GM Crops and the Environment

By Joanna Sax

I’ve become increasingly interested in GM crops, in general, after the recent Petrie-Flom Conference on the FDA in the 21st Century.

I know there is a lot of discussion and controversy about genetically-modified (GM) crops.  I want to pick-up on a topic that is related to GM crops – that is, the environment.  The May 2nd issue of Nature includes a special section on GM crops.  Part of this section provides information on the environmental advantages of GM crops.  Most of the GM crops contain DNA that allows them to be resistant to herbicides or insects.  It turns out that a study showed that there was a 6.1% reduction in the use of herbicide between 1996 and 2011 on crops of herbicide-resistant cotton compared to the amount of herbicide that would have been used to treat conventional crops.  See Natasha Gilbert, A Hard Look at GM Crops, 497 Nature 24, 25 (2012) (I believe this article is free if you search for it on the Nature website).  A reduction in the amount of herbicide used to treat our fabric or food sources may have environmental advantages.  Less herbicide run-off into waterways.  Less herbicide for animals to consume.  See id.

Other scientific data provide inconclusive results about environmental impacts.  Some studies look at whether transgenes are spreading to weeds or non-GM crops.  For example, husbandry techniques of cross-breeding may unknowingly cross breed a non-transgenic line with a transgenic line and thereby create a transgenic line.  Now, a GM crop will be grown without the farmer even knowing it.  See id. at 24, 26.  And, if the GM crop has some sort of negative environmental impact, then a farmer may unwittingly be creating potential harm to the environment.

One thing I want to raise with this post is the importance to incorporate multiple areas of study – biology, environmental studies, genetics, health, regulation, etc. – to determine how we advance our understanding of GM crops.  I imagine that many readers of this blog are much more familiar with GM crops than me, so I welcome your comments.

0 thoughts to “GM Crops and the Environment”

  1. In keeping with your last paragraph, perhaps you would be interested in this short list of titles I put together:

    The Sullied Science of Biotechnology: Ecology, Political Economy & Intellectual Property—A Basic Reading Guide (with addendum)

    • Aoki, Keith. Seed Wars: Controversies and Cases on Plant Genetic Resources and Intellectual Property. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008.
    • Frankel, Francine R. India’s Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
    • Gosseries, Axel, Alain Marciano, and Alain Strowel, eds. Intellectual Property and Theories of Justice. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
    • Hayden, Cori. When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting In Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
    • Hope, Janet. Biobazzar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
    • Kenny, Martin. Bio-technology: The University-Industrial Complex. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
    • Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2bd ed., 2004.
    • Mgbeoji, Ikechi. Global Biopiracy: Patents, Plants, and Indigenous Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
    • Mirowski, Philip. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
    • Mooney, Pat R. Seeds of the Earth: A Private or Public Resource? Ottawa, Ontario: Inter Pares, 1979.
    • Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2007.
    • Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
    • Rose, Hilary and Steven Rose. Genes, Cells and Brains: Bioscience’s Promethean Promises. Verso, 2012.
    • Santilli, Juliana. Agrobiodiversity and the Law: Regulating Genetic Resources, Food Security, and Cultural Diversity. New York: Earthscan, 2012.
    • Schurman, Rachel and William A. Munro. Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle Over Biotechnology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
    • Shiva, Vandana. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. London: Zed Books, 1991.
    • Shiva, Vandana. Protect or Plunder? Understanding Intellectual Property Rights. London: Zed Books, 2001.
    • Zimmer, Karl S. Changing Fortunes: Biodiversity and Peasant Livelihood in the Peruvian Andes. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

    Addendum: The following titles may help by way of background reading on topics intrinsically related to the topics in political economy that arise in discussions of biotechnology, such as those involving hunger, famines, rural development, and so forth. (In a future draft of this compilation I’ll include titles that describe the nature of modern science and technology more generally.)

    • Barry, Christian and Thomas W. Pogge, eds. Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Social Justice. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
    • Bennett, Jon (with Susan George). The Hunger Machine. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987.
    • Bernstein, Henry, et al, eds. The Food Question: Profits Versus People. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990.
    • Brock, Gillian. Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
    • Chang, Ha-Joon, ed. Rethinking Development Economics. London. Anthem Press, 2003.
    • Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.
    • Crocker, David A. Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
    • Cullather, Nick. The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia. Harvard University Press, 2010.
    • Dasgupta, Partha. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
    • Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1989.
    • Drèze, Jean, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussein, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger: Selected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
    • Falk, Richard. Predatory Globalization: A Critique. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.
    • Gottleib, Robert and Anupama Joshi. Food Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
    • Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1. London: Penguin Books (with New Left Review), 1990 (first ed., 1867).
    • Murdoch, William W. The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
    • Nussbaum, Martha C. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
    • Pahuja, Sundhya. Decolonising International Law: Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
    • Pogge, Thomas W. World Poverty and Human Rights. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002/2nd ed., Polity Press, 2008.
    • Prashad, Vijay. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London: Verso, 2012.
    • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa, ed. Another Production is Possible: Beyond the Capitalist Canon. London: Verso, 2007.
    • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa, ed. Democratizing Democracy: Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon. London: Verso, 2007.
    • Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
    • Shaikh, Anwar. Globalization and the Myths of Free Trade: History, Theory and Empirical Evidence. Routledge, 2013.

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