Its a common axiom among some people interested in food that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a bad idea. This sentiment ranges in intensity from those who think organic food is simply more nutritious to people who believe GMOs are destined to destroy the human race. Much like Brittany’s post about local food, I think this opinion might need a closer look. The following is by no means the whole discussion on GMOs, but hopefully it will raise some questions and lead to some good discussion.

I think the biggest reason people mistakenly demonize GMOs has nothing to do with the crops themselves, but rather the companies that produce them. The predatory nature of companies like Monsanto has been lamented by farmers and activists around them globe. Perhaps these business practices could be a topic of another post (or five or six posts!), but they really have nothing to do with the product.

It is also likely that the incredible rise in the popularity organic foods might have led some to dislike or distrust genetically engineered (GE) foods. The logic here seems valid at first glance: organic food is better, so GE food must be worse! But a closer look reveals several inconsistencies. Consider the Bt pesticide. Bt is a bacterium that has insecticidal properties but is considered safe for humans. Because Bt is naturally occurring, it can be used on organic crops without risk of losing organic certification. Not long ago, scientist discovered a way to insert genetic information from Bt into the genome of certain crops like corn and cotton. These “Bt crops” produce the same insecticide as the Bt bacterium and have been very successful since becoming available in 1996. Bt crops cannot be considered organic because of this genetic modification. So which is really better? Humans are still ingesting the Bt byproducts that have been proven safe (even the Europeans use Bt as a pesticide!), but the Bt crops do not require the additional environmental burdens of using water and burning fossil fuels that are required for pesticide application.

So what are the legitimate reasons for distrusting GMOs? The obvious one is safety. Genetics is still a relatively new field of study and we’re learning more and more each year. How can we possibly ensure that messing with nature in this way won’t have negative consequences? This is the major reason for Europe’s reluctance to use GMOs. Considering the food scares such as Mad Cow Disease in Europe during the 1990’s, they were understandably skittish towards the prospect of adding these untested “frankenfoods” to their food supply. However, it has now been almost twenty years since these products for been on the market and the doomsday predictions have yet to come to fruition. Because of this, uneasiness towards GMOs is waning, even in Europe. This is not to say that GE foods are and will always be safe. As with any new branch of science, we must be very careful not to rush any new crop to market without extensive testing. The question then becomes a simple one: is it worth the risk?

What many food activists have been reluctant to admit is the possibility that we might need GMOs. We need to be realistic about the problems we’re facing as the global population surges past 7 billion. The fact is, GMO foods have steadily increased crop yields over the last 20 years and the implications of new research point to even greater production. The most promising of these new research initiatives is the development of drought-resistance GE crops which could be used to increase crop yields in drought-stricken regions such as Sub-Saharen Africa and reduce the fresh water cost of agriculture. Other interesting research is being done to bolster the nutrient profile of some crops in order to target deficiencies.

The battle for and against GMOs rages on. Unfortunately, you cannot look at this situation in a vacuum; many other factors – such as economic globalization and food sovereignty – contribute to this battle besides the GMOs themselves. While these things should be considered, we can’t afford to ignore the potential of these innovative crops.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Drew, great post. You bring up some excellent points, especially the one about people reacting negatively to the companies that use GMO’s, not the product itself. There is a huge, positive potential for GMO’s when used in the right hands and for the right reasons. They may indeed be a necessary component in a forward-thinking food system. Thank you, also, for posting about the potential safety hazards of GMO’s. I think this is the most important part of the argument. Is there enough research the justify the use of GMO’s as widely as they’re currently being used? Will the technology advanced faster than the research? These are the types of questions we need to be asking and answering because THAT’S how progress will be made, not by screaming about “Frankenfoods” and GMO crops taking over the world. Thanks for this piece!

  2. Jackie says:

    Great post, definitely an important discussion topic. Last year Slow Food did a discussion on GMOs and heard a lot of great thoughts. What it basically came down to is not just the companies, but what the GMOs (and Monsanto) have actually accomplished in the past 20 years. While they could be used to fight hunger, proven by the success of the green revolution in Africa, that has not been the case and we see that it actually creates a lot more harm than good. We currently have more overweight than hungry people on this planet proving that if being used for food at all, these are actually being used to produce unhealthy processed foods that the hungry don’t even see.

    Major plus of GMOs: they increase crop yield. Most important question to always remember is how does the process and this heavy load on the soil affect the fertility of the soil? While you brought up a good point with Bt, we have to remember that most of the GMO seeds on this planet are from monsanto, and they require round up ready fertilizer and insectisides. These products of conventional agriculture erodes topsoil by the tons. Topsoil is our fertility, without this we grow nothing, and without that we all die. Not being apocalyptic, but just laying it out there since it takes thousands of years to create an inch of topsoil. That is why we compost, to give back nutrients that we take from the ground. Increase crop yield means increase nutrient depletion and most of these farmers are not being responsible. For me this isn’t about just our lifetime, but the effect this will have on future generations. I mean most of the corn in america is dent corn, corn that humans do not directly consume. Most of this corn is using the process I just talked about, so we are destroying our fertility on crops we aren’t even eating. Furthermore, it has been proven that GMOs cause genetic pollution. Meaning that the corn and soybeans in the entire world are permanently genetically modified, maybe not all of them right now, but eventually every single one will be. Remember that saying you are what you eat? GENETICALLY-MODIFIED food sources…that haven’t actually been researched in the long run, so beyond just the environmental risks we are imposing on our future generations, but we may be altering our genes and thus our future children’s genes (epigenetics says that our environment-food, air, stress, etc.- can mutate the expression of our genes, which are then passed down to our children). What is sad is that the research that has been done is bias and slanted towards Monsanto because of their bullying manipulative behavior. Monsanto is someone I would definitely be interested in writing an article about because they are pure evil. Need proof before then? Look up India suicide belt, monsanto’s lawsuit record against small farmers for stealing their patented seeds, and here is an article that gives proof around the long term harms against GMOs and Monsanto’s ploys to hide it, plus makes you think hard about the NAFTA agreement (

    1. Brent Bean says:

      In reading these posts, I am struck by how little the general public knows about agriculture and in particular the effect of GMOs on modern agriculture. The statement that GMO products require the use of Roundup ready fertilizer and insecticides is simply wrong. There is no such thing as Roundup ready fertilzer or insecticides. A crop that has been made tolerant to Roundup (glyphosate is the active ingredient) simply means a farmer, can if he chooses use Roundup (or any glyposate containing herbicide) to control weeds without hurting his crop. The crop will grow just fine without the use of Roundup. A Roundup ready crop has absolutely nothing to do with fertilizer or insecticides. In fact, many of the farmers I know routinely use compost and manure in the same fields that they grow Roundup and/or BT crops.

      The statement that the use of GMO crops increases topsoil erosion and poor soil health is also simply not true, and I woud argue it has just the opposite effect. By relying on Roundup for weed control, farmers are better able to adopt no-till or minimum till farming practices. Using these practices actually benefits the soil in that it allows for organic matter to begin to build up in the soil. Organic matter is the key component in soil health. IF weeds are not control with herbicides, then the alternative is hand labor or tillage. Excessive tillage is what led to the dust bowl days, and loss of millions of tons of top soil, during the 50s in the southern High Plains. Every time a soil is plowed, organic matter (CO2) is lost to the atmosphere. Excessive tillage is what has led to the poor soil conditions in many of the third world countries.

  3. Jackie says:

    I didn’t give a solution for GMOs because I believe sustainable, traditional agriculture is the way to go for the longterm and that does not involve altering our biosphere more than we already have. Remember, we have changed our food system more in the past 70 years than in the past 10,000 years. Imagine what that is doing on our health.

    1. Drew says:

      Thanks for your response Jackie! There is a lot to consider when discussing GMOs and you touched on a lot good points, especially the effect these companies (not the GMOs) are having on farmers in developing countries. A lot of your comments reminded me of a fantastic book by Raj Patel that you might have read called Stuffed and Starved.
      You bring up a very good point about the consumption of quality topsoil and how it can be deteriorated by pesticides. It is interesting that you bring up Round-Up in particular. Round-Up does not “erode topsoil by the tons.” In fact, Round-Up has virtually ZERO activity in the soil, meaning that you can spray it on a field one day and plant on that same field the next without risking that crop. Moreover, Round-Up is so effective at killing plants that other herbicides that DO harm topsoil do not have to be applied. My point here is that we can’t just lump “pesticides” all into the same category. There are organic pesticides that a MUCH more harmful to topsoil and to humans than Round-Up.

      I can’t argue with you about Monsanto being a disreputable company, but I’m not sure calling them “pure evil” is the right approach. The fact is that they, along with a handful of other companies, are very powerful and don’t appear to be going away any time soon. Wouldn’t a better approach be to work with these companies to change our current food system for the better?

      You said that you “believe sustainable, traditional agriculture is the way to go,” but what facts are these beliefs founded upon? First, why can GMOs not be sustainable? I don’t see why these two concepts can’t work together. Second, is “traditional” agriculture practical? We do not live in an agrarian society anymore and, unless the majority of the US population decides to move out of the cities and take up farming, we’re going to have to come up with some more innovative solutions. Thirdly, are you really sure we can support the world’s population with current crop yields? Perhaps right now, yes. You’re right that there are more overweight people than starving ones (I wouldn’t go so far as to say “hungry” ones as many people are hungry but not starving). There currently are enough calories in the world for everyone to have enough. But for how long? The world’s population is continuing to grow at an alarming rate. Couple this with the fact that more and more people are reaching the middle class and eating more meat (which takes more grain to produce) and we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Lumping ALL GMOs into the same group and throwing them out as an option is not only impractical but very irresponsible.

      You said that we have changed the food system more rapidly in the past 70 years than the past 10,000. I don’t know if that’s true but it sounds logical. I have no idea what that is doing to our health (although I would argue that the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago has had a MUCH larger effect on human health than GMOs). The way you worded it made it sound very ominous, but the fact is that there has not been any conclusive evidence that GMOs as a group are harmful. Of course there needs to be research done on these crops. Lots and lots of research! But how much will ever be enough to satisfy all of the skeptics. The point I was trying to make with my post is that we should be concerned with all of these other factors surrounding GMOs while making sure not to completely throw out this extremely promising innovation without due diligence.

  4. Jackie says:

    Wow, it is so easy to get wrapped in your own ego about what you think you know. Thank you so much for being so kind to my reply, Drew and Brent. After attending the Tedx event this Saturday, it was brought to my attention that I never read over your responses. I am glad I waited until now. We’re all constantly learning, and recently I have realized how much more personal research I really need to do.

  5. Jackie says:

    While my previous post has a whole bunch of errors, which I thank you for correcting me on, I think I know where I was getting at while being a little too ‘GMOverdramtic.’ The lack of research is what bothers me the most, which is pretty ironic from the sound of my original post. I found a video about a letter by a scientist named Dr. Don Huber right before the passage of GMO alfafa. An expert in genetic warfare, he warned of a pathogen linked to glycosophate that was found to cause spontaneous abortions in cattle. I cannot find the original video, but I did find this article

    I agree we should be able to work with these companies. I just don’t know how compliant companies like monsanto, who I still say are evil, will be. I see a change in our food system’s future so they hopefully won’t be given a choice soon, but as stands I still don’t believe GMOs have helped out farmers in the long term. Look at India’s cotton belt. They refer to it as the suicide belt because of the thousands of farmers committing suicide.
    I guess for me, the cons are far too great for the pros right now. My major mistake was thinking roundup ready seeds require the same fertilizers & pesticides. After a bit more research, I know that these seeds are just resistant to glycosophates. That means you can spray as much of this herbicide as you want onto the soil and it won’t kill the crop while killing everything green around it. Now remember what Dr. Huber said about glycosophates and spontaneous abortions.

    GMO’s role in genetic pollution proves this is irreversible. Maybe if GMOs were something we were just debating about trying out the conversation would be a little different, but instead they have barely been researched and are used by the majority.

    It is obvious we can’t just complain and expect this all to disappear, and that a compromise on both sides is necessary. Monsanto’s lobbying antics make it hard to believe this compromise won’t be slanted towards them in a way that allows too many harmful loopholes.

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