If heaven is Whole Foods, I’d welcome death with open arms. If I’m hungry, I basically blackout while shopping only to regain consciousness as the cashier scans my final bunch of organic chard…or was it kale?
Though I’ll always pour my savings into impeccably branded health food, I decided to question my devotion to the organic movement. Specifically, I wanted to understand GMO technology as a health, institutional, and environmental concern.
Bottom line: GMOs are safe for personal health, really, but Monsanto and other companies that manufacture GM crops are THE ABSOLUTE WORST. Arguments against GMOs conflate GM technology with more serious problems that often go hand-in-hand, like corporate control over US agriculture, monocropping, and government subsidies. These are the issues worth fighting against. I would pay less attention to whether the product is GM and more attention to the industrial scale and reputation of the company. If you’re worried about pesticides, then grow your own food or ask the farmer whether they spray. Organic crops have pesticides too that may be just as harmful to your health and the environment.
Let’s get to business.
It’s been a while. What are GMOs.
GMOs (“genetically modified organisms”, in case you have been cryogenically frozen for the last 30 years) are basically any plants, animals, mushrooms or other living systems with DNA that has been altered by humans. They are designed to contain new genes that are responsible for certain “desirable” traits, such as increased tolerance to cold weather and…glow-in-the-dark fur. There are literally GMO GLOW-IN-THE-DARK CATS!!! Very disturbing, but sure, I’ll take 5, and see you at the club!
How does modern GM work?
It’s cray. Basically, you 1) identify the gene responsible for a certain trait that you want, 2) insert the gene into what’s called a “vector”, which is usually a virus that is rendered harmless but is still capable of entering the cells of a foreign organism, and then 3) insert the vector into the organism you want to modify (they actually have GENE GUNS for this!), where it enters the cells and changes the genome. A little terrifying, but pretty cool. More details please.
A tale as old as time.
That organic food you’re buying? Yeah, it’s likely that it’s been genetically altered over the last 10,000 years. If you imagine hunters and gatherers picking Driscoll’s-sized strawberries, sweet almonds, and kale of any kind you have been sorely deceived (like me!). Their diet sucked. Berries were the size of peas, almonds were inedible because they produced massive amounts of cyanide (casual) and kale, broccoli and cauliflower—among other edibles—simply didn’t exist. Large, delicious produce was created through breeding techniques (like breeding the biggest with the biggest). I mean, check out what bananas used to look like (>>). Ew!
Let’s talk impact. Are GMOs good or bad?
Unlike the soon-to-be-endangered Emperor penguin, it’s not that black and white, and really depends on what you care about.
GMOS AND MY BODY.
Literally HUNDREDS of scientific studies and our major health and science agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Academy of Sciences, agree that there is no substantial evidence to conclude that GMOs are bad for your health. Remember, the WHO is literally responsible for thwarting a zombie outbreak, so I feel like we should trust them…? This article sums up the research.
The lobby against GMOs is also kind of a disaster. For example (and there are many), anti-GMO groups talk about the danger of consuming crops engineered with the gene “Bt”, which is found in the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis and produces pest-resistant properties (i.e., bugs die when they eat GM Bt plants). If you’re worried about consuming Bt, that’s your prerogative, but organic is not the answer. I’m so confused. So, organic crops are sprayed with a Bt “spray”, which passes organic standards as a “biopesticide.” In fact, Bt is often found in higher quantities on organic farms. Ironically, the putative evidence indicating Bt is harmful is really evidence against Bt sprays…Oh, and guess who sells Bt sprays? Monsanto and their shitty circle of best friends.
What about pesticide and herbicide use in GM crops? A lot of GM crops are engineered with resistance to synthetic herbicides. These crops are sprayed repeatedly (especially as weeds start evolving herbicide resistance), which kills weeds but leaves the engineered crops intact. Thus, the GM food you’re eating may have higher levels of herbicides. BUT, GMOs often have fewer insecticides (thanks to the Bt gene). In fact, one purpose of GM technology is to reduce the need for pesticides. AND, organic crops use pesticides too, the substances are just derived differently. The distinction is between “synthetic” pesticides (used in conventional ag) vs. “biopesticides” (used in organic ag). To make things even more complicated, it’s hard to tell which is worse. So, if your aversion is to the use of any substance that does harm to insects and/or plants, try growing your own food. Synthetic and bio pesticides are functionally the same.
Bottom line: Arguments against GM crops fail to prove that the technology itself is harmful to human health. You’re likely to have more synthetic herbicides on the food you’re eating if you eat GMOs, but both organic and non-organic/GM crops use pesticides, and the health implications of both appear negligible.
Let’s get into some of the bigger problems.
WHAT A SURPRISE. CORPORATIONS TO BLAME.
I hate Monsanto with a passion so fiery that it could melt the gates of hell. But Monsanto gets attention that should be shared with a number of other companies, like Bayer and Dow. These companies sell GMO seeds along with their herbicides so when you buy one you have to buy the other. Rude. They also use their big guns (powerful lawyers armed with patent law) to do some serious harm, like the story we’ve all heard: suing or threatening to sue farmers who are inadvertently growing crops that come from patented seeds for copyright infringement. Literally patented seeds! Casual ownership over a seed and its genome.
Bottom line: The problem isn’t GMOs, it’s the way corporations control them within the broader power they (like Monsanto) have over US agriculture. I mean, these companies have literally dominated the seed market often leaving farmers with no choice.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT NATURE!
So we’re talking about engineering plants that kill bugs and spraying toxic substances into the environment. Great! From what I gathered, more research is needed before we can say for sure that we’re headed towards total ecological meltdown. But there are definitely two issues worth talking about now.
One of them is called gene flow: the movement of genes (that create an organism’s traits) from one animal to another through reproduction. For plants, this happens through pollination. Huh? So imagine you have a farm filled with GM crops that glow in the dark. A gust of wind comes along and blows the pollen from those plants into neighboring, boring plants that don’t glow in the dark. Those neighbors have babies, and all of a sudden you have a bunch of glow-in-the-dark saplings outside the farm. COOL! But not actually, because what if those inherited traits give plants in natural systems a competitive advantage or disadvantage? What if they inherit bug-killing genes, and then start killing cute bees that are simply trying to help? If you haven’t heard, bees are amazing and they’re having a pretty rough time already. Basically, our inventions start altering natural systems and we don’t really know what happens next. (Though if you look around we’ve basically altered everything, like the climate of our PLANET). Fortunately, plants in GMO farms are typically genetically distinct from those directly outside, inhibiting gene flow.
I’m also worried about the use of pesticides and herbicides in GMO farms. This is a tough one because GMO, non-GMO, and organic farms all use them. GM crops often require fewer insecticides because the crops are bred with insecticidal properties. Thus, fewer insecticides flow into the surrounding ecosystems. However, GMOs require more herbicides, so it may be kind of a wash. When comparing GMO with conventional non-GMO farms (i.e., not organic), the environmental benefits of GMO likely outweigh the costs, especially because GM technology supports a higher crop yield. This means we need less land, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to produce the same amount of food. However, the same can’t be said when comparing GMO to organic. Organic farms have other regulations–on top of those that forbid the use of GM–that likely make them better for nature. In reality, all farming practices damage the environment on an industrial scale. What a cluster.
Bottom line: Intensive, large-scale agriculture of any kind impacts the land dramatically. Organic (not just non-GMO) doesn’t mean less-industrial cultivation (think: large monocultures operated by big companies). However, organic crops are more likely to come from an environmental-friendlier farm than GMO crops, but this distinction is because organic farms have restrictions beyond just prohibiting the use of GMOs.
TELL ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE
Grow your own food, obviously. This is a great Wikihow guide of how to do it. (FYI: My dream is to have a green roof over my hobbit home where my cute goats live that exclusively produce goat cheese, in case you were wondering).
If you’re still struggling to keep your succulent alive, then here’s my advice: buy food from small-scale farmers when you can, and talk to them about their practices (they’ll be excited that you asked). When you’re out of chard/kale/glow-in-the-dark cats and not interested in analyzing every product you buy, choose local. If that’s not an option, think about what you care about. Damning evil corporations? Buy organic. Saving forests? Avoid conventional, but buy GMOs. Crawdads in the river? Buy organic. Your body? Tough to say, but I would err on the side of organic, but not just non-GMO.
If you’re still not sure, just stick to attractive packaging.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this post was to talk about GM technology. I left out many important topics, including organic farming v. the rest, GM meat and dairy, GMOs and world hunger, the science of pesticides, etc. There is so much more worth learning about, so I encourage you to explore these topics on your own.
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