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It's All About The Chemicals

Last week for our What Does Organic Mean, Anyway series we ended with the question - So, what’s left? Why bother with organic food if it’s ok to genetically modify plants and patent the results? This week we get to the fundamental reason why to bother with organic food which is because….

It’s All About Chemicals on Crops

It’s the sale and application of chemicals which is the entire reason GMOs exist in the marketplace. And we are going to focus on chemicals in the GMO debate because I believe we need to focus on the results of genetic alterations rather than whether we should be genetically engineering plants at all. It’s the results of genetic engineering that we should be concerned with. It’s the why of the why are we changing the genetic make-up of plants I asked in an earlier post. The only plants that are being genetically engineered and sold right now are soybeans, corn, sweet corn, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, zucchini and yellow summer squash. Soybeans and corn being the most prevalent crops in the US to be grown as GMOs. Why? To understand the why, first you need a brief primer on why and how GMOs were developed in the first place.

There is one fundamental reason to genetically alter these crops – which is to kill weeds, bugs, pests and fungus. Farmers want to do this to create higher yields. In other words, increase the amount of crops a farmer can grow on an acre so the farmer makes more money.

You’ve probably heard of companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. These are the three largest seed companies in the world and they control about half of the production of seeds worldwide. However, first and foremost these companies are chemical companies. I will say that again for emphasis. These are chemical companies. They sell chemicals. They sell all kinds of chemicals across many industries. They started as chemical companies and they remain chemical companies. How does this relate to agriculture? Well, they produce herbicides (weed killers), insecticides (insect killers), pesticides (pest killers) and/or fungicides (fungus killers) to kill anything that would thwart the growth of crops. All chemicals that are designed to destroy life are also known as biocides. So because these companies sell biocides for the agriculture industry they are also known as AgroChemical companies.   Interesting, huh? So how and why do they control the production of seeds worldwide? They got into the seed business sort of by accident, actually.

A long time ago, perhaps 40 or more years ago, Monsanto sold a chemical as a descaling agent to clean out calcium and other mineral deposits on pipes and boilers in residential and commercial hot water systems. What they noticed is that this chemical would kill everything around it from the run-off of the application. The company realized they could sell the chemical as an herbicide and they did. This is the chemical glyphosate, which is commercially known as RoundUp, and was patented for agrochemical use in 1972 and soon became the world’s most used herbicide and pesticide. But it was such an effective herbicide that it actually had a fairly limited application because it would kill the crops as well. It could be used for burn-off or for application early in the growing season. As I understand it, during the 1980s an interesting thing happened along the way and apparently at one of the production plants there was a certain bacteria that was living and thriving in one of the plant’s run off pools. The glyphosate would spill into a run-off pool and there was life that survived it. As the story goes, one of the executives learned about this and thought out loud that the chemical would have a much wider application and sales if the crops it was being used for could survive like that bacteria. He made it a top priority for the company to find out how this could be done and it found very smart scientists to do so.   But Monsanto was not a seed company so it entered into a partnership with two giants of the industry, Pioneer and Asgrow. These two companies figured out how to take the genetic sequencing discovered by Monsanto, insert it into seeds and propagate the seeds for planting and production. The first RoundUp Ready crops for Monsanto were developed out of this partnership and Monsanto also became a bioengineering company.

So, Monsanto scientists found the exact gene sequence that allowed the bacteria to survive in the presence of RoundUp and inserted that gene sequence into soybeans to make them RoundUp Ready with the help of their partners. Spray the herbicide on the soybean fields and the only thing left alive is the soybean. This happened in 1996. Not that long ago, really. Soon the other chemical companies followed suit by either licensing the Monsanto technology or developing their own for their biocides. And by then there were only four more years on the glyphosate patent and after it expired in 2000 many other companies began using the glyphosate formula and developing their own seeds designed to work with the application of that herbicide. The technology also was created for other crops such as corn, cotton, sugar beets, and most recently and controversially, canola and alfalfa. Currently at least 80% of all crops in the world are grown with a specific pairing between the herbicide and the crop. Again, just to make it clear farmers buy specific seeds that are genetically engineered to survive when all other living things in a field are killed by the chemicals that are sprayed on them. Have you ever looked out on a field of Iowa corn and wondered why there isn’t one single weed? That’s why. The corn on that field has been doused with herbicides but the corn still stands because it has been engineered to withstand the application of the chemical herbicides sprayed all over the fields.

What’s more, sometimes, too, the crop itself has been engineered to contain the biocide. The most common of these is corn which has been genetically altered to contain an insecticide so the chemical isn’t sprayed on the plant. Instead the insecticide is actually in the plant itself. This is called BtCorn because of the insertion of the Bt insecticide (Bacillus thuringiensis ) in the seed genes. Again, just to be sure this is absolutely clear, the insecticide is part of the plant. And to make it absolutely totally obvious that this makes me pause and wonder, insecticides are chemicals that kill living things and they are in the corn that I eat and if I understand correctly, insecticides are biocides and they are toxic to living things. In this particular instance Bt belongs to the family of bacteria, Bacillus cerus (B. cerus). B. cerus strains that produce toxins that cause gastroenteritis (food poisoning) in humans.

The big controversy arises when we start asking if it is harmful to our health to consume foods that have been sprayed with these chemicals or that contain the chemical in their DNA sequencing. Don’t get side tracked by the nutritional value debate that doctors are getting sucked into. The question isn’t about the nutritional value of organic sweet corn versus GMO sweet corn. That’s is just distraction and subterfuge. The real question is whether we should be consuming herbicides and insecticides as part of our regular diet. But we will talk more about the impacts of agrochemicals on our lives in our next post.



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