Culinate

The end of the GMO era?

Even Monsanto appears to be backing off

By
January 30, 2014

Back in December, the journalist Elizabeth Royte penned a piece for Modern Farmer titled "The Post-GMO Economy." The article — in part, a profile of a farmer who had embraced GMO seeds until they no longer worked quite so well at fending off pests — suggested that the GMO era might be over, with farmers returning to conventional seeds.

“Not only are the seeds expensive (GMO corn can cost $150 more per bag than conventional corn), they’re also driving farmers to buy and apply more chemicals,” wrote Royte. And consumers have pushed back enough against GMO foods that, Royte noted, major retailers such as Whole Foods and Target are veering away from them.

Now comes a report by Tom Philpott on Mother Jones asking whether Monsanto — the big daddy of GMO seeds — is moving on from its own products as well. It’s not just that farmers and consumers are turning away; as Philpott pointed out, “GM technology doesn’t seem to be very good at generating complex traits like better flavor or more nutrients, the very attributes Monsanto was hoping to engineer into veggies.”

More significantly, the company doesn’t seem to have very many new GM products in the development pipeline. The major exception, a new type of GMO that interferes with RNA replication in insects, might help the struggling honey bee fend off the varroa mite, but it might also turn out to kill other beneficial as well as harmful pests.

Plus, as Nathanael Johnson declared recently on Grist, after researching GMOs for six months, the whole GMO battle might really just be a tempest in a scientist's teapot. “We oppose GMOs because we oppose the unsustainable agricultural system they serve,” he wrote. “But . . . our unsustainable food system is going to keep on chugging along whether we allow the use of mitigating technology or not.”

And whether GMOs turn out to be a game-changer for the planet or not, we’re still arguing about their real story. As Johnson put it:

People care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science.