Last week, we looked at the potential of GMOs to save lives and help eliminate worldwide malnutrition, especially in poor areas that depend heavily on staple crops. With these benefits, why is there so much controversy surrounding GMOs? Most people are not morally opposed to their use — it's hard to object to a crop that could prevent the deaths of nearly 3 million children each year. But genetic modification can also impart significant advantages to industry giants looking to augment their crop yield, and the world of big food and big agriculture is no stranger to controversy.
For those who have experience in the world of GMOs, Monsanto often stirs up sentiments similar to the corrupt political machines of the Gilded Era. Monsanto is an American-based agriculture company most well known for its Roundup Ready® soybeans —genetically engineered to withstand the damaging effects of the herbicide by the same name. This innovative soybean line first launched in 1996, and as of 2010 it was the first choice of over 90% of United States soybean producers.
As with most things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The Roundup Ready® soybeans are terminator seeds, meaning that they must be re-planted every time the crop is desired. Aside from being a huge moneymaker for Monsanto, this also forces farmers to re-purchase seeds each year even if they feel that their own strains are better. Furthermore, this soybean line is resistant to the Roundup herbicide specifically, meaning that farmers must use it in tandem with their Roundup Ready® soybeans in order to eliminate weeds while still maintaining their crop yield. Incidentally, Roundup is also owned by Monsanto. That's a lot of cold, hard cash in the company's pockets.
With a product as widespread and popular as the Roundup Ready® line, lawsuits are almost a given. As of 2013, Monsanto had sued over 400 farmers for patent infringement. The United States Supreme Court sided with the company in the same year, holding that it is illegal for farmers to create new seeds from the Roundup Ready® line without paying Monsanto first. The ruling hinged on the fact that farmers must sign a contract before planting stating that they will not "save the harvested seeds for re-planting," as well as the fact that Monsanto owned the patent for its genetically modified seeds.
However, by 2015 some of Monsanto's patents had reached their 20-year expiration date, spawning the new era of generic GMOs. The generic version of Roundup Ready® has been sold for nearly half the price of the original version, and has no limitations on harvesting and re-planting as a cost-saving mechanism. Some argue that this is finally freeing farmers from the cash-guzzling reins of Monsanto — but others are not so optimistic. Monsanto has produced the Roundup Ready 2® line, with higher yields and higher resistance to its pesticide. It seems that the world of GMOs is quickly becoming the world of prescription drugs.
The Bottom Line:
GMOs are a fairly new invention. Some regulations exist, but like I mentioned in Part 1 of the GMO Series, there is still no true scientific consensus on the safety of mass produced GMOs. Eventually the pros and cons will parse themselves out, but until then the legal, moral, and ethical battles surrounding these modifications will continue. Stay tuned for the final article in the GMO Series next week, where I'll talk about the most commonly consumed genetically modified foods!
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.