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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Monsanto and GMOs are not the same

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scary protesters

scary protesters

The other day on the tram to the city I noticed people congregating on the steps of Adelaide’s parliament house, many of them holding green balloons. Always fascinated by demos, and usually well up on the news, I struggled for reasons as to what it was all about. The only ‘special day’ I knew of was for indigenous Australians – National Sorry Day on Sunday May 26 – but this was a Saturday, and the green balloons suggested something more environmental. I continued on into the city for a spot of lunch and window shopping, but then found presumably the same demonstrators wending their way through Rundle Mall, behind a megaphone-wielding leader and parroting after him three clear slogans – ‘No Monsanto’, ‘No GMOs’ and ‘No human experiments’.

A lot of thoughts went through my head at hearing these chants – I’m a very excitable fellow – but among them was this. Ages ago I began a five part series of posts on the subject of genetically modified foods, which I based on a piece of writing in a cookbook, The urban cook, by ‘celebrity chef’ Mark Jensen, who plies his trade at Sydney’s Red Lantern restaurant. The first four parts were written and posted here, here, here and here, but I never got round to finishing the fifth part, based on the last paragraph of Jensen’s little anti-GMO critique. So I’ll finish it now with reference to the demonstration the other day, which I’ve discovered was targeted specifically at Monsanto.

So now to look at the final of Mark Jensen’s five not very provocative paragraphs on GM plants, and to summarise my own take on the controversy.

In the United States, some farmers who use GM crops have had to resort to physically ripping horse weed [an example of a herbicide-resistant ‘super weed’] out of the ground by hand. Farmers who grow GM crops use herbicides that are designed to kill the weeds but leave the crop healthy. In this case, the GM food crop has remained resistant to the herbicide, but unfortunately the weeds have adapted to resist it as well. If the farmer uses another brand of herbicide to kill the weeds he runs the risk of killing the food crop. This situation is frightening and the only way to stop the cycle of stronger and stronger chemical use is to do just that: STOP IT. This is a classic example of man trying to circumvent nature and only succeeding in making matters worse.

The thesis in this paragraph is simple enough – the use of GM crops creates herbicide-resistant super-weeds, which will lead to the use of stronger chemicals and higher volumes of chemicals in order to control them. So is this true, and how much of a key factor are GMOs in the production or over-production of chemical herbicides and/or pesticides?

First, the horseweed problem. This weed’s growing resistance to glyphosate, the herbicide patented and marketed as Round-up by Monsanto [though its patent ran out in 2000], has been a problem for US agriculturalists for over a decade now. Glyphosate is the most commonly-used herbicide in the USA. It should be pointed out that it was first marketed in the seventies, well before any GMOs came on the market. Round-up Ready soybeans, engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, were not released into the market until 1996. According to this scientific report:

Common to all known cases of glyphosate-resistant horseweed is the frequent use of glyphosate for control of all weeds, little or no use of alternative herbicides that control horseweed, and long-term no-tillage crop production practices

That’s to say, monocultural farming practices and the one silver bullet approach to weed control seem to be the culprits in this resistance problem. The report argues that effective control of horseweed simply involves the adjustment of management strategies. Increased tillage, where possible, is recommended, and for well-established weeds, a three-way mixture of herbicides, including glyphosate, appears to fix the problem. The researchers name the herbicides to use, and the relative quantities. I would be very surprised if they hadn’t taken into account the possibility that such a mixture might harm the crop. The impression I get from this particular report is that we need not get too alarmed.

The use of herbicides will continue to be a feature of agriculture as long as monocultural farming is required to feed the world’s vast population. This type of farming has its problems – as does every other type of farming – but there’s no doubt that it has led to enormous efficiencies in terms of land use and crop yields. Monoculture was a key component of the ‘green revolution’ that began in the sixties and led to an unprecedented rise in crop yields, rescuing millions of people from the prospect of starvation. And the revolution isn’t over yet.

This is the point. The issues of weed resistance, difficult though they sometimes are, are minor by comparison to the benefits of high-yielding, intensively grown crops in effectively feeding our populations – regardless of whether those crops have been genetically modified in the old way through experimental hybridisation, or in the new way by means of gene splicing. Meanwhile we will continue to work on the weed resistance problem, which will no doubt involve a modification of current monocultural practise (among other strategies), rather than its abandonment. The situation is not frightening, it’s an ongoing problem, as it has long been, but it is by no means out of control. We need to be alert but not alarmed, and there continues to be a lot of research devoted to this problem. From what I’ve read, it’s not a losing battle.

GM foods are here to stay, and it seems to me that Australians should be given the choice of consuming them. Currently very little GM food production occurs in Australia, and only a limited amount is imported – mainly soya from the US. All GM food must be labelled as such here, but it’s highly likely that much is slipping through unlabelled, in imported cereals, chocolate and other foodstuffs. Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of GM food in the US, the first country of use. Other major producers are Brazil, Argentina, Canada, China and India. As yet no health problems have been definitively associated with GMO consumption.

As to the demonstration the other day, its slogans and frankenfood banners do nothing to provide enlightenment on this issue. It gives the distinct impression that being opposed to the monopolistic practices of Monsanto means being opposed to all GMOs and all GMO research, as well as, bizarrely, to all human experiments! Presumably by chanting against human experiments they’re trying to make a link between Monsanto’s products and the risks to humans who use them, but to me, it’s unlikely that passersby would be able to make that connection – quite apart from the fact that Monsanto no longer has a monopoly on glyphosate. It goes without saying that human trials – of all new pharmaceuticals or medical procedures, etc, are not only vitally important, they’re mandatory, as they should be. Without ‘human experiments’ no new developments would ever get the chance to display a human benefit.

As always, what’s needed here is education and informed debate, not silly slogans.

For an informative account of the current situation with genetically modified food, especially in relation to Australia, check out this fact sheet from Australia’s Chief Scientist. Don’t get angry, get educated.

Written by stewart henderson

May 28, 2013 at 11:21 pm

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  1. […] Monsanto plus GMOs are not the same […]

  2. […] time ago I wrote about the issue of GM food – in fact. it was the last of several posts, as mentioned there, but the title of the piece, […]

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