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This essay focusses on the sustainability conflict that is involved in allowing the growing of genetically modified crops and explores this area through the lens of political ecology, and more specifically southern political ecology. Political ecology is a critical reflection model based on the study of socio-environmental conflicts generated by the capitalist misappropriation of the natural environment (Leff, 2017). In this essay, a critical approach is adopted to explore the conflicts or problems associated with genetically modified crops.
Genetically modified foods were first developed for meeting challenges posed by hunger and food deficit. Genetically modified crops are grown by having their genetic material modified when a gene from another organism is introduced into the crop (World Health Organization, 2017). The science involved in growing genetically modified crops involves the use of in vitro nucleic acid techniques and recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques wherein nucleic acid is injected into cells or organelles so that there is transformation the crop from its original family (FDA, 2015). The first genetically modified organisms were developed in 1971 (James & Krattiger, 1996). China commercialised genetically modified food in the 1990s with virus resistant tobacco and tomato being the first crops. United States got its first approval for commercial sale of genetically modified crops in 1994 (James & Krattiger, 1996). In 2015, the United States FRA approved AquaBounty Technologies’ application for AquAdvantage Salmon, which is genetically modified food (FDA News Release, 2015). Genetically modified crops that are grown in the United States now include soy, cotton, corn, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, squash and papaya (Hallman, Cuite, & Morin, 2013). In the UK as well genetically modified crops are grown and include some high profile varieties like Golden Rice and omega-3 fish oil crops (Napier, Haslam, Tsalavouta, & Sayanova, 2019).
Thus, the growth and the commercial sale of the genetically modified crops have already come to be accepted in societies around the world and the continuation of this practice in agriculture raises some important questions that are both ethical and epistemological in nature and in order to explore the issue critically, political ecology is used in this essay.
Political ecology focusses on the challenges associated with the construction of a sustainable world by challenging the conceptions and paradigms of science and the power strategies related to the sustainable development discourse (Leff, 2017). Because the issue of genetically modified crops involves important questions of sustainability that are being raised in different studies around the world, even as genetically modified crops continue to be grown, there is scope for questioning the conceptions and paradigms of science related to the genetically modified crops. Because political ecology is concerned with exploring issues related to the possible disregard for life and unsustainability of life that may have been created by human actions (Leff, 2017), this theoretical context is appropriate for exploring the sustainability of genetically modified crops. Even within the field of political ecology, southern political ecology is used here to explore the issues of sustainability of genetically modified crops because of the failure of the Anglophone political ecology to consider the perspectives on ecology that may represent the other geographies of the world (Leff, 2017).
The concept and practice of genetically modified crops can be seen as an example of making the ecology political because it exemplifies a situation where we may see effects of human intervention on ecological transformations. Instead of transformations happening in the ecology because they are driven exclusively by natural laws, genetically modified crops allow transformations in the ecology through human intervention. As noted by Leff (2017), ecology is not political till the time it represents “a web of relations between non-human populations and their environment, such as the complex flows in matter, energy and information that occur in the metabolism and organization of the biosphere –in depredation relations, trophic chains and the ecosystemic dynamics– not induced by human action” (p. 230). When the concept of genetically modified crops is explored, it can be seen that it intervenes in this natural process of transformation of the ecology.
In its very nature, genetically modified crops are engineered by human intervention because these involve introducing a gene from another organism into a natural crop to change its DNA (World Health Organization). In other words, crops’ DNA is modified through engineering or synthetic process and the genetic material of the crops is modified through the introduction of a gene from another organism (World Health Organization, 2017). Crops have a natural process of transformation or growth, but this may also include certain natural physiological reproductive or recombinant barriers; the argument for the growing of genetically modified crops is that such recombinant barriers come in the way of increasing food production and for that reason these barriers need to be removed (FDA). At the same time, it must be understood at this point that even if done for a good reason, the process of growing genetically modified crops does politicise the ecology because it utilises human intervention in an otherwise natural process.
Leff (2017) argues that politicisation of the ecology is representative of the subjection of nature to human will to power and that too in a way that the processes of appropriation of the natural processes by human intervention are “steered by different, and often conflicting, interests and values” (p. 231). In other words, human intervention in transformative processes involved in nature are not just appropriating the nature, but is doing so in a way that leaves an ecological imprint on the environmental conditions of society, meaning that because the intervention is non natural, it may involve conflicts and differences of approaches within the society itself as there may be different viewpoints on how far transformation of nature can be done through human intervention (Leff, 2017).
To better understand the argument that genetically modified crops involve politicisation of ecology and raise conflicting interests and opinions in society as to the ethics of the practice, some studies can be considered here that specifically suggest the harmful effects of genetically modified crops in the ecology. Clive (2009) conducted a study on the pesticide traces in genetically modified crops and found that 97% of edible genetically modified crops, which were featured as pesticides resistant actually had presence of one or more pesticides. This is further explained by another study by Séralini, Vendomois, and Cellier (2009) where it is noted that presence of pesticides is a normal reaction of plants or crops that are being engineered and that toxic residues in some crops that are genetically modified can include Bt insecticide toxins synthesized from transgenes by the GM plants. There are other studies that do indicate that there are possible side effects and negative consequences for the environment because of the growth of genetically modified crops. For instance, one study points out that genetically modified crop production is leading to damage to soil quality and soil erosion (Laskos, 2013). Soil erosion can have a negative impact on food production eventually and be counterproductive to the very reason why such crops were developed in the first place (Laskos, 2013).
Considering the issue of genetically modified crops from the perspective of political ecology, the adverse effects of genetically modified crops can also raise questions about the scientific paradigms involved in the transformation and intervention in the nature when there are concerns of environmental degradation involved in the process. Genetically modified crop production has been found to have negative effects on pollinators as it uses Bacillus thuringiensis which is a bacterial toxin originated from soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis and is known to have an adverse impact on pollinating bees (Prusak, Rowe, & Strojny, 2014). Although genetically modified crops may also have positive impacts like response to world food deficit and hunger problem, the concerns of some scientists as well as evidence on how there could also be negative impacts compounds the problem of appropriation of natural processes by human intervention and whether this is sustainable in the long term. At this time there is an absence of scientific consensus on the use of genetically modified crops because where there are some scientists who support this, there are others who identify issues and even evidence that raises concerns (Nicolia, Manzo, Veronesi, & Rosellini, 2014). An important issue to be considered in the light of epistemology of genetically modified crops and the knowledge developed on this issue is that there are contradictory results on the effects of genetical modification of crops for the environment that can be attributed to the difference in how data is analysed and interpreted by different scientists (Hilbeck, et al., 2015).
At the very least this ambiguity and conflict around genetically modified crops needs a response that is based on collaborative research in a global perspective (Temper & Martinez-Alier, 2015). Genetically modified crops are not just representative of processes that are meant to decrease hunger and food deficit but are also part of capitalist processes around agriculture and this can have social and environmental impacts that have the potential to generate conflicts and resistance across the world (Temper & Martinez-Alier, 2015). The effects of the genetically modified crop production may be varied and different for different geographies and there is a need to consider this issue also from the perspective of political ecology that is not just Anglophonic, but takes into account different geographies around the world.
The appropriation of the ecology is done by processes that are transformative and may even be disruptive in the context of environment. From the perspective of political ecology, it can be said that the processes need to be considered in the context of how genetically modified crops have the potential to create or generate more conflicts related to nature and environmental justice. Some research is already reporting the ill effects of genetically modified crops on the soil through erosion of soil and the depletion of its quality and even on pollinators, it can be reasonable to expect that the ill effects of these practices will be experienced and felt in different ways in different parts of the world. Some parts of the world may experience graver adverse effects on their ecology due to the practices allowed in other parts of the world. Even within countries like the United States and the UK where genetically modified crops are being produced, attitudes of consumers towards processes that are disruptive of nature may vary and lead to conflict.
Political ecology provides an insight into the issue of genetically modified crops that takes a critical approach to understand the issues and effects of processes that appropriate nature and the environment in ways that may lead to conflicts in the society. Such socio-environmental conflicts may be generated by the capitalist misappropriation of the natural environment that is inherently involved in the process of genetically modified crops. Such conflicts may be different in different geographical contexts because the impacts of human intervention may manifest themselves in different ways in different ecologies. Therefore, a more collaborative approach to research on genetically modified crops is needed.
Clive, J. (2009). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2009. ISAAA Brief, 41, 1-44.
FDA. (2015, November 11). Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from FDA Food Guidance Documents: https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm
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Hallman, W. K., Cuite, C. L., & Morin, X. K. (2013). Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods Working Paper. Rutgers University.
Hilbeck, A., Binimelis, R., Defarge, N., Steinbrecher, R., Székács, A., Wickson, F., & Novotny, E. (2015). No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe, 27(1), 4.
James, C., & Krattiger, A. F. (1996). Global Review of the Field Testing and Commercialization of Transgenic Plants: 1986 to 1995: 5: The First Decade of Crop Biotechnology. New York: The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
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Séralini, G., Vendomois, S. d., & Cellier, D. (2009). How subchronic and chronic health effects can be neglected for GMOs, pesticides or chemicals. Int J Biol Sci., 4, 438-43.
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