A couple of headlines in La Jornada some months ago caught my attention. One warned that approved crops created and grown which were genetically modified organisms (GMOs) tolerated a component of Agent Orange which, if you remember, the US used during the Vietnam War. The other headline warned that the Mexican department of agriculture had approved over 100 lines of agricultural products grown from transgenic seeds for import from the US. The two US companies involved were Dow and of course Monsanto. Now I admit that I have few if any good feelings about industrial behemoths making their millions in agriculture, especially, Monsanto and Dow.
As we all know, the US is not prone to having advocacy groups that deal in subtlety and compromise. Right out of the gate, people are spewing junk at us which seems designed to arouse what some call our lizard brains. There’s no middle group, no group talking quietly, it seems, no group really interested in, what shall I say, the truth even if it is mushy gray rather than black or white. Much of our internet and TV news keeps us aroused. Media seems, in fact, determined to prevent any reasonable thinking. On the internet, the left can be as loud and vitriolic and ignorant as the right and use just as many cheap tricks. But the two sides are not equal, and the tendency to see all issues in terms of left and right makes it almost impossible to actually understand them.
I hadn’t thought much about GMOs before I saw the two articles in La Jornada. But it was clear at least for Mexico that there were issues that had to be dealt with, and as I became more aware of the subject’s presence in the press, I decided I’d look into GMOs to see if I could come up with a reasonable understanding of the seeds and crops and their effects on the environment and on people, especially in Mexico.
I started out trying to find an overview, if you will. I read, and as I read, I realized (surprise, surprise) that this was no simple issue. For instance, I found that I didn’t think the concept of genetic modification by means of the introduction of a piece of a gene from one species into a gene of the other inherently bad or good. But what do I know? It is certainly an interesting process. I also was not aware of how many areas and crops GMOs could be found in around the world, and especially in the US. And of course it seemed pretty clear that mega corporations should not be doing the research into risks and benefits of their own seeds and plants. Their coziness with government, both here in Mexico and in the US does not work in our interest but rather in the interest of corporate money. I don’t think we can escape the awful consequences of that alliance unless citizens can become involved in a more fruitful way than they currently are.
And, finally, there are so many issues related to the biological, environmental and social costs of GMOs and their use. For these, I am still unravelling possible answers. I make absolutely no claim to certainty. For the science questions, I will try to use science as my guide. This, of course, means I have to explain what I mean by “science.” Science as science has also become controversial, its basic tenets challenged. Some of this is for the good, but some is just terrible and terribly destructive.
But let’s start at the beginning, or where I began.
The journey was rather like following a string that lead me through a very complicated maze. I am still not out of it.
I know people here where we live who go to great lengths to avoid even the slightest possibility that there might be a genetically modified organism in what they are eating. They pull back in horror if you say, as I have, that I’m not sure that in and of themselves GMOs are bad. Literally in horror. I imagine that in their minds soy, say, grown from GMO seed throbs a bright, ugly red that only true believers can see. In the United States, it would be hard to avoid GMO corn. Something like 88% of corn acreage is planted with gmo seed.
In Mexico as in the US there are millions of acres of industrial agriculture, that is, huge fields each devoted to a single crops owned by corporations and, I imagine, some very rich individuals. My first memory of these fields comes from a drive we took from Saltillo to Morelia a number of years ago. Huge blankets of crops covered the land from the highway to stony desert mountains which brought them to a sudden stop. El bajio, part of the high flat valley that is central Mexico has the same kinds of fields. They provide huge quantities of food, much of it for export to the US, all of it requiring irrigation which is draining the water tables as do similar farms in the US in dry areas like California. This use of a limited water source I was aware of and alarmed about.
Those fields in the desert gave me the willies: those blankets of brilliant green seemed to be floating, a result not of my imagination but of the many plumes of irrigated water soaking them, creating an engulfing mist. In those days, I imagine they were in the late 1990s or early 2000s, it was water loss and pesticide and artificial fertilizer use that were alarming: the soil was being sterilized as residues poisoned people. My brother-in-law, a bona fide non fringy agronomist said that there was no replenishing the water tables that were being pumped with such abandon. I remembered from God knows how many years earlier learning in school that mono-cropping, sowing seed for a single kind of plant over a vast area was bad farming: it depleted soil of elements that a specific crop sucked out, it lay itself open to decimation by pests that especially liked that crop and could sweep through a field and leave it devastated.
So the companies that produce GMO seeds promised that in fact they would cut the use of herbicides and pesticides dramatically. They produced studies to back up their claims, and of course opposition rose up and did the same with opposing claims.
So we enter the maze. There are so many possible routes, it seems, and in this maze, not just one that’ll get you through it, perhaps not so badly battered that you can’t survive.
NEXT at sometime in the (I hope) not too distant future, more on GMOs in Mexico. (I am all too aware that I have started other series which I have failed to conclude.)