In Defense Of Sustainable Food
We examine what GMOs are and how they affect our global food systems.
In a recent LA Times op-ed article entitled “Chipotle’s Junk Science on GMOs” by Steven Sexton, professor of public policy and economics at Duke, and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley (and consulting scientist for Monsanto), many claims regarding GMOs and their relationship to sustainability and the health of our environment were made. We believe many of these claims to be misrepresenting the truth, and would like to share more information as to why.
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In response to "Chipotle's Junk Science on GMOs" as published by the LA Times.
In a recent LA Times op-ed article entitled “Chipotle’s Junk Science on GMOs” by Steven Sexton, professor of public policy and economics at Duke, and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley (and consulting scientist for Monsanto), many claims regarding GMOs and their relationship to sustainability and the health of our environment were made.
We believe many of these claims to be misrepresenting the truth, and would like to share more information as to why.
What’s Really Going On?
First, What Is A GMO?
The World Health Organization defines GMOs as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally (source).
There are two types of GMO seed—pesticide producers and herbicide resisters. The job of the former is kill insects. For example, BT Corn, a GMO seed which has been engineered to resist a common pest, the European corn borer.
The job of the latter is to resist certain weeds, like the popular Roundup Ready Soybeans, which are engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup. This allows farmers to spray entire fields, killing all the weeds and leaving only soybeans left.
Clearing The Fog
In the article, the authors bash Chipotle for their decision to remove all foods containing GMOs, stating the decision must be “rooted either in ignorance or in crass profit-seeking at the expense of science.”
Sexton and Zilberman continue by referencing that “more than two decades of research indicate that GMOs are not only safe for humans and the environment, but also contribute to global sustainability and poverty alleviation.”
While two decades of research is certainly sufficient, we must question where the research comes from.
Who Said That?
In its 1992 Statement of Food Policy, the FDA states that it does not conduct independent research on the safety of GMOs.
Instead, the FDA relies only on studies provided by the companies themselves. In other words, those who stand to gain from approval of GMOs are those responsible for determining their safety (source).
The authors proceed to outline supposed benefits of GMOs, including their potential for “boosting nutrient density of staple crops for the poor, enhancing crop resiliency to climatic extremes and equipping subsistence farmers in the developing world with cash crops.”
To the argument of GMOs potential for boosting nutrient density, a 2012 Nutritional Analysis of GMO corn versus non-GMO corn by De Dell Seed Company (Canada’s only non-GMO corn seed company) states otherwise.
In this study, researchers found calcium levels to be 437 times higher, magnesium levels 56 times higher, and maganese levels 7 times higher in non-GMO corn than in GMO corn (source).
Unfortunately, the only element “boosted” that’s worth mentioning was glyphosate (the herbicide used to make Roundup). The EPA determines a safe level for glyphosate at .7ppm, and this study showed GMO corn contains 13 ppm (source).
More Data Is Needed
To determine whether or not GMOs enhance crop resiliency to climatic extremes, more long-term, experiential data is needed.
However, educated ecologists will agree that the success of plants is dependent upon the health of the soil. Healthy soil is formed through the natural process of accumulation and decomposition of sediment and organic matter over long periods of time. Introducing toxic chemicals upsets the complex balance of biology found in soils.
When soil health is compromised in this way, crop resiliency, in the face of climatic extremes or non-extremes, is also compromised.
Nature alone is the only one responsible for creating healthy soil. As humans, we can only support her efforts by introducing organic compost, mulches, and incorporating new farming practices such as no-till, rotational grazing, crop rotation, and agroforestry, to name a few.
Healthy Soil Matters
No Significant Difference
Finally, GMOs do indeed equip subsistence farmers in the developing world with cash crops, but is the growth of these crops sustainable?
In 1998, The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service performed a cost and return survey on over 800 Iowa farmers. The results found “genetically-modified crops provided farmers with no significant difference in returns.”
Even more interesting was how “increasing crop yields was cited by over half the farmers as the reason for planting GMO soybeans, yet yields were actually lower.” (source)
The tragedy yet-to-be mentioned is that as farmers in the developing world transition from using their own seed to using GMO seed, they become slaves to manufacturers and their monetary motives.
GMO seeds are patented, which makes them illegal to save and reuse. This means, instead of saving seeds for free, a farmer has to buy his GMO corn seed at over $220/ 80k. bag,every season (source). Plus, because there are still weeds and pests that survive the chemical onslaught (now termed super weeds and super pests), even more chemicals are needed to maintain the unhealthy balance.
The good news is, there is an alternative and more sustainable method for subsistence farmers—grow food using organic methods in a polyculture system, and save the seeds for future planting.
In response to the claim that numerous organizations such as “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
— charged specifically with ensuring our food safety — the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Commission, the U.S. National Academies of Science and the American Medical Assn.” have declared GMOs safe, is very misleading.
For example, while the World Health Organization does state:
“No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved,” the author has failed to mention the latter part of the same statement: “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods."(source)
Too Soon To Conclude
There are similar examples of misleading statements by each of these organizations—too many to mention.
In general, scientists agree that it is too soon to conclude using factual data the positive or negative effects that GMOs have on our health and our environment. Of course, as a generation of human test subjects, we will find out someday.
In conclusion, it’s clear that in order to address all of the concerns surrounding GMOs with clear and accurate data, more time, research, and money is needed.
I’m Not A Human Test Subject
Education For Life
In the meantime, we can educate ourselves on the topic, and use our common sense to decide whether or not we wish to consume GMOs.
We give a thumbs-up to forward-thinking companies like Chipotle for their efforts to create positive changes in our food system, and a thumbs down to individuals who dilute the truth and pursue their financial interests without respect for people or the planet. Now, let’s go get a burrito.
• There are over 60 countries worldwide that require GMO foods to be labeled (source). We think the United States should be one of them. Reach out to your congressmen, senators, and local governments and request that we label GMOs.
• The United States has lost 93% of its crop diversity in the last 100 years (source: GMO, OMG film). Grow your own food, save its seeds, and help preserve the genetic diversity of organic and heirloom varieties in your own backyard.
• Did you know? 80% of processed foods contain GMOs (source: GMO, OMG film). Use your purchasing power and buy local, fresh, and organic produce from the farmers market. If you do shop for processed foods, make the best choices by getting to know the Non-GMO Shopping Guide.
• Learn more about how you can be part of the solution. Join us for a workshop, lecture or school program to become an advocate for sustainable food systems.