Genetically Modified Crops

Notes on two different issues currently discussed with respect to the production and use of genetically modified crops.

Concerns about the possibility of cross pollination by genetically modified crops or agriculture products grown from genetically modified seeds continue to be expressed across North America. Whenever GM crop – cross pollination talks get started, they often break down into the practical issues of seeds and weeds.

Two recent seed cases point out the discussion’s complexity. First, consider the May, 2014 vote in the Rogue Valley in Oregon where voters decided to ban the use of GM seeds because of fears they would cross pollinate with their organic crops.

A few issues decided the Oregon vote. Cross pollination of crops can mean big business for the GM seed producers, because one a crop is cross pollination, the seeds produced by the crop legally belong to the seed producers, regardless of the intent of the farmers. Even if farmers intended to grow non-GM crops, and use the seeds, the fact of cross pollination means the organic farmers lose their rights to the seeds.

Preferences for seed biodiversity also play a role in current genetically modified crops cross pollination conflicts. Consider the issue of Mexican corn growers, with the insight that corn is to Mexico like apples are to Washington State or Oranges are to Florida. Corn crops define Mexico.

The introduction of GM corn into Mexican fields has been a source of concern ever since a 2001 publication in the journal Nature, Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico, that documented the effect. By the fall of 2013, a Mexican Federal Judge suspended the planting of all GM corn crops, a ruling upheld on appeal in early 2014.

Genetically Modified Crops and Super Weeds

Problems with cross pollination also extend into other agriculture areas. The Super Weed scenario plays out in instances where the herbicidal gene resistance traits found in GM crops get cross pollinate with the area’s local flora, including those with the labels invasive plants or weeds attached to them.

Anecdotal stories about super weeds, including a survey of Canadian farmers (add citation). Another recent report published in Scientific America stated

There has been no evidence to show that the herbicide resistance genes will either increase or decrease fitness to date. The finding provides, however, a warning for future genetic modifications that might increase fitness in all kinds of plants; it will be difficult to keep those traits on the farm and out of the wild. “The big concern is traits that would increase invasiveness or weediness, traits such as drought tolerance, salt tolerance, heat or cold tolerance” says weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith of Oregon State University—all the traits that Monsanto and others are currently developing to help crops adapt to climate change. “These traits would have the possibility of expanding a species’ range.” In the case of canola, consider it done—at least in North Dakota.

The findings suggest that the unintended consequences of cross pollination, such as the development of super weeds, or weeds resistant to traditional crop management milieu, presents a potential danger to many farmers. An increased presence of unanticipated weeds in the field potentially lower yields and add additional weed management costs to the budget. Follow up research by the USDA tends to support the super weed hypothesis. According to a recent USDA report Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States (2014):

Glyphosate resistance is currently documented in 14 U.S. weed species (Heap, 2012), and the potential exists for much more acreage to be affected.

Genetically Modified Crops and Superbugs

Science fiction movie buffs often fondly recall the superbug movies of the day where giant spiders or insects of some type invade the town. Superbug scenarios also play out in the agriculture industry, especially with respect to the increased planting of BT crops, or crops with genetically implanted Bacillus thuringiens (BT), a common organic pesticide.

Organic farmers and gardeners face risks associated with Bacillus thuringiens (BT) crops due primarily to the fact that increased plantig of BT crops increases the possibility of the evolution of superbugs immune to BT, the organic pesticide of choice for the organic farming industry.

An insect’s genetic structure changes consistently to adapt to the changing environment, some life forms change faster than others.

Looking further into the relationship between agriculture practices and insect evolution, The Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University reports

over 500 cases are documented where insects have developed resistance to conventional broad-spectrum insecticides

If insects become immune to convention insecticides, logic suggests they can become immune to BT from BT crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been conducting research studies since the first BT crops were registered in 1995 to determine proper crop management plans for farmers who opt to plant BT crops.

That research may help conventional farmers, however it does little to address organic farmers concerns. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) responded that movement to BT crops poses the potential of eliminating one of the organic farmers’ best pest management tools.