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‘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.

Related article:  USDA debuts streamlined regulatory process for 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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72 thoughts on “‘GMO free’ myth busting: Labeling movement leading farmers to use more toxic chemicals”

  1. Most GMO crops are HT, herbicide tolerant (or roundup ready), which means they are designed to stand up to continuous sprayings by stronger, more toxic herbicides like RoundUp. RoundUp has been linked to the mass die offs of bees around the world and was just labeled as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization. It’s only a matter of time before we link other health conditions and environmental damages to RoundUp as well. These Industies have lied to the people many times in the past, it’s not like we should just start trusting them now. Especially considering their “research” is lacking in terms of credibility, independence, and length of studies while being predominantly done by the industry or paid beneficiaries of the industry, there is high cause for skepticism. Also, the raw data from those studies are not released by the industry. They’re so proud of their products, but they want no one to know they are there and seem to not care at all about possible long term effects.

    • Most GMO crops are HT, herbicide tolerant

      Nope, the most popular trait is Bt, over 13 million farmers buy it every year.

      means they are designed to stand up to continuous sprayings by stronger, more toxic herbicides like RoundUp.

      First of all Roundup is less toxic than all other herbicides (well a bit more toxic than vinegar) and the maximum allowable application rate is 16 oz per acre per year, GMO or not. GMOs are only tolerant to herbicide, use too much and the plant will die or be severely stunted.

      RoundUp has been linked to the mass die offs of bees around the world

      Nope, Round up is a herbicide, it only kills plants.

      “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization.

      So, so is Orange oil, coconut oil, shift work and being a hairdresser. Hardly a risk, look it up.
      It rest is also total bull,,,keep up the good works spreading untruths.

          • Yet drink coffee with the “poison almost daily without having died……..Yet. However if the black lab sleeping under my chair doesn’t quit passing gas. I may not get the glyphosate sprayed today. I could be a goner.

      • Orange oil (d-limonene) has been used to kill cancer cells in animals. Roundup only kills plants and gut bacteria – which is why it has been linked to leaky gut syndrome and the rise in gluten intolerance. It is in fact so effective in killing weeds, that it has eliminated habitat for pollinators like butterflies and bees, playing a role in their decline. We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of symptoms resulting from long term exposure to pesticides like glyphosate that are supposed to be “safe”. You may not have heard of these studies yet, they are quite new and many of them have to be tested and verified by other scientists before they become common knowledge, but the truth is just now beginning to emerge. I believe the farmers have been kept in the dark as much as any of us so your support of these substances is not at all surprising. I can send you the links to the research I mentioned above if you want.

        • Today’s farmers study agricutural science. They aren’t the rubes you suggest and are the ones who use glyphosate and who also consume the products they grow. I’m sure consuming straight glyphosate would indeed have deleterious effects on health. But that’s not what we’re talking about. And leaky gut is a somewhat amorphous malady that “natural health” practitioners like to address with costly treatments and supplements, aka snake oil. Gluten intolerance is not necessarily “on the rise”. It’s usually genetic and early testing can identify those who may have celiac disease before symptoms appear. Otherwise, gluten intolerance is another “condition” which “natural health” practitioners are happy to “treat”. Celiac disease, on the other hand, is legitimate.

          If a theory has not been tested or peer reviewed, it has no value. Most of these so-called “studies” are nothing more than connecting random dots in order to reach a predetermined conclusion. It doesn’t take a scientist to do that kind of “research”.

          And I suppose you’re also going to suggest that orange oil will cure cancer just as hemp oil is purported to do. No sale. “Natural News” is not considered a scientific source.

          • I am an agricultural producer myself, I also have a degree in Biology and Environmental Science. These studies that you so easily dismiss are coming from peer reviewed journals. They do run contrary to the popular point of view, such as those like yours but should not be dismissed without proper consideration. Here is a study published in the
            US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health on how d-limonene (citrus oil) prevents skin cancer:
            How about you post some links to your own scientific claims to back yourself up.

    • Alex, you come across as a reasonably smart guy and I believe we share a lot of the same politics. IMHO, where you go off the rails is in your ability to read and understand scientific literature. Your predilection to see conspiracy and bias coupled with an inability to evaluate data leads you to reference information from Natural News as correct and discount papers from PNAS or similar journals. In my younger days I would have sided with you. But after studying and working in science for 25 years, I have a different method of evaluating information.

      Lets take one of your claims..”Roundup has been linked to mass die offs of bees”. Where did you get that information? Do you have references? How can you explain colony collapse disorder (CCD) in many EU countries that don’t grow GMOs? This is going to hurt but Monsanto has developed an effective RNAi approach that targets Varroa mites, a pest that has been associated with bee deaths. Not cost effective yet though so I have heard.

        • Warren Lauzon writes:

          I never quite figured out how the activists managed to link CCD with Roundup.

          Ha! That’s nothing!

          There’s an interview out there of Stephanie Seneff by Jeffrey Smith (that should be a red flag right there!) where she links glyphosate use with school mass shootings.

          • Wow, However on the positive side for me. I now seem more intelligent and educated than an actual MIT employee. Thanks Stephanie.

    • “continuous sprayings” Really? around the clock or just during daylight hours. Try not to make your prejudicial phrases so easy to spot and your effectiveness as a tool of disinformation will increase.

  2. Alex is doing his usual hit-and-run. Doesn’t answer any questions asked here. I’ve asked him directly how he feels about mutagenesis; dead-air silence. He just makes stuff up and doesn’t respond to real science.

  3. Certified organic farmers are not allowed to use any synthetically derived pesticides. Your article implies that they just use less. If they follow the rules, they don’t use any.

  4. Although the use of some herbicides pose separate environmental concerns, these herbicide-resistant varieties generally permit more flexibility with regard to acreage usage and can promote higher crop yield. No humans have died from “dangerous” GMO products, the food does not contain any chemicals due to the genetic modification. Also genetically modified crops could improve nutrition of the food. This genetic modification could increase the mineral or vitamin content in the food. Companies can supply necessary nutrients to help fight worldwide malnutrition, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States. An example of this is Golden rice, it is enhanced with vitamin A; this is helping to reduce vitamin deficiencies around the world.

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