Five Facts About GMOs

Five Facts About GMOs

Much has been made about the purported health and environmental consequences of the widespread cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The truth of the matter has been further obfuscated by a high profile ballot measure campaign in the State of California during the 2012 election. In the Golden State, the food industry engaged in a multimillion dollar ad war against health and environmental groups over a proposed ballot initiative to require the labeling of all foods containing GMOs. The ballot initiative failed, thanks in large part to the superior purchasing power of the commercial food lobby. More significant perhaps, was the wealth of misinformation injected by both sides into the debate through disingenuous political attack ads.

The truth, of course, is far too complex to be rendered down into a thirty-second TV spot. The widespread adoption of genetically modified foods has been tarred as the cause of a wide variety of societal Ills. The honeybee apocalypse, the obesity epidemic, climate change, soaring cancer rates—all of these systemic problems have been sourced to GMOs by one interest group or another.

On the other side of the debate you have the commercial food and agriculture industries. Companies like Monsanto and Kellogg’s push against their critics using the same soft science the tobacco companies relied on for years to deny the harmful effects of smoking. They argue that farmers have been genetically modifying foods since before the industrial revolution, a claim that is simultaneously accurate and entirely misleading.

So what are the real facts about genetically modified foods and their impact on our health, environment and society?

1)    There is no definitive science suggesting the consumption of GMOs directly affects human health.

Interest groups aligned against GMOs claim direct evidence that consuming genetically altered foods can have a wide range of deleterious health affects. Most of these claims, however, rely on correlative studies showing increases in chronic illnesses like obesity and autism that coincide with the explosion of GMO farming. While there’s no denying the correlation exists, determining causality between the two is a much murkier proposition. Widespread commercial GMOs were introduced to the American food supply in 1996. Since then, obesity and autism rates have also increased precipitously, but it’s impossible isolate the ingestion of GMOs as the solitary or even leading cause of the problem.

2)    The widespread monocropping associated with commercial farming is entirely unsustainable and quite possibly killing the bees.

GMO farming does hurt the environment. One of the most important reasons agricultural conglomerates began creating and patenting genetically modified foods is the desire for uniformity. When people go to the grocery store, they want their red apples to look and taste like red apples. But this lack of genetic diversity makes crops more susceptible to pests and disease. The practice of monocropping—growing large plots of a single crop, year after year, without rotation—has only compounded the problem. In order to combat this weakness, farmers growing GMOs are forced to treat their crops with toxic pesticides that harm the environment and work their way into the food supply.

Sadly, there is credible evidence that this lack of diversity is also the culprit behind the ongoing bee apocalypse. Honeybees are required to pollinate many popular GMOs, but honeybees need diversity in their diet just like human beings. The vast quantity of pollen collected from genetically identical plants weakens the honeybee immune system, paving the way for deadly parasites like the varoia mite.

3)    Companies like Monsanto use GMO patents to abuse small and independent farmers.

When a company like Monsanto creates a new GMO, they file a patent on the genetic code. If a farmer is caught growing a patented crop without paying a steep licensing fee, the company that owns the patent can financially destroy the farmer with expensive litigation. This is an all-too-common practice in America’s breadbasket. Many of the farmers sued by corporations don’t even realize they’re breaking the law. GMO seeds can be very aggressive. Patented crops often germinate on a farmer’s land, unbeknownst to the farmer.

4)    Farmers have been genetically modifying foods since before the industrial revolution, but never on such an immeasurable scale.

The process of selecting for desirable traits in food is nothing new. Farmers have always used techniques like isolation and grafting to favor crops with the best flavor and appearance. Although these processes are technically forms of genetic modification, they’re nothing compared to the widespread gene-splicing going on today in corporate laboratories around the world.

5)    The widespread cultivation of GMOs is destroying heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and limiting critical diversity in the human diet.

Before GMOs every farmer had his or her own variety of spinach, lettuce, tomato—you name it. The proliferation of GMOs is causing these heirloom crops to go the way of the dinosaurs. Human beings need diversity in their diets just as much as honeybees do. While GMOs may not be a direct cause of obesity, the explosion of genetically modified corn and soy in our diet certainly is.

Image courtesy of Toa55 /