Food fight: The safety of growing GMO crops
Third in a six-part series
By David Lichtenstein
The green stalks of Monsanto corn stand firmly against the red soil. As the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye it is a picture of agricultural plenty.
Monsanto employees Helena Miguel and Dawn Bicoy drive me out to field number 8 at the intersection of Highway 460 and Maunaloa Highway on another beautiful Molokai morning.
When we reach the field, approximately 40 workers are gathered around trucks and busses to review procedures for protecting the corn tassels of the mature corn crops. Paper bags are carefully placed over the tassels and ears and then secured. A shake of the bag loosens the pollen so it can be collected for later pollination. More importantly, this process prevents the open pollination of other fields by these plants.
Some of Monsanto’s 165 Molokai workers, including Miguel, have been employed there for much of their adult lives. Many of the workers have been there even before Monsanto came to Molokai, when the research facility west of Kaunakakai was still run by the University of Hawaii.
Now Monsanto leases 1,850 acres of land on Molokai for cultivation. On Molokai, Monsanto mostly grows Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) corn seed crops, which are sold to commercial farmers on the mainland.
Reviewing the risks
The use of GMO crops does raise concerns about their unforeseen and undesirable effects on the environment. Some of these concerns involve the potential of gene escape, which could result in a “superweed” which would be resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide known by the brand name Roundup. Monsanto produces Roundup as well as genetically modified corn seeds resistant to Roundup. This allows Roundup to be freely used in cornfields without any danger to the crop.
Another fear is that pests could develop that would be resistant to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring insecticide bacteria which Monsanto has engineered into its corn.
Issues about biotech crops leading to the loss of biodiversity have also been raised.
Biotechnology critic Jeffrey Smith, author of the book “Seeds of Deception,” cites human health problems that have occurred in other countries that grow GMO crops. Smith came to Molokai in February to share these concerns.
“For those touching genetically engineered crops as part of their jobs, they also have to be on the lookout,” said Smith. “And if someone says, ‘oh I’m sure it’s not GMO related,’ don’t believe them.”
Smith talked about the problems experienced in a village in the Phillipines that grew Bt corn. Apparently, a strong odor came from the fields and people started getting sick. According to Smith, those living closest to the fields got sick first and eventually the whole village got sick. Smith said that the same seeds were planted in four more villages and during the time of pollination the same symptoms returned. The seeds or corn were fed to animals, said Smith, and they reported deaths among water buffaloes, chickens and horses. Smith believes the pollen itself may be dangerous for those who breath it.
Smith offers another example from his travels to India. He claims that wherever they plant Bt cotton farm workers are complaining of an allergic reaction when simply touching the cotton plants.
If symptoms occur on Molokai, either with Monsanto workers or the general public, Smith recommends documenting the effects and reporting it to Maui County health officials.
“These are new organisms that have never before been on earth they might have allergenic properties or toxic properties and it might be to touch or to breathing,” said Smith.
The regulation of the industry was also criticized in 2006. A federal judge ruled that U.S. agricultural officials violated environmental laws by permitting four companies to plant GMO crops in Hawaii to produce experimental drugs. The ruling concluded that the government did not conduct preliminary environmental reviews before issuing planting permits.
Monsanto is proud of its safety record and will tell you that they follow practices that are beyond what is legally required. For instance, they will often double the required 660-foot barrier between their fields and those of adjoining farmers to prevent any possible pollen transfer.
Paul Koehler, Manager of Scientific and Community Affairs for Monsanto Hawaii, strongly defends the safety of living and working with biotech crops.
“Not only are biotech crops safe, but data collected since commercialization of biotech crops in the mid-1990s show that biotech foods have contributed significant benefits to large and small farms worldwide, as well as to the environment in farming communities,” said Koehler
The success of biotech crops, Koehler claims, is the reason for the global adoption and growth of this technology. Koehler states that 13.3 million farmers over many countries grew biotech crops on 309 million acres last year. This represents a 9.4 percent increase over global biotech crop acreage in 2007. Remarkably, said Koehler, over 90 percent of the farmers who are now planting biotech crops are from resource-poor developing countries.
(Next week the series will look at how GMO production impacts organic farming and how a Molokai organic honey producer was forced to relocate its bees because of the biotech industry.)
David Lichtenstein is the News Director for KMKK radio. Listen to KMKK, 102.3 FM, Molokai’s only radio station, for Molokai news reports every weekday morning at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.