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In The Country


Tim Iverson

(1/2017) GMOs and Organic foods are hot button issues. A survey reported on by The Washington Post from June 2016 shows that 91% of respondents believe that consumers have a right to know if theyíre buying products containing GMOs. Another 88% believe GMO foods ought to be labeled, while only 40% of people surveyed claimed to have a good or excellent understanding of what a GMO is. Only 22% of respondents agreed that scientists have not found any risks to human health by consuming GMOs. Whatís really interesting in these results is that while less than half of respondents claim to have a good understanding of what a GMO is more than three quarters of those surveyed think food scientists are okay with either knowingly or passively feeding poisonous food to the population (which would include themselves, their friends, and their own family).

Letís start by tackling the basic concept of what a genetically modified organism (GMO) actually is. The World Health Organization defines a GMO, "as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." This can be accomplished through genetic engineering done synthetically in a lab or by successively mating pairs until a desired set of traits become dominant. Weíve been performing the latter type of genetic modifications on plants and animals for millennia - essentially since agriculture began. Those orange carrots commonly found in grocery stores and farmers markets are a GMO originating from the Dutch in the 16th or 17th century by selectively breeding yellow and white carrots. During the summer nothing tastes quite as a good or refreshing as a seedless watermelon, which is also a GMO. Natural apples found in the wild are small and bitter, but by grafting them we were able to make them bigger and sweeter. The same is true for citrus, which are largely hybrids today due to thousands of years of cultivation through grafting and intentional cross-pollination. The list could go on ad infinitum for things humanity has been artificially cultivating, but thatís not really the issue at stake when it comes to GMOs. When comparing non-GMO organics to GMOís people essentially want to know is it safe for us and the environment, and which is healthier?

GMOís, whether genetically engineered in a lab or methodically bred, are safe. There is over 30 years of data to demonstrate they are. It takes, on average, 13 years before a GMO reaches a consumer, 5 to 7 years of which is regulation and testing alone. Americans have the three agencies monitoring, regulating, and reviewing the research, production, and industry as a whole (the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency). There are also consumer watchdog groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Food Safety, and more.

The Soil Association, an organic association in the UK, surveyed consumers and found that 95% buy organic food to avoid pesticides. Unfortunately, pesticides are commonly used in organic farming. In fact, because the use of synthetic pesticides is banned from organic cultivation farmers need to apply anywhere from 4 to 30 times as much non-synthetic pesticides to be as effective as synthetics.

Many organic farms will spray their crops all season long, while non-organics may need to only apply synthetic pesticides or herbicides once or twice in a growing season. Organic farmers liberally apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin onto their crops. There are genetically engineered crops that have this Bt toxin encoded into the gene. It keeps the plant safe from pests, the ecosystem from being inundated with unnecessary chemical treatment, and most importantly is safe for human consumption. Ecologically itís a win-win.

Non-organic farming requires between 20% - 50% less land to produce the same crop yield as an organic farm. Another ecological win for non-organic GMO agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that there are currently 800 million people suffering from hunger globally, and 16 million will likely die as a result. We currently farm about 35% of globeís available land. If we switched exclusively to organic farming practices those 16 million deaths would skyrocket to 1.3 billion, unless we cleared an additional 20% more land for agriculture, at a minimum.

In 2011, Scientific American reported, "an independent research project in the UK systematically reviewed the 162 articles on organic versus non-organic crops published in peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008. These contained a total of 3,558 comparisons of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced foods. They found absolutely no evidence for any differences in content of over 15 different nutrients including vitamin C, carotene, and calcium. There were some differences, though; conventional crops had higher nitrogen levels, while organic ones had higher phosphorus and acidity - none of which factor in much to nutritional quality."

Buying organic is more akin to buying a brand, but organic farming does have advantages. Modern agriculture uses a monoculture system, planting the same crop in the same space year after year. Organic farming utilizes a rotating polyculture system. This system plants different crops in different areas, or adjacent to one another, and rotates them so they donít use the same plots year after year. This system has been shown to yield better results in weed prevention and revitalizing soil nutrients, which is paramount to soil health. Polycultures can also lead to better moisture retention requiring less irrigation and water usage. Itís also important to note that by using stronger synthetic (glyphosate based) pesticides weeds and other pests have begun developing an immunity, much like to overuse of antibiotics has led to a rise in "superbugs." Organic farming does not allow for the use of these types of pesticides. Links are still hazy and more research is underway, but the over application of these pesticides may also be contributing to population declines in honey bees, Monarch butterflies, and other pollinators.

Ultimately, itís up to you as an individual to decide what is best for you and your family. There are about 12 commercially available GMO products in circulation either directly or as by-products used in other things (corn, soy, canola, tomatoes, rice, alfalfa, papaya, peas, potatoes, squash, zucchini, and cottonseed). These have all been rigorously tested by US government agencies, international governments, and world health bodies. They have always been deemed safe for use and consumption. The WHO summarizes, "GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved." If, despite all this, your concerns are still unassuaged try purchasing your produce locally and directly at a farmerís market and see how your produce is made from the person directly responsible for it.

Words like GMOís, chemicals, and synthetics are marred as evil or inherently bad, but they are simply misinformed opinions and they stand in the way of meaningful progress. Science denialism has led to the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, which has reintroduced deadly pathogens to our society and has cost lives as a result. Science denialism also protracts meaningful impacts against climate change. There isnít a viable reason why this should be considered a zero-sum game. It is possible to recognize that rotating polycultures and reducing the use of pesticides while simultaneously increasing output through GMO use is a mutually beneficial way forward.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson