By Deborah Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™ - originally posted on 04/04/2013


The Painting and its Historical Significance:

“Plowing with Oxen Teams” was painted in 1866 by the English artist, William Watson. The original painting is oil on canvas and is 32 inches by 44 inches in size. The painting depicts an idyllic bucolic scene. In the foreground, farmers are urging the team of oxen to pull the plow through the fertile soil, assisted by the urgent barking of the farm dog. In the background is a spectacular mountain vista and clear blue sky. The scene evokes nostalgia for a highly idealized view of farming as it was practiced in the past.

In fact, farming in the past was far from glamorous. It involved back-breaking manual labor, working from dawn to dusk, and contending with Nature’s fickleness — frost, drought, hail, high winds, plant disease, insect infestations, and flooding. Beginning in the early 20th century, advances in farming technology – gasoline-powered tractors, chemical pesticides, and commercial fertilizers — revolutionized agriculture. The dominant agricultural production model in developed countries such as the United Stated changed from the small scale, family farm model to the large scale, heavily mechanized agribusiness model. With this change came the promise of greater productivity, higher crop yields, and cheaper food supplies. It also facilitated the migration of many people from a rural lifestyle to an urban one, since fewer individuals were needed to work the land. However, modern agricultural practices are not without some very negative side-effects, and are arguably not sustainable. In response to some of the negative environmental and societal impacts of modern agribusiness, a strong counter movement in sustainable agricultural practices has emerged over the last several decades. The modern sustainable agriculture movement does not advocate a return to purely traditional farming methods of the past, but rather advocates for combining some aspects of modern technology with traditional practices shown to have scientific benefits, to produce a model that is sustainable over the long term.

The political tensions and scientific controversies that exist currently between advocates for the large-scale agribusiness model and the agricultural sustainability model are too complex and broad in scope to be covered in this brief essay. However, to illustrate the issues involved in this broader controversy, this essay will examine one hot-button issue — how genetically modified (GM) crops are impacting agricultural production and affect the sustainability of our farming system.

An Introduction to Genetically Modified (GM) Crops:

Genetically Modified (GM) crops are plants normally used to feed humans or livestock which have been modified using genetic engineering techniques to introduce traits that allow the plant to resist pests, withstand herbicide applications designed to eliminate weeds, and improve growth rates. The genes of the plant are altered in such a way so as to introduce a trait that does not occur naturally in that particular plant species. Genes from a totally different plant species or even from life forms from other biological kingdoms (bacteria and animal species) may be introduced into the genetic material of the subject plant in order to introduce the desired trait.

GM crops differ from crops improved through selective breeding or through naturally induced mutations primarily because of the potential for introduction of inter-kingdom genetic matter. Recalling our basic high school biology, we know that life forms are classified as belonging to one of six kingdoms — the plant kingdom, animal kingdom, fungi kingdom, bacteria kingdom, chromista kingdom (members of which include several types of seaweed and diatoms), and the protozoa kingdom. Horizontal gene transfer is the flow of genes across species. Such flow of genetic material can and does occur naturally. For example, the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria is the result of horizontal gene transfer between bacteria. When a plant breeder develops a hybrid grain such as triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) using conventional plant cross-breeding techniques, horizontal gene transfer is also involved. But, what differs with GM crops is that the gene transfer that is induced can cross kingdom lines and involves gene transfers that would likely never occur spontaneously in nature or even using conventional plant selective breeding techniques. For example, the most famous GM crop in common agricultural use today — Roundup Ready soybeans — contains genetic material from several species of bacteria. The resulting transgenic plant is not susceptible to damage from Roundup, a common herbicide. Therefore, farmers can control weeds by spraying Roundup on these crops, killing naturally occurring weeds, but not harming the genetically altered crop. Crop yields are improved because competition with weeds is eliminated and the farmer saves time and labor because it is quicker to spray a field with Roundup than to perform mechanical cultivation to eliminate the weeds. [1]

Another common GM crop is corn that has had genetic material from the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, introduced into its DNA. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is naturally toxic to caterpillars. By introducing Bt genes into corn, infestations of Corn Earworm, a common insect pest in corn, are eliminated without having to spray the corn with externally applied pesticides that could drift in the wind or run off into streams.

The use of GM crops is widespread. In the US, 86% of corn, 93% of soybeans, 93% of cotton, and 87% of canola is genetically modified to be either Roundup resistant or to resist predation by caterpillars through insertion of the Bt gene [2]. The U.S. accounts for 50% of all GM agricultural production and trade world-wide, with Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and China also accounting for significant percentages [3]. In other parts of the world, GM crops are much less common, either due to the increased seed costs of such crops, governmental prohibitions or citizen resistance to their use, such as in the European Union. Most genetically modified crop seeds are produced by a small number of large corporations, with Monsanto Corporation the largest supplier of GM seed. Such seed is patented and seeds produced from GM plants cannot be saved to be used for seed for subsequent generations of plantings. GM seed must be purchased new each year from the corporate supplier holding the patent or risk incurring substantial legal and monetary penalties [4].

In addition to their use as agricultural crops, GM plants have been created to synthesize drugs, facilitate their use as bio-fuels, and bio-remediate contaminated soils. Genetically modified carrots are used to produce the drug Taliglucerase alfa, used to treat Gaucher’s Disease [5]. GM bananas have been created which produce a human vaccine against Hepatitis B, although these are not yet in commercial production [6]. The Swiss-based company, Syngenta, has received USDA approval to market corn seed, trade-marked Enogen, which has been genetically modified to convert its starch to sugar more readily in order to speed production of ethanol-based bio-fuels [7].

The Sustainable Agriculture Movement:

Sustainable agriculture is defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term. Sustainable agriculture has the following goals:

    1. To satisfy human food and fiber needs
    2. To enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
    3. To make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
    4. To sustain the economic viability of farm operations
    5. To enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole”


Far from being a fringe movement, the sustainable agriculture movement has been recognized by the U.S. federal government in the 1990 farm bill [9], and by the United Nations in its Agenda 21 document [10]. The sustainable agriculture model is frequently discussed in terms of a triad — economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and societal sustainability. In fact, Agenda 21 discusses how sustainable agriculture can help promote all three of these elements.

Of the five goals set forth by the sustainable agriculture movement, modern agribusiness in the U.S. is currently very good at achieving the first, i.e., satisfying food and fiber needs, in a very inexpensive fashion. Food costs as a percentage of total family income are lower in the U.S. than in most other countries in the world. However, we achieve this cheap food production by largely ignoring or violating the other four principles. This creates a false economy because it is not sustainable over the long term. While modern agribusiness can bring us food cheaply now, our food prices will inevitably rise and scarcity will ensue once the negative impacts of our current food production model reach their tipping points. Demographers project the global population will exceed 8 billion by the year 2030. Despite claims by agribusiness that its “modern” methods are the only ones that can ensure adequate food for all of the Earth’s projected inhabitants, there are other voices that disagree. Andre Leu, Chair of the Organic Federation of Australia, is on record saying that sustainable farming is the ONLY way to meet world food demand in the future [11].

As noted earlier in this article, we are using the GM crop debate as a microcosm to explore the more general issues surrounding modern agribusiness overall. To this end, in the next section we explore how the use of GM crops is problematic to the sustainable agriculture movement.

Sustainable Agriculture versus Genetically Modified Crops — Attendant Scientific and Political Controversies:

Soil Erosion and Water Scarcity: Proponents of GM crops argue that one of the chief promises of such crops is that they will enable farmers, especially those in developing countries, to grow plants on very marginal lands — including those with little water, depleted soil, or areas prone to frosts. This is because transgenes can be inserted into various crops to reduce that plant’s need for water, nitrogen, and to make it less frost susceptible. While this sounds like a noble goal, and while it may be true over the short term, it will likely lead to long term environmental damage.

To understand why, one must first understand why farmers must use marginal lands in the first place. In much of the world, soil conservation is not being given high enough priority. In Africa alone it is estimated that over a billion tons of soil are eroded every year. Such erosion occurs when forests and other natural windbreaks adjacent to tillable areas are cut down or when excessive or improper tilling methods are used. Wind erosion then occurs as topsoil is literally blown away. The removal of hedgerows and other vegetation buffers in order to maximize tillable acreage also means that the roots from plants that help to anchor soil in place during heavy precipitation events are no longer present to prevent topsoil run-off. The increased use of ammonia based fertilizers, rather than using compost for fertilizing crops reduces soil texture and trace elements needed for maximum plant vigor. This global phenomenon of loss of topsoil quantity and quality is being called “Peak Soil.” It means that we are currently at the “peak” of soil availability and can expect ever decreasing soil fertility if we do not make a concerted effort to improve soil management practices. Similarly, wholesale destruction of tropical rainforests has altered global rainfall patterns and over-pumping of aquifers has created shortages of water available to agriculture. Emphasis needs to be on water conservation practices including aggressive water reuse and recycling, and on soil moisture conservation strategies such as mulching and enhancement of soil texture so as to maximize its ability to hold moisture.

In keeping with the sustainable agricultural goal of enhancing environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends, soil and water conservation is essential to long term agricultural viability. To the extent that GM crops are marketed as the solution to poor soils and water shortages, they distract farmers from the need to employ vigorous soil and water conservation practices, and thereby harm the environment.

Likely Damage to Beneficial Insects: Even scientists who generally view GM crops as benign admit that they cause some damage to populations of certain beneficial or desirable insects. People who are generally opposed to GM crops make claims of more extreme damage to the populations of such insects, including attributing them to be the cause of the honey bee colony collapse phenomenon (a claim that has not been scientifically proven to date). The indisputable fact is that research on the long term effects of GM crops on insect populations is on-going, the mechanisms at play within the ecosystem are complex, and much is still unknown. Individual Monarch butterflies who feed on milkweed flowers growing near plantings of Bt corn have been observed to die if pollen from the corn adheres to the milkweed flower and if that pollen expresses the Bt gene. However, some scientists argue that because the rate of expression of the Bt gene in corn pollen is very low, the risk of potential damage to overall Monarch populations is negligible even if some individual butterflies are indeed killed [12]. Researchers Conners, Glare, and Nap [12] note that even if insects don’t die directly from exposure to pollen containing the Bt transgene, some predator insects (who feed off prey insects who consume pollen from these plants) lack vigor and do not weigh as much as counterparts who feed off prey insects not fed with plants carrying the Bt gene. Many other examples of probable harm to insects due to GM crops are documented in the literature.

To the extent that more insect species are beneficial than are directly harmful to crops, and to the extent that GM crops appear (based on as yet incomplete evidence) to threaten both targeted pests and certain other insects indiscriminately, it is likely that wholesale production of GM crops do not represent a sustainable agricultural practice.

Herbicide Resistant “Superweeds”: It has been almost 20 years since the first Roundup Ready soybeans containing a gene to resist attack by glyphosate were commercialized in 1995. During this time, Nature has adapted. There are now numerous documented cases of various weed species that have become resistant to the effects of Roundup (glyphosate). Thus, the very problem that Roundup Ready soybeans were created to address — namely having crop plants able to resist damage from Roundup so that vulnerable weeds could be sprayed and destroyed — has been exacerbated. The case of waterhemp, a relative of pigweed, is a good example of an invasive weed species that has now become resistant to not one, but to three classes of herbicides, including glyphosates, ALS inhibiting herbicides, and PPO inhibiting herbicides [13]. Research is currently underway to engineer new varieties of crop plants that can resist damage from other classes of herbicides to which weeds have not yet become resistant. In this ever escalating “arms race” between modern genetic engineering and Mother Nature, I bet on Mother Nature to continuously “up the ante”. Continually having to re-engineer plants in order to try to stay ahead of Nature’s ability to adapt, rather than working in concert with Nature, is not sustainable. For many of these herbicide resistant weeds, the only sustainable option for control may be mechanical cultivation — the method used in the past, before the introduction of Roundup Ready crops.

Emergence of Bt Resistant and Secondary Insect Pests: In a situation similar to that involving herbicide resistant weed species, we are now seeing the emergence of certain Bt resistant insects that is attributable to the widespread use of the Bt transgene. In November 2009, Monsanto scientists found that the pink bollworm had become resistant to Bt cotton being grown in India. Since that time, resistant strains of cotton bollworms have been identified in Australia, China, Spain and the U.S. Monsanto recommends that as a strategy to delay the spread of this resistant bollworm, farmers interplant non-GM cotton with GM cotton, in order to dilute any resistant genes that may arise in these insects [14]. The operative word here is “delay”, since even Monsanto doesn’t claim that this tactic will stop the spread of the resistant strain of this insect altogether.

Secondary insect pests are also emerging. The definition of a secondary insect pest is a species that was never susceptible to Bt and thus can’t become resistant to it. However, these insect pests were previously kept in check by a balance within the ecosystem between themselves and various Bt susceptible species. Once these Bt susceptible species are reduced or eliminated, the secondary species experience a population explosion. Some of the secondary insect pests that are emerging in China and India include mirids, aphids, spider mites, and mealy bugs. Ironically, a 2011 survey of Chinese farmers indicates that they are collectively using nearly as much pesticide to keep these secondary pests in check as what was used previously to control the cotton bollworm prior to the introduction of Bt cotton [15].

Biodiversity: The importance of maintaining a reservoir of genetic diversity among food crops is well-understood by botanists. One lesson of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s was that if a particular cultivar becomes susceptible to attack by a virus or other disease vector, it is possible to go back into the gene pool and breed other varieties of the plants that are resistant to a particular disease. However, if we lose genetic diversity, and in particular, if we lose the genetic material contained in the wild relatives of our domesticated food crops, we endanger our future ability to respond to plagues like the Potato Famine. Various transgenes engineered into domesticated GM crops can be spread readily into non-GM relatives and closely related wild species. Hence the potential exists that without intentional strategies for preventing the spread of transgenes, the genetic purity of wild relatives of food crops will be forever lost. A 2010 study of wild canola in the U.S. Midwest, found the 83 percent contained the transgene used in domesticated canola to make it herbicide resistant [16]. Similarly, there is also great concern in Mexico over the use of Bt corn (maize), since Mexico is the geographical center of diversity of maize, and the home of its wild relatives.

Socio-political Implications: The tenets of sustainable agriculture include 1) “to satisfy human food and fiber needs”; 2) “to sustain the economic viability of farm operations;” and 3) “to enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

As relates to the first point, one of the most potent arguments made by proponents of GM agriculture is that without the use of GM crops, we will be unable to feed the world’s growing population. Yet upon further investigation, this claim becomes suspect. When the causes of modern famine are analyzed, we learn that the primary cause is not a fundamental shortage of food, but rather is due to social and political instability such as warfare, religious conflicts between various factions within developing nations, or corrupt and failing governments unable to administer food aid and food distribution programs effectively. How GM crops, per se, can address these issues any more effectively than conventional agriculture can is unclear. In fact, there is reason to believe that the use of GM seed worldwide will exacerbate certain social and political inequalities and make matters worse. One fact that supports this view is that GM seed is patent protected and must be purchased anew each year from a licensed distributor. The age-old practice of a farmer being able to hold back some of the previous year’s harvest as “seed corn” becomes illegal when GM crops are raised. This prevents the farmer from being self-reliant and forces him/her to shell out scarce cash resources to the seed distributor at the start of each growing season. This, in turn, does very little to “enhance the quality of life of the farmer,” or “to sustain the economic viability of farm operations.”

Another negative social impact of GM crops is that research into these crops has largely displaced traditional agricultural research directed at improving (through conventional means) the production of various indigenous crops important in the developing world. Such crops include millet, teff, and cowpeas. These “orphan crops” do not offer the potential for large profits, and therefore interest on the part of large agribusiness in investing in ways to improve crop yields is non-existent [17].

Final Thoughts — a Middle Ground?

As we have seen, GM crops present many potential issues that bring into question the wisdom of their use in agriculture. It is probable that some of the impacts of GM crops are not yet known because it will take some time before their effects on the larger ecosystem are fully understood. The Precautionary Principle — a fundamental tenet of environmental science — tells us, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” In other words, if there is a plausible chance of a negative impact, even if that negative impact has not yet been definitively proven, we should refrain from pursuing the activity until we can prove it to be harmless. Instead, U.S. agribusiness has pursued the opposite approach — it has proceeded in developing GM crops on the basis that it would cease doing so, only if harm from these could be proven definitively.

However, questioning whether we should employ GM crops in agriculture today is like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped (to call on an old farm adage). The case of GM crops is an example of scientific advances outpacing the public policy development needed to regulate them. Given the current widespread use of GM crops and the existing economics surrounding this multi-billion dollar industry, it is not likely we can eliminate GM crops altogether. We can, however, strengthen and expand our public policy to 1) create ways to better regulate existing GM plants, 2) monitor approvals of proposed new GM introductions, and 3) protect organic and non-GMO agriculture from the intrusion of GM crops. Pragmatists even within the sustainable agriculture movement agree that the present goal should not be to try to eliminate GM crops, but to strongly regulate them. Raymond P. Poincelot wrote a particularly forceful editorial espousing this view in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, which I recommend anyone interested in this topic read [18]. Some practical public policy actions that could be taken to facilitate the appropriate regulation and management of GM crops include:

  1. All GM crops raised for human consumption should be labeled as such. Meat from livestock raised on GM crops should also be labeled. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has resisted doing so, claiming a label would needlessly frighten the general public and that no evidence exists that GM foods are harmful when eaten. Indeed, of all the research into the possible negative effects of GM crops, the evidence to support direct harm to humans when consuming GM based foods is the weakest. Yet, that does not mean there are not effects that are harmful to the environment and thus indirectly harmful to humans. Labeling products as containing transgenes would raise the level of public awareness of the prevalence of these within the food chain. It might even spur the consumer to learn more about the larger impacts of GM foods to the environment. One could also argue that nutrition labels that appear on foods now could frighten consumers were they to see the list of food additives contained in processed foods, even though these additives have been tested and are generally considered safe. Yet, such labels are mandated. The same should be true for GM foods. Ultimately, the consumer has the right to know what is in her food and to decide for herself how to respond. Those skeptical of the U.S. regulatory system suggest that the U.S. agribusiness lobby has squelched the introduction of mandatory labeling of GM crops for fear U.S. consumers would reject them, cutting into profit margins, or worse yet, would insist these products be banned, such as what has occurred in portions of the European Union. These skeptics may very well be correct in their assessment.
  2. Mandated buffer zones. Certain crops like corn and sunflowers are notoriously promiscuous in their pollination habits. An organic farmer who attempts to grow non-GMO corn often has a difficult time doing so because his neighbor is growing GM corn in the next field. Buffer zones of several hundred feet, planted with unrelated vegetation, are recommended to stop the introduction of Bt genes into the organic corn. For sunflowers (raised for their oil) carrying the Bt gene, the required buffer zones are up to 1000 meters, to prevent cross-pollination with wild or non-GMO sunflowers. Right now the onus for providing such buffer zones lies with the organic farmer, who must remove some of his tillable land from production to create the buffer zone. Since many organic farmers tend to be smaller land holders, this onus is particularly damaging to the organic farmer’s profitability. One suggestion is to require the farmer growing GM crops to provide the buffer zone on his/her land.
  3. A stronger regulatory process for monitoring and approving GM crops. Within the U.S., regulatory responsibility for GM crops is split between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA regulates biopesticides, including Bt. Therefore, any GM crops engineered to carry the Bt gene or other biopesticide genes must get EPA approval. Such approvals have become almost routine, even in light of recent evidence that the Bt transgene can harm some insect populations that are not pests. FDA regulates GM crops that are eaten by humans or food animals. Unless the crop contains foreign proteins that differ from the natural plant proteins in the non-GMO counterpart, FDA will almost without question designate it as “Generally Recognized as Safe.” The USDA regulates GM crops under the Plant Protection Act of 2000. Companies wishing to conduct field trials for a GM crop must either notify USDA or seek a permit. Whether notification or permitting is required depends on the potential risk a particular crop poses. Higher risk crops are those that have the potential to readily hybridize with wild relatives, stay in the ground for a long time, or which involve pharma crops (crops engineered to produce drugs for human consumption). Once the field trial stage is over and commercialization is sought, corporations can request that USDA “deregulate” their crop, effectively removing all future oversight. The exception to this deregulation is for pharma crops, which must remain regulated even while in commercial production [19]. The combination of the patchwork of regulatory authorities, understaffing of the enforcement arms of the three regulatory agencies, and over-reliance on data supplied by the corporations being regulated, (as opposed to testing by independent third parties), makes for a very weak regulatory system for GM crops in the U.S.

    On the international level, GM crop regulation is codified in the 2000 Cartegena Protocol. However, many GM crop producing countries, including the U.S., are not parties to the agreement. The Cartegena Protocol calls for informed consent on the part of countries who import GM crops. However, corporations who market GM seed have argued against disclosure of all but a minimum of information [3]. The result is that there is very weak international oversight and controls for GM crops.


  4. All future GM crop introductions should contain gene engineering specifically designed to mitigate impacts to the environment. For example, genetic engineers have the ability to build a dwarfing gene into a plant, along with whatever other traits they are building in for other purposes. Such a gene would produce a dwarf plant. The dwarf plant could flourish in its agricultural setting, producing whatever crop is intended because in such a setting there is no other competition. However, such dwarfs would be at a disadvantage in the wild because taller plants would block sunlight and not allow the dwarfs to survive. Thus, the dwarf plants would not tend to escape into the wild. In addition to intentional dwarfing other similar strategies would include intentionally designing plants with infertile seeds (to prevent spread outside the agricultural zone), or plants whose pollen is designed to be unpalatable to certain vulnerable insect species such as honey bees. While such engineered “enhancements” might cost Monsanto (and others) more, it would be considered the cost of doing business in a socially responsible manner.
    Region-specific bans on certain GM crops. For certain GM crops, there is not a uniform risk across all regions that they will hybridize with wild relatives and therefore spread their transgenes into the larger environment. If the wild relatives of the crop in question are found in Central or South America, for example, and if the GM crop is being grown in Iowa, there is little chance that the genetic make-up of the wild relatives will be affected. Such is the case with a crop like corn (maize). However, if wild relatives are present and if such relatives are particularly vulnerable to hybridization with the GM crop, then it makes sense to consider a regional (not total) ban on the GM crop. Such actions would mean an added level of complexity in the regulatory process, but would serve to better protect genetic diversity.


  5. Reduce or eliminate farm subsidies for corn, rice, wheat, soybeans, cotton, sugar cane and other agricultural commodity crops. It is not accidental that the crops that have led the GM revolution are the same crops that receive U.S. federal government subsidies. These subsidies distort the economics of growing such crops and incentivize big agriculture to grow more of them than if they were not subsidized. Since they then become the main cash crop, farmers are further incentivized to use agricultural practices that have a short-term benefit, even if they may have long-term downsides, e.g. Roundup ready soybeans, from whose use Roundup-resistant weed varieties have emerged. The fact that GM seed is patented and more expensive than non-GM seed is not a significant factor due to the distorted economics. It is worth noting that farmers growing crops that are not subsidized, such as most vegetables and fruits (tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, apples, etc.) have not yet widely adopted GM varieties. In fact, one early GM introduction — the FlavrSavr tomato — was pulled from the market because consumers initially didn’t like it. Growers then made the rational economic decision to cease production. Is this connection between subsidies and the prevalence of GM varieties merely a coincidence then? Many would argue no. Once subsidies were removed, the decision to continue to use GM varieties would be made based on a more realistic assessment of their costs.

While we gaze at “Plowing with Oxen Teams,” it is easy for us to romanticize the way farming was practiced a century or more ago. Back then, there were no concerns over genetically modified crops and their long- term effect on the environment. However, farmers were also at the mercy of nature and had little recourse to deal with pests, weeds, or drought. As a result, starvation due to crop failures was much more common than today. A century ago, humans also had little or no access to life-saving drugs, including the drugs that biotechnology firms are now able to produce using pharma crops. So, like most things in life, we must seek balance in how we view and manage GM crops and the other fruits of the genetic engineering revolution in which we find ourselves. Unfortunately, the science that brought us GM crops developed faster than the public policies and regulatory structures intended to regulate it. We must now work to bring policy and regulation into alignment with this new technological revolution, in order to protect the well being of humans and the environment, alike. We must also structure our regulations in such a way as to offer citizens a choice of whether or when to consume GM products. Full disclosure through labeling and mechanisms to protect organic and non-GMO producers from contamination of their products with transgenes are essential. The purpose of this essay is not to demonize modern agribusiness. It is instead to encourage farmers to use a balanced approach to farming practices — employing sustainable practices where practicable, as well as judicious and selective use of GM crops and other ultra-modern technologies, where such technologies actually offer a societal benefit.

References and Further Reading:

  1. “Genetically Modified Crops,” Wikipedia, February 12, 2013, (
  2. “Acreage NASS,” National Agricultural Statistics Board Annual Report, June 30, 2010. (
  3. Gupta, A., “Transparency as Contested Political Terrain: Who Knows What about the Global GMO Trade and Why does it Matter?,” Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 10 Issue 3; August, 2010; Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  4. “Supreme Court Appears to Defend Patent on Soybean,” reported by Adam Liptak, The New York Times, February 19. 2013.
  5. Maxmen, A., “Drug-making Plant Blooms,” Nature –International Weekly Journal of Science, Volume 485, Issue 7397, May 8, 2012.
  6. Kumar, G.B. Sunil; T.R. Ganapathi; et. al.; “Expression of Hepatitis B Surface Antigen in Transgenic Banana Plants,” Planta, Volume 222, Number 3, p. 484-493, October, 2005.
  7. “Genetically Modified Crops’ Results Raise Concern,” reported by Carolyn Lochhead, The San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 2012.
  8. Gold, M., (July 2009). ‘What is Sustainable Agriculture?” ( United States Department of Agriculture, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.
  9. Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603.
  10. “Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development,” United Nations 1992 Earth Summit, Agenda 21, Chapter 14; Rio de Janiero, 1992.
  11. Leu, Andre, “Future Organic,” New Internationalist, Issue 368, June 2004, p. 34-35.
  12. Conner, A.J., Glare, T.R., and Nap, Jan-Peter, “The Release of Genetically Modified Crops into the Environment,” Part II, Overview of the Ecological Risk Assessment,” The Plant Journal, (2003), Volume 33, p.19-45, Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.
  13. Nordby, D., Hartzler, B., and Bradley, K., “The Biology and Management of Waterhemp,” Knowledge to Go Bulletin #GWC-13, Purdue University Extension, 2007.
  14. “Genetically Modified Food Controversies,” Wikipedia, February 11, 2013. (
  15. Zhao, J.H., Ho, P., and Azadi, H., “Erratum to: Benefits of Bt Cotton Counterbalanced by Secondary Pests? Perceptions of Ecological Change in China,” Environmental Monitoring Assessment, August 2012.
  16. “First Wild Canola Plants with Modified Genes Found in the United States,” Arkansas Newswire, University of Arkansas, August 6, 2010.
  17. Naylor, R.L., et al., “Biotechnology in the Developing World: a Case for Increased Investments in Orphan Crops.” Food Policy, Volume 29, Issue 1, p.15-44, 2004.
  18. Poincelot, Raymond, P., “From the Editor,” Journal of Sustainable Agriculture , Vol. 16(3), The Hayworth Press, Inc., 2000.
  19. Agricultural Biotechnology: Safety, Security, and Ethical Dimensions, Federation of American Scientists website,, March 26, 2013.

Coming in September 2013 is an essay on the natural gas industry’s current practice of hydraulic fracturing, i.e., “fraccing,” inspired by the 1911 Viggo Langer painting, ‘Oil Rigs in Baku at Caspian Sea.’
Copyright 2013 Deborah L. Jackman