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The Dangers of Genetically Modified Plant Species

A column by Ruth Hopkins that warns against overdependence on technology.

Technology has afforded us many advantages. Over the past few hundred years, breakthroughs in medicine have lead to cures for potentially lethal illnesses like polio, smallpox and bacterial infections, and provided viable modes of treatment for other chronic illnesses. Technology has given us more choices in communication, work, education and entertainment. It’s been a lucrative field for mankind, with devices and methodologies continually being created and perfected in an effort to improve the quality of our lives. Yet because technology is merely a tool of intent that carries out the will of its creators, it’s also been used as a destructive force. Some of the greatest technological advances of the past century have been made in warfare and in the extraction and manipulation of Earth’s resources.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have genes in their DNA or genetic code that have been either inserted or deleted. Some GMOs are transgenic, meaning they have had DNA inserted in them that came from a different species.

In agriculture, the use of GMOs is now widespread. Many crops have been genetically modified for herbicide or pest resistance through the introduction of bacterial genes. Currently, about 93 percent of soybeans in the U.S. have been genetically modified for herbicide resistance. Varieties of tomatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa, corn and a number of other cash crops have also been genetically modified. Genetically engineered microorganisms are also regularly used for enzymes involved in the production of a number of processed foods.

Biotechnology, including the use of GMOs, has been valuable as a means of feeding Earth’s rapidly growing human population, but it may prove to be a temporary solution that could have long term detrimental effects.

Prior to the arrival of ‘insect-proof’ corn plants, farmers kept pests in check by alternating the crops they grew in their fields. By doing so, corn-loving insects would starve the following year. This long held practice has now been largely abandoned, due to the success of pest resistant crops. Growers have become over reliant on these GMOs, using them as their primary method to ward off insects every year. As a result, pests have adapted. Corn plants in Iowa that were genetically modified for pest resistance are now being eaten by corn rootworms who have evolved to resist the natural pesticide produced by those plants.

Herbicide resistant plants rooted in GMO technology are becoming super weeds. Millions of acres across the United States now contain weeds that are immune to RoundUp, one of the most powerful herbicides on the market. At present, genetically engineered herbicide resistant canola plants are growing outside of farmland all across North Dakota. Super weeds compete for nutrients and space with naturally growing, native plants that indigenous people use as food and medicine. The escape of GMO plants also raises serious questions as to whether the U.S. is adequately monitoring the impact of biotech products on the environment.

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There’s also research disputing whether GMOs pose a threat to human health. While it’s been previously held that genetically modified corn poses no threat to humans, there are studies that conclude that it appears to persist in the body. One study suggests that GMO corn may lead to organ failure in mammals.

As natives, we have a responsibility to protect indigenous plant species, and this includes preserving natural, non-hybrid varieties. Plant species like indigenous corn (maize), are endangered. The protection and conservation of indigenous, unmodified plant species is directly tied to the preservation of native cultures. Foods like corn are used in ceremony. Others have a cultural place in traditional gardening and Tribal food preparation. Many native plants are used medicinally, and are held in high esteem in the history and origins of Tribes. In Mexico, there is concern that genetically modified corn is contaminating and reducing the genetic variability of native corn, and that it poses a threat to the identity of the Mayans, since corn plays an integral role in the history of their people.

The absence of traditional diet has also been linked to disease epidemics in native communities like obesity and type 2 Diabetes. Restoring traditional foods to the diet reduces diet-related diseases among natives. Studies have shown that unmodified plant varieties have a much higher nutritional content than those that have been bred or modified for color, portability, or storage.

Ethically and legally, individuals and corporations should be held accountable for how they use biotechnology. However, if we care about food sovereignty—the right of indigenous peoples to define their own food and how they grow it, instead of being subject to international market forces—we must be proactive in the conservation of unmodified plant species. During times of economic upheaval, seeds provide future food security and may even be used as currency. Tribes should consider the economic benefits of conserving and stockpiling unmodified non-hybrid seeds that when stored properly, remain viable for decades.

Technology is flawed, like its makers. We must guard ourselves against becoming arrogant in our dependence upon it and remember that whether it’s been invented to feed the masses or to kill more efficiently, the culpability and consequences of a deed performed with the use of technology belongs to us, its creators.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at