One thing we know for sure is that we just don’t know enough about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnology to know that in planting their seeds, we aren’t affecting future generations’ ability to feed themselves. For many people, the fact that they’re corporately controlled and thus make for bad social policy, or that they genetically contaminate other species and as such increase claims against farmers, while undermining a farmer’s ability to save seed and be self sufficient, are enough of an argument against their propagation. But in Claire Hope Cummings’ excellent book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, she weaves in the stories of the people and places behind a phenomenon that’s gotten a few rich, while farmers struggle with shrinking margins.
Almost all of the foods we eat — including rice, corn, wheat, soy, potatoes, cassava, taro, sugar, coffee, canola, sunflowers and many other fruits and vegetables — have been patented or genetically modified. The genetic modification of which Cummings writes is a novel act, and one that could never be replicated in nature. This is because while traditional breeding has crossed similar species to find the hardiest plants, genetically engineered foods today are jumping the species barrier, so that you might have fish genes in a tomatoes, for example. Unfortunately, this means that there is no precedent for how these novel species could act in our ecosystem in the long term. Cummings explains it this way:
In itself, gene flow is not necessarily harmful. What matters is the kind of molecule that is moving around, where it goes, and how it behaves once it gets there. When transgenes [or genetically modified genes] used to modifying one plant move into another plant, they can become unstable and behave unpredictably. When natural genes do this, they are governed by biological rules that organisms have developed over millennia to deal with gene flow and to keep species separate. When artificially engineered genes do this, however, different rules come into play. Genetic engineering by definition overcomes these rules in order to create new genes and organisms. Genetic engineering is the very essence of invasiveness, by design.
Cummings also looks at how GMOs came to be in regulatory purgatory, where a risk assessment — a concept which requires proof of harm, and was meant to be used for chemical pollution and devised long before the concept of genetic pollution — has been used for a practice that involved a lot of uncertainty. A risk assessment is used in place of the “precautionary principle,” which argues that where there is uncertainty, government must act first to protect the public. This is the standard in most other countries. Meanwhile the FDA, USDA and EPA do not coordinate their oversight, and these agencies haven’t been taking into account newer science that questions the efficacy and long-term viability of biotechnology in agriculture. Case in point, no new laws regulating GMOs have been put in place since these seeds were given the green light for mass planting in the US. Cummings writes:
The regulatory system we have today is the same one, with some minor exceptions, that was adopted in the early 1990s. It effectively exempted this one industry from our most important environmental and consumer protection laws, which guarantee our right to know what is in the products we consume and our right to sue manufacturers when the government fails to protect our safety.
Increasingly, people want more information about the food they eat. While 80% of processed foods at the supermarket in the US contain GMOs, they are not required to be labeled. Yet public opinion polls regularly show that around 90% of Americans want these products labeled. Meanwhile, in Europe and Japan all GMOs are labeled, and companies have no issues with compliance. GMOs can only either produce pesticides, or express immunity to herbicide. In other words, they have so far had less luck fulfilling promises to add value for consumers, which might mean that adding these traits is harder to pull off than the corporations would like us to believe. Cummings summed up our regulatory failures this way:
The problem is, GMO manufacturers are a chemical industry posing as agriculture. They say they are about creating life. Their ads always show happy faces and healthy plants. But what they are really about is death, the poisoning of weeds and insects. Transgenic plants are created by agrochemical companies and used in the same way that those companies’ chemicals are used: as pest controls. If these plants were treated as chemicals, they might be handled more carefully.
To me, this chapter, “Trespass,” is the most compelling part of the book. Cummings discusses here how contamination is one of the biggest risks we take with the planting of GMOs. Contamination occurs through cross-pollination, but also when GMO seeds are mixed in with conventional seeds — and the wind, animals and human activity are all involved, adding a level of unpredictability. Co-existence of GMO and conventional species is a myth the industry is happy to propagate. This is because they know very well that as they hold patents to their seeds, and those seeds cross-pollinate, they also own the new contaminated seeds — thus it makes good business sense. But does it make ecological sense?
Uncertain Peril is a muckraking journalist’s take on biotechnology written like a thriller. It is also a look at seed-saving historically, along with the agro-ecological solutions arising to combat the so-called inevitability of genetically modified food. While many people have black and white opinions about GMOs, Cummings gives fuel to the fire of those who believe that perhaps this is just a flawed technology, and that there are better ways to combat hunger and to be food secure. Sustainable agriculture has been proven the antidote to corporately dominated and risk-laden food. Here is Cummings again:
It is essential that our solutions be place-based. The issue of place is often neglected in the search for sustainability. Placeless solutions become too focused on the technology and not enough on locality. Place is essential to the sustainability equasion because our solutions have to be locally adapted and locally accepted.
Too often we think the solutions to our problems can always come through technology. Hopefully this book, published in 2008, will be widely read and we can begin to have a more nuanced discussion about the technologies that truly benefit us as a species and those to which we should say “enough.”