The debate about Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs is one that is constantly concerned with health. GMO’s are organisms whose genomes have been altered so that their DNA contains one or more genes not found naturally within it. This process has made some nervous, and they argue that tampering with food products makes them unhealthier, and less natural. This argument is fallacious for several reasons.
One problem with criticizing GMOs as being unhealthier than their unmodified counterparts is that the opposite is true. GMO labs often try to create modifications that will benefit the consumer. Some of this is rooted in making bigger or tastier food, but other aspects are engineered into their products solely for health benefits. The agribusiness group Simplot has created a potato that has less “black spots,” a deterrent for shoppers looking for quality produce, as well diminished the formation of acrylamide within their potatoes, a naturally occurring carcinogen.
Furthermore, there is hardly any agricultural product that is unmodified by humans at this point. Humans have been altering the way food grows since the day we chose to eat the bigger apples and plant their seeds instead of the smaller ones. Humanity constantly influences the environment that it occupies, so calling a product more or less natural is a fruitless game. Often chemicals found in raw plant material are lethal in their natural form and are only useful as medicine after being refined or changed somehow.
The problem implicit within GMOs is not health, but power. Most seed production for large-scale agriculture is done by only a handful of companies. Monsanto is not the only one, but it tends to make the news more often than many of its other corporate competitors due to its size. Monsanto made approximately $9.56 Billion in 2015 by selling specific “seeds and traits” of a variety of plants, from corn to cotton. Clearly Monsanto makes quality seeds that farmers find adequate for their planting needs. They make a great deal of money off of their patented GMOs, and they fight hard to make sure that their product stays in the hands of paying customers.
This is where a lot of the criticism of Monsanto comes from. Monsanto is a ferocious presence in the world of litigation. They have filed lawsuits against unlicensed farmers using their seeds over 140 times, and have settled several hundred more out of court. One of the largest of these cases was that of Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser. Percy Schmeiser owned a small farm in Saskatchewan Canada where he farmed canola plants. Schmeiser, while spraying his property with round up to kill weeds he found that some of the canola he accidentally sprayed with round-up (a Monsanto herbicide) did not die from exposure. The farmer sprayed about an acre of his crop with round up, and found that 60 percent was the Monsanto made, round up resistant Canola. When Monsanto caught wind of this, they contacted Schmeiser and asked him to sign a license agreement acknowledging the use of their patents and to have him pay their licensing fee, which Schmeiser refused to do.
Monsanto’s justification is the same as any other company whose patents are being abused: the credit and profit is not being given where it is due. As an agrochemical company, Monsanto depends on the profits from their seeds to sustain their research, and to quote their website: “no business can survive without being paid for its product.” The problem with this logic lies with the lack of clarity of how the Monsanto modified canola would even end up in farmer Schmeiser’s custom grown canola.
Schmeiser claims that this canola ended up in his field due to pollen and seed being blown in from other surrounding farms that had adopted Monsanto’s Round Up Ready canola. Because Monsanto’s canola blooms and disperses pollen just like any other plant, its genetic material can get into any other canola in the area regardless of whether that farmer has signed an agreement with Monsanto. Furthermore, because their copyright is actually in the DNA of the plant, it is difficult to determine whether or not an unlicensed farmer’s crop is intentionally using Monsanto seeds. In Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser the jury had to answer a crucial question: were the fields deliberately with Monsanto product? Or were they just pollinated the previous year by other surrounding fields and then planted unknowingly?
Ultimately the court ruled 5-4 in favor of Monsanto, and Schmeiser had to either sign their agreement or replant his whole crop. Up until the very end it was unclear how exactly the Round up Ready canola ended up in his field.
Perhaps Schmeiser was really gaming the system. Perhaps he had been hoarding Monsanto brand Canola and was planning on sustaining a genetically superior crop without paying for the privilege. That would not be fair, but the danger of the Schmeiser case is that it creates a dangerous precedent. If in the future the farmer defendant is truly innocent, Monsanto will be able to point to the Schmeiser case as legal precedent for suing other farmers.
Not only this, but due to the amount of Monsanto products in agriculture, the potential for contamination of independent farmer’s fields is fairly large. Given that their crops are designed to be more hardy and resistant to certain herbicides and pests, these contaminated crops will undoubtedly reproduce and integrate further into the unknowing farmer’s crops. If a Monsanto representative decides to investigate and discovers their signature DNA, that farmer will either need to start from scratch or pay Monsanto for invading their field with a crop they weren’t even sure they had to begin with.
Ultimately, GMOs are not as large of a health concern as they are a legal concern, in fact genetic modification of food is immensely important. The world has a population of 7.3 billion people, and we are expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030. If we expect to feed our world’s population, or even a fraction of the world’s population we need food, and lots of it. Organisms can be modified to have greater crop yields and as mentioned earlier, can be changed to help more people stay healthy and nourished.
However, if this proliferation of Monsanto product continues to increase the way it has been, we may see the small farmer completely absorbed their customer base. And if the majority of food production is in the hands of one company, all of our eggs (and fruit and vegetables) will be in one basket.