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What you need to know: GMO Myths and Truths

Already in 2013, nearly half of all U.S. states have introduced bills requiring GMO labeling or prohibiting genetically engineered foods. With the growing attention on GMO’s, the biotech industry is spending a lot of time and money trying to convince the public that their GMO myths are actually true.   If you listen to supporters of GMO’s you’ll hear the promises that many biotech companies have made.

Top GMO Myths from Biotech Companies

  • GMO’s will solve world hunger
  • GMO’s will improve crop yields
  • GMO’s deter pests and weeds, reducing pesticide and herbicide use
  • GMO’s are better suited to extreme weather conditions
gmo myths

Photo Credit: Lindsay Stradtner

Digging deeper into the truth of those claims, you’ll find something very different.  Let’s take a closer look at the basic facts about GMO’s and then we’ll bust some GMO myths.

First, what is a GMO?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant or animal whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering (GE) techniques. This technology combines DNA from different species, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.

Why are GMO’s used?

Nearly all commercial GMO’s are designed to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide.  Some GMO’s are designed for quicker growth (GE Salmon), increased levels of specific nutrients (Golden Rice), or to resist disease (Papaya).  Whether these GMO foods actually live up to their designed purpose is something we’ll get to in the myth busting section.

What foods are GMO?

The most common GMO foods are corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, and squash (zucchini  and yellow).   Many ingredients in processed foods are made from corn or soy so when you’re reading labels on processed foods, look for these ingredients: Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Natural and Artificial Flavorings, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrin, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), and Xanthan Gum.  If you’re not buying organic and you see these ingredients, they are likely GMO.

To get an insider’s look at which GMO crops are approved for use and what traits they have been modified for, click here.

Are GMOs safe?
The verdict is unclear. In the U.S., GMO’s have been approved based on studies performed by the very same companies that create GMO’s and profit from them. Scientists have identified a number of ways in which GMO’s could potentially adversely impact both human health and the environment. These include new allergens in the food supply, antibiotic resistance, production of new toxins, gene transfer due to pollen drift, creation of new viruses and more. More detailed information can be found at the Union of Concerned Scientists website at www.ucsusa.org. Most developed nations including all of the countries in the European Union, Australia, and Japan have either significant restrictions or outright bans on GMO’s.

GMO Myths Busted

GMO Myth: GMO’s will solve world hunger
Truth: According to John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America wrote a great piece addressing this issue.  Biotech holds up Golden Rice as the savior for malnourished.  Nearly a million children die every year because they are weakened by Vitamin A deficiencies and an additional 350,000 go blind.  Golden rice was developed and is being promoted as the answer to this problem but if you look more closely, you’ll see the flaws in this GMO crop.  “For one thing, we’ve learned that golden rice will not grow in the kinds of soil that it must to be of value to the world’s hungry. To grow properly, it requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides — expensive inputs unaffordable to the very people that the variety is supposed to help. And we’ve also learned that golden rice requires large amounts of water — water that might not be available in precisely those areas where Vitamin A deficiency is a problem, and where farmers cannot afford costly irrigation projects.  And one more thing — it turns out that golden rice doesn’t work, even in theory. Malnourished people are not able to absorb Vitamin A in this form. And even if they could, they’d have to eat an awful lot of the stuff. An 11-year-old boy would have to eat 27 bowls of golden rice a day in order to satisfy his minimum requirement for the vitamin.”  Read the full article HERE.

GMO Myth: GMO’s will improve crop yields
Truth: A peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability examined those claims and found that conventional plant breeding, not genetic engineering, is responsible for yield increases in major U.S. crops.  The definitive study to date on GM crops and yield is Failure to Yield, by Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and former biotech adviser to the US Environmental Protection Agency.  It shows quite clearly that GMO does not produce increased yields and in many cases the yields are reduced over time.

GMO Myth: GMO’s deter pests and weeds, reducing pesticide and herbicide use
Truth:  Many GMO crops have pesticides and herbicide resistance built in to the plant itself.  The most well known is Bt corn, which has the Bt bacteria inserted into the genome of the plant. It causes insects eating the plant to die by exploding their stomachs.  While this application was successful at first, pests have developed resistance to Bt corn and farmers are turning to more and more pesticide use to keep up with the adapting insects.  For more information about pesticide use in GMO Crops, click HERE.

In herbicide tolerant crops like ‘Roundup Ready’ soy, farmers have increased herbicide use over time to keep up with ‘superweeds’.  The superweeds have become so much of a problem for farmers that Monsanto has proposed 2,4-D resistant plants.  An ingredient in Agent Orange, 2,4-D is a pretty nasty chemical.  It has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, kidney and liver problems, reproductive effects, and shows endocrine disrupting potential.   See Rodale Institite’s article about 2,4-D.

GMO Myth: GMO’s are better suited to extreme weather conditions
Truth: Long-term experiments at the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm in Pennsylvania, found that, during normal weather, organic and conventional farming produce about the same amount of food. But in drought conditions, organic wins out, producing 30 percent more in years of drought. That’s because organic soil is alive with beneficial bacteria, and the soil acts like a sponge to hold water in reserve during drought.  The healthy soil also helps prevent flooding.  The real key to growing crops in a changing climate is seed diversity.  Navdanya, an organization founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva, has a mission  “To protect nature and people’s rights to knowledge, biodiversity, water and food”. They have a program that focuses on saving seed that is adaptable to changing climates.  Read more HERE.

Now that I know some of the GMO myths and truths, how do I avoid GMO’s?

Since the US does not require labeling of GMO’s there are a few ways to reduce your consumption of GMO’s.

1 – Buy Organic
Certified organic products are not allowed to contain any GMO’s. Therefore, when you purchase products labeled “100% organic”, “organic”, or “made with organic ingredients”, all ingredients in these products are not allowed to be produced from GMO’s. For example, products labeled as “made with organic ingredients” only require 70% of the ingredients to be organic, but 100% of the ingredients must be non-GMO.  If you have a hard time finding organic food locally, you can shop for organic food online and have it delivered to you.

2 – Look for Non-GMO on the label
In the absence of mandatory labeling, many companies voluntarily label their products as non-GMO. In addition, the Non-GMO Project offers verification and a Non-GMO Project Verified logo on a product means that the product meets their standards for GMO avoidance.

3 – Avoid at-risk ingredients
Most GMO’s in processed foods come from four crops: corn, soybeans, canola and cottonseed. If you’re consuming conventional processed foods and you find on the label these ingredients, they are likely GMO: corn flour, corn meal, corn starch, corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, glucose, modified food starch, soy flour, soy lecithin, soy protein isolate, soy isoflavone, vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil.

What are some GMO myths you’ve heard?

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