GMO’s: Gift or Gloom?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). I know, they seem scary right? For some inexplicable and unknown but definitely reliable reason, they seem like the end of the world. Unregulated and filled with carcinogens, GMOs are wreaking havoc on our environment.  I totally understand where you’re coming from. I used to be anti-GMO too, it wasn’t until recently I realized many of the facts about GMOs and organic foods aren’t totally true.

88% of scientists agree that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe for human consumption while only 37% of US adults believe the same, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. The difference here is due to opinions and misconceptions that have run wild. It’s our job as consumers to be aware of the facts and to make conscious decisions.

In recent years, organic foods have been growing in popularity as the public opinion shifts against GMOs and conventionally grown foods. The perception is that organic foods are more nutritious and don’t carry the risk of illness from pesticides and genetic modification. This explains how the same study found that 67% of adults say that scientists don’t have a clear understanding of the health effects of GMOs.

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Let’s take a step back. Where does this belief come from? GMOs have been largely considered ‘dangerous’ and there are now organizations dedicated to ensuring that GMOs are never used. Mainly, GMOs are opposed on the grounds that they aren’t safe and not enough is known about their impacts. Organic foods, however, have thrived and are widely considered healthier and better for the environment. Misconceptions about both GMOs and organic foods are common and many don’t know the truth behind what they’re eating.

I too used to think organic was a sort of superbrand. To me, organic was a term that described pesticide free, environmentally friendly, healthier crops. While that might be the understanding of the term, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t see it that way. According to an infographic from the USDA titled “Organic Labels Explained” the organic label really only means that 95% of the ingredients are certified to conform with farming standards labeled ‘organic.’ I could go into the nuances of their farming practices but the main concept is that anything in contact with the crops has to be produced naturally. This means that as long as the pesticides are produced naturally they can be used.

The USDA even states on their website regarding the organic label that their, “regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.” Going back to my original beliefs about organic, environmentally friendly is the only thing on the list that isn’t true. Since this is in comparison to GMOs, we have to understand what GMOs are before we can think about this point.

GMOs, as I mentioned earlier, used to seem like a huge threat to me. Without doing any real research into them, I assumed they were unregulated and since they had been genetically modified they were taking over the environment in a bad way and not a lot was known about them.  

GMOs aren’t a very large unknown though. While I thoroughly encourage you to continue paying attention to the safety of GMOs, from what information is currently available GMOs are safe for us to eat. Thousands of independent scientists have all found that GMOs don’t pose any real threats to us. Also I’d like to point out that many modern GMOs have been around for almost thirty years now, so the long term costs might not be completely clear but we have some idea.

Now to the idea of environmental impact. Dr. Steve Savage, who has his PhD in Plant Pathology and years of research and work in pesticides, has previously stated in an article for Forbes Magazine titled, ‘Why I Don’t Buy Organic, And You Might Not Want to Either’ that, “there are also quite a few farming practices with excellent environmental profiles which are difficult to implement under the organic farming rules.”

One of these ways that non-organic farms are free to promote environmentally friendly farming practices is through fertilizer. Organic farms often use composting to provide fertilizer, where non-organic farmers use synthetic fertilizers designed to have no effect on the environment. The problem with composting is that it leaves a large and unnecessary carbon footprint.

“It turns out that in the process of composting there’s quite a bit of methane produced,” said Dr. Savage. Dr. Savage continued, saying, “if you fertilize a crop with compost, manure compost, your carbon footprint is 10-14 times as high as the carbon footprint of making these things out of nitrogen.”

At this point I was pretty confused. All of the assumptions I had previously had about organic and GMO had been lost. It turned out that everything I thought I knew about organic was pretty much wrong. Clinging to my past beliefs, I figured there must be something in the pesticide aspect that made organic special or better in some way.

Pesticides used in modern agriculture all have to be regulated and go through rigorous testing processes. At the end of the testing, assuming the pesticide is deemed relatively safe, it is put on a list of all useable pesticides. The pesticides allowed in organic are just a subset of the accepted chemicals. The only difference is if they are produced naturally or not.

These next few examples are some of the most shocking and compelling elements of this whole topic. What we see here is somewhat common, lying. Groups dedicated to lying about GMOs and preventing their use, even when the logic and facts don’t oppose them.

In the late nineties, scientists began developing what they called Bt crops.  Bt crops are normal crops with increased Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) levels. Bt is naturally produced in plants, just not enough to make a real difference. In fact, organic farmers have harvested and sprayed Bt onto their plants for decades since it’s only toxic to certain pests.

By all means this should be a huge success. The science all supports that it’s safe since organic farmers already use Bt, and gets rid of any need to spray pesticides on Bt crops.

The organic organizations at the time didn’t agree that Bt crops are a great technology.

One of these first Bt crops was Bt eggplant in Bangladesh. The crop was a huge success, instead of needing to use large amounts of pesticides to harvest their eggplant, farmers could plant their eggplant and unless they didn’t tend to it properly it would have higher yield rates than they had ever seen.

This is when the lying came into play. Anti-GMO groups made false claims about Bt eggplant that said it wasn’t effective in repelling pests and was unsafe to eat. Lying and oposing a technology that could help the world stop pesticide use just to maintain the stigma against GMOs.

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Dr. Savage has seen these tactics used and doesn’t agree with the ethics of lying to consumers to support an idea. Because of this, Dr. Savage has stopped eating organically grown foods. He’s seen that the pro-organic groups often used fear and lie based advertisement to support their message and doesn’t want to support it. Dr. Savage stated in the article for Forbes, “I consider [fear based advertising] to be hate speech for profit.”

Bt potatoes are a similar story to Bt eggplant. Despite the science they were opposed and eventually shut down. Bt potatoes however had a much larger effect, their demise essentially killed the entire Bt market. Instead of scaring the consumers about Bt potatoes, the anti-GMO groups threatened McDonalds.

 Dr. Savage, who was working on the Bt potato project said that, “activist groups started threatening McDonalds that they would protest outside of their stores if they continued to use Bt potatoes.”

McDonalds really didn’t have a choice at that point. Dr. Savage continued saying that McDonalds “discussed this and said ‘look we’ve got this threat to our brand and we know that the growers love this and we know perfectly safe and highly regulated but McDonalds can’t take brand risk.’ They’re all about the brand. So in three phone calls to the three biggest french fry companies they killed it.”

After that, all the Bt projects effectively got killed off. Seeing that big corporations opposed Bt crops scared farmers from producing them.

Dr. Savage was also a part of a group looking into other crops that could benefit from Bt but, “as soon as that McDonalds thing happened, all these companies that we were talking to, big brand sensitive players, they all killed those projects. There were gonna be all these really interesting possibilities and they all just went away.”

Again and again we see organic and anti-GMO groups opposing Bt crops for the sole reason of opposing GMOs. The studies all show that Bt crops are safe and Bt has already been tested and is regulated as a pesticide. Opposing science and the greater good serves no purpose and in some cases can have lasting effects to the world.

So now, instead of having a variety of Bt crops and easily being able to reduce worldwide pesticide use, anti-GMO groups halted all of that progress by terrifying companies. “To me the most effective thing the anti-GMO people ever did was scare the hell out of brand sensitive companies and they’re the ones who have all the leverage in the food system,” said Dr. Savage.

After everything I had learned about GMOs and organic, at this point, I couldn’t figure out why such a large amount of people supported organic over GMOs. GMOs eliminate the needs for pesticides, are nutritionally the same as organic, and aren’t promoted using lying. From all the evidence, GMOs are better than organic. I never would have known the truth or had any idea what GMOs really are and the effect they could have.

So think about the choices you make, whether it be to support or not support GMOs or any other decision you make. The time lost in order to research issues such as GMOs is not wasted at all and can instead help to make informed decisions that you can stand by.