Newsletter 17 – Do GM plants change over time?

Newsletter 17.

3rd Feburary 2013

A Tranquility House Newsletter

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Genetically Modified Crops and the global Food System

by Mike Hillard

The problems

8. Does the effectiveness of a GM plant change or diminish over time, and if so what length of time? What happens then?

A GM crop is the same GM crop after umpteen years, but as the environment around it changes, its effectiveness can change. This is linked to the increased use of the herbicides and pesticides and those dastardly ‘superweeds’.

We have already seen that without any human intervention – life evolves – and that is not new science. Charles Darwin (and Alfred Wallace as it so happens) developed the theory of evolution by natural selection in the 1850’s, and it operates continuously to this day. When a herbicide (Roundup) is applied to a population of a weed, there will be some that have naturally mutated and become resistant to it and survive. As the rest of that population will die, the surviving specimen(s) has (have) a lot of space to multiply into and that is what happens. This was not a possibility or a probability but a certainty. Not a prediction but a fact. The growing resistant weed population is called a ‘Super weed’ and we already have 21 of them just in the US.

Through the US corn growing region they now have ‘super bindweed’ which is so powerful three things are happening:

  1. It is common across the region so is affecting at best many of the farms and soon most of them.
  2. The maize crop is being strangled, significantly reducing the yield and therefore profits. The farmers are now desperate for a solution.
  3. Roundup at 15 times the normal strength has been applied without any effect.

Through the southern US soybean and cotton growing region, there is already a ‘super pigweed’ also now totally resistant to Roundup. It has so overtaken the farmland that millions of acres are being lost to production with the land given up to the pigweed. It rapidly outgrows the crops hugely reducing their yields but there is an even worse problem. It grows so fast and has such strong stems that farm machinery cannot go through it. Hence why the farmers are giving up that land.

While on pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) there are two interesting facts:

  1. It is edible, highly nutritious and was eaten back through history – the green parts as a vegetable and the seeds as well. Rather than harvesting it as a food – it is left.
  2. It is spread by the wind!!!! The reason for the incredibly rapid spread?

As we can see there isn’t one unfortunate super weed – it is general and will spread to cover every corner of the countries using these products, faster when combined with GM because that is increasing the use of Roundup. The area reported infested as of one year ago (2011) was 11M acres but this is more than 4 times the area in 2007 which was 2.4M. It is an epidemic.

GM crops are already planted on 200,000 sq miles of the US or 130M acres, so the very agricultural production of the US is at stake with super weeds appearing for other herbicides as well. To get these huge figures into perspective the US has 382m acres producing crops, so 1/3rd of it is already GM and liable to yield reduction if not the loss of that land for agriculture.

If we think all this is bad, the herbicidal resistant genes are spreading naturally through the pollen of the resistant weeds – to other plants – which proves item 7 (see newsletter 16) – the GM Genie can escape and has done so!

What about the GM pest resistant crops? Guess what? We now have pests that have mutated to do the self-same thing – they are resistant to the pesticides so for all the above on ‘super weeds’ add ‘super pests’.

How long has it taken? Given the first approvals were only given in 1995, it has taken just 16 years for super ‘things’ to have reached epidemic proportions. The working life of any GM plant is therefore around just 10 years and mutations occur seemingly at least within about 3 years. If that surprises you, think about this:

  • There are about 1,800,000 wheat plants/ hectare.
  • Each wheat plant has about 450,000 pollen grains. (Each rye plant has 4m and each maize plant – 18m).
  • There are therefore about 800,000,000,000 wheat pollen grains per hectare (800 billion).

Even an incredibly low probability that a mutation will occur that affects the GM crop resistance means it is almost certainly going to happen even in the first year, and mutation rates, while varying hugely are sort of around 1:1,000,000. There are therefore going to be loads of mutations for every hectare planted. Anyway, it has already happened with every crop grown. But I will give you one further demonstration of the reality of mutation resistance to a human ‘compound’.

It is being increasingly publicised that antibiotics are losing their usefulness because the bacteria they fight have ‘mutated’ to be resistant to them. Organisms evolve to best survive.

What happens now? Depends who you ask:

The Biotech Companies: Well, what would you expect? They are working to develop what are called ‘tiered trait’ GM plants resistant to two or more herbicides so the farmers would then have to spray twice as much as now. Interesting? GMOs were going to reduce herbicide use not increase it!

There is currently a ‘stacked trait’ crop being developed with the second herbicide (after Roundup) being 2,4-D, one of the two chemicals in Agent Orange sprayed over Vietnam. Dow have also already developed a soybean resistant to 2,4-D “because of the increasing prevalence of glyphosate resistant weeds”. Note the word ‘prevalence’. It seems the public and the regulators are not well informed about developments in this science or the effects it is having but the biochemical companies understand it very well. They just don’t want anybody to know.

Agent orange was 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in equal proportions; was manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemicals, and it is estimated 400,000 people died in Vietnam from its use; 500,000 were maimed, and the Red Cross estimates 1M people are disabled or have health problems directly related to the use of it. To be fair, it was mostly the 2,4,5-T that was the problem because during manufacture another chemical compound appeared that was an extremely toxic dioxin but accidents happen.

The biotech industry is trying to move us to a food production system depending on a cocktail of chemicals – all of which they will sell us – but what happens when they run out of options?

Agriculture: It should be clear already that GM technology is attempting to create a world where the solutions to a scientific problem are more scientific products developed and sold by the very companies creating the problems in the first place, with the farmers and consumers paying for the chemical that created the problem; the one they are told will cure it and the damage done. Each super weed and super pest now with us is with us for ever. It is ‘impossible’ to go back to a world where they don’t exist. It is yet another case of Companies creaming the profits from activities but leaving others to pay to clean up their mess.

Reference superweeds there is of course an alternative which is beginning to be discussed involving deep digging the land and probably then burning it, but that will burn much of the organic material in the soils and that is a crucial part of healthy soil and already in very short supply.

There are totally valid comparisons we can make from a different science – medicine. It is widely known penicillin has become ineffective due to the organisms it was designed to fight ‘evolving’ to be resistant to it. Indeed medical science is really worried it is running out of antibiotics as the bugs have been fighting back. Interestingly penicillin only started to be used in the 1950’s but wasn’t in wide use for a decade so became ineffective in around 2 to 3 decades. But here is something particularly interesting:

It only took 4 years after starting production for one of the microbes evolved a resistance to – Staphylococcus aureus! As I said before, it isn’t just a remote chance organisms will evolve to be resistant to whatever we throw at them – it is a certainty. Only the time taken is debateable.

Clearly the GM crops already planted have had incredibly short functional lives (if they ever were functional), measured in terms of 10 to 15 years but have already left a terrible legacy if not a terrifying one. This alone should prove it is a technology we shouldn’t use, and where used it should rapidly be stopped.


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