Campus Sustainability Office

You are here: Home / Resource Database / Understanding Sustainability Transition Pages / Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are those plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, etc. which have been altered by humans at the genetic level through various methods and for a multitude of purposes. They have been touted by many as a way to bring on the next "green revolution" by providing increased yields, better nutrition, and resistance to pests and diseases. These qualities are especially favorable in Majority World countries where crop failure can mean starvation. Some argue that GMOs not only make economic and agricultural sense, but help the environment as well. GMOs may: reduce reliance on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fossil-fuel based fertilizers; reduce the land area needed for farming; be used for land and soil remediation; or increase production of biomass for fuel. Some believe that GMOs could provide medical advances. Others are fascinated by unique flavors, textures, and experiences that may become available to the culinary arts.

However, opponents point out that we produce plenty of calories to feed the world without GMOs and that there is much room for improvement in equitable pricing and distribution of food as well as preventing waste. They worry that many types of genetic modification lack long-term or independent analysis to test their developer's safety and efficacy claims. One major ecological concern is whether GMOs can become invasive species, wiping out native and traditional species and therefore reducing biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.

Despite pleas for caution, GMOs have gained widespread application and much favor in the United States. The vast majority of canola, alfalfa, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, and beets as well as some potatoes and apples are GMO varieties and the technology has also been applied to various animals, notably fish. The United States is a major producer and consumer of GMO products and recently there has been much to-do in both the press and politics about whether (and how) to label and regulate GMOs. Some states created their own laws due to consumer pressure, which will be overridden by federal legislation passed earlier this year. While some organizations such as Just Label It campaign for labeling regulations, others support independent certification efforts like the Non-GMO Project.

On the social side, critics of GMOs have also argued that the patenting of plants by biotech companies is unconstitutional and unethical, ignoring the collective breeding and sharing of plants that has been part of human history for ten thousand years. recent US supreme court decision (news article and court's opinion) has ruled in favor of biotech and chemical company Monsanto. They are the largest seed company in the world and as such have a strong influence on seed availability and pricing (PDF download). In the case, Monsanto argued that it is patent infringement to save GMO seeds from one years' crop in order to plant next years'. To mitigate this they have developed genetic use restriction technology (GURT) or "terminator seeds" that become sterile after one year, but the company wanted to be able to pursue legal action as well. For farmers, avoiding the issue by simply choosing non-GMO seeds is becoming increasingly difficult as the U.S. is now over 91% GMO soy, 85% GMO corn, 88% GMO cotton, 80% GMO papaya, 95% GMO sugar beet. More GMO products like wheat and various trees are just coming onto the market as well. Even if non-GMO seeds can be found, patent infringement lawsuits have even erupted over accidental 'contamination' of crops by wind or insect pollination from GMO to non-gmo plantings. Such enforcement and charges can easily bankrupt small family farms. Ultimately, the courts' ruling in Monsanto's favor means farmers must buy new seed every year, rather than continuing the ancient tradition of seed saving. This  and other patenting actions ensure repeat customers, skewing laws of supply and demand in favor of Monsanto and other biotech firms. 

Seed monopolies and corporate/political lobbying are drastically changing the ancient relationship of people and food, while simultaneously contributing to the unsustainable nature of our food systems. Many GMOs lack long-term health and safety studies, disrupt the viability and integrity of traditional seeds at a genetic level, and seek to improve corporate profits and control over the food system (while claiming to be a food revolution).

While there are applications where genetically modifying organisms may be appropriate, more testing and regulation must be done before further planting and patenting are done. Such is the consensus in various countries (over 60, in orange) around the world that are either prohibiting GMO products, clearly labeling them, or holding a moratorium on them. Many independent companies also support GMO labeling and consumers' right to know what is in their food, while large agri-business tends to oppose GMO labelling. 

labeling_around_the_world.jpg

(Photo via http://www.justlabelit.org/right-to-know-center/labeling-around-the-world/)

Additional Readings


 

 

 

Continue to selected references

Document Actions

The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh — Where Excellence and Opportunity Meet.