Sunday, November 23, 2014 · 10:58 a.m.
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A Monsanto greenhouse. (Photo: Monsanto, MGNOnline)

My wife and I regularly sell at a few area farmers markets, including the Main Street Farmers Market on Wednesday evenings, and one question we regularly get asked is if our produce contains GMOs. Although this is certainly an important topic, sometimes I feel as though it's a buzzword that isn't fully understood—but very well should be.

The fact is, most farmers you meet at the corner farmers market won't have GMO crops because a contract is needed between the farmer and a GMO seed distributor like Monsanto. And Monsanto wouldn't bother with a small-scale, 10-acre family farm. But that's not to say that it's an impossible scenario, so it's always best to ask.

Let's start with the basics. GMO stands for "genetically modified organism," and it relates to any living thing with altered genetics. Though it might sound like something out of an '80s sci-fi movie, the fact is, our food has been genetically modified for more than130 years. Selective breeding is a light form of genetic modification in animals, and crop breeders have been mixing the best traits of wheat and rye since 1875.

So at its core, modifying the genetics of an organism isn't evil or even new, but where it does become an issue is with the way recent advances in genetic engineering have allowed scientists to completely redefine the nature of certain plants and animals, regardless of the unknown effect it may have on our health. 

Eating a GM crop will probably not kill you in and of itself because the modifications being made are strictly for efficiency's sake. Traits like longer shelf life, stress resistance, disease resistance, herbicide resistance and faster growth were all selectively introduced to these plants from other plants that already had that trait. It's more efficient to modify the genetics in this way, as traditional breeding and hybrid crossing can sometimes result in unintended results.

But that's not to say I'm here to defend GM crops because a serious problem has recently developed from the use of genetic modification, and that's what has so many of us health-conscious consumers upset.

If you've ever grown a garden yourself, you know how difficult it is to keep weeds and pests from taking over before you can even enjoy the fruits of your labor. With the rise of monoculture since the 1940s, all traditional methods of pest and native weed control are thrown out the window. This single-crop planting year after year ruins the soil and allows weeds and pests to become stronger than ever before, so the proposed solution was to genetically engineer our most abundant crops (like corn, cotton and soybeans) to withstand the abuse of monoculture. This allowed conventional farmers to plant their corn in nice little clean rows with no obstacles year after year.

Well, this didn't last long before scientists realized that the weeds were building up immunities to these herbicides, so the solution then became to develop stronger chemicals and further change the genetic makeup of these crops to withstand those stronger chemicals.

This brings us to where we stand today. When farmers are dumping more and more chemicals on their crops to overcompensate for nature's own defenses, there's a problem. When the same company (Monsanto) that makes farmers sign exclusive contracts to grow their GMO seeds is also the developer of the harmful chemical Roundup (and Agent Orange!), there's a problem. When that company can sue and confiscate farmland because its trademarked seed has naturally drifted into a noncontracted field, there's a problem. When Monsanto lobbies our government for protection against any kind of regulation on these chemicals and the confiscation of other farmers' fields, there's a problem.

In recent years, reports have popped up about mass honeybee deaths in what is known as colony collapse disorder. Although the exact cause is not known, theories center around either GM pollen or the increased potency of insecticides being the culprit. Either way, the decline of the honeybee seems to be in direct tandem with the rise of GM crops.

So genetic modification in crops is an avenue for the unscrupulous business practices of these companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer, and we should be leery of its unchecked usage in our food. And the truth is, genetic modification is advancing at a rate that can't be properly regulated, and we don't really know what these modifications are doing to our bodies. This is exactly why certified organic and certified naturally grown produce restricts the use of GMO plants or seeds.

Luckily for us, the government is starting to catch on, and states like Connecticut and Maine are already requiring that all GMO food be labeled. Now, if only the USDA would catch up to the rest of the world and ban GMO crops altogether.

Shawn Schuster is a writer/editor for AOL and sustainable farmer in Alabama. He can be reached on Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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