Grist’s Coverage on GMOs: What’s Really at Stake

If you’ve been reading the running commentary over at Grist for the past six months, journalist Nathanael Johnson has been opining about genetic engineering in agriculture, diving into the debate and surfacing now with a final “what I learned” piece. His column has gotten a lot of attention from news media writing about his “exploration” of genetically engineered (GE) food or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and has sparked heated comments on his blog, but his reporting has done little to help people understand what’s really at stake in the debate about this technology, which in my opinion, is a hell of a lot.

After meandering about in the woods for the past six months, Johnson, who positions himself as open and searching on this issue, says he’s come to this conclusion: “The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.”

Imagine two alternate futures, he writes, “one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side ‘won’ the debate.” In both cases, he says, not much would really change at all. “The point is that even if you win, the payoff is relatively small in the broad scheme of things. Really, why do so many people care?”

Well, a lot of people care for good reason. In Johnson’s attempt at a clever journalistic gesture, his thought experiment misses the heart of what many of the people I’ve met and interviewed over the past 12 years are not just against, when it comes to GE crops, but what they’re for.

What they’re fighting for is a kind of sustainable agriculture that is gaining an international consensus of support from reports by the National Academies of Press to the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development to the clumsily named, but hugely important, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

What’s become abundantly clear is that there are at least seven things we need to get right in agriculture, right now. We need to:

  • Reduce reliance on fossil fuels in agriculture;
  • Conserve water in agriculture systems;
  • Free ourselves from dependence on chemicals, especially those most toxic to humans and wildlife;
  • Promote on-farm resilience to climate change;
  • Protect biodiversity and the food security it engenders;
  • Limit the expansion of confinement livestock operations; and
  • Support farmers to learn practices for productivity that don’t come at the high, and rising, cost of inputs such as chemicals, seeds, or technology fees to chemical companies, especially Monsanto.

Like most, you’re probably not an expert on agricultural systems, but you’re still likely nodding, yes: Less oil, less wasted water, less chemicals, and more food? Sign me up!

This is not just me saying this. The sense of urgency around meeting these seven needs is a growing consensus among top agricultural researchers around the world, like those 400 experts who spent four years developing the IAASTD report, endorsed by over 60 governments from across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.

We care so much about genetic engineering because the technology sends us in exactly the opposite direction of where global consensus says we need to head. (Excellent reporting by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, formerly of Grist, has reminded us of this, time and time again.)

The GMO technology commercialized to date has not reduced fossil fuel use or chemical and water dependency. At the same time, it’s decreased biodiversity and entrenched farmer dependence on purchased inputs. What’s more, the technology, with its focus on commodity crops like corn and soy largely for feed in factory farms, spurs the confinement model of animal agriculture, with terrible implications for the climate and our health.

The evidence-based IAASTD report confirms the disappointing “contributions” of the technology, while noting that to date the technology’s main beneficiaries have been its corporate manufacturers, rather than resource-limited farmers struggling to feed their communities.

Let’s also remember why proceeding with caution is just plain smart: Not just because we’re talking about our food supply—kinda important, people—but also because we should learn from history. Monsanto and Dow, two of the biggest producers of GMOs, are chemical companies with long histories of failures to protect human and ecosystem health—with tragic consequences.

Consider Monsanto and Dow’s chemical 2,4-D used in an herbicide concoction called Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which caused untold cancers, birth defects, and other serious illnesses among Vietnamese and veterans. (And the companies are now pushing the chemical again through corn and soybean seeds engineered to be resistant to, and therefore used with, 2,4-D.)

Perhaps my biggest concern about this technology—and a concern that Johnson plays right into—is that it is a grand distraction of time, money, and resources away from the kind of technologies we could be developing for truly sustainable food production. (Remember those seven things we need to do right now?) Even the fact that I’m sitting here writing, once again, about why I’m no fan of GMOs or the companies pushing them, is itself a distraction from focusing on the solutions at hand.

Over the past decade, I’ve learned a lot about the intersections of climate change, food security, and agriculture and what’s been most exciting is to learn that we have so many of the answers for feeding the future in the incredible innovations of agroecology.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network and a co-author on the IAASTD report, describes these solutions as practices that “blend indigenous knowledge with the latest research findings produced by farmers and scientists and offer a vibrant and sustainable way forward for the planet.”

Studies from the Global South (like the case studies in this UK-commissioned report) are showing fabulous results in yield and nutritional content from agroecological practices, without the risks and costs of the current crop of commercialized GMOs. Studies from Europe are showing that agroecological practices can yield comparable harvests, or even better, than conventional farming, while promoting biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and fossil fuel use.

All this despite agroecological practices getting just a sliver of the funding that goes toward chemical agriculture and genetic engineering, which is one reason IAASTD authors highlight the importance of governments increasing investments in and policy supports for agroecology.

Ishii-Eiteman has written extensively about the emergence of these really exciting results from agroecology. As she says, “farmers and scientists around the world are co-creating the ecologically and economically resilient farming solutions we so urgently need to meet the pressing climate, water, environmental and energy challenges of the 21st Century.

Conventional farmers from India to Iowa are gradually abandoning pesticide-intensive GE agriculture and transitioning to non-GE, while many more farmers around the world are already adopting highly sophisticated, biodiverse ecological farming systems to meet not only basic survival needs, but also the multifaceted priorities of their communities.”

Johnson says that “genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt,” but as long as the funding for alternative tools in that toolbox is so limited, and the consolidation of power in the food system is so great, we won’t get the support for real innovation where we need it.

To paraphrase one of my favorite New York City mayoral candidates: The stakes are too damn high. Sadly, one of the few online outlets dedicated to reporting on the environmental crisis and how we can respond to it–in our cities, homes, and our farm fields–has just helped confuse one of the most important questions of our time.

Grist likes to say it’s a beacon in the smog. When it comes to Johnson’s reporting on genetic engineering in agriculture, I’m sure missing that beacon.

16 thoughts on “Grist’s Coverage on GMOs: What’s Really at Stake

  1. This article COMPLETELY misses Johnson’s point. Johnson’s whole thesis is that GMOs are incidental to the issues with conventional agriculture that you (rightly) raise.

    You argue that GMOs are linked to lower biodiversity. Sure, but so are monocultures of any crop, regardless of whether they’ve been genetically tinkered with. Most GMO technology is deployed for commodity corn and soy? Yes, but you’ve got the causation exactly backwards. Focussing GMO tech on corn/soy is not what made them dominant; rather, the dominance of corn/soy is why GMO work has focussed on those two crops.

    Your argument about Monsanto and Dow is also nonsensical – you cite their dodgy environmental track records as the reason to worry about their GMO work. But if they’ve already demonstrated that their environmental negligence pre-dates GMOs, then isn’t there a bigger issue that you’re missing? The entire technology-driven, agro-industrustrial complex is the problem – GMO is just one small facet of that.

    The only valid point in this piece is that pouring money into GMO technology is a distraction that saps energy and resources away from solving our actual agro-environmental problems. However, to state that “Johnson plays into that concern” is ridiculous – again, his whole argument is that GMOs (and the debate surrounding them) bring practically nothing to bear on the 7 critical issues you’ve identified.

  2. I agree that that headline is a bit ridiculous. However, I think you missed the point of the article.
    The interesting, and in my opinion very true, thing that Johnson points out is that both sides of the GMO debate have wrongly been addressing GMOs as a monolithic entity.
    I agree with the value of your seven agriculture goals, but for the most part I don’t see how GMOs are central to them.
    I believe it would be better to address those head-on, rather than indirectly by fighting a misguided war on GMOs. I think we need to create incentives (and maybe shift government subsidies) for farmers to value sustainability beyond the current year’s harvest.
    One of Johnsons’s points is that banning GMOs does not address the problems of monoculture and pesticides….
    Just because the bulk of existing GMOs have been Bt and Roundup-ready does not mean that future ones would have to be. By being categorically opposed to GMOs people are closing the door on potential benefits.
    In the early days of GMOs researchers at the University of Hawaii saved the Hawaiian papaya industry with a new strain of papaya resistant to a devastating virus. I’m not sure that they would have been able to release that strain these days with current levels of anti-GMO sentiment.
    For an interesting read on the subject of ecological GMOs see: “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food” by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.

  3. Both Nathanael Johnson and Adam in the comments above go over something that you are not understanding Ms. Lappe, which is that GMOs are completely unrelated to all of the issues in agriculture today. The real problem is monoculturing, which is held up by government subsidies. Either way, Monsanto and Dow would still (as they have since WWII) control the seed market with their proprietary hybrids, vats of synthetic fertilizers and pest control would still be dumped on every acre and water use would still be horrendous.

    What your article neglects is that we exist in a market economy, and right now the market is heavily skewed in favor of corn and soy production. The point that Nathanael highlights is that in our current situation, GMOs don’t change the climate (both literally and figuratively). So instead of squabbling more and posting fruitless articles on something that doesn’t matter, let’s focus our energies on what DOES matter: getting rid of subsidies and subverting the dominant mode of agriculture.

  4. Thank you Anna for taking the time to respond and clarify. From my perspective, the corporate sponsors of commercial GMO products in agriculture have tried (somewhat successfully I think) to confuse the debate by focusing (and getting others to focus) on the science rather than on the commercial products released into the environment. However, many of us are focused on and concerned about the the negative impacts of the commercial products rather than on the science itself. There is very little controversy about the fact that the particular GMO products commercialized and released into the environment to date (with a good deal of government financial support for the basic research etc) are not contributing to sustainability of agriculture and food systems, but are in fact moving us in the opposite direction. That is the problem! New ag and food technologies should not be approved by government nor supported with public funds and policies unless they address the 7 points (and more could be added) in Anna Lappe’s article and move our food and farming systems towards sustainability, resilience, and increased biodiversity.
    I’m sorry to say that Grist seems to have developed a kind of “snarky” attitude, masquerading as youthful irreverence and humor, and it is disappointing to me.

  5. Anna, this is a well-reasoned coverage of the issues. I am not opposed to genetic engineering, but i am very skeptical of the current GMO offerings from Monsanto and Dow. For two reasons. One is that the most widely deployed GMO modifications are used to enable the spraying of herbicides and pesticides. In other words, these popular genetic mods result in increased applications of poisonous chemicals like Roundup on our food. The other reason is that the purveyors of genetic mods are rapacious in their use of intellectual property laws to prevent farmers from saving and reusing seed. GMO seed is “protected” by the same IP laws that protect the copying of music or movie files, making farmers into “pirates” is they save some seed and replant it next year. Monsanto is using GMO technology to create a monopoly, and force farmers to have to buy new, very expensive seed, every year.

  6. Large scale commercial chemical agriculture cannot feed the world. The majority of the wold’s population is fed by small scale local producers.

    Efficiencies to the existing model of small scale agriculture may need tweaking, but the model has fed the majority of the world’s population for a thousand years.

    Costly inputs, GMO seeds and chemicals, are not affordable to the majority of the small scale farmers.

  7. As a long-time reader of and contributor to Grist magazine I was really dismayed by the appearance of the Nathanael Johnson’s series of articles on GMOs. I would not expect an environmental magazine to cover this subject in such a way. Although press coverage is most welcome as the general population is mostly unaware of agriculture and food supplies issues, let the so-called mass media take this supposed impartial stance. I no longer contribute to Grist, still read it (but skip over the Johnson’s articles).

  8. Thank you Anna. I have been extremely disturbed with Nathanial Johnson’s shallow treatment of this critical issue and the contribution it makes to the confusion. Maintaining confusion is part of the strategy of the biotech giants.

    Our political system is currently controlled by the dominant big monied interests and in the case of agriculture, that would be the chem/biotech folks as well as the fossil fuel folks. I can’t imagine the federal government in the current climate, adjusting its treatment of these people. When it comes to GMOs, however, every sufficiently informed citizen has the power to refuse them and that is a mighty force. Food manufacturers are already responding to their customers and demand for non gmo foods is driving some conventional farmers to swim upstream and grow non gmo crops for which they are currently receiving a premium price due to demand. Unfortunately, the market infrastructure is heavily skewed toward the gmo products and access to grain elevators is limited. One group of farmers are building their own storage and distribution system. Even better are the many other forces which are innovating in totally sustainable ways. I just finished reading about SRI, the System of Rice Intensification, which emphasizes healthy crops in healthy soil rather than inputs. If people know that these better alternatives exist, I know they will flock to them and quickly abandon the scary glyphosate-2 4 D- dicamba cloud that has engulfed us.

    Again, thank you so much for saying this so clearly.

  9. One of the very critical issues about GMOs is that a few corporations own the seeds and claim patents on them thus controlling our food supply. It is very important that seeds are not patented and our food supply remains diversified.

  10. I see that several trolls already rushed to infest this thread. GMOs are of course central to the crisis, since GMOs comprise corporate agriculture’s attempt to achieve total enclosure and control of agriculture and food.

    They’re economically and politically totalitarian in that corporations and governments are intent on making them the only seeds practically available, through seed sector monopoly, corporate welfare for GM cultivation, and straight outlawing of non-industrial, and eventually non-GM, varieties.

    They’re agriculturally and ecologically totalitarian in that they inevitably and increasingly contaminate all non-GM conventional and organic crops and wild progenitors of these crops. This will eventually render all other agriculture impossible and constrain the germplasm biodiversity available to agriculture to the point that it will be hyper-vulnerable to any

    They comprise a doubling down on every vicious practice of industrial agriculture. They’ve already been the occasion for the poisoning of our bodies, soil, and water with unprecedented amounts of the highly toxic glyphosate, and now they’re to add a massive surge in 2,4-D use, which will add to the systemic toxification of the food and leave vast swaths of arable land contaminated with dioxins.

    Any GMO will likely be suffused with at least two deadly poisons – a metabolized herbicide, and an endemic Bt toxin. Increasingly, there will be multiple herbicides and Bt toxins. When you eat a product made with Smartstax maize, it will indelibly be full of glyphosate residue, glufosinate residue, and SIX Bt poisons. All of these are proven to survive cooking and digestion. Indeed glufosinate may become more toxic in the human gut. Then there’s the neonic insecticides and fungicides which are also increasingly applied systemically. These proven health destroyers are in omnipresent in any GM food. As for the health hazards of genetic engineering itself, they’ve been proven by disasters like the Showa Denko lethal epidemic and the X-SCID leukemia outbreak, so we know for a fact that GE can cause acute fatal outbreaks. As for long-term chronic disease, the system has intentionally avoided studying the prospects, which speaks volumes about what Monsanto and the US government think may be the result. But what independent study has been done has found enough evidence of allergenicity, toxicity, and carcinogenicity that no rational person trusts the technology on faith.

    In all this, we’re talking about a scourge which has massive money and power behind it, aggressively pushing to make it the only form of agriculture. So no one who’s not a Monsanto hack would doubt for a second how central the fight to abolish GMOs is to the need to transform our agriculture and food systems from corporate industrial practices to agroecology and Food Sovereignty. This is a struggle against those who would lethally poison our bodies, crops, soil, and environment, and it’s the age-old struggle of democracy against tyranny.

    As for Gristshill, it’s always been a corporatist site, always lauding corporate collaboration, and seeing its “environmentalism” as being at best only amelioration within the corporate framework. As we see in this case, where it comes to things they consider to be “cool” technology they’re willing to shill directly against the environment, directly against GHG-mitigating agroecology, and directly for environmentally destructive, climate change-driving corporatism.

    Ironically, GMOs are really a Luddite, dinosaur technology, seeking to prop up decrepit industrial, poison-based agriculture. Agroecology and related practices comprise the technological cutting edge. But agroecology is the province of small farmers, especially across the Global South, tribesman, and civil society and democracy advocates. Not the kind of people the elitists at Grist consider the “cool crowd”.

  11. The end of my third paragraph was supposed to run:

    …hyper-vulnerable to any pest, disease, and climatic disruption.

  12. I am shocked! people agree that there are negative issues, monoculture, monopolies etc, but then say it is not fair to single out GMO without going after everyone, so therefore we should let Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and the others carry on. ??
    If we pick on monsanto – the giant, and make an example of them, perhaps the others would have to go away.
    David killed Goliath, not the whole army!

  13. And to add to Anna’s post above, not only do they ensure that there are no seeds to replant, they sue neighbouring farmers for growing their plants, when their GM plants have invaded the neighbours farm!