the impacts of insect resistant GMOs here
What might a non-GMO approach to insect control look like? While specific choices rely on the type of crop, the region and the life cycle of the insect pest, there are innovations taking place around the globe. At an organic orchard in the Pacific Northwest farmers work with the physical environment, adapting the shape of the fruit trees so they can easily use protective cloth during the months when flying and chewing insects would be a threat — no sprays necessary. Crop rotations and interplanting can disrupt the monoculture that invites pest infestation, with the added benefit of improving biodiversity and soil health.
Healthy soil can do that!
A lesson we have been learning — or more accurately, failing to learn — for millennia remains true today: Our crops are only as healthy as the soil from which they grow. Soil fertility is mostly found in the topsoil, the uppermost layer of nutrient-rich soil upon which the entire world's agriculture relies. In the last 150 years about half of the world’s topsoil has been lost.
Read more about the magic of soil here
Degraded and diminished soil invites a host of problems: crops tend to be weaker, more susceptible to disease and insect infestation, and less resilient in the face of extreme weather events which are becoming the norm.
Healthy soil holds water more efficiently, offering protection from droughts. As Adam Chappell's story demonstrates, cover crops can protect soil from erosion during heavy rainfall while adding nutrients to the soil they protect. While big biotechnology corporations invest in genetic engineering to address unique agricultural issues — such as citrus greening disease or black Sigatoka in bananas — a far more powerful and economical solution is right beneath our feet:
Healthy soil grows better crops — more resistant to pests and diseases and more hospitable to the billions of microorganisms that we rely on to support our topside world.
"Mono" no more
There is no single solution, but that's kind of the point. Nature works consistently to disrupt a monopoly. Look out your window and you might see birds nesting under the eaves of buildings, greenery pushing up through concrete, or — if you are very lucky — a tree canopy bolstered by dense undergrowth and unseen life cycles.
When we look at a field, an orchard or a community garden, it's tempting to focus on which plants we wish to gain from it. "This is my cotton field. This is my apple crop. This is my veggie plot." The paradigm shift comes in recognizing that we're never growing just that one thing. The planet doesn't work that way. Crops will attract insects, whether we consider them as beneficial or not. Those insects will attract wildlife that feed on them. The wildlife makes its own marks on the land — building habitat, leaving droppings that will be incorporated into the soil. And there's an entire universe beneath the soil line. That is where the epic scale of activity really happens. For us to claim our narrow share of the bounty, we need to support all those other things.
GMOs are based on an inherently reductive — and ultimately destructive — view of agriculture. They are part of an industrialized agricultural model that has proven to be remarkably inefficient at producing food, while eroding the natural resources future harvests rely upon. Even at its highest point of success, GMOs only support a fragile and brittle system based on band-aid solutions, and we're already seeing the damage they cause.
Embracing the complexity of the land we occupy, working with nature's infinite diversity rather than against it, is the basis of a healthy food system for all.