Update: October 22, 2015. I have just returned from two days of lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. where movement on a critical labeling issue appears eminent in the form of a rider to an appropriations bill or a variation of H.B. 1599, already passed by the House of Representatives. Special interests in the “anti-labeling” camp are gearing up and if you believe you have a “right to know” what is in the food you eat, I encourage you to reach out to your Senator now and make your voices heard. ~ Anthony
Common Myths about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Myth 1: We need GMO crops to “feed the world”
This is the foundational myth, widely accepted and often trumpeted in the media or in policy debates. Arguing against GMO crops then becomes an elitist exercise, essentially for “luxury” consumers (of organic foods, especially) against helping the world’s hungry and poor. It is also often used to directly attack organic and sustainable farming, about which additional myths/lies are then incorporated, including the commonly cited but completely incorrect assertion that organic farming takes twice as much land to produce the same yield (In fact, several studies, from USDA, the Rodale Institute and others demonstrate that organic yields of grains, fruits and vegetables are comparable to conventional farming methods, and often exceed conventional methods during periods of drought).
The truth of course is that after two decades, GMO crops have proven themselves no more productive, or only marginally so, than traditionally bred hybrids, and that certain characteristics, like drought resistance, have largely failed to materialize. Two recent studies – one from the University of Wisconsin, the other from the Union of Concerned Scientists, both demonstrate that yields of GMO crops, including soybeans and corn, have not been consistently higher than conventionally bred varieties, at most showing a 3 – 4 % increase.
Counter: Other breeding methods and ecological farming practices can accomplish the same or greater productivity gains, with lower costs, reduced environmental impacts and greater chance of local food self-reliance . For example, a nine year study from Iowa State University found that simply by adding a legume and small grain into the crop rotation of corn and soybeans, yields were 4 – 9 % higher, even as the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was decreased by 80%, while herbicide use declined 85 – 90% .
Similarly, a low-input, high yielding method of rice production called SRI, or “System of Rice Intensification” is being adopted by farmers in India and elsewhere, with promising results: Substantial yield increases, dramatically reduced water and fertilizer use, and a nearly 90% decrease in seed use and cost.
* University of Wisconsin study published in the on-line journal Nature Biotechnology, Feb, 2013
* Union of Concerned Scientists study published on the UCS website
* Iowa State University study published in on-line journal PLOS ONE, Oct, 2012
Myth 2: GMO crops help farmers increase their productivity and profitability
While some GMO seeds have provided very slight yield increases for farmers (typically less than 5%), the increased seed cost compared to conventional hybrids is enormous, ranging from 65 % to more than double the cost of conventional seed. Corn and soybean farmers must pay nearly 20% or more of their gross sales revenue for GMO seeds, compared with less than 10 % for conventional hybrids, leading to a reduction in farmers’ overall profitability.
Additionally, farmers become dependent on Monsanto and Dow, and run risks of fines or legal actions if they challenge their dominance in the seed market. In fact, Monsanto has sued over 150 farmers for what they consider to be patent infringement, in some cases because pollen from GMO varieties drifted into a non-GMO field.
Monsanto and its allies claim that farmers are better off, because GMO crops “generate higher yields with fewer inputs”, according to the website of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. But in fact, as professor Charles Benbrook of Washington State University has shown, the small reduction in insecticide use related to Bt corn and cotton has been overwhelmed by dramatic increases in herbicide use, with a net increase of over 400 million pounds of pesticides related to GMO crops.
Counter: Farmers are worse off with GMO’s, both in terms of profitability and dependence upon a small group of multinationals for seeds and essential inputs. The gains have gone to a handful of agribusiness giants, not to farmers or producers.
- Washington State study published in Environmental Sciences Europe, fall, 2012
- Examination of seed prices undertaken by the Organic Center, available at www.organic-center.org
Myth 3: There is no evidence of any negative health or environmental consequences from growing GMO crops, or eating GMO foods
There is in fact considerable evidence of ecological consequences, from vastly increased herbicide use (and overall pesticide use), to the more rapid development of herbicide resistant weeds, requiring more and more toxic herbicides to control. Recent surveys of Midwestern grain producers showed the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds – so called “super weeds – to more than 50% of all farms.
On the human health front, the evidence is more spotty, but virtually every study that indicates problems or potential problems , like the recent French study of tumors in rats, is immediately dismissed and marginalized by both industry and most mainstream regulatory bodies. In fact a wide body of evidence, published in peer reviewed journals, indicates widespread problems in animals fed GMO corn or soybeans, including such things as severe liver damage (Nutrition and Health Journal, 2002), vastly increased incidence of tumors and cancer (Food and Chemical Toxicology, Sept, 2012), decreased fertility and increased mortality of babies (REGNUM, October, 2005, Ecosinform, 2006, European Journal of Histochemistry, fall, 2004) and a range of both allergic and gastrointestinal problems.
Evidence of health problems related to Glyphosate – the active ingredient in Round Up – is also mounting. Two recent studies (Current Microbiology, 2012 and Anaerobe, 2012)found that glyphosate at allowable levels suppress essential beneficial bacteria in the gut of animals, enabling a substantial rise in pathogenic bacteria including Salmonella and Clostridium, both of which are commonly implicated in outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
More broadly, the presumption of safety and “equivalence” between GMO and traditional crops has never been tested, let alone validated.
Counter: There is clear evidence of mounting environmental problems and sufficient documentation of potential health problems to merit far more caution and study before additional GMO crops come to market, and to allow for labeling of GMO ingredients in foods.