An Earthly Idea: More to GMOs than labeling
October 24, 2014
Ballots have been mailed out. It's time to switch from trying to block out all the negative political ads to actually thinking about voting. One state issue is much more important environmentally than it might seem at first glance.
Colorado Proposition 105 would require that food made with genetically modified organisms be so labeled. Contrary to agribusiness squawking, this is a simple requirement that shouldn't be a big deal. It would be like stating that a food contains a common allergen like peanuts. Other than this reporting burden, most discussion has been on whether eating genetically modified food might be harmful, on which I won't try to pass judgment. I do think, however, that how genetically modified crops affect agricultural practices deserves far more attention.
Genetically engineering crops seems an almost inevitable technological extension of long-accepted selective and cross-breeding, but the environmental implications are tremendous. Having a crop that is genetically resistant to a particular disease or insect pest certainly seems like it should be a good thing. Planting cotton that is resistant to bollworms, for example, should allow greatly reduced use of pesticide. Unless the plant-produced chemical that wards off the bug proves worse than the industrial pesticide eliminated, this should be a great blessing.
By far the most extensive use of genetic engineering thus far, however, is another matter. Most corn and soybeans, our two main animal feeds and industrial crops, are already modified to resist particular broad-spectrum herbicides. So, if you plant Roundup Ready corn, you also spray the corn with Roundup to kill any weeds that might dare to grow in the corn field. A dual license (herbicide and seeds) to print money for the manufacturer, these GMO crops likely greatly increase the use of herbicides. Specifically they promote herbicides that kill all kinds of broad-leafed plants, and so are more likely to be generally toxic in the environment. Also, if Roundup-linked GMO crops take over the market, as they appear to be doing, and weeds develop resistance to Roundup …
Let's also take a minute to look at a separate or maybe not-so-separate issue. Bees have suffered tremendous losses in recent years with whole colonies dying. One estimate is that total U.S. honey bee population dropped by half over 10 years. Another is that more than one-third of colonies died over a single winter. The primary suspect has been a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, so named because they are chemically similar to nicotine. Other non-chemical culprits have also been suggested, but crucially a recent study found that the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) could be a major factor. The herbicide was found to interfere with bees' ability to learn, which ultimately affects their ability to find food and thus to survive. Because it does not immediately kill the bees, the initially contaminated ones then take the chemical back to the hive and the rest of the colony. This is a complex scenario that may require considerable corroboration. But because the great majority of food crops rely upon bees for pollination, the stakes are tremendous, perhaps the very foundation of agriculture.
Thus the possible consequences of the broad-spectrum herbicides tied to GMO crops are huge. Labeling foods made with GMO crops would only be a largely symbolic beginning, but might be a key step in getting the careful scrutiny that this perhaps too-rapidly adopted technology warrants.
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Howard Brown lives near Silverthorne. While he has extensive environmental policy analysis experience at the federal, state and local levels, he attributes his expertise to observing and asking questions while enjoying Summit County's beauty.
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