March is GMO AWARENESS MONTH - Week 2
Genetically Modified Organisms and the Environment
This editorial piece is the fourth in a series of educational papers facilitated by the concerned citizens group:
Belizeans Against GMOs (BAGMO).

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GMO in Belize

We Belizeans have always known our country is a jewel to be treasured. The rest of the world is now discovering Belize as a country that prides herself on her tremendous biodiversity of flora and fauna. Miles of pristine, uncontaminated vegetation provides habitat for animals, plant life and fungi that exist within an ecosystem that still remains intact and vibrant. This is a rare and precious commodity in our day and age and is very much worth preserving.

This enormous gene pool of plant and animal material sustains human life on Earth – indeed sustains ALL life on Earth. From this abundant life, we find plentiful and tasty foods for ourselves. Although we still enjoy our gibnut, krana, sapra and kinep, Belizeans, along with people from many other countries, are moving away from the hunting and gathering style of eating and are instead planting crops and raising livestock to feed our bellies and our children’s bellies. As conscious Belizeans, however, we know we need to feed ourselves and at the same time, preserve this essential biodiversity in order to keep our precious jewel intact and thriving.

worm

Local Farmers have a Problem

Currently a group of farmers in Belize, members of the Belize Grain Growers Association, is seeking permission to bring genetically modified corn seed into Belize for planting. They have been helping to feed Belizeans for many years. Today they are experiencing difficulty in their efforts to stop worm infestation from damaging their corn plants. Because of many various factors, they are currently resorting to increased applications of pesticides, which are not working. 
These farmers are frustrated.

A patented GMO corn seed, created in a laboratory and designed specifically for the worm pest problems, is being promoted by the Biotech Industry. This genetically modified corn had the DNA material from a soil toxin ‘put into’ the corn so that this toxin which kills pests is now a part of every cell within the entire corn plant. If the worm eats any part of this GMO corn plant, its stomach ruptures and it dies. This specific kind of GM corn is known as Bt corn, named after the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis.

Most GMO corn contains one more ‘added feature’ built right into it at a genetic level. This feature allows the farmer to spray a chemical herbicide known as Roundup (active known ingredient is glyphosate) directly onto the growing corn plant. The Roundup will kill all the other weeds and plant life it touches… but the Bt corn with this added feature will not be affected and will survive.

Potential Problems

When Bt corn grows, it will naturally spread some of its seed to other fields. The seed or the pollen from one plant can be carried long distances by birds, small animals, bees, wind, even by man on his shoes or his truck tires. Seeds travel, land, then sprout and grow. This is big problem. It is very likely that some of the Bt corn the farmers want to grow will end up growing in the neighbor’s fields. When this happens, it is called cross pollination.

corn

This newly modified DNA material in the Bt corn cannot be contained. Once a region begins to grow GMO crops, THERE IS NO TURNING BACK. Cross pollination will happen. Once GMOs are here, they are here to stay.

Pesticides

Another serious impact of GMO crops is the increased use of pesticides and herbicides. Most GM crops are grown on hundreds of acres. Because of this mono cropping of one type of corn, weeds and pests are developing resistance to both the Bt toxin and the Roundup so that stronger and more toxic chemicals need to be used. Although farmers had hopes to use less pesticides with GMOs, the facts show that GM crops have created greater use of pesticides instead. This dramatic increase in pesticide use is causing a number of serious environmental situations to develop.

plane

Because glyphosate (Roundup) kills ALL living plants except the Roundup Ready corn, the natural biodiversity of the environment is dramatically changed. Since 1999, over 60% of the natural habitat of the Monarch butterfly has been lost and these butterflies have experienced an 81% decline in egg production. The loss of the insect population means a loss of the birds and mammals that eat those insects. There is evidence that tadpoles change and some fish die in reaction to the chemicals used with Roundup Ready corn. The Bt toxin found in GMO corn is being linked to Bee Colony Collapse. With the loss of our bees and other pollinators, we can see an insurmountable problem for the farming industry itself, as plants depend upon bees and other pollinators. We are losing precious biodiversity with GMO corn.

 

bio
For many years, farmers have been using spray on herbicides and pesticides. While this method has its own problems, sunlight, rainfall and passage of time break down the chemicals so that by harvest time, most traces are gone. Bt toxins in GM corn, however, are produced in all the plant cells, so they enter the soil through the roots, and as the plant itself decays. The Bt pesticide proteins become absorbed and bound to the soil in such a way that the sun, rain and time cannot break down the pesticide as easily. The soil, our groundwater, the waterways and rivers that this plant material washes into all become contaminated by the Bt pesticides.

These Bt proteins are also showing up in the intestinal tracts and feces of cows and insects. When Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis is taken directly from the soil and made into a topically applied pesticide that is then sprinkled on plants to control pests when needed, the pesticide is withheld before harvest and will degrade with sunlight and heat. However, the new synthetic Bt proteins found in the GMO crops do not degrade in the same way and stay around longer, accumulating in soil and washing into water ecosystems as well as remaining in any animal that eats them.
 
In Feb. of 2012, the journal Archives of Toxicology published a shocking study showing that Roundup is toxic to human DNA even when diluted to concentrations 450 fold lower than what is used in agricultural applications.

Pesticides can have serious consequences for animals that are not the intended target. New research suggests that Bt and Roundup are playing a significant role in the global decline in amphibians. Amphibians are not the pesticide’s target, but we are learning that these chemicals can alter how hormones work in the bodies of these animals. This is important because amphibians not only serve as an indicator of an ecosystem’s health, but also as an indicator of potential dangers to other species in the food chain, including humans.

roundup

Scientists behind the amphibian study declared that it was both “astonishing” and “alarming” that common pesticides could be so toxic at the doses approved by regulatory authorities, adding to growing criticism of how pesticides are tested.
Loss of Organics
By definition, a GMO is not organic. Some farmers choose to make their living by organic farming. Allowing GM seed to be grown in Belize will lead to contamination of the organic farmers’ crops and of the organic honey produced on their farms. Thus, through no actions of their own, these farmers are deprived of their livelihood
soil

We are All Connected

We have lived in our jewel long enough now to understand that everything we do is interconnected. When insects are killed by Bt corn, the birds and animals that feed on them will die. As our soil, groundwater and rivers become contaminated with Bt and Roundup, we will find these modified proteins and chemicals affecting much of our animal life in ways that we are only now first beginning to identify.

kills.bees

A group of our Belizean farmers have a problem with worms in their corn fields. Some farmers may think that Bt GMO corn is the answer. But this answer will have consequences that reach far beyond the boundaries of their farms. Looking at the impact GMOs will have on the health of the entire country’s ecosystem, we believe the answer lies in a different direction, one that is sustainable.
 
If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.
- David Suzuki

 
This editorial piece is the second in a
series of educational papers facilitated by the concerned citizens group:
Belizeans Against GMOs (BAGMO).
To learn more, go to the
BAGMO's Facebook page
Also visit our new GMO library at: www.belizeansagainstgmo.info

 

NEXT WEEK:
GMOs and your HEALTH

Top - Home - Editorial Letter

Letter to the editor accompanying the above full page info-ad
Week #2 - GMOs and the Environment

Dear Editor, 

The group, Belizeans Against GMOs, is working this month to educate the public about Genetically Modified Organisms. There are different kinds of GMOs, but we are particularly concerned about Genetically Modified Food.  We are eating GMOs everyday in food that is processed, packaged and imported from our main importer, the United States, who is pushing this new Agri-business technology. Currently Belize imports GMOs as food and as feed, but not as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) – not as seed. 

Many of our group try hard NOT to eat GMOs in any form, but we are especially concerned about living GMOs because planting them, growing them, and harvesting them affects not only us humans, it directly affects our environment here in Our Jewel – Belize. The “ecological impacts resulting from the vast introduction of genetically modified organisms are perhaps the least completely understood, though certainly the most significant, for our sustained health and well-being.” (Britt Bailey)

If GMO crops are permitted to be grown here, much of our landscape could change rather quickly with serious impacts.  Currently Belize does grow a good variety of seed crops. Open pollinated seeds bring greater diversity to the landscape because the seed is sexually produced. Each new seed has the potential to express different aspects of its parents, with the seed with the better traits adapting and surviving to grow and reproduce again. Genetically Modified seed however is cloned seed. Planting vast tracts of land with modified seed in every field puts at risk our most basic food. There have been mono-cropping attempts in the past – planting only one variety of potato was chiefly responsible for the death of one million people during the potato famine in Ireland – but at no time in history has mono-cropping been practiced to the extent it is now. It would take only one significant stressor somewhere within the ecosystem to eliminate our entire corn supply. 

The Biotech Industry, however, would have us believe that genetically modified crops are the way of the future. They make the claim they produce better results than traditional crops and are safer and non-toxic to our environment. But their propaganda is deceptive. 

The truth is:
• Linking genetically modified crops to Roundup has increased the use of herbicides in the environment, not lessened it. 
•  Bt maize is more susceptible to plant lice (aphids) than conventional maize
• The use of herbicides on GM crops leads to reduced soil fertility with lesser amounts of beneficial nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil
• There are unreported ingredients in the patented herbicide Roundup that are suspected of increasing the toxicity of glyphosate, thus making it more dangerous
• The Bt found in GM corn is NOT THE SAME as the Bt toxin that comes from the soil and which breaks down quickly.
• GM Bt toxin is not limited in its toxicity to insect pests - GM Bt crops have been found to have toxic effects on laboratory animals in feeding trials
• GM Bt crops have been found to have toxic effects on non-target organisms in the environment
• Bt toxin is not fully broken down in the environment and is being found in our waterways, rivers and groundwater
• Engineered genes from a GM crop can enter another species of crop or wild plant through cross-pollination contaminating and threatening the extinction of rare plants and weeds needed for bio-diversity.

BAGMO is constantly finding new environmental evidence that validates our position of caution with GMOs.  The techniques used to insert genes into DNA are imprecise, risky and give rise to serious concern. The science of Genetic Engineering is still in its infancy. There has been no time to even begin to understand the many possible and very undesirable environmental outcomes.  More research is required involving testing over time. 

The current Bio-safety policy restricts GM seeds from coming into Belize, protecting our environment and our heritage of healthy local food. Until more, independent, accurate testing is done on the real contents of Bt corn and on the herbicides used, it will be wise for Belize to err on the side of caution when it comes to the decision to plant Living Modified Organisms in Belize.

Sincerely,

GMO Awareness Month Educational Campaign 

Article submitted to accompany editorial and info-ad (Week 2)
Why is the GMO debate so confusing?
And, what is Bt-corn?
By Lisa Carne

GMO refers to any genetically modified organism; meaning a piece of DNA from one species, often from a bacterium, is spliced into the DNA of another species. This discussion focuses on a specific genetically engineered (GE) crop species, Bt-corn, with a background on the difference between traditional, conventional and sustainable cropping systems and an emphasis on environmental effects, real and potential, of Bt-crops.

Traditional cropping systems often grow multiple crops, having different canopy heights and growing seasons, and may include crop rotation and livestock versus conventional cropping systems that are often mono-cultures with short, repetitive growing seasons and high energy input (machinery, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides). Conventional cropping systems are profit-driven (versus subsistence) so they may or may not rotate crops or use fallow periods. Sustainable cropping systems cause minimal land degradation or reduction in natural capital/resources, maintain ecological integrity, yet are still profitable to the farmer. 

Many researchers evaluating these farming techniques point out that using universal indicators to assess cropping systems is necessary; not just yields but soil quality, nutrient balance, organic matter, water holding capacity, biodiversity, etc., all need to be considered to evaluate total sustainability of the system over only yields (Altieri 2002, Seufert et al 2012).

The first GE approved crop in the USA was the FlavrSavr tomato in 1994 that was altered to extend shelf life. Since then GE crops have expanded over 60 fold (1996-2006) globally to over 102 million hectares in 22 countries, with the USA leading in global production of GE crops by >50% (Icotz and Stotsky 2008). The most common GE crops are the glycophosphate (herbicide) resistant commercial crops, so that farmers may apply RoundUp to kill weeds without harming their crops. The next most common GE crops are Bt-crops. This refers to using pieces of DNA from a bacteria that is a natural pesticide to pests that eat corn, cotton, tobacco, soybean, potatoes, etc., such that the GE plant produces its own insecticide. There are numerous strains of this bacteria related to the different pest species for each crop, and it is important to understand that most GE crops now have what’s called ‘stacked genes’. This means they can be engineered to be both herbicide tolerant and/or produce up to 60 different pesticide proteins, called Cry proteins. This complication is just one of many in experiments designed to evaluate yields and environmental effects of GE crops versus sustainable (organic crops).

Higher yields with less input (money/time/amount of land) is the most cited benefit of GE crops, thus the reminder above that yields alone cannot be the single indicator of a successful cropping system, but also soil quality, long term environmental effects, etc. Studies attempting to compare organic crops with GE crops are crippled by a number of variable factors: crop types (fruits, oilseeds, cereals, vegetables, etc.), geographic location (temperature, rainfall, etc.), management practices (irrigation versus rainfall, tilling versus non-tilling, rotation with non-food crops, etc.) and soil quality. Soil has too many different classifications to describe here, but crucial to agriculture is the water-holding capacity of soil, and its microbial (bacteria, fungi, etc.) community, because they play the important role of nutrient (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous) cycling, decomposition of organic matter, etc. Furthermore, soil quality and function is affected by pH, temperature and other physical factors.
So, just what is a Bt-crop? These GE crops produce insect-killing proteins in every cell: roots, stems, leaves, fruits, pollen, seeds, etc. An important comparison is the older method of applying insecticides, by spraying. While this method has its own associated environmental effects, it is a topical application thus subject to biodegradation by sunlight and rainfall, such that by harvest time most traces are gone. Not so with Bt-crops: because the many and varied Cry proteins are produced in all the plant cells, they enter the soil through the roots and fallen plant matter.

Difficulties in studying the effects of these Cry proteins in soil are many: lack of full understanding of soil microbial activity/function, short term-laboratory studies versus long-term field studies, the varied parameters mentioned above including that >60 Cry proteins exist and teasing out effects on soil community structure and function is nearly impossible. With that said, no study disputes these facts:

  • When these Cry proteins are absorbed/bound to clay particles, they become more stable and less subject to biodegradation
  • Such that these insecticide proteins are found in all soil samples from Bt grown crops,
  • And downstream in rivers, potentially altering fresh water ecosystems, 
  • And in the intestinal tracts and feces of cows and,
  • In the feces of certain insects
Which also means, we humans are ingesting these Cry proteins without knowing any short or long term repercussion and, shows, significantly, that these Cry proteins have a persistence and accumulation in both soil and aquatic ecosystems, as well as in any animal that eats them.

 Important to note: these genetic modifications are carried in the pollen/seed of the plants, and the next topic to consider is the effect of cross-pollination with GE and local/wild plants.

References:

Altieri, M. (2002) Agroecology: the science of natural resources management for poor farmers in marginal environments. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 1971:1-24

Benbrook, C. M. (2012) Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.-the first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe Vol 24(24):1-13
http://www.enveurope.com/content/24/1/24
 

Flores, S., Saxena, D. and Stotzky, G. (2005) Transgenic Bt plants decompose less in soil than non-Bt plants. Soil Biology and Biochemistry Vol 37: 1073-1082

Icoz, I. and Stotzky, G. (2008) Fate and effects of insect-resistant Bt crop in soil ecosystems. Soil Biology and Biochemistry Vol 40: 559-586

Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N. and Foley, J. A. (2012) Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature  Vo

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