By Dr. Harold Willis, Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler
Is GMO corn necessary for high quality production?
A Brief Controversial History of GMO
Since the 1980s, probably no new development has created more excitement — and controversy — than GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
It was the modeling of DNA that finally lured scientists and their corporate patrons into that nightmare of bad science. DNA is a blueprint of sorts. It tells cells how to divide and reproduce copies of themselves. Picture a twisted rope ladder. All DNA structures are shaped in this way — those of a dog, a flower, a human being. The rungs of the ladder are made up of four components: adenine (CHN), cytosine (CHNO), guanine (CHON), and thymine (CHNO). These are usually written as A, C, G and T. A can only pair with T, and C with G. Base pairs reproduce themselves, and this is where genetic manipulation enters the scene. Millions of these base pairs form genes. Evolution has taken up the chore of directing the base pair reproduction, frequently and even usually improving the life structure. Genetic engineers have learned how to add and delete from this ladder.
It was a small step to discover naturally occurring enzymes that act like molecular scissors for the purpose of adding or deleting rungs from the DNA ladder. Breaking the molecule has been applauded because of the potential for fighting hereditary disease conditions. Thus was born the idea of cutting and recombining at the molecular level. Thus was born the idea of finding a trait in one organism and transferring it to another organism. Thus also was born the idea of engineering the totality of life.
Two systems are before the world. One seeks to muck around with DNA, to interbreed species of plants and animals at the molecular level, to rescue mistakes with ever — more — powerful chemistry, to come and salvage rather than cause nature to reveal her secrets. Irradiation, not purity, is seen as the key to shelf life.
The second system does more than pay lip service to the conventional topics of humus, organic matter, mineral uptake, tilth, water conservation, line breeding, and humane animal husbandry. It seeks participation in the creation process so that future generations will inherit the land, a land improved, not degraded … productive, not degenerated.
The soil scientist watched these developments with alarm as he increasingly embraced the precepts of sustainable farming. It was troublesome to see soybean and corn swept along on the tide of what appeared to be bad science.
Development and Use of GMO Corn
The first commercial GM (genetically modified) corn varieties, usually known as Bt corn, were released by a few companies in the mid-1990s, but soon one company, Monsanto, became the industry leader with its Roundup Ready corn.
Bt crops contain a gene from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (thus Bt). These bacteria produce a toxin that when ingested by certain insect larvae, especially caterpillars, disrupts their digestive system, killing them by starvation. Organic growers and home gardeners have used Bt for many years as an effective non-chemical insecticide. The genetically engineered Bt corn is intended to mainly control the corn borer caterpillar and supposedly reduce the use of chemical insecticides.
More recently, Monsanto has developed a GM corn that kills or resists the corn rootworm.
Roundup Ready crops have a gene that renders the plant resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (which used to be sold solely by Monsanto, but after their patent expired is now made by other companies). Thus a farmer can plant these crops and still control weeds.
GM corn use has steadily increased in the U.S., with about 80% of the corn acreage now growing it. The GM industry insists that their crops are totally safe (for food and in the environment) and that they are vital to help “feed the world.”
Concerns with GMO Corn
A few fragments of research called the genetic engineering concepts into question. A Rowett Research Institute scientist found organ damage in test animals fed on genetically modified potatoes. A few farmers reported feeding problems as well as the swine reproduction failures. Growers were promised immunity to pests and disease. It was reported that toxic wastes would soon be degraded courtesy of genetically modified organisms. Natural/organic growers were promised new crops that complied with the standards of the trade, crops that erased the need for pesticides and herbicides, as well as fertilizers. Moreover, as the genetic blueprints of the standard genetic code were unraveled, the scourges of the past would be no more than a bad memory. The government gave its imprimatur to this fiction while Monsanto swiftly took over the seed business and whole chunks of the storable commodity grain trade.
Half the world rejected GMOs, but not the United States. Politicos with no knowledge of the subject endorsed the process.
In a farm world where 80 percent of the soybeans grown are genetically modified (in most American states, at least), simply stated, genetic engineering blends bacteria and viruses for the purpose of creating new combinations. Further lab techniques can then be used to make copies to introduce these genetic materials into organisms, that is, into cells of corn or into embryos of animals in order to make genetically modified cells. In plants, cells are regenerated to start a transgenic line. In the case of cows and sheep, foreign genes are inserted into the embryo or egg to grow a transgenic animal.
The problem with the technique is that it is totally unreliable and uncontrollable. This foreign splinter of DNA ends up in the genome and becomes scrambled. “We don’t know at all what they’re doing, and they admit that they don’t either,” say scientists who have banded together for the purpose of seeking a world free of genetic engineering. The scrambling is so bad that scientists can’t even sequence the identifying genome. For this reason, the engineered lines are unstable and subject to being re-engineered year after year, a ploy made possible by laws and company clout that requires farmers to “save no seeds,” but buy only from the primary supplier.
No one can claim that such crops are superior in nutrition to nature’s bounty. Big business argues — backed by considerable advertising — that genetically modified DNA is a carbon copy of natural DNA. Indeed, bad science in big business calls the strange new alchemy “the ultimate molecule.”
Health and Ecological Effects of GMO Corn
Overall, GMOs haven’t lived up to the hype. Many experts worry that combining genes from two species can have unpredictable results, since the thousands of genes within one species’ cells have developed a finely-tuned mechanism that regulates all aspects of growth and reproduction. There have been cases where GMO genes have escaped into the environment, causing ecological upset. An example is the wind-blown pollen of corn, with the Bt toxin killing monarch butterfly caterpillars. Also, some weeds have developed resistance to herbicides, including Roundup, sometimes called “super weeds.”
An especially frightening side-effect of GM crops is that laboratory tests feeding them to animals (rodents) and livestock have found serious health problems, including crippled immune systems, pre-cancerous cell growth, liver damage, abnormal development of certain body organs, sterility, and premature death. Yet it is apparently OK for humans to eat such food, since already, without adequate testing, GM corn (and other crops) are consumed by nearly everyone on earth.
Because of these concerns, dozens of other countries either reject GM crops entirely or are very cautiously investigating them. This makes it very difficult for the U.S. to export farm commodities, resulting in millions of dollars of lost sales. Any contamination of non-GM grain shipments by GM grain is cause for rejection, which requires grain storage facilities to keep them separate. Also, yields of GM crops are often mediocre.
Conclusion: GMO Corn is not Necessary for a Quality Crop
Surveys of GM-using farms have often found only very slight reductions in pesticide and/or herbicide use. Another serious problem is that the seed companies, which hold stringent patents on their GM products, charge high prices to farmers and do not allow them to save seed for future planting, with hefty lawsuits the result for transgressions.
Across the Rio Grande Valley, Esper K. Chandler can point to growers who outperform transgenic harvests while growing quality crops. This suggests that the spin — supporting GMOs are merely a tempest in a teapot, albeit a lethal one. It presumes to leave soil and plant malnutrition in place while producing bulk, having duplicated the banker’s miracle of creating money out of thin air, in the case of transgenic crops engineering plants to withstand starvation.
This observation leaves unexplained how the merger of bacterial and viral aggressors in the GMO process promises new combinations quite capable of building new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases resistant to all known treatments. “Bad science . . .” intones Chandler. “There’s no place for it in quality agriculture. That’s been proved with white wheat and yellow rice. The bushels may be greater, but the feeding quality subtracts the gain in a big way.”
Considerable experience by sustainable and organic farmers has shown that it is not necessary to grow GM crops to obtain high yields and to produce high quality, nutritious food. Healthy, vigorous plants have few pests, and weeds can often be controlled with little or no herbicide.
Excerpts from From “How to Grow Top Quality Corn” by Dr. Harold Willis and “Ask the Plant” by Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler