GMOs changed how pesticides used, cutting overall usage but raising health questions

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GMOs have been changing the way that pesticides are used in agriculture. To understand whether GMOs make us better or worse off in our interaction with pesticides, let’s explore the relationship between pesticides and GMOs in some detail.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pesticides are often the only effective way to control disease organisms. We as consumers often reap the benefits of pesticide use with lower costs and a wider selection of food and clothing.  As a way of conserving food supply and lower food costs, they also help to combat hunger and related problems in various parts of the world.

But pesticides [although non associated with GMOs] can also have negative impacts on our health. Short-term exposure on farm workers to a large amount of certain pesticides can result in poisoning. The effects of long-term exposure to small amounts of these pesticides are unclear, but some controversial studies have correlated them to a variety of health conditions.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring bacterium in the soil that produces proteins specifically active against certain insects. It’s widely used by organic farmers. Some crops have been genetically engineered to express the Bt genes that act as insecticides. The EPA has analyzed Bt crops and found that they do not pose any significant health risks.

Related article:  Food Evolution director Scott Hamilton Kennedy: 'I wanted to reset the debate' over food and farming

GM herbicide-tolerant crops enable farmers to use herbicides that kill weeds without harming their crop. The prime example of these are GMOs modified to tolerate glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the world.  The use of these herbicide-tolerant crops has allowed farmers to switch from traditional herbicides to glyphosate. The good news is that glyphosphate is thought to be less toxic and less persistent than traditional herbicides.

However, a division of the World Health Organization known as IAARC, in what is known a “hazard assessment” that does measure real world health consequences, recently announced that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, so we still need to be cautious and work to minimize exposure to pesticides when possible. Fortunately, pesticide use is studied, monitored, and regulated by organizations such as the EPA and the World Health Organization.

It is essential to strike a balance in pesticide usage: we want to minimize the negative consequences, while maximizing beneficial effects for crops. GMOs have played a mixed role in this development, helping reduce pesticide use in some cases while increase pesticide use in other cases.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on GMOs in a special edition of the online magazine “Signal to Noise”, produced by Science in the News. You can read the entire series here: Signal to Noise Special Edition: GMOs and Our Food

Read full, original post: GMOs and Pesticides: Helpful or Harmful?

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