Professor Michael Benton
10 October 2019
Eat and Be Merry for Tomorrow It May Kill
Our food system is broken. In the last hundred years, we have destroyed what took Mother Nature millennia to create. Worse, it took us that entire hundred years to notice. Seeds, the life our food comes from, are going extinct. At the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of seed variations were available. By now, 94% of those variations have been lost (Ray, 6). For the most part, this is due to the increase in industrial agriculture. Since 2005, ten companies have controlled over half of the worldwide seed sales through their creation of hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seeds (Ray, 37). These seeds are sub-par and full of GMOs that are harmful to people, animals, and nature. Within a span of a hundred years, we have destroyed our seed heritage and found ourselves in the midst of an agricultural apocalypse in which big companies profit by selling lies in the form of food.
The issue with our agricultural system is a relatively new one. The mass extinction of 94% of the variations of our seeds has only happened in the last hundred years. Only in the last twenty years has the problem been discovered and researched. The first people to officially catalog the loss were researchers from the University of Georgia. In 2004, Paul Heald and Susan Chapman compared current-day seed catalogs to the United States Department of Agriculture’s American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902 that was published in 1903. They discovered that, of the 7,262 seed varieties available in 1903, only 430 were still commercially available in 2004 (Ray, 5-6). According to the USDA, among the lost are 95 percent of the vintage cabbage varieties, 96 percent of all field corns, 94 percent of all peas, 86 percent of apple varieties, and 81 percent of the tomato varieties (Ray, 16). Even though our supermarkets appear deceptively diverse, we have narrowed our agricultural margins to include a quarter of what once was available to grow. This problem isn’t unique to America, either. China lost tens of thousands of wheat varieties between 1949 and 1970, and Korea lost 74 percent of its garden crops in a span of the eight years from 1985 to 1993 (Ray, 16). But what changed in the last hundred years to create this agricultural apocalypse?
The first nail in the coffin came in the form of hybrid corn. Hybridization, the process of speeding up plant breeding, isn’t bad in and of itself. Farmers have been using hybridization for a long time to combine characteristics to create more desirable plants. In 1924, the first hybrid seeds came on the market in the United States. The seeds were popular because they performed better. However, the significant downside to purchasing hybrid corn was that the seeds couldn’t be saved and used for future crops. Seeds from hybrid corn don’t grow true. Instead of producing corn similar to the original hybrid, it creates a Frankenstein corn that reflects the hundreds of strains that create it. Because of this problem, not many farmers used it until 1932. In the early 1930s, a bacterial wilt in Iowa attacked corn crops at an epidemic level. Glenn Smith developed the Golden Cross Bantam corn, which was a hybrid resistant to the wilt. Within the next four years, 90 percent of Iowa corn became hybrid, and most of it was that specific strain of Golden Cross Bantam. Ten years after that, by 1946, 100 percent of Iowa’s corn and 90 percent of all corn grown in the USA was hybrid (Ray, 12). Through the acceptance of hybridization, farmers gave up one problem in exchange for another. The inability to save hybrid seeds meant they no longer had to worry about harvesting or saving seeds for future crops, but, in exchange, they became prisoners of the industry.
As if things weren’t bad enough, the industry released the plague that would come to involve not just seeds, but all commercially grown food: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified (GM) seeds became a product of DNA experimentation in the 1970s. Scientists were able to engineer a seed by turning off certain genes, turning on others, replacing one gene with another, or even adding DNA from entirely different organisms. By 1996, GM seeds had entered the market, and Monsanto, one the largest seed companies in the modern day, was quick to strike. Monsanto was known for its herbicide, Roundup, which was so powerful it destroyed everything, including the plant itself if it had already germinated. With the introduction of GM seeds, Monsanto built GM, “Roundup-Ready” corn seeds that were resistant to their herbicide. The market grew and, within a decade, over half of all corn in the United States was genetically modified (Ray, 14). As with hybridization, farmers embraced these new seeds that made their crops ultimately easier to produce.
The introduction of hybrid and GM seeds meant the beginning of yet another disaster for farmers. Before the 1900s, farmers were very self-sufficient when it came to the creation of their crops. After purchasing seeds at the beginning of their career, they would save enough seeds from each crop for them to plant the next crop the following year. The creation of GM seeds gave companies the right to “own” seeds. For the first time in history, companies were able to patent strains of hybrid and GM seeds. Suddenly, a new monopoly had entered the world, and companies were in a race to the top. Chemical companies especially began to buy out seed companies with the prospect of capitalizing on the profits of genetic engineering. By 2006, half of commercial seed sales across the globe were controlled by ten companies. Monsanto was in the top three (Ray, 37). In less than one hundred years, ten companies around the globe had gained control over anyone wanting produce, whether they be commercial farmers or average people in their homes.
Once the market was monopolized, companies became occupied with expressing dominance over small farmers. Monsanto created a staff of 75 people specifically trained to investigate farmers who were illegally saving and reusing Monsanto’s patented crops (Food INC). These people went around, randomly testing the crops of farmers for evidence of Monsanto’s seeds. Even if a farmer was not pirating Monsanto’s seeds or had never purchased seeds from Monsanto, many found themselves being sued for patent infringement. These farmers were victims of “genetic drift,” the result of crop contamination from the wind blowing pollen and other seed matter from different crops. Monsanto was unsympathetic. By 2005, they had filed ninety lawsuits against farmers, been paid over $15 million for false cases of infringement, and had shut down many small farms that went bankrupt from legal fees (Ray, 117). Farming turned from an honest, natural trade to a battle of corruption and money.
Unfortunately, farmers haven’t been the only ones to cave to the oppression of corporate monopolies thrusting GM produce down their throats. Large retailers of organic food like Whole Foods Market and Organic Valley have officially abandoned their fight against Monsanto’s genetically engineered produce. In a public display, top executives declared that they no longer disapprove of the commercialization of Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops (Cummins, 2011). Why the sudden decision to go against literally everything these companies stand for? Well, they know, just as the public is coming to realize, that $6 billion of the annual sales of “natural” foods from these retailers contain just as many GMOs as standard, non-organic brands (Cummins, 2011). In fact, over 75 percent of the foods seen in any grocery stores include ingredients that have been genetically modified, regardless of their labels claiming to be “natural” or “organic” (Food INC). Indeed, just by looking at one staple crop like corn, which is already known to be 100 percent hybrid and mostly GM, it’s easy to see how so many GMOs can get into our everyday food. Many of the obscure and hard to pronounce ingredients listed on a box of food are derived from corn. Ascorbic acid, baking powder, caramel coloring, citric acid, dextrose, artificial and natural flavorings, lactic acid, vinegar, and xanthan gum are all common ingredients that can and often are derived from corn products (Gluten Free Society). The only way to ensure a non-GMO product is through the label of “certified organic,” which only makes up about 1% of American farmland. Meanwhile, uneducated consumers spend premium dollar on “organic” products and boost the sales of fakes to almost $80 billion annually (Cummins, 2011). Our dinner tables have become a game of monopoly in which no one wins except the fat cats at the top.
What is the issue with GMOs? Why are people opposing them, and why should anyone care? If science has managed to engineer crops to produce better, then why not capitalize on those opportunities? Alas, the main issue with GMOs is that they are not safe, and the effects of engineering food has not been tested enough to be proven risk-free. The FDA’s process of approving genetically modified foods involves measuring if they are “substantially equivalent.” Substantially equivalent GMOs have similar levels of nutrients, proteins, and toxicity compared to the original plant. They are considered to be identical to the original plant and are not required to undergo any further testing (Ray, 38). On its own, there may not seem to be any issues with that process. However, the system becomes illogical when reports show that the FDA stamps their “substantially equivalent” approval on almost all GM food, even ones that are shown to have a considerably different composition and nutrition from the original item (Ray, 38). With this approval process, it’s impossible to know whether anything in our food is actually safe for consumption.
At this point, genetic modification has been around enough to begin to see its effects. Because genetic modification is the result of inserting or changing DNA, it’s hard to know how that DNA will change over time. Many studies are beginning to publish research showing that GM seeds that were safe when tested in a lab became hazardous later on (Ray, 39). Some adverse effects shown in lab animals include abnormal blood cell counts, unexplained growths and tumors in the digestive system, increased allergic reactions, and even infertility (Ray, 40). Additionally, GM plants have been shown to have a damaging effect on nature as well. The scientific journal, Nature, published a study that showed the creation of “superweeds” through GM crops. Other studies showed GM crops harmed many aspects of the environment, including beneficial insects, birds, and even fish (The Council for Responsible Genetics). Although there are many studies “proving” that GMOs are actually safe, a closer inspection can show that those studies are funded from the very same companies that profit from the sales of GM products (Qutab, 2017). In truth, genetic modification is still too new to be able to see any health problems in humans, even though harmful effects are seen in lab animals and nature.
There’s no denying that the agricultural industry has changed dramatically in the past hundred years. We’ve come from a world of open-source, natural seeds and arrived at a place where a handful of giant companies patent and control the seeds that make up most of our food today. To save time and money, these companies have taken advantage of agricultural technology to create hybrid and genetically modified seeds that have questionable health implications. Although it’s difficult to tell what GM crops will do to humans, tests done on lab animals and the environment have shown negative outcomes. Because the FDA doesn’t require companies to put special labels on GM products, about 75 percent of the foods found in grocery stores contain GMOs, regardless of any descriptions involving the words “natural” or “organic.” At the rate our agricultural industry is going, we’ve managed to lose 94% of the food varieties we had one hundred years ago. The seeming diverse selection we have at the grocery store is just a lie we’ve been given. That lie is followed by another that suggests this is a satisfactory way to live. Even if we can’t reverse what has been done, we can prevent further damage in the future. We can stop accepting bad food as the new normal and fight for the small amount of seed heritage we still have.
Cummins, Ronnie. “The Organic Elite Surrenders to Monsanto.” CounterPunch, 28 January, 2011, https://www.counterpunch.org/2011/01/28/the-organic-elite-surrenders-to-monsanto/. Accessed 28 September 2019.
Food INC. Directed by Robert Kenner, written by Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein. Magnolia Pictures, 2008.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” The Council for Responsible Genetics, 2000, http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/ViewPage.aspx?pageId=118. Accessed 3 October 2019.
“Hidden Corn Based Ingredients.” Gluten-Free Society, 2010, https://www.glutenfreesociety.org/hidden-corn-based-ingredients/. Accessed 28 September 2019.
Qutab, Marina. “How Do GMOs Impact People and the Environment – and Do They Produce More Food?” OneGreenPlanet, 2017. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/how-do-gmos-impact-people-and-the-environment/. Accessed 3 October 2019.
Ray, Janisse. The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012.
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