Gene-Modified Crops
(a Cell's-Eye view)

Ross Hume Hall, Ph.D.
biochemistry, nutrition,  food technology.

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Genetic modification of plants and animals, the cutting edge agricultural technology, has raised the hackles of environmental and consumer groups. . They say gene-modified (GM) crops have not been tested for safety to consumers or for long-term effects on the ecosystem. We don’t know the dangers they may pose.

But the issues  go deeper to the heart of modern agriculture. GM crops represent  just one more technique designed to circumvent natural laws.

Criticism of GM crops, no mater how much deserved, is rapidly becoming academic. The United States government has taken the position that GM crops are good for humankind (not to mention the tiny circle of companies, like Monsanto, that have got a stranglehold on distribution of GM seeds).

Over 100 million acres of the world’s best farm land is now planted with GM crops. The genie is out of the bottle says Neil Hart, professor of Agriculture and Economics, Iowa State University. Even if GM crops should eventually prove unworkable or dangerous, you can’t scrap them, once in the field. If we decided to eradicate GM crops today, according to Hart, "it would take years, if not decades." (Quoted in the New York Times, June 10, 2001)

GM crops are living organisms. Like alien blobs from outer space, you can’t stop them from reproducing—somewhere.. Consumers who once thought they could avoid GM foods by buying organic are horrified to learn that GM pollen blows over the land. GM-free varieties are becoming history.

Proponents of GM crops have a ready defense. Plant and animal breeding has been practiced since antiquity. Although, only members of the same species could ever be crossed. But now GM allows scientists to redesign crops and farm animals by inserting genes from one species into another. Thus, human genes can be inserted into mice-- and vice versa. Further, scientists can create genes in the laboratory--Frankenstein genes

 Proponents of GM crops and animals say this technology propels agriculture into a higher orbit. But western agriculture was already flying high. Gene-modified crops are just the latest technology to enter agriculture.

Ever More Intensive Agriculture

Western agriculture is often referred to as intensive. Intensive agriculture, in fact, has a long history, at least 150 years, a product of the industrial revolution. Inventors developed ever more efficient machinery. Plant and animal breeders developed bigger animals and higher yielding varieties. Scientists developed the means to probe the intimate recesses of plant and animal life.

Above all, industrialization of agriculture generated an attitude that there was no limit to the extent that natural process and life itself can be manipulated.

Intense agriculture embraces two goals:

1. highest yield per acre of soil
2. highest output per farm worker.

It goes without saying that these two goals are seen as the means to realize the highest profit. Where’s the concern for human nutrition? Some years ago, when I started studying food and nutrition, I subscribed to several leading farm and agricultural journals. The authors of the articles in these journals dwelt on the minutia of how to increase crop yields or how to boost milk production.

I never found one word about the nutritional value of crops or animal products to human consumers. Human nutrition is not a factor in selecting new varieties of crops or in the maniacal goal of increasing yield at any cost.

Significantly, the first GM crop to be introduced on the commercial market was Monsanto’s Roundup-ready soybean. This variety of soybean has an inserted gene that makes the plant specifically resistant the herbicide, Roundup. Monsanto manufactures Roundup and also controls the GM seed. It’s a big profit-maker for Monsanto as their GM soybean has swept the world’s soybean market.

I don’t know what went on in Monsanto’s laboratory when they first decided to produce a GM soybean. I am sure that no one said let’s figure out a way to make a soybean more nutritious and healthful to human consumers.

Critics of GM foods rail against companies like Monsanto and the government for not doing more testing of this new technology. But then western countries have a long tradition of not wishing to study the effects of new technology or an old technology for that matter.

If the GM critics think there will be a change of heart, that Monsanto or the government will spend big sums to study the side effects of GM with the chance they’ll uncover something nasty, think again. It is unlikely to ever happen. Plenty of agricultural technologies, introduced in earlier ages, have negative impacts on human nutrition and health. The negative effects have not been elaborated. The technologies remain in place, unmodified.

Artificial Fertilizer, An Old Technology with New Problems

Let’s take one such technology, artificial fertilizer and see where that has led us. Until the early part of the nineteenth century farmers believed that plants fed off the organic matter in soil, the humus. That idea vanished in 1840 with publication of Justus von Liebig’s report to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology.

Von Liebig, a German scientist, determined that plants absorbed not the organic matter of humus but inorganic elements, mainly a threesome of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. All a farmer need do, according to Liebig, is add these three elements to the soil and yields skyrocket..

Liebig was a great personality, a man endowed with imagination, initiative, and leadership, a famous chemist.. When Lieibig spoke, the world listened. He dismissed humus as inconsequential. Being insoluble in water in contrast to the inorganic salts, humus, Liebig said, couldn’t possibly influence soil fertility. He viewed soil simply as a medium to hold a plant’s roots.

The Start Of Industrial Fertilizer

Two Englishmen took Liebig’s ideas and put them to practice. Two years after Liebig’s 1840 report. John Lawes patented an artificial fertilizer, superphosphate.

Lawes, together with a chemist, Joseph Gilbert, showed that superphosphate gave better grain yields than barnyard manure. The switch to inorganic fertilizer began. Within short order, agricultural scientists found ways to make inorganic fertilizer with Liebig’s threesome: nitrogen, N, phosphorus, P, and potassium (kalium), K. Some 150 years later that’s the fertilizer you buy for your garden and farmers apply to their fields.

Whatever happened to humus? Humus is a complex residue of partly oxidized vegetable and animal matter together with substances synthesized by soil microbes. Humus serves as more than just a fertility reserve. It gives body to the soil and helps create the porous structure . Soil lacking in humus is so constipated it is unable to pass oxygen. Microbes die in the suffocating soil..

Organic farmers much prize humus, which they maintain in their fields through composting. But the agricultural establishment dismisses organic farmers as old-fashioned freaks. The country’s agricultural leaders believe in Liebig’s pronouncement that liberal application of NPK is the only route to high crop yields. These leaders somehow miss the irony that Liebig’s 1840 science is, itself, decidedly old-fashioned.

To understand how artificial fertilizer affects human nutrition and well being we need to place the technology in a larger frame. The advent of NPK changed the goals of plant breeders. They began to breed plants that could exploit the abnormally high amount of these inorganic elements in the soil. The new varieties plants devote a high percentage of their energy to just getting bigger (producing more fruit or seeds).

The varieties of plants grown before the industrial age were closer to the wild. They used part of their available energy to protect against insects and disease. The high-production plants growing on NPK, in contrast, lack that ability.

One unbalanced technology, such as artificial fertilizer, needs another, such as chemical pesticides, to prop it up.

So along with artificial fertilizer, came the new technology of pest control. The current result of excessive use of chemical pesticides is that the residues remain on practically all commercial foods. Moreover, persistent pesticides, like DDT, now reside in the bodies of all Americans. It is not my intention to dwell on the adverse effects of pesticide contamination. My point is that one unbalanced technology, such as artificial fertilization, needs another to prop it up.

NPK use on America’s farmland has gone on some 150 years. Yet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and agricultural Universities have made no systematic study of the harmful fallout on human nutrition, or on broader issues, like sustainable agriculture.

Professor M. Alexander, a Cornell-University  microbiologist, lamented 30 years ago about the loss of microbial vitality in soils. He noted that few studies have been done on the relation  between soil microbes, soil fertility and the ultimate nutritional worth of the food produced. Attitudes haven't changed. Alexander today could make same comment..

Organic Farming, an Alternative

Not waiting for definitive studies, organic farmers intuitively realized that there is nothing old-fashioned about humus and soil quality. That’s the way nature works. Rather than pervert natural processes with an artificial fertilizer, they enhance those processes. And to boot, the yields they obtain are not much less than those of the heavily fertilized crops—and with much lower input.

Finally, it’s a pity that the intense argument over GM crops has not expanded to a public examination of the whole ball of wax that represents intensive agriculture. We have a lot of catching up to do in this examination.

© Copyright 2001, Ross Hume Hall. All rights reserved.
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