GMOs, for the purpose of this position paper will refer to GMOs created by Monsanto as they hold a monopoly on the seed market, with a 93% hold over genetically modified corn seeds, and similar percentages with other GM crops. This makes their genetically modified crops the most predominantly used and therefore it makes fundamental sense to talk about their seeds. GMOs are a modern ecological nightmare that should be avoided. Simply put, GM crops encourage monoculture planting, contaminate groundwater while creating super-resistant weeds and finally, GMOs harm earth’s most important pollinator, the honeybee. All this is done while Monsanto collects profit and evades accountability for any of these environmental disasters. Genetically modified plants are not an issue inherently, and they would be wonderful if they were actually designed to use less water, have higher yields or have better disease and cold resistance. However as long as GMOs are made to benefit someone’s pocketbook; to boost their profits of herbicides, pesticides, at such a high cost to our planet – such as what the powerful corporate entity that is Monsanto has done.
GMOs, at least for the time being, are not something we should not embrace with open arms. GMOs encourage monoculture planting. Now this statement doesn’t seem particularly harmful until we look a little more in depth. A monoculture is defined as a single crop grown repetitively in the same plot of land. This leads to several ecological issues. Just as the Emerald Ash Borer has devastated ash trees populations planted in monoculture along suburb boulevards and hardwood forests; food crop monocultures are just a fragile and easily damaged. Different plants have nutrient levels and vitamins, thus when a crop is rotated with different crops they all benefit from the wide array of nutrients constantly being added and used. However, in a monoculture, the same crop is planted over and over, depleting the same nutrients and vitamins from the soil.
This leads to soil erosion. Soil erosion is happening globally 13% faster than it can be replaced. One vital example of this is nitrogen, which is vital for the growth of all crops. Plants like soybeans add nitrogen into the ground, hence, increasing its amounts whereas crops like corn and wheat use a lot of nitrogen during their development and do not add any back into the ground. This trend occurs with all nutrients, not just nitrogen and is the main reason for soil erosion in monocultures.
Furthermore, crop rotations help prevent major pest outbreaks, therefore by only planting one species, the crop is more susceptible to pest outbreaks. Ultimately, this leads to an ugly feedback loop where when farmers are trying to grow a crop, they are doing so in this poor quality soil which is prone to erosion, with a prevalent pest problem. To combat this, more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides must be used to grow these crops effectively. Additionally, it is important to note that GM crops are designed to be used with herbicides like RoundUp (called Roundup Ready plants by Monsanto). This means that for one, the crop’s gene is made immune to glyphosate (the active chemical in Roundup) allowing it to kill anything and everything else. Funnily enough, no other gene traits have been added to these plants such as; being able to deal with drought, cold weather or more nutrition in general – all things you and I would consider advantageous. Secondly, since glyphosate is effective for a wide variety of weeds, this leads to an lack of diversity in chemicals used or other management practices as the glyphosate is so effective short term. Farmers used to use a variety of practices like crop rotation and many different pesticides to tackle weeds however now this “blanket application” of Glyphosate is largely used instead.
This means that the long term use of herbicides like RoundUp, which is Glyphosate, leads to weeds that are extremely resistant to the chemical and therefore need a lot more of it to be managed appropriately to allow for these high yields to continue. This chemical-laden soil in turn, leaches into various bodies of water therefore, attributes to the contamination of various bodies of water and groundwater sources. All the pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides used in agriculture are either absorbed into the soil, where they contaminate the groundwater or are carried away when the topsoil erodes due to heavy rainfall or wind. This is where they contaminate local waterways.
These chemicals have monstrous effects on aquatic ecosystems and wildlife. In a 2005 study, researchers found that amphibians, specifically tadpoles, faced a 96-100% mortality rate when exposed to Roundup. It is important to remember that Roundup is marketed as a herbicide, meaning it is only supposed to kill plants species. More recently, a 2012 study showed similar results, stating that Roundup had detrimental effects on amphibians and dragonflies. The study found that the presence of Roundup had caused anatomical and behavioural changes in both species. Moving to larger bodies of water, glyphosate also heavily affects our oceans and it all starts with phytoplankton.
Glyphosate, a herbicide, evidently works on aquatic plants as well. Phytoplankton population has dropped 40% since the 1950s, not coincidentally, this is when glyphosate was first introduced. Phytoplankton is an algae are the backbone of the ocean as all species get their energy from this species, either directly or from eating something that fed on it. When glyphosate leaks into oceans it kills this phytoplankton, eroding entire ecosystems at their foundation. The Australian Great Barrier Reef was considered “killed” by poisoning in 2016, which many cite the 1990 rise of glyphosate branded as “Roundup” as a primary factor. In summary, GM crops indirectly perpengate, the contamination of waterways and damage to aquatic ecosystems.
Unfortunately, these chemicals affect more than just aquatic life and waterways, but also vital pollinators like honey bees. Pesticides like Roundup (Monsanto’s brand name for their Glyphosate-based herbicide) contain neonicotinoids which are designed to keep pests away from crops, however these chemicals also affect bee’s memory, ability to learn and therefore their ability to forage and survive. In recent years this has lead to record highs of colony collapse disorder (CCD). If CCD continues and if honeybees were to go extinct, everyone would starve. It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food we eat was pollinated by a honeybee. Pollinators are crucial for plant reproduction, especially since many plant species, like apple trees cannot self pollinate and therefore rely on pollinators like the honeybee to carry their pollen from one plant to the next. Not only are honey bees responsible for pollinating 90% of the food we eat and provide 30 billion dollars worth of crops per year; they also are vital to the food chain. If honey bees went extinct, and the plants dependant on them went extinct, the destruction would move up the food chain, as the animals that eat those plants would also struggle to survive and the animals that eat those herbivores would also run out of food.
Online you can find dozens of graphs showing strikingly opposite data for GMO crop yields, some claiming them to be high and therefore using less land and other resources, while others claim they are lower than current conventionally grown crop yields. As you can see, there is data on both sides, and they are both right – it’s all in the language used. GM crops do not physically produce more kernels per corn or ears per plant, ie. their intrinsic yield is equal to that of conventionally grown crops. However, because GM crops are designed to withstand herbicides like RoundUp, these chemicals can be used more effectively to stop the spread of weeds, insects etc. thereby decreasing the amount of crop lost to these factors. This translates into an increased yield, as shown in the pro-GMO studies. However, the problem here is that the pro-GMO studies are trying to prove that the plants are genetically engineered to have higher intrinsic yields, when in fact, they have been designed to withstand herbicides which makes the chemicals more effective.
It doesn’t hurt that this symbiotic relationship boosts profit for Monsanto, because these these two complementary products are really dependant on each other in order to function at the levels claimed by pro-GMO groups. The above information illustrates that growing GM crops is causing a negative trickle down effect, from encouraging monocultures which leads to soil erosion and more chemical use to those chemicals getting in the water and affecting species and finally, to harming the very insects necessary for those plants to exist – our pollinators.