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A field of corn in Iowa. (Photo: Carl Wycoff/cc/flickr)

Will GM Crops Collapse the Food System?

Jim Goodman

When genetically modified (GM) crops were first planted commercially in 1996, they were just another technological innovation that fit well into the trend of larger farms and fewer farmers. Since weed control was a time consuming task, chemicals that killed the weeds without harming the crop struck farmers as a good idea.

Often when a technology is introduced one never considers why it was introduced or what future events and connections may be put in motion. Clearly the trend to global crop production and marketing has changed the face of agriculture. Now we are left to decide if it was a good thing, this world changing shift in crop production brought about by GM crops.

While GM has been very widely adopted and praised by some, particularly in the U.S., Canada and South America, results have been mixed, at best, in India and Africa. American farmers have used the technology to convert vast swaths of land from prairies, tropical rain forests and former mixed livestock/crop farms into a vast corn/soy mono-culture.

After nearly 20 years of GM crops, genetic modifications for herbicide resistance and pest resistance are still the only two commercially viable traits of any significance. There are no yield genes that will revolutionize farming, and weeds and insects are quickly developing resistance to the GM technologies.

When Monsanto and other corporations involved in seed research and development brought GM seed to the market, what was their reason? Obviously they saw an opportunity for profit; that is what corporations do.

While everyone is supposed to accept the altruistic justification for GM, that it will “feed the world," I doubt they ever planned to give any GM technology away in developing countries or even sell the new technologies at cost. Their rigorous control of GM through patents and legions of lawyers waiting to sue for any possibility of patent infringement attest to the fact that this is a profitable science and they intend to play it to the bitter end.

World grain prices plummeted due to the increased world supply of corn and soy, which was in no small part made possible by the introduction of GM crops. Many countries have refused shipments of GM grain from the U.S. further tightening the margins for grain farmers.

The vast majority of the world grain glut was fed to animals, putting more meat into diets around the world. The use of corn for ethanol production (in the guise of a renewable fuel) was also clearly made possible by vast acreages of GM.

GM seed is expensive and it needs herbicide application ( higher levels every year) and heavy fertilizer applications in order to maximize its yield potential. These inputs also cost money. Farmers who use the GM production system tell me they can be profitable by making pennies per bushel of yield—provided they have enough acreage and good weather.

Pesticides and manufactured fertilizer are made from oil, and inputs are transported from production site to farms worldwide, using more oil. Grain and grain fed animal products are marketed world wide using more oil.

Given that oil sources are drying up, or located in unstable parts of the world, the U.S. is seeking more domestic production through fracking which among its many drawbacks is the fact that it uses tremendous amounts of water.

Huge acreages of corn and soy are grown using irrigation, water pulled from underground aquifers, that are not recharging fast enough. Large scale animal production—animals fed on corn and soy— also consume water and plenty of it. They also produce plenty of manure that must be disposed of, generally through land spreading and it can, as recent events have shown, produce the real potential for surface and ground water pollution.

Farmers in Mexico faced with imports of cheap U.S. corn were forced off the land as their small acreages could not compete with the subsidized GM corn from the U.S. They migrated to the cities or to the U.S. looking for work, thus a major reason for increased immigration.

Farmers in India eagerly bought into the promises of higher yield and profit from planting GM cotton, only to see the promise fail. Burdened by debt for seed and fertilizer many turned to suicide as their only escape.

The increases in row crop production and its associated demand for fuel and fertilizer along with the increase in demand for animal agriculture have pushed emissions of greenhouse gases and furthered the advance of climate change.

GM crops have changed agriculture, helping to advance the shift to more industrialized production, higher pesticide use, more land in corn and soy demanding more water and fertilizer, and less profit for farmers to name just a few of the connections that were never imagined when GM crops were commercialized in 1996.

We need to consider this series of consequences some intended and some not, that have occurred due to the introduction of GM crops . The connections are real and perhaps we need to ask what happens when one part of the system collapses, will the entire food system follow?


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jim Goodman

Jim Goodman

Jim Goodman is a third-generation dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

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