'GMO free' myth busting: Labeling movement leading farmers to use more toxic chemicals

When Chipotle announced the removal of GMOs from its menu, it also pledged that it's newly sourced ingredients will reduce pesticide use in agriculture and in our foods.

Well, sort of, kinda maybe, maybe not. Well, not.

Chipotle's questionable marketing tactics, and similar recent marketing moves by Whole Foods and Panera, may have brought out the knives of scientists and science minded journalists, but they were not hatched in a vacuum. Consumers are responding to the demonization of GMOs and our foods are tainted with 'dangerous' chemicals. Trumpeting organic or 'natural' bonafides is a hot marketing trend. Sales of "GMO free" or "non-GMO" products are booming. Consumers are led to believe that they are buying healthier products. And they are told that they are buying foods that have been grown in a more ecologically conscious way.

Is that accurate? What is the ecological impact of the "non GMO" movement?

We know that some farmers are switching from conventional agriculture using genetically engineered seeds to organic and non-GMO conventional farming. Last year, NPR produced a profile of Lynn Clarkson, founder of Clarkson Grain in Illinois said he expects a 25 percent increase in demand for non-GMO crops on an annual basis. Consumers have shown they will pay more for "GMO free" products, and nothing entices a farmer like the prospect of higher prices.

But let's be clear here. Non-GMO farming is not the same thing as organic farming. Many farmers practice conventional farming while avoiding GMOs. While organic farmers use less synthetic pesticides than conventional farmers, non-GMO conventional farmers often use more chemicals, and more dangerous ones, than farmers using GM seeds.

How could that be? As Marc Brazeau noted at Food and Farm Discussion Lab, what Chipotle isn’t telling you is that its new "non GMO" menu is hardly a model of farming sustainability.

To better serve their customers ‘values’ they will be sourcing cooking oil from sunflowers bred through chemical mutagenesis and grown with what is apparently the anti-GMO movement’s favorite herbicide, imazamox in place of soy or canola oils grown with glyphosate. As well, they will be sourcing corn produced with the herbicide atrazine and the insecticide chlorpyrifos* rather than the herbicide glyphosate and the Bt trait.

Most GM crops in the U.S. are either herbicide tolerant (containing so-called Ht traits) which require the use of newer pesticides, such as glyphosate, with lower toxicity profiles compared to what farmers had traditionally used; or those that carry the natural Bt protein, which kills or repels insects without the need for insecticide sprays.

Weed control is a persistent problem for a farmer, and glyphosate allows farmers to control weeds and improve yields. “There’s a shift from glyphosate to herbicides that were used before glyphosate, which are more persistent and have higher toxicity and are more environmentally damaging than glyphosate,” Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California Davis genetics professor, told me.

GMOs=increased chemical usage myth

So why do so many consumers, and even journalists, believe that the use of GMO crops has led to an increase in the US of toxic chemicals. One major source for this misinformation is a widely circulated 2012 study by organic proponent Charles Benbrook on pesticide use in the U.S. from 1996 to 2011. Benbrook leads the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. His paper attempted to make the case that glyphosate-resistant crops have led to an increase of 527 million pounds of herbicide usage in the US.

But a review of his analysis--Jon Entine dissected it for Forbes in 2012 shows something quite different than what Benbrook claimed. Pesticide use actually fell on a yield per acre basis, and has been doing so since the introduction of GM crops.

As Van Eenennaam has pointed out, the critical question isn’t how much has pesticides are being used by volume, but how toxic are they.

Surprising to many--most likely to consumers who believe they are doing the ecological "right thing" by buying non-GMO corps--the per acre toxic levels of chemicals used in conventional agriculture has declined since the introduction of GM crops. According to independently produced data, GM crops may actually have reduced worldwide pesticide use by 9.1 per cent over the period of the Benbrook study. Moreover, the pesticides now being used, glyphosate in particular, are far less toxic than ones used by previous generations of farmers--a direct result of the use of genetically engineered herbicide resistant crops. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Because glyphosate is significantly less toxic and less persistent than traditional herbicides the net impact of (herbicide-tolerant) crop adoption is an improvement in environmental quality and a reduction in the health risks associated with herbicide use (even if there are slight increases in the total pounds of herbicide applied).

The USDA also noted that the use of Bt crops over the past decades has led to a 10 fold reduction in pesticide use. That trend too might be reversed. Brazeau speculated that responding to the demand created by Chipotle for GMO-free crops, farmers nee ding to control pests might turn to chlorpyrifos, which has linked to neurological effects, persistent developmental disorders and autoimmune disorders.

You may have heard bad things about chlorpyrifos, but don’t get your NPR tote bag in a twist, it’s mostly just dangerous for farm workers, you can eat Chipotle to your heart’s content and not have to worry about it. Just know that your made up fear of Bt corn is WAY more important the actual health of farm workers and their kids.

The boom in demand for non GMO or GMO free products threatens to reverse two decades of  sustainable trends. Farmers embracing non-GMO crops--those who will be selling to Chipotle, for example, and supply foods to foodie grocery store favorites like Whole Foods--do not grow Ht or Bt crops. Steve Orloff, a farm advisor in Siskiyou County in California said that farmers in his region formerly growing herbicide-tolerant crops are switching to growing non-GMO crops even though that is resulting in the use of more toxic pesticides.

So why are farmers switching away from more sustainable GMO crops to non-GMO varieties, even though such a switch often leads to a reliance on more chemicals? According to Allen Williams, who grows grain for Clarkson in Illinois, many farmers are making the switch purely to cash in on the latest foodie trend.

"You're just trying to improve your profit,” he said. “There's not a lot of ways to do that, if you're growing commodities. This is one way to do that."

At least in this instance, a win for anti-GMO movement--increased sales of 'GMO free' products--can be a significant loss for the environment.

Rebecca Randall is a journalist focusing on international relations and global food issues. Follow her @beccawrites.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

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