GMOs Revisited

The battle over genetically engineered foods goes on! The latest salvo deserves your attention.

First, some background.

GE foods are referred to, incorrectly, as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), but that term encompasses natural and human-made hybrids, while “GE foods” refers specifically to foods created by introducing foreign genes.

No one resists actual GMOs, because everything we eat has been genetically modified, either by hybridization managed naturally by bees and other pollinators, growers who do the work of bees in an organized way, or farmers who select and replant seeds from the best-performing plants in their fields. These practices all modify genes.

On the other hand, the vast majority of consumers has been—and continues to be—strongly resistant to GE foods, typically concerned that there must be bad consequences from “fooling around with Mother Nature.”

Consumers have demanded labeling GE foods, so that they could avoid them at their discretion. Federal regulations allow labeling foods as “organic” when they meet certain standards, including not being produced through genetic engineering.

However, federal regulators have agreed with the Monsanto Corporation, the major source of GE food seeds, that GE foods are no different from conventionally produced foods, and therefore do not require labeling, as such. Critics dispute this conclusion, because corporate interests have controlled most related research.

So, consumers with concerns about GE foods have always had the option to buy only organic foods. Still, consumer groups have pressed for labeling of GE foods (called GMOs).

In late July of this year, Congress, under pressure from agribusiness, approved compromise legislation mandating a national standard for labeling GE foods, and President Obama signed the bill. The problem with this standard is that it doesn’t require such foods to be identified plainly in print, but instead allows labeling to be done through UPC codes or website addresses. Consumers were disappointed and even outraged.

Congress was motivated to adopt this industry-friendly approach for various reasons, including the claims that genetic engineering is needed to feed the world’s growing population, and reduce needs for agricultural chemicals.

My view has been that the impacts of GE foods on health have not been demonstrated convincingly, and the actual problem with GE foods lies with their unproven benefits, corporate control of seeds and increased uses of synthetic chemical herbicides.

The latest salvo in this struggle is the report of investigative journalism, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” published very recently in the New York Times. The reporter, Danny Hakim, compared historical yields of crops in the U.S. with those in Europe, where GMOs have been banned in agriculture.

U.S. farmers use GE seeds almost always in growing corn, and European farmers do not, so this is a crucial comparison. Hakim found that yields of corn crops were about the same in Europe and the U.S., indicating no benefit from GE technology.

Hakim also compared yields of crops of rapeseed (used to produce canola oil) and sugar beets, and also found zero benefit from GE technology.

Hakim’s research also found that herbicide usage in the U.S. has grown dramatically over the past ten years, primarily in the use of Roundup, which kills weeds and other plants other than those grown from “Roundup-Ready” seeds produced with genetic engineering. Critics note that uses of synthetic agricultural chemicals are poisoning our soils, getting into our foods, and fostering the evolution of “superweeds” that resist the chemical attacks.

Another report of investigate journalism, by Krista Holobar, “Does Big Ag Really Feed the World? New Data Says Not So Much,” was published recently online by Civil Eats. She found that U.S. agribusiness does very little to provide food for undernourished people, and concluded that helping those populations should emphasize economic development, education, health and nutrition training, and an end to warfare.

The best strategy for U.S. consumers is to Buy Organic!

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