Environmental Issues Seminar
Jan 30, 2014
Dr. Gerry Berkowitz
Public perception, human health risks and environmenta impact of genetically engineered crop palnts: what are the issues and facts?
The guest speaker that came to our class was Dr. Gerry Berkowitz, a professor in plant sciences at UCONN. Dr. Berkowitz’ teaching style was comparable to pouring gasoline on a pile of wood, and then throwing a match on it. He was able to start off the conversation by giving us the fuel that we needed to actually feel engaged, and personally connected to the conversation. The fuel that he used to start our conversation was so effective because it related to each and every one of our lives, in that we all eat food, and just about all food these days has genetically modified organisms in it, or GMO’s.
And with that, the debate started. People started ringing out across the classroom, telling all the horror stories that they had heard about farmers being forced into this new style of agriculture by big business corporations like Monsanto. Dr. Berkowitz carefully steered the conversation in an enlightening manner when he would make us break in our conversation to follow a more logical progression. For instance, he pointed out that the well-known toxin DDT that used to be sprayed on just about every crop in the United States had been outlawed not due to the fact that the chemical was toxic, but due to the fact that it remained in our ecosystems and would not break down. This little factoid seemed to be a hint at what was to come, that things are not always outlawed because they are bad, but that there may be deeper reasons other than what common knowledge seems to point to. He got us all aboard the conversation, but now he was the driver.
He started to point out that indeed in some cases, there were indeed horror stories, but in order see the reality of the situation we would need to dig a little deeper. He made us break from our conversation to talk about the green revolution. It started in the 1980’s, when the United States was in an economic depression and quickly being left in the dust by our Asian counterparts. He briefly pointed out that Asia was very good at producing things, and the United States was quickly being out competed. We had a heads up on science though, due to the fact that we had well-developed education institutions, however these were not making us any money due to the fact that publicly funded research could not be made profitable at the time due to the fact that the government essentially owned the rights to these findings. “In 1980, the federal government had approximately 30,000 patents of which only 5% led to new or improved products. Many patents were not being used as the government did not have the resources to develop and market the inventions. Thus, Baye-Dole gave universities control of their inventions” (Colorado). In 1980 Congress passed an Act called the Baye-Doyle Act which allowed universities to gain ownership of any findings, file for patents, and ultimately split the royalties between the university, the research team, and the remainder went to the technology transfer process (Colorado). What this did, Dr. Berkowitz explained, was set the grounds for profitable research; it finally became ‘worth it’ to conduct research.
The next catalyst that helped to create the agricultural systems that we have today was the allowance of GE to patent life. Yes, they were actually allowed to put a patent on life. They had developed an organism that could essentially eat oil and break it down into simpler, more basic products. This was the result of a court case called Diamont Vs. Chekraborty, Berkowitz explained. The case had been appealed many times before making it to the Supreme Court, where it was finally ruled that corporations can patent life. The court made it so that patents could be issued for "anything under the sun that is made by man" ("Bacteria, oil-eating").
Now, you may be asking, what do these two laws being passed have to do with each other? Berkowitz explained that this was the groundwork’s for the Green Revolution. The green revolution was a movement in which scientists would take a crop and put it in conditions that would favor mutations. Then they would use these mutations to test which plants would do well in different environments. As you can see, this type of technology would be very useful in places where the local agriculture is grown under less than favorable conditions, as it were in many places throughout the world. The resulting effect was bittersweet, because it allowed many farmers to grow up to tenfold the crops that they had been growing previously. It undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives throughout the world; however with these new crops, the way of farming was forever changed. Farmers that had been using techniques that their land had permitted for so long were now using new techniques that required higher demands for fertilizer, water, agricultural systems, equipment, and more. The end result was that farmers had to completely break away from their old systems, which were within the limitations of the land, and give way to these new systems in which long term sustainability was in question. They now relied on outside sources to conduct their farming, whereas in the past all they needed was the land they lived on.
Another indirect result of this new farming technique was that the price to produce food had lowered greatly. The farmers could now produce and sell crops at a lower cost, however this created an advantage for the farmers who were using the new style of agriculture over those who weren’t. The farmers who were using traditional methods basically could not keep up with the new style of farmers, and so they had basically no choice but to join the rest of the world in this new style of farming. What made worse was that a lot of the farmers were forced into this based on the fact that they had no other viable means of making a living.
The class began to realize what had happened. As a nation we had allowed ourselves to make science profitable, and not only that but able to make money on life itself. Farming had changed in a way that not only required higher demands from the land itself, but outside sources that it did not require before. Dr. Berkowitz drove the point home when he said that the new farming systems had bought into this on their own, due to us, the consumer, through buying what is cheap and making their old style of farming no longer profitable. We had all taken a part in their new revolution, and the blame was really not on the big corporations but on each and every one of us who go to the store and buy whatever is cheapest. The new system sold more, made more money, but had changed agricultural systems in a way that they really could not go back.
But what are the real costs for all of this? One evident cost is that contamination is pretty widespread due to the fact that the new style of farming has boosted fertilizer use to rates that actually degrade the land and ultimately break the balance in the surrounding ecosystems. Another cost is that we have forced our farmers into debt, and they are now at the mercy of the consumers and the prices of the seed companies. The consumers no longer pay the price, but the farmers do.
Now here is where things get interesting, when GMO’s start to come into the picture. A GMO is an “…experimental technology [that] merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding” ("What Is GMO?"). The GMO’s start to become popular in recent years, basically adding fuel to the agricultural revolution that had been developing. One can see that the introduction of GMO’s fits perfectly in the previous sequence that had happened. First science becomes profitable, not a bad thing in itself, but then we allow life itself to become patented. Next, our farming systems around the world have switched over from subsistence to substantial systems, and they are now at the mercy of the consumer, where as in the past the consumer was at the mercy of the farmers. GMO’s basically add to all of this because they give the scientists more reason to profit, they give the farmers better tools to profit because they can produce even more, and lastly they give us, the consumers, lower prices which they buy over the lower costs. The GMO revolution had been put into place, and now the farmers would have to indulge in this new system just to keep up.
A new cost has been introduced here; the cost of the unknown. What effects does this have on the consumer? What really happens when you take genes from one organism, and put them into a foreign organism to achieve some apparent success? There have been no long-term studies on GMO’s because they are a new technology, yet they are being produced and sold on a widespread basis. In some ways, the only long-term test that is being conducted is on us, the consumers. So now, we are the ones who are paying after all.
Dr. Berkowitz transformed the class’s notion that big corporations were the ones who were at fault for all of this, and really opened our eyes to what really was going on. Yes, in some cases big cooperation’s acted as bullies, and threw their weight around, however this was nothing compared to the weight that us, the consumers had thrown around, and the weight of our choices as a nation to indulge in what is most profitable, over what is morally right. Yes maybe some of our decisions were misinformed, but is that really an excuse? Better yet, did we even have a choice?
I think that 99.99% of people can agree that GMO’s are not a good thing. At a very least, we should have a choice in the matter of where we can spend our money. The fact that GMO’s are not labeled is the major factor that is holding us back from allowing us to make this choice. Dr. Berkowitz said that the real fight lies in the food labeling industry, not some court case against GMO companies. He showed us a map of countries that had labeling, and then showed us a map of countries that sold GMO products. It was clearly evident that in the places that had GMO labeling did not sell much GMO products, and the countries that did not have labeling sold basically all of the GMO products. This really made it clear that labeling empowers the consumer to make a choice, and that when people have a choice, they would choose not to take part in this new GMO revolution that is unfolding in the world.
Dr. Berkowitz then pointed out that the way food labeling laws are currently; only processed foods have to have labeling. If a product is natural they just call it by its common name. This happened to be the case in wine, where there really are no food labels because it is mostly natural. The Dr. pointed out that on bottles of wine, they have to say whether or not the wine contains sulfates. This is because it was proven that wine with sulfates can have a human health effect on some people, and so it was made a law that all wines containing this substance must say so. The connection to GMO’s is that we have to prove that they can cause a human health affect before they are to be labeled.
The human health affect approach is just one way to get GMO’s to be labeled. In recent times, Connecticut was the first state ever to pass a law that required GMO’s to be modified. This is a great success, and it came not from proving that there is a human health affect, but through rallying, and telling our voted officials that this is something we want; after all, we are a democracy, right?
To me, the democratic approach is what we really need to take. We as constituents have a voice, and often we do not use it enough. Why should we wait for this experiment to unfold, where we are the test subjects? If we are truly a democracy, then our voted officials have to listen to us, and if they do not like what we have to say, then they can get out! This is America, where we the people have a choice. This nation was built on farming, building up from our land, and living off of what we can produce. We have to really think about if we want to support a system that dives into the unknown, uses its people as test subjects, all so that we can buy the cheapest food at our local market. This nation is run by us, has been run by us, and always will be run by us, and for this reason time to wake up and make some real choices.
Dr. Gerry Berkowitz, Professor in Plant Sciences, UCONN
"What is Bayh-Dole and why is it important to Technology Transfer?." . Technology Transfer Office, Colorado State University, n.d. Web. 5 Feb 2014. <http://www.csurf.org/enews/bayhdole_403.html>.
" Bacteria, oil-eating." Lemelson-Mint. Massachusettes Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 5 Feb 2014. <http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/chakrabarty.html>.
"What Is GMO?." nongmoproject.org. Non GMO Project, n.d. Web. 5 Feb 2014. <http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/>.
Pictures 2 from: Google + "monsanto stock", https://www.google.com/search?q=monsanto+stock&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=sb, 10 May 2014