What’s wrong with GMOs?

IMG_5733What’s wrong with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in food production? While many GMO critics say they pose health hazards, I find that argument unconvincing. Instead, I am concerned about:

  1. the tie between GMO crops and overuse of pesticides and fertilizer, each of which has serious environmental consequences;
  2. the contribution of seed companies and GMOs to the increasing industrialization of agriculture, which I believe harms the land, farmers and consumers;
  3. GMO genetic drift, which contributes to contamination of crops of neighboring farmers and, even more seriously, may contribute to the development of superweeds.

I support GMO labeling for the same reason that I support other labeling, such as country of origin labeling for meat and vegetables or rBGH labeling for dairy products. I think more information is a positive good, and that consumers should be allowed to make their own choices. For example, while I see no human health hazards in drinking milk produced by cows treated with rBGH, I see very high health hazards to the cows — and a detriment to dairy farming in general. For those reasons, I choose not to buy dairy products unless they are rBGH-free, and I support labeling because it gives me an option to choose.

When a reader responded to my recent post on GMO labeling, I sent a quick but insufficient response. A longer response – like most of my blog posts – takes quite a bit of time for research and writing, which produced this post. I doubt that this particular reader will be swayed from support of GMOs by my response, but at least I want to set out my position clearly.  

So — on to my specific criticisms of GMO seeds.

First, seed and chemical companies focus primarily on GMO seeds that are resistant to specific pesticides, such as “Roundup-Ready” soybeans, alfalfa, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets. As I wrote in Al Jazeera in 2014:

Here’s how it typically goes: The agrochemical escalation begins when a new herbicide or pesticide is developed and approved. The chemical company promises that the new product will provide better protection against broadleaf weeds or boll weevils or problem grasses or corn borers or some other plant or insect pest. Farmers buy the new pesticide, and for a time, it works — that is, it works to reduce specific weeds for the farmers who use it. But even that success comes at the risk of poisoning neighboring farmers’ crops and people and animals exposed to chemical drift.

Then a few of the targeted weeds or insects prove strong enough to survive. With their genetic advantage, they multiply and eventually dominate their species. A new generation of pests emerges, with a genetic resistance to the pesticide. Farmers apply more of the product to knock out the stronger nemesis, and the cycle continues until the weed or insect resistance is so strong that the product doesn’t work against them. And then the game begins again.

The development of pesticide-resistant weeds is a serious and widespread problem. So is the impact of pesticides on humans living on or near farms, who may be affected by exposure to those pesticides. The World Health Organization recently warned that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”

Second, GMO seeds are part of a capital-intensive model of crop production that invests heavily in maximizing yields through purchased inputs — seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The end results include increased yields, but also serious damage to topsoil and water resources. If you have specific questions about problems with the industrial agriculture model, check out Land Stewardship’s Myth Busters series.

Third, genetic drift spreads the modified genes to nearby fields growing the same crops (GMO corn to organic corn), and also, at times to closely-related weeds, contributing in a second way to the development of superweeds. For U.S. farmers, the market implications are serious, as some countries refuse imports of GMO grain or other crops. GMO drift has been confirmed in both rice and wheat, according to the New York Times:

“In 2006, after traces of an unapproved genetically engineered rice were found in the American harvest, rice prices dropped, at least temporarily, and exports slowed.

“Bayer CropScience, the company that developed and field-tested the rice, agreed to pay $750 million to settle claims with about 11,000 American farmers.

“Mr. Firko said the rice situation was different because the grain was found in commercial supplies. In the case of the wheat, the genetically modified plants were growing where they were not wanted, like a weed.”

GMOs are one important part of the industrial crop production system. That entire system — capital-intensive and heavily dependent on application of chemicals and fertilizers — raises serious concerns for the health of our soil, water, people and rural communities.

Here are some additional places to look for information and arguments for and against GMOs.

GMOs, generally


Genetic drift





Filed under agriculture, environment, food and farming

4 responses to “What’s wrong with GMOs?

  1. C.Carlson

    I’ve been pondering the best way to respond to this post. I started out by looking at some of your citations, hoping to better understand the basis of your beliefs, but the I realized that this last post was simply a Gish Gallop. I wonder if you have even read some of the articles you refer to, and if so, how you could possibly take them to reinforce your beliefs in the evil effects of genetically engineered organisms. I can only conclude that your political beliefs, and the echo chamber within which you operate, won’t allow you to actually try to understand the “facts on the ground”. Rather, you employ the common tactics of purveyors of pseudoscience – cherry-picking, motivated reasoning, etc. – to bolster the conclusions you have already reached. Therefore I will spare you (and myself) a parallel litany of citations that no reader would care to examine anyway.

    I consider myself a progressive; in fact, my political views tend to be significantly to the ‘left’ of most of my liberal/progressive friends. However, when it comes to issues of social policy that are related to science and technology, I try to base my political stand on an understanding of the larger context of the relevant science. As an organic gardener for over 40 years, I have had to overcome a certain amount of cognitive dissonance while investigating the science behind sustainable agriculture. But the data provided by studies in biotechnology-related fields shows that GE foods are safe for both animal and human consumption, their use has helped decrease the need for an application of both herbicides and insecticides, and GE technology can provide safe and effective solutions to both plant diseases (see papaya in Hawaii) and nutritional issues (see Golden Rice). GE is not a silver bullet or a panacea, but it is a technology that should continue to be investigated to help deal with growing global food needs and disruption caused by global climate change.

    Speaking of the latter, the liberal/progressive orthodoxy against GE is ironically similar to the right’s denial of the science of anthropogenic climate change. But as a basically pseudoscientific position, it shares the characteristics of the anti-vaccination movement, ‘alternative’ medicine, including Reiki and homeopathy, and creationism. Such faith-based beliefs are hard to shake, so I don’t expect you to look seriously at any sources I might offer. However, some of your readers might honestly be looking for the “facts on the ground.” For them, I would recommend David Tribe’s blog GMO Pundit (http://gmopundit.blogspot.com); Steve Savage’s blog Applied Mythology (http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com); Genetic Literacy Project (https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org); GMO Answers (https://gmoanswers.com); and science-oriented podcasts like Rationally Speaking, Inquiring Minds, and Talking Biotech. Some of these sources are pro-GE, but all of them are pro-science, and discuss the related issues honestly with a firm reliance on sound data.

    If hearing opposing ideas is difficult for you, I must quote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”


    • Mary Turck

      Interesting – you don’t believe I’ve read the articles I cite (I have), and suggest instead that I read two authors who mainly defend GMOs against charges that eating them is not damaging to health – which is a claim that I specifically do NOT make.
      So, rather than responding to the three specific arguments that I DO make, you launch an ad hominem attack. Did you even read this post?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not so very familiar with the GMO world, but have been doing a bit of reading and research over the last few months. I am not quite as sanguine as either of you about the potential health impacts. From what I’ve gleaned, quite some long time ago GMOs were granted GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) by the FDA and there is no kind of long-term testing required for potential health risks for any GMOs. I would love to be wrong about that. (I have not read all the articles in the footnotes.) Animal studies have found problems with liver, kidney, and pancreas functions.

    I believe it is also true that what testing is done, is conducted by the company marketing the product, and they report their findings to the FDA. No independent testing is required. Am I wrong about this? (I am not being sarcastic here, I am wondering if I am only reading slanted things–but the in-house testing thing seems pretty straightforward.)

    But I agree that all the chemical inputs–herbicides and pesticides, fertilizers, and new seed each year (it being illegal to save seeds from these GMO crops–am I wrong on that?) are wreaking havoc on our soil, squeezing all the natural biotic life out of it.

    And the genetic drift factor is huge. Already GMO canola has decimated much (all?) of the non-GMO canola in Canada. Biodiversity is important. The more diversity, the more resilience. GMO crops blow willy nilly on the wind. Both the inserted GMOs and the herbicides/pesticides have impacts–on pollinators, soil, and water.

    On these factors alone, I agree that GMOs should at least be labeled. But I would also argue for more independent, long-term research about potential health impacts. Think of all those pesticides. All those hormones. Is it really possible there is not a long-term effect?


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