Feb 24 2015

Anti-GMO Propaganda

There is so much anti-science propaganda out there I often feel like I am emptying the ocean with a spoon. Just today I was faced with an array of choices for my post – should I take on anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, or anti-AGW propaganda? For today, anyway, anti-GMO won. I’ll get to the others eventually.

This was sent to me by a reader – 5 reasons to avoid GMOs.  The content is mostly tired anti-GMO tropes (lies, really) that have been thoroughly debunked, but it is good to address such propaganda in a concise way. Also, it is a useful demonstration of the intellectual dishonesty of the anti-GMO movement. I may not get through all of them today – each one is so densely packed with wrong, and it takes longer to correct a misconception than to create one. Here is point #1 – GMOs are not healthy:

GMOs are unhealthy: Since the introduction of GMOs in the mid-1990s, the number of food allergies has sky-rocketed, and health issues such as autism, digestive problems and reproductive disorders are on the rise. Animal testing with GMOs has resulted in cases of organ failure, digestive disorders, infertility and accelerated aging. Despite an announcement in 2012 by the American Medical Association stating they saw no reason for labeling genetically modified foods, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has urged doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for their patients.

The author begins with an assumption of causation from correlation. The increase in food allergies actually does not correlate well with the introduction of GMOs. The correlation between organic food and autism is much more impressive. In fact, the organic food industry has been rising steadily over this same time period, and so one could make the even stronger point that organic food causes all the listed ills.

Food allergies are a particularly bad target for fear mongering, however. There has yet to be a single case of food allergy linked to a GMO. Not one. Further, GMOs are tested for their allergic potential. Allergenic foods have features in common. For example, the proteins that provoke an allergic response are able to survive stomach acids sufficiently intact that they can still produce a reaction. Scientists can therefore test any new proteins against known allergens and look for homology. (The same is true for known toxins.) This, of course, is not an absolute guarantee, but it is a very good safety net, and it has worked so far.

What about the animal studies? Well, 19 years of animal feeding with GMO has not resulted in any detectable increase in negative health outcomes of livestock. Further, systematic reviews of animal feeding studies have shown no harm. The author here is cherry picking a couple of poor quality outliers. They don’t give specific references, but the same few studies (such as the retracted Seralini study) always crop up on such lists.

They finish with an odd argument from authority. They mention that the AMA says GMOs are safe, but fail to mention the dozens of other medical and scientific organizations that have also reviewed the evidence and found current GMO crops to be safe. Instead they cherry pick another outlier, an anti-GMO environmental group.

They increase herbicide use: When Monsanto came up with the idea for Round-up Ready crops, the theory was to make the crops resistant to the pesticide that would normally kill them. This meant the farmers could spray the crops, killing the surrounding weeds and pests without doing any harm to the crops themselves. However, after a number of years have passed, many weeds and pests have themselves become resistant to the spray, and herbicide-use increased (both in amount and strength) by 11% between 1996 and 2011. Which translates to – lots more pesticide residue in our foods – yum!

The story is more complex than this cartoon. First, the introduction of Bt GMO varieties has clearly reduced the use of insecticide (pesticides include insecticides and herbicides). The introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops has increased the use of glyphosate (an herbicide), but decreased the use of other herbicides. Total herbicide use has actually decreased. Further, glyphosate is among the least toxic herbicides, and so the trend has been to replace more toxic herbicides with a less toxic herbicide.

Therefore, the bottom line conclusion of the author – more pesticides in our food – is the opposite of the truth.

Herbicide resistant crops have also allowed the reduction in tilling, which harms the soil and releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

It is true that overreliance on any single strategy for weed control will lead to resistance. This is a generic problem with any strategy that we use. This is a problem of the massive farming needed to feed the world, and is not unique to GMO. Therefore, of course we need to use technology carefully and thoughtfully to optimize sustainability. Some form of integrated pest management is therefore probably a good idea, but this is not incompatible with GMO technology.

They are everywhere! GMOs make up about 70-80% of our foods in the United States. Most foods that contain GMOs are processed foods. But they also exist in the form of fresh vegetables such as corn on the cob, papaya and squash. The prize for the top two most genetically modified crops in the United States goes to corn and soy. Think about how many foods in your pantry or refrigerator contain corn or its byproducts (high fructose corn syrup) or soy and its byproducts (partially hydrogenated soybean oil).

So what? GMO are safe to eat. They are good for the environment. I would be happy if 100% of our crops were genetically modified in order to optimize their traits. In fact, 100% of our crops have been extensively genetically modified through breeding over centuries and even millennia. You would hardly recognize the pre-modified versions of the food you eat every day.

GM technology is faster and more precise. It can also introduce genes from distant branches of life, but again – so what? All life on earth shares a common genetic code and basic biochemistry. We share genes with peas. There is no such thing as a “fish gene” really. There are just genes that are found in fish, most of which are also found in vegetables but some that aren’t. As long as we know what the genes are doing, and test their net effects on the crop, who cares where they came from?

GM crops don’t ensure larger harvests. As it turns out, GMO crop yields are not as promising as some projections implied. In fact, in some instances, they have been out-yielded by their non-GMO counterparts. This conclusion was reached in a 20 year study carried out by the University of Wisconsin and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thus negating one of the main arguments in favor of GMOs.

This is one of those – sort of true, but very misleading – factoids that are common in propaganda. The currently available GM crop traits are not specifically designed to increase yield. They are designed to make yield more predictable, by reducing loss through pests, drought, or disease. Higher yielding traits are in the pipeline, however.

What about that University of Wisconsin study the author specifically cites (it’s nice when they give a specific reference to check their sources)?  It concludes:

Their analysis, published online in a Nature Biotechnology correspondence article on Feb. 7, confirms the general understanding that the major benefit of genetically modified (GM) corn doesn’t come from increasing yields in average or good years, but from reducing losses during bad ones.

That’s a little different than what the author implied. It reduces losses in bad years – which mean overall yields are increased. This also only referred to corn. Bt cotton has increased yields by an average of 24%, increasing profit and quality of life for cotton farmers in India.

A 2014 meta-analysis concluded:

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

Still, anti-GMO activists continue to lie about the data, claiming the exact opposite of what the scientific evidence shows.

And finally:

U.S. Labeling suppression: Many of the companies who have an interest in keeping GMOs on the market don’t want you to know which foods contain them. For this reason, they have suppressed recent attempts by states such as California and Washington to require labeling of GMO products. And since they have deep pockets, they were successful – for now. The companies who spent the most on these campaigns are Monsanto (who produces the GMO seeds), and Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle and General Mills, who produce some of the most processed foods in existence. Incidentally, most other developed countries such as the nations of the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and China have mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Food for thought!

They somehow fail to mention that the multi-billion dollar organic food industry lobbies for labeling. But again I say, so what? The fact that there is a political argument about labeling does not directly imply anything about the safety of GMO or whether or not it is a good thing for people and the planet. In fact – that is the very reason that many people (the corporations aside) oppose labeling.

Mandatory labels imply that there is something for the consumer to worry about. It is a transparent attempt to demonize a safe and effective technology, so that anti-GMO propaganda will have a target. This is also an attempt by a competitor – the organic food industry – to create a negative marketing halo around its competition.


This is only a small sampling of the anti-GMO propaganda that is out there. I am all for a vigorous evidence-based discussion about the true risks and benefits of a new technology. This includes how to optimally regulate such technologies. I believe in the need for thoughtful and effective regulations of any technology that has health or environmental impacts. We have seen what happens when an industry, like the supplement industry, is not effectively regulated.

GMOs are highly regulated. They are the most tested food that we eat. Cultivars that resulting from hybridizing plants and mutation farming, using chemicals or radiation to speed up the process of DNA mutation, are not tested and are even considered organic. This is a double standard, but fine. Let’s test the hell out of GMOs to make sure there are no surprises. This is already happening – and GMOs currently on the market are safe.

The anti-GMO campaign is largely an anti-science campaign. This one article is not an outlier – it is squarely in the mainstream of anti-GMO rhetoric.

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