A HowGood Assessment: GMOs
The first GMO products hit supermarket shelves in 1996, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that concerns about genetically modified foods skyrocketed. “GMO” became a household term as environmental and consumer rights groups, select scientists, TV personalities, and the mainstream media took up arms against these “unnatural” foods. Genetically modified ingredients are now widespread throughout American food products, though this has remained a polarizing topic.
There are many facets to the GMO debate: political, financial, agricultural, environmental, biological. HowGood understands the range and complexity of public concerns. While we consider all of these, our primary concerns have to do with the implications of industrial agriculture involved with the cultivation of most GMO crops.
Genetically modified organisms have had their DNA altered in some way, often with the addition of gene sequences from other plants, animals, bacteria, or viruses. Some of the most commonly grown GMOs in the US are corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and alfalfa. This biotechnology was developed to address universal objectives like pest and disease resistance, drought tolerance, etc. However, the high cost and advanced technology required to create this type of seed has made production an exclusive industry with high barriers to entry and aggressive intellectual property protection methods, and all of the decision making and distribution power concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.
HowGood identifies many issues with the standard practices of industrial agriculture: soil degradation, compaction and erosion, flooding, reliance on fossil fuels and agrochemicals, severe loss of crop genetic diversity as well as wild biodiversity, and pollution of air, water, and soil. GMO crops are typically grown as resource-intensive monocultures, so while they were developed to alleviate individual pressures of the industrial agriculture system, they neither transform the system nor offer an alternative.
For thousands of years, agriculture has evolved by farmers and communities saving seed to develop their own unique cultivars — cultivars that are adapted to local weather, soil types, pest pressure, taste preferences, and human culture. With GMO crops, farmers commit to a partnership “leasing” patented seed, forfeiting the right to save seed and consequently the prerogative for on-farm crop refinement and trait selection.
With a rapidly shifting global climate, agriculture will continue to face unprecedented weather events and pest pressures. Crops must evolve to meet the needs of the future, an objective which HowGood believes can only be met by many farmers experimenting with many crops and methods all over the world. The current GMO model relies on the inhibition of that innovation as the very engine of its economic success, which could jeopardize the future of our food security.
Beyond issues in the field, GMO crops are predominantly grown for intensive processing rather than direct consumption. Factories require tremendous energy inputs and contribute to air and water pollution. In the interest of minimizing environmental impact, HowGood rewards simpler, less processed foods. GMO crops are used in the production of “red flag” ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, and modified corn starch, which are often added to products to mask low quality ingredient profiles or high processing levels from the palate.
Though some argue that GMO crops are the only way to feed the rapidly increasing global population, there is no good evidence for this. GMOs are only the most efficient crops from a labor and commodity grain perspective. From a global calorie production perspective, small, highly diversified farms produce better nutrition and more than twice as many calories per acre as large farms. Every year enough food is grown globally to feed 15 to 20 billion people. About 75% of this output is produced by family farms, averaging no more than a city block in size. As of yet, there is no caloric shortage—the issue is the distribution of what is already produced. If meeting the demand does becomes an issue, there is little evidence that large scale annual monoculture and its current preoccupation with GMO crops is going to be the solution.
Stewardship of the land should be an integral aspect of farming. As such, HowGood will continue to endorse methods of agriculture that increase our capacity to feed everyone on earth while improving the planet’s capacity to support that agriculture.