Condemning pesticides does not undo existing damage

The Food and Drug Administration recently announced that it would begin testing for glyphosate. The chemical is commonly known as Roundup and is global agribusiness giant Monsanto’s pesticide of choice.

Considering that the World Health Organization declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen in March 2015, this is good news. It would be much better news, however, if it had come earlier—and better still if the obviously dangerous, experimental chemical and others like it had never been distributed on such a massive scale in the first place.

Even if one holds that the process of genetic modification itself is not radically different from traditional genetic farming techniques, there is nothing traditional about the chemicals that accompany most GM foods. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are certainly not intended for human consumption, but we humans inadvertently consume them all the time. We simply can’t avoid them; they stick to food, seep into groundwater and drain into rivers and oceans. 

Additionally, the vast swathes of genetically modified corn, soy and wheat fields that have all but consumed the American Midwest are decidedly unnatural, as well as entirely experimental. The manufactured chemicals and associated lack of biodiversity quickly deplete the soil in these regions, leading to desertification and difficult farming years. Monocultures are also much more susceptible to diseases and die-outs; the Irish Potato Famine is just one unfortunate and highly relevant historical example.

Experiments like the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial—which has maintained side-by-side high-tech chemical and low-tech organic farms since 1981—have repeatedly disproven the myths perpetuated by agribusiness companies. These trials demonstrate that although factory farms may produce high yields in their first few years, they begin to underperform once they begin to wear out the land.

As pests and weeds become increasingly resistant to older chemicals, these agrichemical farms require more and more new chemical “solutions.” This means that GM foods may actually be much less likely to “feed the world” than organically farmed foods, regardless of what Monsanto’s website says. The fact that world hunger is a problem of distribution rather than sufficient food production does not help the company’s case.

Clearly, the safety of genetically modified foods is far from established. Regardless of what the FDA determines based on its chemical testing of glyphosate, the problems associated with agrochemical agriculture neither begin nor end with a single pesticide.

The upshot is that a lot of individuals, state governments and federal governments alike have recently taken action regarding Monsanto’s bad business practices. Several states sued the company in 2015 for allegedly knowing but failing to disclose the cancer risk associated with glyphosate. Mexico is also suing the company and agribusiness giant DuPont/Pioneer for various damages.

This kind of public pressure is most likely the real reason why the FDA finally decided to begin testing for glyphosate. Of course, there is no need to wait for the FDA to run their tests and mandate a switch from Roundup to some other, very likely just as dangerous chemical.

As consumers, we have the power to take our health into our own hands. In the face of carcinogenic and unsustainable GM operations, we can instead choose organic, locally-sourced foods. Meanwhile, as citizens, we can and should speak out against dangerous, monopolistic corporate practices whenever possible.