Food fight: The pros and cons of genetically modified food

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Article Environment Faith and Science
Genetic modification has yielded major changes in the way we grow our food, but concerns are cropping up over whether a bigger harvest means a better—or safer—diet.

As a cold front settles on the dried corn stubble, Iowa farmer Brent Jacobson knows it was a very good year. Despite the drought that hit many parts of central Iowa, his 200-acre corn crop flourished, giving up the largest yield he has had over his 16-year career. For the fourth-generation family farmer and father of three, it is a sign of tremendous progress that has come with the major changes seen in the farming industry in recent decades.

Jacobson knows that his work—including a successful yield—is vital not just to his family, but to the world. Iowans, who pride themselves on “feeding the world,” are the largest single producers of corn on the planet. Iowa corn products are everywhere: in your bacon and eggs, the milk your child drinks, and in products from peanut butter to soda to vitamins. Iowa corn even goes into your gas tank as ethanol. Also, the United States exports 55 percent of corn product to foreign markets, especially Asia. The explosion of the American corn market across the globe blew away many problems Iowa farmers once faced in finding markets for their corn.

But it is the development of new technologies that has most changed the life of family farmers like Jacobson. “My dad and I worked 16-hour days,” he recalls. “I still have days like that, but now I also have time for my family. Farming is very competitive and if you don’t do well, you can’t continue. … Technology has been a game changer.”

Although some old techniques of farming are still valuable to Jacobson—such as the process of “no till” farming, in which a field is left untouched by machinery after a harvest so that the soil can naturally rejuvenate itself—the modern innovation of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds has indeed been a game changer. Since their arrival in the mid-1990s, genetically modified seeds have been helping farmers overcome age-old challenges.

When planted, these GMO seeds almost guarantee the farmer a crop no matter the arrival of insects, diseases, floods, or droughts. GMO seeds are viewed by farmers such as Jacobson—and farmers all over the world suffering year after year from natural events that kill their crops—as just short of a miracle, raising personal incomes and saving thousands from starvation. A farming monoculture—where every year you plant the same crop—allowed many farmers in Iowa to dump the labor-intensive and costly animal side of their farm operation. They tore out fence posts and planted corn on every acre of land they could find, even land once thought useless. The monoculture farm spread the idea of near certainty of a stable product, stable income, and less time spent out in the field, which benefitted the farm family.

The majority of farmers Jacobson works alongside throughout central Iowa are staunch believers in the value and need for genetically modified seeds to plant corn. But not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Many small family farmers and environmentalists worry about the potential health risks of the GMO revolution, while others argue that since the seeds are patented by their manufacturers, the reliance on biotechnology has put too much power in the hands of corporations.

Concern and confusion about GMO products is widespread. A 2013 New York Times poll found that three quarters of those surveyed worry about the risks of genetically modified organisms in their food, and 93 percent say foods should be clearly labeled if they contain GMOs. As for the Catholic Church, it has remained somewhere in between—recognizing the potential for GMOs to address world hunger, yet reluctant to give full endorsement to their use.

Growing pains

Catholic Rural Life (CRL), an organization that advocates for fair farm policy and promotes responsible stewardship of the land, has been closely following the rise of GMOs since their introduction in the 1990s. According to James Ennis, CRL’s executive director, eating is a moral act, and because of this, food should be produced in moral and just ways that ensure the common good for farmers as well as those who eat what they grow. It is an attitude adjustment toward creation—one that instead of conquering nature shows our actions as being respectful of what God has created for our use.

CRL believes “the church has a significant service to provide as convener and teacher to contribute to the common good in society,” and Ennis is working to connect two large entities—farmers and the Vatican—and to help raise a voice of moral and ethical reasoning centered squarely on food and eating. “Gratitude, generosity, and stewardship should pervade our relationship to the land,” he says.

That philosophy is shared by Catholic farmer Ron Rosmann, whose roots are firmly planted in Iowa soil. After graduating from Iowa State University 40 years ago with a degree in biology, Rosmann returned home to take over the family farm from his aging parents. He has seen the dissolving of small town life and the decrease of farmers working with animals. Neighbors have expanded into larger farms—embracing genetically modified crops, increasing their use of fertilizer, and spraying their fields with the herbicides and pesticides that are a required part of the GMO program.

Rosmann and his wife Maria have stood firm in their beliefs by sticking with the traditional ways of farming taught to him by his father. This earned their farm the certification of “organic” in 1994. One of their three sons joined in the farm operation, continuing to work long hours each day. Raising a variety of crops and livestock on his 700-acre farm, Rosmann never looked back. “Our role is one of stewardship,” he says, “and that idea is critical to the land’s health. Where is the humility and realization that Mother Nature will ultimately fight back when under attack?”

Rosmann isn’t convinced that GMOs are risk-free. He tells the story of an old farmer whose cows wouldn’t eat the corn residue in a field planted with GMO seeds. “They wouldn’t forage in the field. … The cows would veer away from it and move on to find something else. Even they knew,” he laughs.

And the situation is only getting worse, he says. “Weeds and insects are quickly becoming resistant. Farmers have to spray more herbicides at higher and higher rates. And more often. They are also having to go back to using older, even riskier herbicides,” says Rosmann.

He also has doubts about the claims that GMOs produce a higher yield, and studies have backed up those concerns. In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published a report titled “Failure to Yield” that found genetic modification has had little to no effect on crop yields. Instead, the Union points to traditional methods of plant breeding and improved agricultural practices as the reason for any improvements. Several other studies, including a 2013 peer-reviewed article appearing in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, have drawn similar conclusions.

But as organic and traditional farmers such as Rosmann fret over the changes ushered in by GMOs, other farmers are pressured by seed companies to embrace the future of food production in order to feed a hungry world. So what is a farmer to do?

Old Monsanto had a farm

Attempts to revitalize the way we produce food crops date back to long before GMOs. In the 1940s, biologist and Iowa native Dr. Norman Borlaug began work in Mexico on developing new technologies for the production of wheat. His work in agriculture to produce more crops and end famine spread to other parts of the globe, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for saving millions of lives from starvation and ushering in the Green Revolution.

In tribute to Borlaug, every autumn in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize (WFP) is awarded to an individual who advances the quality, quantity, and availability of food throughout the globe. In 2013 the WFP committee decided for the first time to split the award three ways. What really sparked controversy, however, was that all three recipients are at the forefront of the GMO seed industry, and one, Robert T. Fraley, is vice president of Monsanto—the world’s largest GMO seed company.

For years, organic farmers have had an uphill battle to fight against Monsanto. They have had to protect their fields from GMO seed contamination and from Monsanto’s zealous lawsuits—to date, the corporate giant has taken more than 140 farmers to court for patent infringement simply because the farmer’s land was contaminated with traces of Monsanto’s product. Independent farmers are often no match for the powerful corporation’s legal team and can’t afford to fight the battles in court.

Monsanto claims on its website that it will not sue a farmer if less than 1 percent of their patented genes were found in organic fields, but this has not calmed the nerves of worried organic farmers. In January 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a case brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and several others seeking greater protection from Monsanto lawsuits. Monsanto’s word that they won’t sue would have to be good enough.

So when the 2013 WFP winners were announced, protests began by a ragtag group uniting the voices of traditional and organic farming alongside members of the Occupy Movement, Advocates of the Center for Food Safety, and members of the Catholic Worker movement, among others.

Holding a sign that read “Monsanto poisons the land,” Occupy World Food Prize protester Jessica Reznicek expressed her frustration. “They’re not interested in feeding people but quite the opposite,” she says. “Farmers become indentured servants. They grow dependent on herbicides and pesticides.” Robert Waldrop, founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City, shares Reznicek’s concerns. He worries about the decrease in rural life—the consolidation of farming that has occurred since genetically modified crops appeared. “Ten years ago,” he says, “there were 80,000 farms in Oklahoma raising pigs. Now there are only 10,000. The claim of the World Food Prize is to address famine, but the fact is hunger and famine are not about a lack of food but about politics.”

Frank Cordaro of the Des Moines Catholic Worker House worries that GMOs are only helping corporate profits. “This is a scandal, the way we treat the poor and these people,” Cordaro tells anyone who will listen. “These big corporations are making money off it and patting themselves on the back. They have control over our entire food system this way. Think about it—our entire global food system they control. That’s why we’re here. Somebody has got to tell the truth.”

Planting a seed

GMO development companies attempt to spin the moral high ground, hoisting the responsibility for every mouthful of food squarely onto farmers’ shoulders. In a world where the United Nations warns that 10 billion people will need food by 2050, time is of the essence, and providing enough is the challenge for now, not later.

For years, the U.S. government and GMO seed producers have pressured the Vatican to sanction GMO seeds for use in Third World countries. But the contentious issue of who controls seeds—whether farmers can reuse their own seeds or if they must buy new ones each year—is especially crucial in poorer nations where farmers, often living in remote areas, rely on holding back seeds from their harvest for replanting the following season.

Although the church has never been clear on its official position regarding GMO seeds, the last three popes have weighed in on the land and its worth. Pope Francis states, “Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good.”

So when Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, commented in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, “Why force an African farmer to buy seeds produced in other lands and by other means?” he found an invitation to the World Food Prize waiting for him. Arriving in Des Moines, Turkson was whisked into a private meeting held in the basement of the First United Methodist Church to meet face to face with the World Food Prize protesters.

There he sat listening to six people from Iowa recount how the landscape had been ravaged over past decades. From hog lots built near homes, to the crumbling of small town life, to polluted rivers and water, the protesters relayed to Turkson their fears, ending with a dark assessment: The current farming landscape leads to an impoverished plantation-style culture. They told him “Big Ag” has won, and both small and medium farms struggle to survive against too much corporate money and power.

A visible change came over the cardinal. His once eager demeanor faded. He promised that he would begin a study with a report that would go directly to the Vatican. But Turkson reminded the protesters that behind the big corporations are human beings, and he urged that the two sides seek common ground.

“The church encourages discussion and debate,” Turkson said the following day at the WFP gathering. “Let me begin the conversation where it is possible. All people—believers and unbelievers alike—should cultivate the posture of dialogue. World Food Prize and Occupy World Food Prize are divergent views, but they both seek the elimination of world hunger and food security. I call for conversation and dialogue and where there is a difference of opinions; we need to go deep into dialogue. Let us start conversing. Let us begin this way.”

A secure future?

The challenges associated with GMOs are many: concern for human health; gene flow and environmental protection; consumers’ right to know what they are eating; monocultures versus decreasing diversity; corporate control of our food supply; and intellectual property rights pitted against the investment of the farmer’s labor, among others.

But every side can agree on one thing: Biotechnology is not going away. Even organic farmers such as Ron Rosmann concede that point, whether or not they agree that such means are necessary. “The most important issue is food security,” says Rosmann. “Biotechnology proponents keep insisting that it is absolutely needed to feed another 10 billion people by 2050. I contend it is a ploy to try to make us all feel guilty that we are ignoring the poor and the hungry.”

Rosmann argues that GMO companies are not being honest about food shortages, and he believes the church should take an active role in repudiating these claims. “There could be ample food for all peoples now and for the future if we took an integrated and honest approach to food security,” he says. “In this country alone, estimates are as high as 50 percent for food being thrown away from our homes and off grocery shelves.”

Brent Jacobson sees the future from a more practical view. “You’re always evaluating and changing your practices,” he says, noting that the farmer needs to adapt in order to survive. At a point when less than 2 percent of the population of the United States today qualifies for the title of “farmer”—a dwindling and aging population—Jacobson just hopes to one day be able to pass on his farm. “The old farmers need help with their land,” he says. “Their kids get an education, move to the city, and don’t want to farm. Eventually the farm goes up for sale and can end up as a mall.”

GMO seeds have made the farming life easier, and perhaps more attractive. “It’s not living extravagantly,” laughs Jacobson, “but I want to raise my family, live a good life, and retire one day.” Although farmers may disagree on whether biotechnology is the answer, Jacobson believes that all are committed to doing what is best—and safest—for everyone. “The last thing I ever want to do, and I believe most farmers would agree with me,” he says, “is to sell something that harms people.”

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 5, pages 18-22).

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Image: Flickr photo cc by Alternative Heat