Genetically Modified Foods and the Threat to Public Health

Paul L. Reller L.Ac. / Last Updated: August 03, 2017


Economic alarm is heard with worldwide concerns of the rising costs of seed plantings as fewer companies control the staple seeds and Monsanto wins court cases upholding their right to collect patent fees from farmers that obtained the seeds not from Monsanto and affiliates, but from any source, even inadvertent cross contamination

In 2013, an Indian Supreme Court committee voted no to genetically modified crops as mass protests and suicides occurred in farming areas. Roundup resistant cotton engineered with the Bt pesticide gene was allowed in the distressed state of Vidarbha and it did not meet the claims of Monsanto, being too sensitive to the rain soaked region's climate, and driving many cotton farmers further into debt with failed crops. Studies in 2003 proclaimed that these pesticide-resistant crops would dramatically increase yields and decrease the cost of farming. These genetically engineered seeds were also much more expensive, though, so farmers depended on the assurance from Monsanto that the ultimate outcome will be increased income from crops. This is just one example that contradicts the rosy picture painted of the benefits of this new technology, even by a percentage of the scientists in the World Health Organization (who control the official belief of the organization). Many farmers around the world also worry that eventually there will be a monopoly on the seeds and the herbicide associated with them, and the price of farming will increase more and more. They also fear that all of the seed strains in the world will be eventually contaminated with these engineered genes, both denying the civilization the freedom to make their own choice of genetic modification or no genetic modification, and perhaps costing everyone some fees for using the technology.

A Supreme Court ruling in the United States affirmed that no matter if the genetically modified seeds were a source other than Monsanto or their affiliates, if the genes were in the seeds, fees needed to be paid to Monsanto. A single case of planting soybeans that were mixed with the genetically modified seeds not purchased as such, resulted in a settlement from the farmer for about $85,000 for one year of planting, paid to Monsanto! Studies in 2010, published in the journal Scientific American, show that these patented genes are now spread through surrounding crops and even ubiquitously in the wild strains of the plants. The response from Monsanto is that "of course we won't" claim profits from all of these cross-transfers of patented genes. Also, with just 3 companies controlling a great percentage of staple food crop seeds in the United States, prices for planting have purported to have risen more than 350 percent in the last 15 years. Instead of providing a better food economy, more and more evidence is arising that eventually economic harm will result from monopolization of the world food staples. As usual, the promise of immediate savings if everyone participates becomes a market situation later where everyone is force to play by economic rules imposed on them by corporations that control the market. The assurance of "just trust us" has gotten a little old.

The promise that savings would also result from the decreased need for the variety of herbicides needed in standard farming has also not materialized. The Institute for Responsible Technology reported that between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on genetically modified crops, and with the creation of new strains of common weeds resistant to these glyphosate herbicides (superweeds), apparently from cross-transfer of genes from the crops to the weeds, something the early Monsanto studies told us was impossible, the increase in need for herbicide is expected to grow enormously. As science develops more and more ways to farm with less need for harmful chemical herbicides and pesticides, utilizing natural protections from creating a more diverse evolved environment in farming, as well as progress on more diverse plant breeding, this is being grossly undermined by the Monsanto company.

There appears to be a disconnect between the farmer and the consumer in the matter of GMO crops and herbicides, with the health of the consumer not tied to the interests of those growing the food. We have ignored this basic social contract that kept us healthy for many centuries. Finally, the general public is waking up to this concept, with growing awareness of the importance of reclaiming a food chain that is neighborly, empathetic, and responsible. Driving family farms out of business and buying our foods at mega-chains of giant food supermarkets has not yielded the best outcome. The measure of our food economy cannot be simplified to the price per pound alone. The health insurance costs, government deficits driven by rising ill health and health care costs, as well as the enormous public cost of environmental cleanup, and the enormous drop in agricultural jobs contributing to the recession and unemployment, are just some of the concerns that are becoming apparent in this equation. A growing number of citizens are taking up small-scale healthy farming and promoting local sustainable economy, not because they can make more money, but because they feel it is the necessary and right thing to do. We need to support these people. While our media, advertising, and government politics has been dumbing down the population to consider such issues in an oversimplified manner, the pendulum is swinging the other way, and the public is becoming savvy to the complexities of such economic analyses.

The promise of high yield farm profits and cheap food in the United States has not panned out for everyone, though, and a growing number of farmers are looking for another way to proceed to make a profit. A March 10, 2015 article in the New York Times outlined the growing acceptance of soil-conservation farming to increase yields, crop quality, and adapt to increasing incidence of droughts and flood brought on by climate change. Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer with 5000 acres now planted with no-till and green fertilizer techniques is a popular speaker on the farm circuit, now, describing to farmers devastated by the more rapid depletion of topsoil and the topsoil nutrients by corporate farming methods, including glyphosate herbicides that chelate and harden the topsoil, and GMO crops not adapted to the crop diseases created by the imbalance of microbes in the soil that has let devastating crop fungus and other diseases spread. A number of organizations, such as the Kansas-based No-Till On the Plains, are showing that traditional farming methods used for centuries can restore the topsoil and topsoil biome, and insure at least as good of yields as chemical farming and GMO crops. A new generation of farmers are realizing that quick profits and empty promises have hurt their future, and a restoration of the agricultural economy can go hand-in-hand with a healthier food supply and a better environment.

With widespread adoption of Roundup glyphosate-based herbicides and Round-up Ready genetically modified crops, even the farmers that fully supported this practice due to higher yields and income are voicing practical concern regarding effects on the soil and environment, a growing problem with superweeds that have acquired genetic resistance to Roundup, and the effects on their crops that are not genetically modified

A September 20, 2013 article in the New York Times, entitled Misgivings About How Weed Killer Affects Soil, outlines the growing concerns from both farmers and scientists that the widespread adoption of Roundup glyphosate herbicide has actually harmed the soil and will negatively affect future crops and farming. An interview with a typical Iowa farmer, Dennis Von Arb, revealed that when his neighbor sprays Roundup on his genetically modified Roundup-Ready crops, that the herbicide blows onto his fields and kills the corn in the outer rows, and that the accumulation of glyphosates in the soil is now evident, as runoff after heavy rains shows evidence of even more obvious effects on his crops and soil. His neighbors call their genetically modified crops "traited" and "biotech" to alleviate concern, but even neighboring farmers that are happy with the higher yields of GMO crops are hearing from local agronomists (experts in soil management and field-crop production) that farmers will soon have to get away from Roundup due to mounting problems with superweeds, soil damage, and toxic accumulation. These guys are not hippie protesters, but very conservative Iowa farmers.

Of course, this scenario has been predicted by Monsanto and Dow, and the genetically modified soy, corn and wheat crops resistant to 2,4-D plus glyphosate, called Enlist, or Enlist Ready, produced by Dow Chemical, are already being fast-tracked to replace the Roundup Ready "traited" crops. Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in May of 2013 that it will extend its scrutiny of these now controversial proposed "biotech" crops developed by Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical, and new genetically modified, er, "biotech" crops introduced by Monsanto Company (completely different from the other company called Monsanto Company that developed Agent Orange herbicide chemical warfare with Dow Chemical, according to Monsanto Company). This news has frustrated Dow officials, as they had hoped that the fast-tracked approval of these new genetically modified crops and matched herbicide Enlist would be ready to start replacing Roundup Ready and Roundup glyphosate herbicide by 2013, or 2014 at the latest. The expected timeline of realization that Roundup Ready GMO crops and Roundup was too toxic for the soil and environment, and widespread replacement of these now ubiquitous crops with Enlist and Enlist Ready genetically modified crops is broken, and Dow is very upset, stating publicly that the USDA has set a bad precedent for future consideration of these safe and beneficial genetically engineered crops.

At the heart of this matter is an organization called the Center for Food Safety, a Washington DC based national nonprofit public interest group with more than 350,000 members across the country, currently headed by Andrew Kimbrell, a public interest attorney, with Colin O'Neil, a magna cum laude graduate of Benoit College in Wisconsin, and Elizabeth Kucinic, the wife of former Wisconsin Congressman Dennis Kucinic, who has worked for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as a congressional liaison to the United Nations, and board director for Sean Penn's Haitian Relief Organization and the Rodale Institute. Andrew Kimbrell stated that this USDA delay of the new Dow genetically modified crops was forced on them by the court decisions against the USDA concerning fast-track approval for genetically modified alfalfa and new sugarbeet crops. Concerned citizens and scientific experts state that the USDA regulatory agency is outrageously pro-AgriBusiness, fast-tracking almost anything since the Bush Administration, while corporations and corporate AgriBusiness contend that the USDA regulatory system continues to be unnecessarily burdensome and unpredictable, hurting big business. Since these two statements are completely at odds, obviously there is some falsehood to these statements. The general public has not paid much attention to the issue, but a little research shows that intrinsically, the USDA is set up to be promoting agricultural business, not stymying it, and there is not even the possibility that the USDA could over-regulate big AgriBusiness for the public good. This is why other regulatory agencies, such as the FDA and EPA were set up. For the public to believe that when any of these agencies were set up, that big business lobbyists allowed them to be formulated with anything but pro-business directives is ridiculous. Too often, these agencies, such as the USDA, have their hands tied by their legal directives. Only the attention and voiced concern by the public will protect us.

Concern from agronomists about soil quality is just one more big concern over the now very widespread adoption of glyphosate herbicides like Roundup and now Enlist, accompanying the problems with growing resistant superweeds, imbalance of the natural flora and fauna, adverse health effects in the long-term to this massive use of glyphosates and their metabolites, adverse health effects from genetically altered proteins in crops promoted by the use of the glyphosate herbicides, the spread of these genetic alterations to other crops of the same species, the slow toxic accumulation in anaerobic sediments in our waterways, and the problems of increased costs surrounding patented genetic alterations, as well as the dangers of mono-cropping and harm to natural ecological balance.

These problems can no longer be separated one from another, as 90 percent of the corn crop in the United States, and the vast majority of soy and wheat, is now glyphosate-resistent (Roundup Ready) genetically engineered, and has to use glyphosate herbicide. The studies of safety that used models of low use and bioaccumulation are now thrown out the window. One farmer interviewed in Iowa, Mike Verhoef, noted that since he switched to Roundup and Roundup Ready crops that over 3 years the soil got so much harder and compact due to chelation that he had to get a bigger tractor to pull the same equipment across the field, and that when he rotated crops, planting an oat crop to enrich the soil like he has always done with his soy and corn crops, that the oat yield has dropped by about half over this 3 year period due to poor soil health. Like many small farmers, he is beginning to doubt Monsanto, even though he has no respect for the anti-GMO protesters. Mr. Verhoef is considering going back to non-GMO crops, but his neighbors are telling him that he will go broke if he goes back. Despite this pressure to conform, he did switch back to conventional crops and herbicides, and does not regret the decision. He is making a living farming just as before, despite the enormous propaganda put out by the Monsanto Company for years.

As the above mentioned New York Times article illustrated, agronomists have noted that soil in fields where the glyphosate herbicides were used for years is now very hard and compact compared to other soils. Roots of the corn crops in these fields are now deficient in the nodules that absorb nutrients, and grow more superficially in the soil, not deep. Robert Kremer, a scientist at the USAD, has warned for years that his study of the soil changes in GMO soy crops and repeated use of glyphosate herbicides has shown that the complex biome of bacteria, fungi and minerals in the soil that sustains the plants root systems and exchange of nutrients into the plant has been damaged. The Monsanto Company states that this damage doesn't really affect the microbial systems, though. How does this damage occur? The glyphosates are mineral chelators, binding tightly to essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, boron and manganese, competing with other plants, as well as symbiotic bacteria and fungi, for these essential minerals. Eventually, this has a negative effect on the natural balance of life in the soil. Monsanto has presented numerous studies showing that there is no short-term significant adverse effect on the microbial processes in the soil, but there are almost no long-term studies of this problem. Monsanto has also stated that any mineral deficiencies, which they anticipated, could be mitigated with soil additives. There is concern that the glyphosates increase some mineral accumulation, though, binding the minerals in the soil, and creating mineral imbalances, not simple mineral deficiencies. Increases in plant diseases, which are also evident with long-term use of glyphosate herbicides, could also be linked to other causes, states Monsanto, and these could be mitigated by increased use of chemicals as well, hopefully purchased from the Monsanto Company. This fairy tale scenario of the wonders of modern science has been well thought out by these AgriBusiness corporations.

To make matter worse, since 2011, a bacterial illness known as Goss's Wilt, caused by Clavibacter michiganensis subspecies nebraskensis, has been spreading across the fields of Monsanto genetically modified corn, wilting the crops and taking away about half of the corn yield. This disease was previously confined to a small part of Nebraska and Colorado, and well-managed, but now is spreading across Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana. An October 1, 2013 article in the New York Times Science section quotes Alison Robertson, a plant pathologist at Iowa State University, whose research has even been funded by Monsanto, working with the U.S. Agricultural Department (USDA), as noting that in 2013 the rampant spread of Goss's wilt will affect about 10 percent of the U.S. corn crop, and that the predominant theory of cause is that Monsanto chose just a few hybrid species to genetically modify based on the highest yields, not on agricultural safety and longevity. A Monsanto lead project manager for the genetic engineering of corn, Dan Anderson, stated to the Times that high-yield varieties from Monsanto and other companies might be susceptible to the disease, yes. He also added that farming practices, such as the choice to skip crop rotation to obtain the high yields from the Monsanto Roundup-Ready genetically modified corn, due to the fact that the crops normally rotated in the field did very poorly after using Roundup-Ready corn and glyphosate herbicides that stripped the soil of minerals and moisture, making skipping crop rotation more desirable to make money and pay for the high cost of the genetically modified crops and matching herbicides, will lead to higher risk for Goss's Wilt as well. This sounds eerily similar to the blame game in Washington politics. The crop circles of wilted corn are increasing yearly, and for those farmers that trusted the hybrids sold them that were susceptible to Goss's Wilt, it has been an economic disaster. Of course, the big picture is still being ignored, which is that allowing a couple of giant companies to take over the entire crop genetics for their own profit is going to naturally create a host of problems that are normally overcome by the diversity of agricultural techniques and seed types.

By late 2014, we saw Goss's Wilt affecting sizable areas of the corn crop in other states as well, such as Wisconsin. Agriculture businesses and news still did not note that Goss's Wilt was tied to the limited species used by Monsanto, though, giving the impression that weather conditions probably were responsible for this unusual incidence of Goss's Wilt. It was noted also that a fungal disease that looks similar to Goss's Wilt, Northern Corn Leaf Blight, was as predominant as Goss's Wilt, with both of these diseases significantly impacting yields. As noted, the use of RoundUp glyphosate herbicides and the impact on the natural Biome of the soil has led to a large increase in fungal growths and imbalances normally controlled by the Biome. Farmers in 2014, as far north as Wisconsin, are using a lot of fungicide to control these plant diseases, and mistaking Goss's Wilt, a bacterial infection, for fungal leaf blight, using increased fungicides where they won't even work. The end result is both economic losses and increased threat to the public health from these chemicals, as well as further biotic imbalances in the soil. Restoration of the natural health of the soil, and control of microbial species as well as nutrient content of these food crops is rarely discussed by the growers of our foods. More needs to be done to present the solutions to these problems in terms that provide economic incentive as well as a health incentive, to the growers.

While concern for public health and the dangers of excess herbicides and pesticides is a big concern, for farmers, the concern for negative effects on topsoil quality over time with use of RoundUp Ready GMO crops and matching glyphosate herbicides is paramount, and perhaps the greatest push for change in topsoil protection is economic, not environmental.

A March 10, 2015 article in the New York Times Science Times, entitled Movement to Spare the Plow, describes the rapid growth in soil-conservation farming, and perhaps its biggest proponent, Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer with a 5000 acre farm near Bismarck, North Dakota. By switching to no-till methods and green manure, he is showing that a return to centuries-old tried-and-true farming methods not only produces better and more nutritious crops, but increases yields, cuts costs, decreases the need for irrigation, allows high yields during droughts, and makes money. Green manure represents the planting of cover crops to replenish the topsoil, such as legumes, which build nitrogen and acts as a sink for other nutrients, increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, which helps it to retain water. In the last decade, this technique has risen in acreage in the United States by about 30 percent a year. A North Texas farmer, Terry McAlister, was interviewed for this article and stated: "We were farming cotton like the West Texas guys were, just plow, plow, plow, and if you got a rain it just washed it and eroded it. It made me sick...One of the toughest things about learning to do no-till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true", referring to the massive propaganda for decades by the big agricultural companies and manufacturers of seed, fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, and now GMO crops. "My goal is improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money", says Mr. McCalister, and "if I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that's not my goal." The fight between environmentalists and farmers is finally finding common ground. The Environmental Defense Fund has suggested from research that if the widespread adoption of soil-conservation farming were adopted, that pollution into the Mississippi River and Ohio River basins could be reduced by 30 percent, dramatically shrinking the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is now bigger by far than the area damaged by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.