The amount of misinformation online regarding GMOs and organic food is alarming. In this post, I will attempt to address those misconceptions.
Before we begin, why should we care about GMOs and organic farming? The increasing concern on GMOs, evident by all the recent media coverage, tells us that this is a topic worth discussing. Perhaps they are harmful, perhaps they aren’t. The answer is never that simple. It is our job to continuously strive for knowledge, always willing to listen to the opposing side and never assuming we have the absolute truth.
To start, let’s gain some insight into the general situation. Why do GMOs and organic farming exist in the first place? The answer lies in the process of human development. Since the transition from gathering and hunting to farming, the human species has relied on a system of growing produce and raising animals. Their entire existence now depends on agriculture, a practice founded on technological change. Farming gradually advanced as humans constantly applied new techniques and processes to improve yield and quality. They used selective breeding to create the fruit and vegetables we know today; and designed better irrigation, growing methods, and tools—while always using natural fertilizers. This system improved steadily for much of human history. It was not until recently in the past few decades, that a boom in technology also accompanied a large transformation in this system.
Conventional agriculture is an unnatural system of farming far removed from what our ancestors relied upon. Demand to produce cheaper crops for processed foods and the advent of genetic engineering has led to the widespread adoption of GMOs, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and more. The question now becomes: are these new features of conventional agriculture bad? And if so, then does that mean we should return to a type of farming more similar to what it was before—otherwise known as organic farming?
Let’s focus on three components of conventional agriculture: GMOs, pesticides, and organic farming. Hopefully we will be able to gain a better understanding of the modern agricultural system, so that we may make more informed decisions about our food, and how that relates to health, society and the environment.
To start, what is a GMO? A GMO or genetically modified organism is an organism that has had its genetic material altered in a laboratory setting using genetic engineering. This is not the same as organisms altered solely through selective breeding, which we can all agree, is a low-harm and acceptable activity. In our case, we will only interested in GM crops. That leads us to ask the next questions: what genetically engineered crops are there? And how many of them are produced?
Genetically engineered crops have been modified in order to produce certain desirable traits. We can organize these different traits by their direct intended end users: consumers or producers. Consumer enhanced traits are traits that benefit only the consumer. Producer enhanced traits are traits that are designed to increase the marketability of the crop supply or change the farming process. Let’s discuss each category.
Consumer Enhanced GM Crop
The only crop intentionally modified for the benefit of the consumer is Golden Rice, a rice altered to produce beta carotene. It was created to address vitamin A deficiency in areas of Africa and Asia. However, we should ask ourselves: since when did our fruit and veggies become so lacking in nutrition that we need to genetically modify them to be healthier? I suggest that we reassess the root cause of the problem—hint, it’s not that our produce is lacking in nutrition.
We should also note that there are no genetically modified traits that specifically increase the yield of the crop, unlike what GMO proponents often state.
Producer Enhanced GM Crops
The second category, on producer enhanced traits, can be broken into two types. The first consists of crops modified in order to increase marketability. These modifications include increasing or decreasing specific crop qualities. An example of this is the Flavr Savr Tomato, a tomato with delayed softening that failed in the market. Two new additions are non-browning apples and non-bruising potatoes, both of which have been approved recently, but not yet produced. A handful of crops have been modified to have higher production of specific organic compounds for industry use such as increased lysine in maize and oleic acid in soybeans.
The second type, which consists of the vast majority of GMOs, change farming practices. It explains why genetically modified crops have largely come into existence, and that is due to one main purpose: suppression of weeds and pests. These two groups give us the dominant GMO traits: herbicide resistance for weeds and insect resistance for pests. Herbicide resistant GMOs include Roundup Ready and LibertyLink crops. Insect resistant GMOs include BT toxin modified crops. Also in this type are a couple environmental stress and disease resistant crops.
How many GMOs are there?
Contrary to popular belief, while there are around 120 varieties of 30 approved GMO crops, only 10 crops are produced for consumption in the US: corn, soybean, cotton, potato, papaya, squash, canola, alfalfa, apple, and sugar beet—only those 10. Each crop can consist of at least one variety. For example, corn has over 30 approved varieties while sugar beet has one. I suggest that everyone look up the list of approved GMOs worldwide; there aren’t that many. However, let’s not jump to the conclusion that the low number of GMOs translates to low harm or effect.
Now that we have answered, what are GMOs and how many are there?, let’s find out the extent of these GMOs in the fields and in our food. Here are some statistics:
- In 2015, genetically modified crops were grown in 28 countries on around 180 million hectares, equivalent to 10% of the world’s arable land
- 92% of corn, 94% of soybean, and 94% of cotton in the US is genetically modified
- Up to 75% of processed foods in US grocery stores have GM ingredients
So how are these GM crops used or eaten? It depends on the crop and the country. We do know that the majority of GM corn and soybean goes into animal feed and that a lot of GM crops get turned into hundreds of different ingredients used in processed foods.
Of course, we cannot forget the Non-GMO Verified Seal created by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit org. The only thing the seal ensures is that there are no GM crop ingredients in a product. It does not mean no pesticides. We also know that only 10 GM crops are produced in the US. So, do not rely on the seal.
Now we can begin to talk about the toxicity or harm they may cause. Are GMOs dangerous? How can they be harmful? Let’s simplify this issue by identifying possible things implicated with GMOs that could be causing harm to people or the ecosystem.
- The gene
- Lateral gene transfer
- The pesticides
While genetic modification is a legitimate concern, there is not enough evidence as of now to conclude that the addition of the new gene in crops affects the human body. The insertion of genes that would otherwise not naturally occur in an organism could be having an insidious effect on the ecosystem though; we don’t really know yet.
The second concern is lateral gene transfer, which is the transfer of genetic material between organisms, sometimes across species barriers. In fact, this is the primary way antibiotic resistance spreads in bacteria. Again, we don’t know whether lateral gene transfer is occurring and what its effect would be if it is.
It is the pesticides we spray on the crops that we are most concerned about which leads us to the next section on pesticides.
What are pesticides?
Pesticides are substances used to kill or limit undesired organisms such as weeds, insects, microbes and fungi that might interfere with the growth of the desired crop. The intention is to kill only its target organism. However, as we may have learned, that is very rarely accomplished given the complexity of ecological systems. Non-target organisms are often harmed as well. Are modern synthetic pesticides affecting more than their intended targets, specifically humans? Let’s dig deeper.
Here are some charts to help us understand modern pesticide use:
Mass use of synthetic pesticides in the US increased sharply from around the 1950s to the 80s, and leveled off since then. Globally, especially in China, pesticide use has been increasing.
Corn and soybeans are the most sprayed crops in the US. Notice how some of the crops are not genetically modified.
Here we have a list of the most used active ingredients in pesticides. Glyphosate is clearly on top at 38%.
According to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, 47 pesticide residues can be found on apples, 53 on blueberries and 1 on avocados. There are too many pesticides to count, nonetheless cover them all, so we will only focus on the most heavily sprayed pesticide, glyphosate, along with two other interesting herbicides and toxins worth talking about.
Glyphosate or glycine methyl phosphonate is the most widely sprayed herbicide around the world. How does it work? At its most basic function, glyphosate is a demineralizer. It binds and removes minerals, specifically metals such as copper, calcium, magnesium, manganese and many more. It is very powerful at demineralizing. In fact, that was how it was first used and patented—to clean pipes and boilers.
So how does that have to do with killing weeds? All organisms need metals to form specific metalloproteins, also known as enzymes, in order to function. Glyphosate, a powerful demineralizer, interferes with that process by binding to the metals required in those proteins, thereby inhibiting protein production. Consequently, for all organisms, glyphosate affects numerous metabolic pathways that require metals; it is especially effective in the shikimate pathway, an essential pathway used by microbes, fungi and plants to produce the amino acids, phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan. Plants that are sprayed with this compound quickly succumb to death within a few days.
With this new purpose, glyphosate was patented as an herbicide, and used as the active ingredient in Roundup. Farmers began using it to kill weeds with extremely high success. Eventually, that led to the creation of Roundup Ready crops, genetically engineered plants designed to be glyphosate tolerant— we briefly introduced it earlier. This allowed further convenience for farmers by enabling direct spraying of crops to kill unwanted weeds. Additionally, because it kills plants so quickly, glyphosate is used for a second purpose; that is, as a crop desiccant. In this case, glyphosate is sprayed on non-GMO crops, especially grains such as oats and wheat, right before harvest to synchronize and speed up the drying process. These crops have the highest amount of glyphosate residues.
An important thing to note is that new evidence is showing that glyphosate can linger in the soil for over a year. It is a water soluble compound, meaning it can travel through the hydrologic cycle throughout the entire ecosystem. It can be found in small amounts in rainwater. This has profound consequences on all life if it is toxic.
Let’s take a step aside before returning to glyphosate. In the ecosystem of life, all animals are simply larger organisms in a sea of microbes: bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites. These microbes are ubiquitous; they live on and inside the bodies of all animals. In fact, the interaction between animals and microbes is immensely complex. We’ve only begun to realize this fact. Microbes play an essential role in the health and function of all living creatures, as science is only beginning to discover.
In humans, there are more microbes than human cells. The weight of all these microbes can be higher than the weight of the human brain. We call this collection of microbes in the human body, the human microbiome. In the gut where most of them live, they perform a multitude of important functions—not only digestion, but also the production of neurotransmitters used by the brain, immune system function, and many more. Not surprisingly, they are also linked to all chronic diseases.
Returning to the discussion on glyphosate, what did we learn about it’s special ability? It kills microbes, plants, and fungi. When glyphosate enters the human gut, it damages the system that our bodies rely upon. Glyphosate kills beneficial microbes, destroys the intricate communication between bacteria that regulate the immune system, and injures the protein structures, known as tight junctions, that control the permeability of the gut membrane. This allows toxins and chemicals to leak through causing numerous consequences including autoimmune reactions and leaky blood-brain barriers.
The recent increase in autoimmune diseases, autism, alzheimer’s/dementia and many more diseases are possibly linked to the widespread use of this pesticide. To illustrate, we have these charts:
As you can see, the correlation coefficient is .99, which means there is near perfect correlation between glyphosate use and autism. Similarly, a chart showing correlation between glyphosate use and dementia with R-value .99:
As you may have heard, the WHO declared glyphosate a “probable carcinogen”. That led California to investigate and also come to the same conclusion. Here are two of many charts plotting glyphosate use and certain cancers.
As the author of one of the studies, Nancy Swanson, says,
“Although correlation does not necessarily mean causation, when correlation coefficients of over 0.95 with p-value significance levels less than 0.0001) are calculated for a list of diseases that can be directly linked to glyphosate, via its known biological effects, it would be imprudent to not to consider causation as a plausible explanation.”
If indeed glyphosate is partly contributing to or causing these cancers as well as a host of other diseases, what could be the reason? Besides the effect of glyphosate in the human gut microbiome, a compelling hypothesis raised by Dr. Stephanie Seneff is that glyphosate may be mistaken as the coding amino acid, glycine, in protein synthesis. Here we can see the similarity in structures; glyphosate is essentially a glycine with extra stuff.
If glyphosate is mistakenly substituted in place of glycine, then that could render many proteins useless. However, we still need more research before confirming anything. As more studies come out, we will learn more.
Now that we have discussed glyphosate’s specific effect on human health, what is its effect on other animal species? Glyphosate disrupts the base of the food chain by killing the smallest living creatures, leading to consequences for animals that rely on the soil ecosystem—that’s everyone. Besides the ability to damage the microbiomes of all organisms, evidence is showing that it is highly toxic to different species, especially amphibians. We also have the controversial Seralini study that showed mice growing tumors, which you can read and judge yourself, as well as numerous mice studies showing other toxic effects. There has not been a lot of research on other wild species, however. But it would not be unreasonable to argue that the rising use of pesticides could be a contributor to the rapid loss of biodiversity recorded in the past few decades.
As we know, glyphosate, an antimicrobial agent, kills soil species such as microbes and fungi. That releases the carbon and nitrogen used by these species in the form of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, a gas believed to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. Given that so much of the world’s land area is used for growing genetically modified crops sprayed with pesticides, glyphosate can and does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions on top of all the other harmful effects it causes.
Glyphosate is just one of hundreds of pesticides used today, and while it is true that it is the most highly sprayed herbicide today, that may not be the case in the future. The next generation of herbicides is already here, and not many people know. That herbicide is Liberty, and it comes with its own herbicide tolerant GMOs, LibertyLink crops.
Glufosinate is the active ingredient in the Liberty herbicide, which was created to combat the increase in glyphosate resistant weeds—I would love to go into more detail on how the weeds gain resistance, but it is too much info for this post. An intention for this new herbicide is to allow rotation between glyphosate and this new chemical, in the hopes of delaying the current rise of glyphosate tolerance in weeds. It can also take the place of glyphosate, in case it gets banned. Glufosinate’s mode of action is similar to glyphosate; it blocks the ability to create amino acids. In this case, it is the amino acid, glutamine, which has numerous important functions, including human fertility. Few studies have been conducted on this compound, so will have to wait.
BT Toxin is a natural insecticide produced by the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, that targets specific herbivorous insects. It’s mechanism of action is to produce a protein that disrupts the digestive system of the insect. Because it is produced naturally, it is allowed in both organic and conventional farming practices. In organic farming, BT toxin is sprayed selectively in small amounts. On the other hand, BT toxin engineered crops produce higher amounts of BT toxin throughout the entire plant constantly. We should also note that BT toxin crops are also beginning to suffer from increasing insect resistance.
In regards to toxicity to humans, BT toxin is accepted to be relatively benign. However, in regards to the environment, excessive accumulation of the BT toxin in soil and gene transfer to non-target species are both concerns that need further research.
Organic farming is a way of farming more similar to what our ancestors used to practice; it is a holistic system designed to be sustainable and harmonious with the environment. There are no GMOs, no synthetic pesticides, and no synthetic fertilizers.
Here are the principles from the Canadian Organic Standards that do a good job describing the goal of organic farming:
- Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
- Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing biological activity within the soil.
- Maintain biological diversity within the system.
- Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
- Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
- Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing and handling methods, in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
- Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.
In the US, organic certification is managed by the USDA which requires all organic farms to meet strict standards. In addition to the things I described above, organic regulations ban additives such as certain processing aids, fortifying agents, preservatives and many more. The list of approved substances is determined by the USDA program. This table helps explain the label:
Since taste, quality, and nutrition are often brought up in the organic food discussion, let’s go over them briefly.
Generally no difference for majority of produce.
Depends. For example, more likely to find bugs in organic produce, but can have a higher chance of being picked at peak ripeness in contrast to non-organic produce.
Organic food can be slightly more nutritious in certain compounds, but generally is not significantly more nutritious than conventionally grown food.
These commonly discussed criteria are insufficient by themselves to judge the value of organic farming. We should use more important criteria such as the pesticide use to determine our decisions.
Before we end this section, let’s return back to the discussion on non-GMO. Perhaps now you can see why the non-GMO project verified seal is almost useless in comparison to organic certification. Here is an infographic:
This post is quite dense, so here are the main points to remember:
- There are only 10 GMOs being produced in the US currently
- The vast majority of GM crops are designed to be herbicide or insect resistant
- Glyphosate, the most widely sprayed herbicide, damages the human microbiome
- Don’t rely on non-GMO
- Buy organic to minimize consumption of pesticides
We should try to solve problems without genetic engineering first due to unintended consequences of the highly disruptive technology. Earth wants to provide for us, we just need to listen.