GMO BITES by Lucy Sharratt
by Lucy Sharratt
GMO Inquiry 2015 is proceeding and has now investigated the environmental impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified – GM, also called genetically engineered – crops have been a 20-year open-air experiment in Canada.
Most of the GM crops grown in Canada are herbicide-tolerant and the rest are insect-resistant; some are both. Growing these crops has had consequences for our environment that are now documented in Canada for the first time.
The widespread cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant crops has pushed up the use of herbicides in Canada, as well as in other countries. Glyphosate-tolerant crops, in particular, have driven up the use of glyphosate-based herbicides. In its latest GMO inquiry report, Are GM Crops Better for the Environment?, CBAN found the following: Herbicide sales in Canada rose by 130% between 1994 and 2010 – from 21.9 million kilograms to 50.3 million kilograms. Glyphosate is the top herbicide ingredient sold in Canada, followed by 2,4-D and glufosinate ammonium. Glyphosate use tripled between 2005 and 2011.
The use of specific herbicides on GM herbicide-tolerant crops has caused herbicide-resistant weeds – weeds that can no longer be killed by certain herbicides – to evolve and spread. Canada now has five species of glyphosate-resistant weeds, on more than one million acres of farmland. To deal with these “superweeds,” companies have genetically engineered crops to tolerate the older herbicides 2,4-D (Dow AgroSciences) and dicamba (Monsanto). But these GM crops will further increase herbicide use and lead to the spread of weeds resistant to these chemicals.
GM crops were launched with a promise to reduce pesticide use, but they have clearly sped up the pesticide treadmill instead. And companies have no intention of jumping off while they still have a market for their seeds and agrochemicals. Monsanto, the largest seed company in the world, is now trying to buy Syngenta, the largest pesticides company in the world. Monsanto sells its glyphosate-based herbicide “Roundup,” but needs to sell more chemicals to help deal with glyphosate-resistant weeds.
The environmental and human health consequences of industrial agriculture are escalating with GM crops. In particular, glyphosate used on GM glyphosate-tolerant crops has reduced milkweed in the US, leading to a 90% decline in monarch butterflies. In South America, the use of glyphosate on GM soy is responsible for widespread serious human health impacts.
Although GM herbicide-tolerant crops predominate, plants genetically engineered to be toxic to certain pests are also grown. And while insect resistant (Bt) crops have reduced the use of insecticides in the US, these GM plants themselves produce a toxin and some insects are now becoming resistant to the Bt toxin. More commonly now, companies are combining different Bt toxins together in the same plant, exposing soil microorganisms and other insects to higher levels of the toxins.
Releasing GMOs is, literally, one big open-air experiment because laboratory studies cannot predict all the possible environmental impacts. Over the past 20 years, some genetic material from GM crops has mixed with non-GM crops. This GM contamination can be impossible to reverse and poses a threat to non-GM crops and wild and weedy crop relatives, as well as to the future of organic farming, which prohibits GMOs.
Future risks from GM crops, trees and animals may look quite different from our current reality as new organisms with new GM traits are introduced into our environment and food system. These GM crops, trees and animals all pose new, unique risks that are hard to predict.
The full report and its summary pamphlet is available at www.gmoinquiry.ca/environment
Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), www.cban.ca