When Bt bites backs: Are GM crops the answer… or the problem?

When Bt bites backs: Are GM crops the answer… or the problem?

In an interview with Acres USA (titled “A Toxic Technology”), Claire Robinson, editor at GMWatch and co-author of the book ‘GMO Myths and Truths’, discusses the adverse health effects associated with genetically modified (GM) crops. 

In our first blog post on this topic, we summarised some of Robinson’s key points and arguments. In this blog post, we’ll go into more detail about her findings on the effects of GMOs on modern agriculture. 

Bt: toxin or natural insecticide?

One of the main types of GM crops available today are Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticidal crops. Bt bacteria have natural insecticidal abilities, making them an important pest control tool for nearly a century. However, the engineering of Bt genes into major crops (through genetic modification) has been controversial.

Robinson says that the Bt toxin that is engineered into GM crops is “totally different from the natural Bt toxin that is sprayed by both organic and conventional farmers.” The GM Bt toxin is a protein different in structure and function to organic Bt. This means that it also has different (and potentially dangerous) health effects. 

Some of the key differences between natural Bt and GM Bt:

  • Natural Bt breaks down in daylight (within hours), so it’s unlikely that a consumer will come into contact with the toxin.
  • In GM crops, Bt toxins are ‘pre-activated’ and present in every cell (not just on the surfaces of the plant), so the consumer will actually be eating them.

GM crops are not acute toxins; therefore the effects are not always obvious

Most GM crops end up in animal feed, where they’re fed to farm livestock. In commercial animal farming, livestock is normally slaughtered at a relatively young age. The impact of this is that the effects of feeding livestock GM food are not always immediately obvious to the farmer. 

That being said, Robinson has come across several farmers who have told her that they notice ill effects when feeding their herds GM feed. This could be due to the GM crop itself, the pesticides it’s grown with, or a combination of both.

Robinson tells of a Danish farmer, Ib Pederson, who didn’t even know about GM feed when his pigs first started showing problems like diarrhoea, stomach ulcers and failure to thrive. He decided to source non-GM feed for his pigs and, within a couple of weeks, the animals stopped showing these problems, leading him to become convinced that GM animal feed has harmful effects. To test this theory, he went back to using GM feed… and the problems came back. 

Robinson said: “I think that farmers should do their utmost to grow non-GM feed themselves to feed their animals.”

And what about humans? 

Robinson cites several studies that found that the level of pesticides in people’s urine disappeared within a very short time after they switched to an organic diet. “For that reason alone, I think it’s very important to seek out an organic diet, if you can, particularly if you or your family have health issues.”

Sustainability from the source 

Through her years of research, Robinson has found evidence of GMOs being potentially dangerous to both animals and humans. So, what’s the solution to getting high yields with non-GM crops? 

One of the main goals of genetic modification is to create crops that are more resilient to pests, weeds and disease. But, healthy crops have their own natural resilience. Healthy crops with high yields start from having a healthy soil; one that is self-sustaining and not overly-reliant on chemical inputs.

Sustainable farming looks at the agricultural system as a whole, returning it to a more natural state that doesn’t require genetic modification to survive and thrive. 

Zylem promotes sustainable agriculture by focusing on improving soil health. Get in touch to find out more about the healthy way to transition away from GMOs: https://www.zylemsa.co.za/contact-us/

Interested in reading Robinson’s full interview? Visit Acres USA to purchase a back issue and read the original article along with other interesting content.

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