GMOs as Potential Human Rights Violations
The last two decades have seen extensive debate over the safety, efficacy, and applicability of introducing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the human food chain. The debate has been centered on the safety of consuming genetically modified organisms and the larger impact these organisms have on the ecosystems in which they are introduced. Through an analysis of economic and environmental impacts across multiple crop sectors in South Asian and African cases, this report will focus on the ramifications of GMOs in the developing world and the resulting pressures inflicted on the rural poor. Finally, this report will demonstrate the human rights violations under the current model of agronomic implementation of GMOs in global agriculture.
Brief History of GMOs
The United States was one of the early pioneers in the genetic modification of organisms. In 1983, Monsanto was awarded the first GMO patent for engineering a bacterium designed to break down oil slicks. The first commercialized genetically modified (GM) crops were planted in the US in 1995, and by 1999 over 70 million acres of transgenic crops (i.e. plants engineered with novel combinations of DNA) were under cultivation. By 2011, that number had expanded to 170 million acres, which accounted for almost 50 percent of harvestable cropland in the US.
The popularity of GM crops is largely due to the promise of greater profitability through increased yields, decreased costs, and improved disease and pest suppression. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready (RR) soybean has seen particular success as it had been engineered to be resistant to the systemic herbicide glyphosate, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, and currently accounts for 60 percent of the US soybean market. The transgenic properties of the RR soybean allow farmers to continuously apply herbicide throughout the growing season, killing every plant except the GM glyphosate-resistant crop. This approach has ostensibly allowed farmers to obtain larger yields while lowering costs by eradicating competing plant material and eliminating the need for expensive weeding or post-harvest tilling of fields. Other popular varieties of GM crops are “pest-resistant” varieties, many of which have been engineered to produce pest-killing toxins associated with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
Additional emphasis has been placed on introducing GM crops into developing countries as a means to alleviate famine and to increase access to nutritious food for the global poor. For example, a group of researchers from Cornell University and Syngenta Corporation have developed a beta-carotene rich strain of GM rice, and have partnered with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to explore the viability of implementing its cultivation in Southeast Asia and throughout the Global South. This so-called “Golden Rice” is intended to combat Vitamin A deficiency, which is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to effect 230 million children worldwide and can lead to blindness or—in up to a million cases per year—to fatal diseases.
While proponents remain bullish on the benefits of GMOs, twenty years of implementation has nevertheless revealed several major negative impacts of GM crops. The genetic engineering of organisms alters the way those organisms interact with the broader ecosystem in a widespread and systemic manner. The release of GMOs into an ecosystem often produces a series of unintended, secondary effects, whether that ‘ecosystem’ is a local environment or a local economy. Due to the complexity of issues surrounding GMOs, this report will focus on three primary areas of impact: health issues, environmental issues, and economic issues.
While no consensus has been reached regarding the health risks of consuming GMOs, a more immediate risk to human health is the increased use of herbicides with GMOs, particularly the broad-spectrum systemic herbicide glyphosate. Developed by the Monsanto Corporation under the brand name Roundup, glyphosate was introduced into the American market in 1974 and has since become the primary herbicide used in commercial agriculture. By 2014, US farmers were using 240 million pounds of glyphosate on their GM crops, accounting for over 60 percent of all herbicides used in American agriculture.
Despite disagreement from various industry consortiums and lobbying groups, increasing volumes of evidence demonstrate that glyphosate poses a potentially serious health risk. Recent human and animal epidemiological studies have demonstrated that glyphosate can disrupt developmental and metabolic processes related to endocrine-system mediation, as well as causing heptorenal (kidney) damage. Other studies have linked glyphosate exposure to birth defects. Furthermore, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently reclassified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Despite this mounting evidence, however, a number of prominent studies continue to claim no findings of harmful effects in glyphosate. It is of significant note that many of these studies have authors who work for, or are otherwise connected to, Monsanto or other major chemical agribusinesses.
While the debate continues over the toxicity of glyphosate, there is no doubt among the agricultural and scientific communities that increased use of glyphosate and other herbicides have led to the development of numerous resistant weed species. Initially the ability to indiscriminately use herbicides during the growing cycle was a panacea for the agricultural community, yet several decades of sustained use has led to the evolution of glyphosate resistant weeds. Findings have shown that “high levels of adoption of [GM] crops by U.S. farmers have dramatically increased the use of glyphosate, with a concomitant decrease in use of other herbicides,” with numerous scientists concluding that “the problem of GR [glyphosate-resistant] weeds is real, and farmers have to understand that continuous use of glyphosate without alternative strategies will likely result in the evolution of more GR weeds.”
Beyond weed resistance, GM crops have also been found to affect fragile ecosystems through the transmission of transgenic material into wild populations. In India, Bt brinjal is a variety of eggplant that has been genetically engineered to endogenously produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which combats a moth pest known as the brinjal fruit and shoot borer. Bt brinjal has since hybridized with as many as 29 wild varieties of eggplant, with serious concern that the introgression of the Bt transgene will vastly outcompete wild and native varieties. This loss of biodiversity would have serious and unforeseeable consequences within an ecosystem, and addressing this issue is one of the largest concerns among critics of GM crops. Although the international community has drafted major agreements on biosafety, such as the Cartagena Protocol, many of these agreements recognize that the enforcement of biodiversity regulations could severely impact the economic activity of major agri-pharmaceutical corporations, and are thus unfortunately compelled to constrain biosafety measures in such a way as to not adversely affect free trade.
As noted above, issues of biodiversity are often inextricably tied to economic issues. This is particularly true in the US, where there is growing concern over transgenic material cross-pollinating with conventional crops through wind dispersion or other natural or man-made scattering processes. Although the overall risk for wind-driven cross-pollination remains relatively low, any amount of cross-contamination of open pollinated plant stock (such as corn or canola) could result in the loss of economic viability of the harvest, especially if the grower is specifically marketing the crop as non-GMO.
Contrary to popular belief, there have not been any lawsuits for patent infringements against farmers who have had their crops contaminated with patented transgenic material—however, Monsanto has brought 144 lawsuits against farmers for licensing violations. These lawsuits stem from Monsanto’s business model which requires farmers to acquire single-season licenses to grow patented Roundup Ready or Bt seed stock—an approach which is designed to prevent farmers from saving transgenic seed material for future use. While this model has been conducive to Monsanto’s profit margins, it places undue economic burden on small-to-medium sized operations, particularly smallholder farmers in developing countries.
In addition to the cost of licensing fees and the price of seeds, smallholder farmers are also required to purchase large amounts of herbicides and pesticides to apply on their crops, which further reduces their profit margins. Issues relating to economic insecurity, including price shocks, adversely-affected cash flow, and reliance on cash-cropping for export, instead of producing food for local consumption, have been noted in India in relation to GM crops. As we will review in the following section, this disturbing trend is present throughout the developing world.
GMOs and Human Rights
Thus far, this report has briefly covered some of the main issues related to genetically modified crops, but the question remains: do these economic, environmental, and health issues constitute violations of human rights? To answer this question, we will look at several specific internationally recognized human rights through the context of GMOs.
Right to Healthy Working Conditions
Basic standards and protections for health and safety in the workplace have been adopted in developed countries throughout the 20th century, and the rights for workers to enjoy these protections have been codified by the United Nations under the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 7 states: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable [sic] conditions of work which ensure, in particular: … (b) Safe and healthy working conditions.” The need to provide safe conditions for workers has been recognized by the 71 signatories and 164 parties to the ICESCR.
The current agronomic model of treating herbicide-tolerant crops with indiscriminate applications of herbicides, such as glyphosate, poses a significant and pressing health risk to farm workers. This risk is amplified in many regions of the developing world, where farm workers lack access to necessary equipment and have not been educated on proper application techniques. In a single study in Nigeria, 100 percent of farm workers reported fatigue after spraying, 95 percent reported eye problems, 87 percent reported skin problems, 40 percent reported dizziness, and 11 percent reported vomiting. In addition, only 40 percent of respondents wore protective clothing, and 85 percent sprayed in the wrong direction to the wind. This report represents the experience in many developing countries, a situation that exacerbates the inherent dangers to human health posed by herbicides like glyphosate. The current agronomic approach to herbicide-resistant GM crops presents serious health dangers to workers employed in the fields. Given the definition of the right examined above, the heavy and indiscriminate use of herbicides as required with certain GM crops constitutes a violation of human rights to healthy working conditions.
Right to a Clean Environment
In addition to creating unhealthy working conditions, indiscriminate use of herbicides also breaches several of the basic principles enshrined in UN declarations on the environment. For instance, Principle 2 of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration requires that “the natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management.” The 1992 Rio Declaration likewise requires that, in the process of achieving sustainable development, all states must “cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.” Glyphosate has been shown to deplete soil health by inhibiting nitrogen-fixing bacteria and has also been shown to be exceptionally harmful to aquatic life. This damage impedes future generations’ access to a clean environment and is thus in clear violation of these declarations.
Right to Full and Productive Employment
The ICESCR also requires state parties to provide certain safeguards for economic freedom. Specifically, Article 6, Section 1 requires states to “recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts,” and Section 2 requires states to provide “productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.”
The push from the international development community to adopt the methods of industrialized agriculture and herbicide- and pest-resistant GM crops has placed extreme economic pressure on many smallholder farmers. Many of these farmers live at or below the extreme poverty line, and are not able to afford the cost of licensing the seeds or the expensive chemical inputs that are required, such as fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. Many farmers become indebted in order to plant their fields with the promise of higher yields and more profit, only to discover that the methods of industrialized GM agriculture are not suited for small farms.
In India, this situation has led to a spate of farmer suicides that have been widely linked to chronic indebtedness and crop failures of Bt cotton. According to government records, nearly 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995—or one farmer every thirty minutes. In 2011, the suicide rate for farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average. While some sources dispute the causal link between indebtedness and suicide, and point instead to an array of complex social pressures, other reports detail a general decline in productivity among GM crops and the overall failure of those crops to live up to the promises of increased yields and decreased costs.
The result is that many smallholder farmers are faced with growing despair and indebtedness because they have been forced to buy into a system which does not benefit small farmers. This leads ultimately to the loss or degradation of their land and their livelihoods, which means that the implementation of industrialized agriculture with GM crops constitutes a violation of their right to productive employment.
As we have seen, the use and proliferation of GMOs presents several significant environmental and economic issues with regard to human rights. Although these rights violations are most glaring in the context of the developing world, the use of GMOs poses an equal threat within the developed world. Large agribusiness—such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midlands, and Bayer—continue to push for new lines of transgenic seed products and new combinations of increasingly potent herbicides and insecticides. Continued engagement with the prevailing agronomic model of GM crops and heavy use of chemical herbicides will continue to imperil both the environmental and economic ecosystems into which they are introduced. This report therefore urges the agricultural development community to consider alternative models of crop intensification to improve fertility and yields without the use of glyphosate and transgenic crops.
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 Christof Then, 30 years of genetically engineered plants -20 years of commercial cultivation in the United States: a critical assessment (Munich: Testbiotech Institute for Independent Impact Assessment in Biotechnology, 2013), 10.
 John Barlow Weiner and Paul E. Hagen, “The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety: New Rules for International Trade in Living Modified Organisms,” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review (Vol. 12:697, 2000), 698.
 Then, 11.
 UDSA, Farms and Farmland: Numbers, Acreage, Ownership, and Use (United States Department of Agriculture, ACH12-13, September 2014), 2.
 Then., 11.
 Ibid., 14
 David A. Andow, Bt Brinjal: The scope and adequacy of the GEAC environmental risk assessment (India: Sunray Harvesters, 2010), 25-29.
 Kristen Hessler, et al., Case Study: Golden Rice, (Ames: Biotechnology Outreach Education Center, Iowa State University, 2006), 8.
 Ibid., 1.
 John Peterson Myers, et. al., Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement (Environmental Health, Vol. 15:19, 2016), 2.
 Myers, 3.
 Michael Antoniou, et al., GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible? (Bochum and Vienna: GLS Gemeinschaftsbank eG and ARGE Gentechnik-frei, 2010), 6-7.
 Myers, 3.
 See Helmut Greim et. al., “Evaluation of carcinogenic potential of the herbicide glyphosate, drawing on tumor incidence data from fourteen chronic/carcinogenicity rodent studies,” Critical Review in Toxicology (Vol. 45:3, 185-208, 2015).
 Vijay K. Nandula et. al., “Glyphosate-Resistant weeds: current status and future outlook,” Outlooks on Pest Management (Vol. 16:4, August 2005), 183.
 Andow, 25-29.
 See Cartagena Protocol of Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, (Montreal: UN Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2000).
 Weiner, 714.
 Jim Riddle, GMO Contamination Prevention: What Does it Take? (Lamberton: Southwest Research and Outreach Center, University of Minnesota, 2012), 1-7.
 John M. Jemison, Jr. and Michael E. Vayda, “Cross Pollination from Genetically Engineered Corn: Wind Transport and Seed Source,” AgBioForum (Vol. 4, No. 2, 2001), 91.
 See OSGATA v. Monsanto, No. 1:11-CV-02163-NRB (S.D.N.Y. 2012).
 FAO, Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2001), iv.
 Andow, 10-12.
 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (United Nations: Treaty Series, Vol. 993, 16 December 1966), p. 6.
 Then, 34.
 Peter Gyanden Kughur, “The Effects of Herbicides on Crop Production and Environment in Makurdi Local Government Area of Benue State, Nigeria,” Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa (Vol. 14, No.4, 2012), 213.
 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (United Nations: Stockholm, 16 June 1972).
 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (United Nations: Rio de Janeiro, 14 June 1992), Principle 2.
 A. Santos and M. Flores, “Effects of glyphosate on nitrogen fixation of free-living heterotrophic bacteria,” Letters in Applied Microbiology (Vol. 20, 1995), 351-352.
 Then, 33.
 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 6.
 IFAD, Smallholders, Food Security, and the Environment (Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013), 6.
 Shashank Bengali, “Farmer suicides reflect growing desperation in rural India,” Los Angeles Times, Aug 10, 2014.
 Guillame P. Gruère, et al., Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India (Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2008), 42.
 Sahaja Samruddha, “Brief Review of Bt Cotton in Karnataka,” 2010.