Humans have been genetically modifying foods since the beginning of agriculture by simply selecting crops that are nutritious and have high yields. With the recent advent of transgene technology, scientists have been exploring new ways to modify a plant’s genes without relying on the slow process of artificial selection. The development of these “genetically modified organisms,” has promised an environmentally sustainable and efficient way to increase food production. Activists, however, have raised concerns regarding potential environmental risks, health dangers, corporate monopolies, and globalization. Determining the market and social factors influencing the complicated politics of genetically modified food requires a close analysis of the promises and consequences of biotechnology in areas such as the United States, India, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Promise and reality
The first genetically engineered food crop introduced for public consumption was the Flavr Savr tomato, which contained a gene to slow the ripening of the tomato to allow the produce to retain its color and flavor while sitting on supermarket shelves. Although the Flavr Savr tomato was approved by the FDA in 1994, it was taken off the market in 1997 due to insufficient profitability. Over the next ten years, however, funding was increased for the development and implementation of genetically modified crops, ranging from herbicide-resistant soybeans to insect-resistant corn.
Proponents of biotechnology have long touted the potential societal benefits of genetically engineered crops for both the United States and developing countries. For example, Calestous Juma, Harvard Kennedy School professor and former executive director of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity believes that biotechnology, broadly defined as “technology applied to biological systems,” should define the future of global crop production in a “second Green Revolution.” In a publication entitled “Feeding the Next Generation: Science, Business, and Public Policy,” he wrote that biotechnology “has the promise of leading to increased food security and sustainable forestry practices.” Juma and other advocates note that biotechnology can increase environmental sustainability of food production, decrease pesticide and herbicide use, and increase food stability in regions prone to pests and drought.
Biotechnology has not been controversial. Markets for genetically modified foods have raised many concerns regarding environmental impact, human health, and corporate control of agribusiness. These concerns have inspired significant dissent from small farmers and activists in the US.
Transgenic food crops are made by inserting genes from different organisms that confer various desirable traits such as resistance to pests. Because of these traits, transgenic crop populations can be more virulent than wild-type plants. Conservationists fear that transgenic populations may take over and replace wild-type populations. In addition, consumer advocates have expressed numerous health and safety concerns regarding genetically modified foods, noting that the health implications of ingesting transgenic materials have not been the subject of any conclusive long-term studies. Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, notes that although the US Food and Drug Administration considers genetically modified foods safe for human consumption, its investigations may have failed to address concerns that are inherently unique to transgenic organisms, “Maybe there are differences that we don’t know how to look for.” Jasanoff says that the US government’s regulation of genetically modified foods for the past decade has been informed by the “high-level administrative decision that the government was going to assume that biotech products were the same as other products.”
A Monsanto Monopoly?
Globally, transgenic food crops remain controlled almost entirely by agribusiness. Monsanto, a multinational biotechnology corporation, produces the huge majority of transgenic seeds used in the US and across the world. Its most successful products, “Roundup-Ready” soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beet, and cotton are resistant to an herbicide called RoundUp, which is also produced by Monsanto. RoundUp-Ready crops make weed-killing easier for farmers, but also coerce those same farmers to depend on Monsanto’s seeds and RoundUp herbicide, raising concerns about corporate monopoly and decreasing the financial viability of small organic farming. Laura Resnick, who works at a small sustainable farm, notes that consumers who do purchase organic food usually make that decision deliberately, “The people who come to farmers’ markets are knowledgeable about GMO and they want to get the majority of their food from as local and sustainable a source as possible.” Organic produce may be prohibitively expensive for other consumers, however, drawing them to supermarkets instead of farmer’s markets.
Signe Porteshawver, a consumer activist and farmworker, notes that neglecting to take environmental impact into account can drive food prices to artificially low levels. “In fact,” she says, “sustainable food captures the actual price. In sustainable food, what we pay for is the externalities: the environmental cost, the dead zones.” Additionally, government farming subsidies often compensate large factory farms at the expense of small farmers. Porteshawver believes that government-funded incentives leveraged through subsidies could incentivize consumers to purchase from small farmers.
GM and development
Issues of environment, health, and corporate control extend to the developing world, where GM crops have been applied to help resource-poor farmers increase nutrition and crop yields in Indian and some African countries. Proponents of biotechnology argue that these technologies will increase farmers’ self-sufficiency and prevent famines.
At times, biotechnologies that originate in the US can transform local agricultural economies in developing countries in harmful ways. Dr. Jasanoff argues that the promises of biotechnology must be balanced with the concerns for the livelihoods of small farmers. She notes, “Can biotech be effectively used to improve agriculture? Yes, for sure. Will it be the kind that’s sensitive of human means of production? That’s a different question. Only if there are scholars and activists and others who join together to say that agriculture is a fundamentally social activity and you can’t simply wrap it up into the model of technological production.” Because of this, attempts to institute genetically modified crops in developing countries have faced objections by not only environmentalists but also anti-globalization advocates.
Dr. Juma argues that, far from globalizing, biotechnologies allow developing countries to engineer for economic independence and food security. He warns, “One of the most popular myths is that this research is supported by foreign firms seeking profits. The evidence points in a different direction. Much of the research is locally-driven and inspired by the search for solutions to local challenges.”
Dr. Jasanoff, however, disagrees. She told the HPR, “When you look at funding programs in Africa and India, I think you would find the fingerprint of the multinational wherever you go.” For example, an Indian company named Mahyco developed a pest-resistant transgenic eggplant called BT brinjal. Mahyco, a partner of Monsanto, attempted to bring the eggplant to commercial production. In 2010, the Indian government instituted a moratorium on BT brinjal deployment in response to mobilization by Indian activists and farmers.
With concerns regarding the environment, human health, corporatization, and globalization, there is valid reason for small farmers in both the US and in developing countries to object to the spread of GM crops. These crops, however, also hold huge promise for a more sustainable and more productive agricultural future. As Addie Rolnick, a senior at Harvard writing her thesis on the politics of genetically modified crops in India has learned, any decision about biotechnology regulation must take many factors into consideration. Rolnick notes that a productive discussion about GM foods must “move forward in a way that looks at the details and the specific issues at stake.”