What, specifically, is problematic about GMOs?

Remember when Jimmy Kimmel crashed an L.A. farmer’s market, asked people what a GMO is  (and why it’s bad for you), and got a bunch of really dumb answers?

  1. That was awesome.
  2. It was pretty obvious that there’s a lot of misinformation and bubble-based decision making surrounding this complicated topic.

It’s hard to articulate your opinion on a divisive topic, but harder still if you don’t know what the basis of your opinion is.

In the context of GMO foods, the cultural conversation has become divisive and dissonant. We have some quacky types on one side saying that GMOs will obliterate your body, the earth, and everything in between. On the other side, you have folks arguing that GMOs are safe, fine, well-tested, innocuous, and that anyone who says otherwise is fear-mongering and anti-science.

Most of us, I think, are floating in the middle, just hoping that mom and dad will stop shouting at each other. All of that makes this a great topic for A New Lens. Identifying critical information within complex issues is at the heart of my mission. This won’t be an exhaustive review because the topic has simply become too massive, but today, let’s ask the question again: what, specifically, is problematic about GMOs?

The Basics

At the risk of getting too basic, a GMO is a genetically modified organism. That means its genetic material has been altered using techniques in cellular engineering. This can, but doesn’t have to, include adding in genetic material from other, unrelated organisms (called a transgenic GMO).

Most of the controversy has surrounded the use of GMOs in food, so that’s where we’ll be focusing today. But it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that GMOs are also used in scientific research, in the production of medicines, gene therapy, and more.

But back to food. In the context of agriculture, we have to be clear that we’ve been modifying organisms ever since the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago, when we realized that we could selectively breed plants and animals based on various traits we found beneficial. For example, ancient versions of wheat bore little resemblance to their modern-day counterparts, as we have continually hybridized it over the years to yield more and cost less (among other things). The difference is primarily that hybridization is done at the macro level (breed this plant with that plant), whereas genetic modification is conducted at the micro level (insert this gene into this part of an organism’s DNA).

When it comes to genetic modification of plants that we use for food, there are a couple essential patterns to be aware of:

  1. Most of the genetically modified plants are commodity crops like corn, soy, wheat, and alfalfa.
  2. The most common modifications being made to these plants serve the purpose of increasing their yield per plant and/or amplifying their resistance to pesticides.

What Does the Science Say?

GMO foods that you see on the shelves have largely been declared safe by U.S. government organizations, although many other countries have taken a different approach and banned their use. Media coverage of the topic suggests the scientific consensus is nearly 100% in support of GMO safety. A review of the literature puts it closer to 50/50. Accusations also abound that studies declaring GMOs to be safe were funded by the same biotechnology firms responsible for their manufacture.

Being a scientist who has been through the publication process many times, I respect the difficult path that authors of those studies endure to publish their work. I don’t think it’s as simple as some naysayers would like it to be, suggesting conspiracy theories in which these studies are purely funded by corporate interests and rigged to get the results they want. I’m sure examples of those exist, but I don’t believe they represent all of the literature.

That said, scientific studies by their nature are reductive – they isolate variables and then examine the significance of their effects. So while it’s one of the best investigative processes we have, it’s not perfect, and we should acknowledge that. These studies aren’t well suited to the complexity of human life. For example, a GMO may be engineered to be resistant to a particular pesticide, so that more of that pesticide can be sprayed on a field without killing off the plant (~80% of GMOs are engineered for increased pesticide tolerance). The residual amounts of that pesticide that ultimately reach your body may be considered insignificant and therefore safe at that minimal dose. But it’s difficult or impossible to know how many other simultaneous, chronic exposures to similar substances may build up within a person from everything they consume over the years.

The impact of the total, cumulative toxic load over time is both incredibly variable person to person and completely out of scope for a scientific study to measure. It’s not about denying science or calling them wrong. Studies can’t measure an infinitely complex set of time- and person-dependent variables. This is fair from a scientific perspective, but produces an inadequate answer from a human experience viewpoint. In other words, there are aspects of these conversations that have to take place at a descriptive, non-quantitative level.  It’s about measuring the scale of possible outcomes and weighing those against your personal priorities.

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Growing a variety of crops promotes increased disease resistance and better soil health.

The Conundrum with Commodity Crops

Much of the argument centers on whether GMOs are inherently bad for you. But in arguing over option A (non-GMO commodity crops) and option B (GMO commodity crops), we’ve been hoodwinked into debating equivalently bad pathways. What about how they’re used? I ask that because we’re using GMOs as a vehicle to double down on systems of agriculture and food production that no longer work – systems that yield poor health outcomes, poor environmental outcomes, and poor community outcomes.  This is where I think the problem with genetic modification comes in – not due to any intrinsic evil, but due to the prevailing manner of how we’re applying the technology.

Here’s why. Most genetic modification of food crops is done to so-called commodity crops, like corn, soy, wheat, alfalfa, and sugar beets (all of which are common feeds for livestock). The problem with this is that we already grow way too many of these types of plants – vast monocultures (fields of just one crop, grown again and again) already dominate the landscape of the midwestern U.S.  There are major health and ecological implications to this system, ones that are not nearly as controversial as the safety of the GMO itself.

The ecological problem with “monocropping” is multi-fold. Because it favors uniformity over biodiversity, monocultures generally require more intensive pesticide use and more fertilizer inputs than a diversified farming system. All of this dramatically decreases soil health, meaning we have to go back to the top of the slide and do the fertilizer-and-pesticide routine in perpetuity, an agricultural arms race of sorts.

To be clear, almost any kind of monocropping operation (GMO or otherwise) goes through this “rob Peter to pay Paul” cycle of actions. But when GMOs are largely used to more fully entrench and promote the growth of a net-loss food system, we are applying a powerful technology to an undeserving recipient. Betting the rest of our chips on overabundant grain crops only serves to funnel us more rapidly into the ecological red. It doesn’t support a diverse ecosystem and it doesn’t support a diverse diet.  We’re literally and intentionally elbowing the biodiversity out of our agricultural land.

The loss of biodiversity matters for our bodies, too. GMO grains could be proven to be entirely safe, but eating a range of diverse plants, fruits, and grains exposes us to a greater variety of nutrients. That variety affords us a health buffer: resiliency to stress, injury, and disease. In nature, a field of mixed crops, herbs, and flowers is less vulnerable to disease and pests. In finance, a diversified portfolio is resilient to fluctuations in the market. The same principle applies to our bodies.

In addition to not being good for our diet, many of these same commodity crops are also not suitable for the legions of factory-farmed cows, chickens, and pigs that we feed them to. Increasing our output of commodity crops encourages us to continue using concentrated animal feeding operations, which is a 1-2 ecological punch. In turn, we use valuable agricultural land to grow biologically inappropriate feed for these animals, and then in the process keep those same animals off of pasture, grazing land, and forests where they could make positive ecological contributions (and which are often unsuitable for agriculture anyway).

We don’t need more grains. What we need more of is plant diversity, and that is not the strong suit for GMOs. GMOs are specially designed, require an investment of capital, and are therefore expensive to develop and bring to market. By their very nature, the companies providing them to farmers want to sell them in large quantities so that they can realize a return on their investment. De-emphasizing that approach and focusing on small production of, say, “Heirloom GMOs,” would run counter to their entire business model.

So here’s a summary of my personal stance on GMOs: while not the spawn of satan, they are primarily used to support the disruption of the already deeply modified ecology of our agricultural land. Asking us to double-down on those failed methods is silly when we have better, healthier, and safer ways of feeding people and supporting the diversity and vitality of the natural landscape around us. With the GMO movement, we end up getting more of products we should have less of, while continuing down an unpromising pathway in terms of both ecology and health. The downsides are real and plentiful, while the benefits are mostly hypothetical and often unrealized. When asked, I say I’m not anti-GMO, but I don’t like the way we’ve chosen to apply them and prioritize their importance. I think we need to think holistically about what we’re supporting when we choose to do so.

There is more information available out there. Alternative options are more accessible than ever before for choosing diversity in your farm, your diet, and your local ecology. Start here at eatwild.com. Find out what farms and farmers are already doing in your area – supporting farmers directly gives you a window into your food choices and the opportunity to ask questions that are important to you, such as whether they practice polyculture or how they promote good soil health.

Thanks for taking a few minutes from your day to read today’s post – I genuinely appreciate it. How are you liking A New Lens so far? What would you like to see more of? Less of? Please send us your feedback! You can comment directly on this article or you can also write me directly on our “Contact” page. 

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One Comment

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  1. Love the New Lens…well researched and written topics broken down in an easy to digest format!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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