Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 13: The False Promise of Genetically Engineered Foods

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 13: The False Promise of Genetically Engineered Foods

Stacked sacks labelled GE Miracle Maize. Feeding the Poor Better than Ever. Warning: This product may cause cancer, allergic reactions, and/or antibiotic resistance.

Tomatoes that do not go bad after they are picked… wheat and soybeans and maize that can resist large amounts of pesticides… seeds that kill pests in the ground. None of these things are natural. And yet they exist.

These new kinds of plants are called genetically engineered (GE) foods or genetically modified (GM) foods. Not everyone agrees that these new crops are healthy. The corporations that make them say they will improve food security, help feed the world, and, in the case of biofuels, end our dependence on oil. Other people say they are harmful for people and the environment. No matter what you believe, the present and future of farming, and food security for all of us, is being changed by these new crops.

Most GE crops do not provide greater crop yields, better nutrition, or any of the health benefits that their inventors claim. And so far, GE crops do not help the poor or solve the problem of hunger. Most GE crops have been invented to sell more of the pesticides and fertilizers made by the same companies that produce and sell GE seeds.

GE foods offer a technical solution — costly, man-made seeds — for a social problem: hunger. But as farmers come to depend on buying these seeds and the pesticides and fertilizers they need to produce these crops, hunger increases, not decreases. There is less food security and less food sovereignty.

Farmers resist GE cotton
A man thinking.

Basanna is a cotton farmer in Karnataka state, in India. Several years ago, when GE crops were very new, he was approached by men from the Monsanto Corporation, who offered him a new variety of cotton seeds. They gave him the seeds free of cost, along with fertilizer to help them grow. They told him they would come every few weeks to inspect the crop and to spray his field. To Basanna, this seemed like a very good deal. He would have a cotton harvest at no cost, and the company would do most of the work.

Basanna did not know this was part of Monsanto’s genetic engineering experiment. Men from Monsanto came to spray pesticides on the field regularly, but the crop still suffered from bollworm and other pests. Basanna wondered what kind of cotton would need so much pesticide, and still not grow well.

Basanna soon learned that other farmers were growing the new cotton too. He also learned that the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association did not like the cotton, or the company promoting it. Basanna went to a meeting held by these farmers to learn more.

Basanna learned the new cotton needed more chemicals than he had used before, and that these chemicals would decrease the fertility of his soil. He also learned that this cotton might not yield any more than his old cotton did. Basanna heard that he would not be allowed to replant the cotton seeds because the company owned the rights to them. Worst of all, he learned that pollen from the plants could travel on the wind and affect his neighbor’s crops. If the neighbor’s crops pollinated this new cotton, they would not be allowed to replant their seeds the next year.

When Basanna realized the GE cotton was a threat to his farm and to his entire community, he joined the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association. Together, thousands of farmers came up with a plan to tell the world what they thought of GE cotton. They planned an activity and then, the day before they gathered, they sent a letter to newspapers throughout the country that said:

Three fields in Karnataka will be reduced to ashes on Saturday. Activists have already contacted the owners of these fields to explain to them what action will be taken and for what reasons, and to let them know we will cover any losses they will suffer. Saturday at midday, thousands of farmers will occupy and burn down the fields in front of the cameras, in an open, announced action of civil disobedience.

The next day they did what they promised. The first field burned belonged to Basanna. He supported the burning because he was angry that the Monsanto Corporation had not been honest with him and that the GE cotton would do so much harm to his fields and his neighbors. With the money the Farmers’ Association paid for his burned crop, he bought traditional cotton seeds, and went back to planting the variety that had served him well in the past.

A woman questioning.
Questions for discussion

  • Have you ever known a farmer to destroy his own crops? What would make a farmer, or you, do that?
  • Can you think of any other ways the farmers of Karnataka could have shown how much they were against GE crops?
  • What are the benefits of growing “improved” GE seeds?
  • What are the “hidden” costs of using GE seeds?
  • What else do you know about GE seeds?
A woman examines 2 seedlings, one small and limp, one large and strong.
By selecting the seeds of the healthier plant, you can help the next season’s crops be stronger.

Traditional plant breeding

All living things contain tiny parts called genes. Genes determine how each plant, animal or person grows, and what it becomes: from a seed to a plant, from an egg to a chicken, from a child to an adult.

As they interact with conditions such as heat, cold, wind, soil quality, and so on, the genes in plants determine how plants will grow. Qualities such as the color, shape, and size of plants, if they will grow quickly or slowly, when they produce flowers and fruit, or what nutrients they have are determined by each plant’s genes.

When farmers select and save the biggest maize seeds after each harvest to plant the next year, the gene for large seeds is passed from one crop to the next over many years, and the gene for small seeds disappears. This is how plant breeding works. It is a slow process of selecting and favoring the development of the characteristics in a plant that a farmer wants.

How are GE plants different from traditional plants?

Genetic engineering is different from plant breeding. Scientists use laboratory methods to change the genes of plants or animals in more extreme ways than traditional plant breeding does. To get the plant qualities they want, they can bring together genes from 2 completely different kinds of plants (such as rice and maize). They can also mix plant genes with animal genes. For this reason, it is called “genetic engineering.” Like an engineer, a plant scientist “builds” new kinds of plants and animals that would never develop naturally.

GE plants are not simply new varieties with better qualities. They are a new kind of plant that never existed before. Corporations spend billions of dollars every year to invent new combinations, such as trees that grow quickly and have soft wood for making paper, tomatoes that stay fresh when they are stored for a long time, soybeans, wheat, and cotton that can survive large doses of pesticides, and animals such as fish and pigs that grow much larger than normal.

The high cost of GE crops

Growing GE crops is more expensive than growing traditional crops in a sustainable way. Instead of saving the seeds from the previous crop, farmers must usually buy GE seeds each year along with costly fertilizers and pesticides. GE crops also have many other hidden costs. They can be poor in nutrition and can damage the environment. Before planting GE crops, consider these other, often “hidden,” costs.

People talking together beside their crops.
These crops need chemicals to grow well.
The seed company doesn't allow us to replant the seeds we harvest.
They don't produce more than our old varieties…and often they produce less.
If people like the old varieties, maybe they won't buy what we grow.