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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Sustainable Agriculture: WTF OMG GMO

The GMO debate is like a dark stormy ocean. It is vast and deep, and most people are unsure as to whether GMOs are the monstrous waves or the boat delivering us to safety. A significant amount of literature has been published on the impacts of GMOs, and this column is only a couple hundred words. I will not attempt to address every single argument for or against GMOs but will instead discuss the socioeconomic impacts of GMOs on the hungry people they are supposedly trying to feed — an argument rarely heard.

The argument is largely unheard, because it is made by people with less power and voice. These people lack the volume and political clout that seed companies, such as Monsanto, have. These people — the rural producers, the small land holders, the subsistence farmers — are battling for fundamental food sovereignty.

The food movement has made a considerable amount of noise surrounding the concept of food security without understanding food sovereignty. Food security is about having access to food. It is a bandage for hunger, not a cure. Access to food alone neither ensures the economic standing to purchase it nor does it ensure long-term, dependable access.

Food sovereignty, on the other hand, is about autonomy within the food system. It means having actual power to ensure that communities have resources enough to feed themselves. It involves breaking the chains of dependency of corporate and commodified food systems.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are the antithesis of food sovereignty. For thousands of years, farmers have retained the autonomy to save their own seed — until now. Farmers who used to save their own, free, open-pollinated varieties now plant GM crops that must be purchased annually. A Guatemalan peasant farmer cannot be sovereign while their sustenance is entirely dependent on an seed and pesticide company from the United States.

Some argue that small farmers prefer GM seed without considering the political coercion that broke the seed saving ethic in the first place. Let’s consider small holding maize farmers in Mexico as an example.

There are essentially two types of GM corn on the market. The first is Bt corn, which is engineered to be resistant to a pest called the corn borer. The other is corn that is engineered to be resistant to herbicides, such as RoundUp. One might wonder why the Mexican government or Mexican farmers would plant Bt corn when they learn that corn borers are not a pest in Mexico.

Additionally, Mexican farmers plant at a small scale where all the work is done by hand. GM corn resistant to herbicides is designed for large scale, fuel intensive agriculture using tractor implements. In Mexico, herbicides are applied and mixed by hand in ways that even GMO proponents recognize as unsafe.

Now, consider that GM corn does not store as long as traditional varieties. Farmers used to be able to store their traditional varieties for an entire year until the next harvest. With GM corn, small farmers must process and sell immediately or risk the entire crop succumbing to spoilage, producing enough for sustenance but worsening the quality.

Thus, in the months preceding harvest, corn supplies dwindle and farmers must actually buy back corn they sold earlier in the year. Their food sovereignty has been co-opted by GM corporate interest.

Because the market in the United States for GM corn is completely saturated and the European Union has banned GM crops entirely, seed and pesticide companies are aggressively marketing to Central and South America — despite the fact that GM crops provide little benefit for those farmers. Bt crops are useless; pesticides are sold to people without adequate infrastructure to apply them safely; and in many cases, GM crops actually lead to hunger.

From the perspective of the average person in the United States, GM crops may seem like a boon for the developing world, but they aren’t. People in Central and South America may be hungry, but it’s not because they lack the knowledge of how to feed themselves. It is because seed and pesticide companies with the help of corrupt governments have systematically devalued their worth and stripped them of their ability to be autonomous.


To share seeds and increase your own food sovereignty with ELLEN PEARSON, email erpearson@ucdavis.edu.



  1. “One might wonder why…Mexican farmers would plant Bt corn when they learn that corn borers are not a pest in Mexico.” A Mexican farmer would actually be quite relieved to hear your declaration that corn borers aren’t a threat in Mexico! Seeing, of course, as the destructive Southwest corn borer originated in Mexico and remains a serious problem there. One might wonder where you got your information for this point- and for most of your article.

    “Additionally, Mexican farmers plant at a small scale where all the work is done by hand.” This is correct; the Mexican farming culture is quite different from ours and is often not maximized for efficiency/output. This is one of the reasons why Mexico cannot meet its own food needs and is the second biggest importer of corn in the world. And, by the way, even though Mexico has banned growing Bt corn since 1998, it still allows- and needs- the import of it.

    “Now, consider that GM corn does not store as long as traditional varieties.” No, I won’t consider that until you can cite your evidence. This would surprise me as GM foods can be designed for spoilage protection. They certainly store longer than non-preservative “organic” foods.

    “Because the market in the United States for GM corn is completely saturated…” Wow, that whole paragraph is just a smorgasbord of misinformation. GM crops can actually be of huge benefit to farmers in Latin America. For example, super-producer Brazil is desperately trying to get into the market a GM bean designed against the golden mosaic virus- a virus which destroys almost 10% of Brazil’s annual bean crop. Brazil’s soybean crop is also already 85% GM, with more and more of its major crop varieties turning GMO.

    “…GM crops may seem like a boon for the developing world, but they aren’t.” The entire point of your article is that GMO crops are bad for food sovereignty, using Mexico’s resistance to GMO corn as an only example. But Mexico depends on and grows other GMO crops! Corn is a unique case in Mexico and you can’t make a sweeping, generalizing argument- as faulty as it may be- for every country in the world based off one part of one issue. Countries in Latin America are seeking GM sugar cane so that they can attain energy independence via the ethanol in the cane- in contrast to the point of your entire article! GMOs have a tremendous potential to help make countries around the world more food sovereign, and I think you are fighting against their best chance.


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