GMO Myths

Right, let’s take another look at some of the nonsense that surrounds genetically modified organisms (GMOs, in this instance I’m talking about food crops again). One of the ways that Greenpeace and the organic food industry in general has successfully demonised GMOs is to scaremonger amongst the public by telling outright lies. The internet is full of articles like 10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs, GMO Dangers: Facts You Need to Know and Why GMOs Can Never Be Safe. Such articles are packed full of the same half dozen or so tired arguments, lies and distortions that those with an agenda think are most likely to make people scared of the very food they eat.

Let’s dissect one such list one point at a time to see what the truth really is. This list of five anti-GMO propaganda points is fairly standard and not so long that I might want to strangle someone by the time I get to the end of it. The second part of the headline reads, “I can’t believe #3 is real,” well, you’ll never guess what, folks, but *spoiler alert* that’s because it isn’t real. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

They’re #1 shocking fact about GMOs is: GMOs are unhealthy.

Since the introduction of GMOs in the mid-1990s, the number of food allergies has sky-rocketed, and health issues such as autism, digestive problems and reproductive disorders are on the rise

Here there is a clear implication that GMOs, somehow, cause allergies. We’ll ignore for now the fact that GMO abundance in the diet in no way correlates with, nevermind causes, allergy incidence. What I will mention is that when we introduce a new gene, or modify an existing one, what we can do is collect up some of the protein that that gene encodes and test it for its allergenic properties. We can quite easily see if it causes any reactions at all and, if so, at what severity and in what proportion of the population. This is why there is yet to be a single confirmed case of an allergic reaction being caused as a result of eating genetically modified food.

Ah, but what about the fish-mato, I hear you say. In 2015 it was reported that “Doctors Confirm First Human Death Officially Caused by GMOs“. Apparently a man with shellfish allergies was killed after consuming a GMO tomato. Sounds scary, right? Would it make you less scared if I told you that some of the other articles from this ‘news’ site were Soviet Flag Spotted on Moon By NASA Telescope Sparks Debate About Secret Moon Landing, Werewolf Scare Claims Three Lives During Summer Solstice Full Moon, and, my personal favourite, German Scientists Prove There Is Life After Death. Seems less scary now, doesn’t it. The fish-mato, a GMO tomato with fish genes inserted into it to make it more resistant to frost, is a anti-GMO boogeyman regularly invoked to induce disgust; the idea of a fishy tasting tomato is, let’s face it, gross. What readers are rarely told is that a) the tomato wouldn’t have tasted of fish, and b) no such product was ever developed. It never existed.

Their final point in this section is that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine recommends that doctors should prescribe their patients a non-GMO diet. The fact that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine is just an anti-GMO environmental group that gave itself a sciency sounding name so that it could be called upon to provide quotes just like this is perhaps relevant here.

Shocking fact #2: GMOs increase herbicide use. One of the real world pros of GMO use is that they lower herbicide use, but here we have the claim that herbicide use has actually increased. So what’s really going on here?

This is where the obligatory bashing of Monsanto begins; the uber-devil of the universe, apparently. When they say herbicide what they really mean is glyphosate. Glyphosate, perhaps better known as Round-Up, is a herbicide resistance to which can be inserted into crops. You can then spray your crops with glyphosate thereby killing all the weeds, which have not been modified, but doing no harm to your crops. Lovely.

In the biotech industry if you invent something and patent it you get 25 years of protection to make as much money from that product as possible. After this time the patent lapses and it’s open season. Anyone can make and sell it and generally consumers are happy because the price plunges. The glyphosate patent lapsed in 2000. Since that time use of glyphosate has naturally increased as it became cheaper. Overall use of all herbicides, however, has consistently fallen in recent decades precisely because Round-Up ready crops are so successful.

They go on to say that resistance to glyphosate could spread to the weeds leading to an unspecified apocalypse the like of which the planet has never seen. If the weeds did all manage to become resistant, which isn’t completely impossible, then all that would happen is that we would be in exactly the same position we were in in 1974 when glyphosate was invented, that’s all. It would be a shame because we would have lost a very useful tool and we would have to spray more herbicides if we wanted to continue getting the same yields.

Shocking fact #3: They are everywhere! They claim that in the US GMOs make up 70-80% of all food. Obviously they don’t provide any references for this claim (because we’d be able to check them and find out it isn’t true), but given that there are only 9 approved GMO crops (alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets) in the US I fail to see how this is true, unless people are eating their genetically modified cotton t-shirts or something.

Shocking fact #4: GMO crops don’t ensure larger harvests. Whoever wrote this article has somehow stumbled onto some truth here, though I don’t think they’re aware of it. The vast majority of GMOs out there make no attempt at all to increase yields, what they aim to do is to have fewer very low yields during bad years by being drought resistant or resistant to a pest for example. There is no expectation amongst the scientific community, then, for yields to be higher every year, just for there to be fewer bad years.

Shocking fact #5: US labelling suppression. It is not currently required in the US to label foods that contain GMOs as such. The argument here is that consumers should be given information to make an informed choice. There’s also some more Monsanto bashing and a dig at Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle and the other usual suspects. “Why do they lobby so hard against labelling,” is the cry. It borders on sounding reasonable, doesn’t it? What could be the harm in providing information?

There are a couple of reasons why labelling GMOs in food would be a terrible idea. Firstly, GMOs are harmless and so what would be the point? Do we need a label for water? Should we be told if some air makes it’s way in to my tin of peaches? No, of course not, because it is irrelevant. There are regulations in place governing how many pieces of insects and rodent hairs and faeces are allowed in our food but we don’t bother to tell the public about it because it’s at such low levels as to not have any health implications. For example, in the US you are allowed to have 1 rodent hair per 10 grams of ground Allspice, you can have 1 maggot per 100 grams of tomato juice and you can have 9 milligrams of rodent excrement per kilo of wheat. Yes, it’s gross, but eating a maggot every now and then won’t do you any harm. You’re food grows out of the dirt, get over it.

The second reason against GMO labelling is that it’s the first step to banning GMOs altogether. Right now the narrative is: why hide it? Let’s just inform the public. The second there are labels that narrative will change to: well if they’re so safe then why do they have to label them? Sound cynical of me? It’s a classic bait and switch scam and is all too common. Here are some quotes for you:

We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” —Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director, Center for Food Safety.

“Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85% of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe.” —Dr. Joseph Mercola, Mercola.com

So what part of this is actually about informing the public? It seems to me that it is more about the organic lobby scaring the public so that they can corner the market for themselves.

I haven’t talked too much about what organic farming actually is. It has successfully cultivated (pun intended) an image for itself as a nice, friendly, down at home, ecologically sound group of family farmers saving the world one harvest at a time. Sadly, this is not the case. I think for the next in this informal series on GMOs I’ll take a look at the side of the organic farming industry that they don’t want you to see.

This has been a long post, if you got this far: I thank you.

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