Everyone from Chipotle to the Food Babe rails against genetically modified ingredients, and laws to label GMO foods are making progress in some states. But the laser focus on GMOs is misguided, because most of the concerns people raise about them aren’t really about GMOs.
“GMO” is the buzzword for genetically modified crops where the plant’s DNA has been changed in the lab, typically by inserting a gene from another species. Technically there are other types of genetically modified organisms (living things), but no GMO animals are used in our food, and GMO bacteria are widespread but not controversial.
There are serious problems with our food system and the way it’s based on industrial agriculture. Subsidies support sugar-laden and processed foods while people on low incomes have trouble affording healthy, sustainably grown produce. Meanwhile, needed farmland is being turned into housing developments, massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers are finding their way into the environment, and corporate giants like Monsanto have far too much power.
Passing around infographics about which GMO-containing foods to boycott, or putting tons of effort into passing GMO labeling laws, isn’t going to do anything to solve these problems. They will just make it easier for already-privileged people to buy food they feel good about—which may well be just as bad for their health and the environment as the food they’re avoiding. Here’s why.
GMOs Don’t Always Mean More Pesticides
The concern: GMOs introduce too many pesticides into our food and in the environment.
The truth: Pesticides include herbicides (weed killers), insecticides (bug poisons), and any other chemicals that farmers use to kill things that might hurt their plants. Some pesticides are okayed for use on certified Organic crops, and some aren’t.
What does this have to do with GMOs? Two different things, actually, which GMO opponents sometimes get confused. One type of GMO plant increases pesticide use, and another popular type decreases use.
Herbicide tolerant plants can withstand sprayings of certain weed killers. Genetically modified “Roundup Ready” corn and soy plants were developed by industrial giant Monsanto, which (don’t be surprised) is the maker of the herbicide RoundUp, chemically known as glyphosate. Farmers can buy the seeds and the herbicide, then spray their whole field knowing that the weeds will die and the specially engineered corn or soy plants won’t. Glyphosate was popular even before GMOs, but now farmers have extra incentive to use it.
The bad news: thanks to these plants, farmers now spray massive amounts of herbicide. The good news: at least it’s one of the less toxic herbicides. This leads to a few things: weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate, so farmers have to use more of it. In an attempt to solve the problem, companies are developing new GMO plants that are tolerant to other herbicides, so the cycle of over-spraying and creating resistant weeds will likely continue.
So is this bad news? Mostly yes, but from an environmental rather than a health point of view. More glyphosate is being used, but it’s not showing up on our food in unsafe amounts. The famous study that claimed glyphosate-treated corn causes cancer turned out to be scandalously bad science, and the paper was retracted by the journal that published it.
However, there’s another kind of GMO plant: crops that produce their own insecticide. They’re called Bt crops because they produce the same natural toxin as the bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. Like glyphosate, this was a popular pesticide long before GMOs came on the scene. You can buy both at your local garden center: the Bt comes in the form of bacterial spores that you spray onto plants, and is great for when caterpillars are eating leaves on plants like cabbage. The bacteria produce a toxin that kills insects who eat it, but even in large quantities the toxin is considered harmless to humans. Mother Earth News calls it “one of the safest natural pesticides you can use.” It was lauded by the same sorts of people that grow their own organic cabbage—until scientists used genetic engineering to put the recipe for the toxin into plants. Now you’ll find people claiming Bt toxin is dangerous to humans (it isn’t) and confusing it with glyphosate.
Not only is Bt toxin safe for humans, its use means that farmers are spraying less insecticide overall—a win for the environment and for farm workers’ health, and a draw for consumer safety (since there weren’t high levels of pesticides on food to begin with).
So do GMOs increase pesticide use? Yes and no, depending on which GMO you’re talking about. You can’t lump them together and say they’re good or bad as a group.
What you can do: We discussed pesticides on food in our article about the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables. To be honest, if you live in the US and you’re worried about pesticides on your own personal food, the easiest tactic is to just stop worrying. Pesticides aren’t on any conventionally-grown food in dangerous quantities: the Dirty Dozen is actually very clean. Meanwhile, buying organic means you’ll still have pesticides on your food—just different ones. And, we don’t have data on whether those are used in dangerous levels or not.
If you want farmers to reduce pesticide use in general, start supporting smaller, ideally local farms that are up-front about what kinds of pesticides they use, when, and why. Plenty of large companies and industrial farms have met the requirements to slap a “USDA Certified Organic” label on their products, so look for signs of a commitment to sustainability, rather than just looking for an organic label.
GMOs Are Unnatural, But So Are Plenty of Non-GMO Plants
The concern: We shouldn’t be messing with plants’ DNA. It’s unnatural and could have unintended consequences.
The facts: We have been messing with plants’ DNA for as long as humans have been growing plants. Archaeologists know that Native Americans bred the scrawny weed teosinte into the plump-kerneled corn plants we eat today. And 8,000 years before we figured out how to insert bacterial genes into plant DNA, the bacteria were inserting those genes themselves; today’s sweet potatoes bear their handiwork.
So the question isn’t whether we should mess with plant DNA, but how.
Think of your DNA as an encyclopedia of cookbooks, and the recipes tell your cells how to make a person. Plants have a different set of recipes, which is why they end up as plants and not people. If you want a bigger or tastier plant, you’ll need to find a way of changing some of those recipes.
Genetic engineering, as we mean it when we talk about GMOs, means that scientists are taking a recipe—a gene—from one cookbook, and pasting it into another.
In the case of Bt corn and soy, which we talked about above, they took the toxin gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and inserted it into a soy or corn plant. In the case of the new Arctic Apple, the gene was cut from one type of apple and pasted into another. (Once the cut-and-paste has been done, you can breed or graft the plants in any conventional way. They don’t have to bioengineer each individual seed.)
Genetic engineering is very precise in terms of the gene you’re inserting, but there’s no way to control where in the plant’s DNA it will end up. If it gets inserted in the middle of another gene, it could mess up the plant’s ability to make that recipe. That’s why plenty of testing and screening is needed before the plant leaves the laboratory, to make sure it still functions as a plant and there were no ill effects. Sound dicey? Compare it to other ways we mess with plant DNA.
Mutation breeding involves irradiating plants or their seeds, essentially vandalizing random recipes in an attempt to create a mutant super-plant. It’s a technique straight out of 1950s comic books, and it actually works. (Most of the plants die, of course, but a lucky few get super powers like larger or tastier fruit.) It’s how we got the Rio Red and Star Ruby grapefruits.
If you’re worried about mutant franken-plants with unknown changes to their DNA, these are the plants that should concern you. This technique is becoming more common as GMOs are falling out of favor in some countries. The extensive testing and regulation that apply to GMOs don’t apply to these plants.
Hybrids are more common, but still weird. When you cross two different plants together, the offspring sometimes show interesting traits that they may not consistently pass down to their own descendants. Some are even sterile, like seedless watermelons and other freaks of nature that people occasionally assume are GMOs. They’re not.
Once again, you can find abundant examples at your local garden store: any packet of seeds produced by hybridization is required to say so on the label. If you want to grow a hybrid plant year after year, you need to keep buying hybrid seeds. The seed company makes them by hybridizing the two parents each season, like a dog breeder who keeps labs and poodles to satisfy the demand for labradoodles. This is why farmers were often buying new seed every year, even before GMOs.
Backcross breeding is also used as an alternative to GMOs. This is where you find a gene that you’d like to introduce into your crop, but it’s in another variety or sometimes another, closely related species. For example, in a project at Cornell, plant breeders crossed a butternut squash with a wild squash that was resistant to powdery mildew. The resulting hybrid was disease resistant but tasted terrible, so for years afterward they bred the descendants of that hybrid with butternut squash, keeping the ones that taste like a butternut but still have the disease resistance of the wild variety, and doing it all again next year. It’s a time-consuming process, and is far more likely than GMOs to result in unintended genes ending up in the finished product, since you start with an infusion of thousands of genes instead of just inserting one.
In short, if you’re worried about unnatural DNA manipulation or the possibility of introducing unintended mutations, GMOs are just one of many methods that could maybe, possibly, introduce a mystery mutation. (To be clear, we don’t know of any serious problems that have come up from any of these methods; it’s more hypothetical.) This handy chart from Grist lays out the concerns that apply to different plant breeding techniques, GMO and otherwise. (Grist has done some excellent, unbiased reporting on GMOs. For starters, here is the article that went along with that chart.)
What you can do: It’s just about impossible to avoid plants that have been genetically altered somehow. If you’re very dedicated, you could decide which methods you approve of, find the names of those plant varieties, and look for those when you shop for groceries or for garden plants.
For most people, though, this should be a non-issue: just a glimpse of the bizarre reality behind how your food is (and was historically) made. If mutation breeding or backcrossing honestly bother you, you might consider starting efforts to get those labeled. But since GMOs aren’t particularly more unnatural than these other methods, and since none of them are really objectionable at all (in my own opinion) I’ll be over here eating my Rio Red grapefruit.
Corporations Control Everything—GMO and Otherwise
The concern: Monsanto, maker of GMO crops, is totally evil.
The facts: Agreed: Monsanto and companies like it are bad for agriculture. To be clear, this isn’t just Monsanto: we have to remember that Dow and Bayer, among others, use the same one-two punch to sell GMO seeds alongside their brand of pesticide. The big companies use market leverage and patent law to bully farmers into doing things their way. But here’s the thing: big companies are controlling agriculture for reasons unrelated to GMOs, so a fight against GMOs won’t really reduce the control they have over agriculture.
I really don’t like that these companies own so much of American agriculture. But genetically modified crops only date back to the 1990s, and we’ve had industrial agriculture long before that. Banning or embracing GMOs is just rearranging deck chairs.
The health, environmental, and economic problems of industrial agriculture have deep roots and can’t be solved with a labeling law or two. Large-scale farms that grow corn or soy in monoculture, with an emphasis on killing native plants (aka “weeds”), are decreasing biodiversity (like the milkweed that monarch butterflies require to reproduce). Nutrient cycles in the environment have been disrupted: Instead of animal manure providing fertilizer for plants on the same farm, we have feedlots where “lagoons” of animal waste create health and environmental hazards, while hundreds of miles away, farmers cover their fields in synthetic fertilizer that runs off into nearby waterways, disrupting ecosystems and killing fish.
Who wins in this scenario? Pesticide manufacturers, for sure (with or without GMOs). Seed breeders (likewise). Fertilizer manufacturers. Since the US government subsidizes corn and soy, farmers can sell these crops for less than they spent to grow them, which means consumers get cheap food (so long as it’s made from corn and soy, which most processed food is). The companies that make the processed food win out. The whole system is kind of a wash for farmers (they would do fine with or without GMOs, and many are barely making ends meet anyway). Consumers like you and me? We get cheap food (yay!) but it’s the least healthy kind of food (boo.) Not because GMOs are unhealthy—they’re not—but because the stuff you can make out of corn syrup and corn starch and soybean oil and soy protein is junk food.
Nathanael Johnson, in wrapping up six months of reporting on genetically modified food, lays out the real future that would await us if we could somehow ban GMOs:
In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.
In other words, GMOs were a red herring all along.
In fact, there are plenty of examples where GMO plants are being used for reasons other than profit, like vitamin-A-containing rice and protein-rich potatoes meant to alleviate malnutrition in vulnerable parts of the world. If we’re fighting over-industrialization of agriculture, GMOs are the wrong battleground.
What you can do: This isn’t an easy one. In terms of policy, here’s a crazy idea: what if we paid farmers for taking care of the environment (protecting watersheds, maintaining preserves of native plants) instead of subsidizing every bushel of corn they produce? What if we expanded ways for people on low incomes to buy healthier and locally produced food, like the Double Dollars programs where SNAP benefits buy twice as much at the farmer’s market than at the grocery store?
Back on the home front, decisions become clearer but (without systemic support) sometimes more expensive or difficult. Shopping from those local farms, like we mentioned above, is a tactic that works here too. You may have to change your repertoire of favorite recipes and learn to love meals that take advantage of what’s locally and seasonally available. (But don’t worry—there’s more available than you think, even in temperate climates.) Consider a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription for a steady supply of local food that supports your friendly neighborhood farmer. (Since you pay up front, you’re reducing her financial risk at the beginning of the season.) Sometimes you can work a few shifts on the farm in exchange for free or discounted produce.
If you have space for a garden, or even a few containers, growing your own is a great way to make a dent in your food footprint. (Don’t forget to look around you for community gardens, too.) There’s a learning curve, but gardening can open your eyes to how food is really produced, and the real problems farmers struggle with: you’ll find yourself dealing with weeds, insect pests, and challenges to fertilizing.
I grow a garden myself, and here’s my full disclosure: It’s 99% organic. I typically live with lower yields instead of spraying weed killers or insecticides, and I fertilize with compost or with “natural” items like blood and bone meal (much of which, I realize, probably comes from factory-farmed animals.) I don’t bother looking for organic seeds, although I prefer non-hybrid, heirloom varieties. This year for the first time I’m spraying my apple trees with a synthetic pesticide, because last year the bugs destroyed all my apples. And if there were GMO garden plants available that would give me more food with less work, or fewer pesticides? I’d probably be all for them.