The Real Reasons to Worry About GMOs

Over the past decade, Americans have become more and more informed about where their food comes from. That's a great thing, but it has led to a vocal, passionate debate about the role that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- in particular GM seeds -- play in our diet.

While I tend to sympathize with the view that we shouldn't be tinkering with nature's wisdom within the confines of a laboratory, it's important to look at the real benefits and most pressing threats that GMOs pose to our population.

Source: Donna Cleveland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moving beyond the broad "Don't mess with nature" argument, here are three key reasons GMOs could be harmful over the long run.

Super bugs and weeds
GMOs are engineered to have one of two key traits. In some cases (i.e., Bt corn), the crop is infused with a chemical that is only toxic to certain pests; in other cases, it is made so that when pesticides are applied, the crop itself is unharmed.

Either way, the same basic strategy applies: Kill off the undesirable forms of life (pests and/or weeds) while maintaining the integrity of the crop that we want to harvest. But already, problems are arising from this paradigm.

For instance, in 2011, Iowa scientists found rootworms that were able to withstand toxins that were a part of Monsanto's (NYSE: MON  ) Bt corn. Though farmers are supposed to grow non-GMO refuse areas to guarantee superbugs are less common, it hasn't stopped them from developing. That has led some farmers to seek similar seeds from Monsanto's other Big Four competitors: Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  ) , DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) , and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) .

Meanwhile, super weeds that are resistant to treatments from any of these four companies are also developing. In 2012, US News & World reported that "after years of constant exposure, certain invasive plants have also developed a resistance [to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide], leading farmers to use more of the chemical. In some cases, the weeds have grown completely tolerant to the chemical, giving farmers fits."

Using earlier data, The New York Times demonstrated the proliferation of superweeds. In 2000, only one state (California) had one type of weed that was resistant to glyphosate, a popular herbicide. By 2009, there were 22 states dealing with such problems -- often on a much bigger scale.

Source: The New York Times, "Where the Weedkiller Won't Work."

Monospeciation
Giving a tour on his organic, sustainable coffee farm in Atenas, Costa Rica, Gabriel Calderon picks a leaf from a coffee plant that is infected with the potentially dangerous form of the rust fungus.

"Every year, we lose a small portion of our coffee to this fungus. Most years, other farmers don't have it, but this year, over 15% of this country's coffee will be lost to the fungus. Why hasn't our farm experienced such devastation?" Calderon asks.

The answer is that his farm, which has been extensively studied by local scientists, has more than 700 different types of life forms on it, while a conventional coffee farm may have less than 100. In the case of the rust fungus, there is enough biodiversity on Calderon's farm to keep the threat in check. On other farms, where no such diversity exists, the use of chemicals has wiped them out.

Though the crop and pests differ greatly, the same story plays out in North America year after year.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

While this only tangentially refers back to GMOs, there's an important connection. The way that farming is increasingly practiced now -- where one or two crops are grown on huge swaths of land -- biological diversity is sacrificed for short-term profits.

This is all fine and good until a new bug or weed comes along (see above) that is resistant to customary treatments. Then, because of a lack of diversity, that new threat can wipe out a whole year's harvest. While GMOs per se aren't to blame for this phenomenon, they help encourage and proliferate such practices.

The great unknowns
But perhaps the greatest threat -- that which strikes the most fear in Americans -- is the one we don't yet know about. Genetically modified crops have been around on a large scale for only about two decades.

In that time, no obvious and alarming health threats have been observed by reputable sources. In 2008, the National Center for Biotechnology Information analyzed nutritional differences between conventional and GM wheat, corn, and tomatoes. The study found that the GM plants were "nutritionally similar to conventional varieties of wheat, corn, and tomato on the market." 

But it's still too early to know for sure that there aren't any long-term consequences to eating GMOs. Several opponents focus specifically on the possibility of GMOs acting as dangerous endocrine disruptors. More studies need to be carried out before the veracity of such claims can be verified.

Approach with eyes wide open
In the end, if you're investing in this sector, you need to keep a sharp eye on both scientific findings within this arena as well as possible legislation resulting from a large public outcry.

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Read/Post Comments (28) | Recommend This Article (9)

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  • Report this Comment On October 05, 2013, at 7:31 AM, Balabu wrote:

    Really interesting and eye opening article. However superbugs and super weds can develop also in non GMO crops. It has to do more with the way agriculture is practiced that prevents biodiversity. Just remember the great Irish famine caused by non GMO potatoes.

  • Report this Comment On October 05, 2013, at 7:43 AM, Balabu wrote:

    Another thought I wonder if the Mosaic rules of the old testament regarding how to farm the land don't look as foolish. In particular the 7 year cycle of farming. Growing crops six years, but let the land rest and lie fallow during the seventh year.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 9:08 AM, brock2118 wrote:

    OK

    So, A-we don't really know if GMO is contributing to weed resistance, and the probable cause as always is natural selection and evolution.

    B-"GMO'S per se aren't responsible for this phenomenon"

    C-There are unknowns. Isn't life always unknown?

    Pretty flimsy concepts to base an article upon.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 9:37 AM, TMFCheesehead wrote:

    @brock2118-

    <<we don't really know if GMO is contributing to weed resistance>>

    We know this as surely as we possibly can using all of the data available.

    Brian Stoffel

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 10:21 AM, lexiwords wrote:

    It seems to me there is already correlative evidence GMO foods are not helpful. In the 20 years since the introduction of GMO's there has been an increase of cancers which indicates human changes on a cellular level. An increase in obesity which may be due to people eating more because the body does not recognize properly that nutritional needs have been met. An increase in endocrinological disorders such as type II diabetes. A decrease in the bee population and more.

    Taken alone each of these may not show correlation but look at the growth history...

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 11:02 AM, nomoregmo wrote:

    Unless I missed it Brian you forgot to mention that these so called weed resistant crops absorb through their root systems and leaves the herbicide ROUNDUP from MONSANTO. Guess what, you EAT that chemical if you eat the crop. I don't know about you but my body doesn't need ROUNDUP in its system. It is possibly the most anti-life chemical that could be more dangerous to humans than the banned ones of the past. Otherwise, a good article, thanks. The more of us that are aware of the fallacy of safety GMO crops offer, the better!

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 11:34 AM, leopardcolony wrote:

    Herbicide resistant weeds is more than an annoyance. Current practice has eliminated the expensive use of mechanical weed control. Modern tractors are not suitable for it either. Farmers will have to go back old equipment to replace the use of herbicides. There is not enough equipment. Mechanical weed control uses a lot of fuel and is expensive. It also requires a lot of manual labor. This all means yield goes down and prices go up.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 11:38 AM, leopardcolony wrote:

    History has taught us that dependence on one food source is a guarantee for famine. For example Irish Potato Famine. They had switched from wheat to potatoes in order to feed the increased population. Malthus was right all those years ago, humans will increase population to the point of starvation. The least disruption to food supply results in massive famine and death. We are no the brink of our own potato famine.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 11:46 AM, leopardcolony wrote:

    This article is well written, thank you very much. I sit here typing in the middle of Iowa corn and soybean fields. Cattle and hog production is all around. I grew up on a farm and have a degree in applied math. Everything the writer mentions is correct. The implications are staggering.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 11:53 AM, leopardcolony wrote:

    The social implications are very large. A return to labor intensive agriculture will require a lot of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Will this be an opportunity to eliminate record black unemployment? Or will it be used to justify more illegal immigration and blacks further pushed out of the American dream? Young people also have record unemployment. Will they now have jobs? Or will they also be kept in poverty as illegal immigrants buy homes and new cars. Iowa has exactly that situation now. Racial violence has sharply increased, Iowa has many blacks and many, many illegal immigrants.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 11:57 AM, ardoucette wrote:

    @nomoreqmo, absolutely false.

    Two things.

    GMO crops are known as Round-Up Ready, but that means the herbicide is sprayed at the beginning of the growing season, thus virtually none left by the time harvest comes around.

    2nd it is the safest herbicide we have ever used.

    The EPA considered a "worst case" dietary risk model of an individual eating a lifetime of food derived entirely from glyphosate-sprayed fields with residues at their maximum levels. This model indicated that no adverse health effects would be expected under such conditions.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 12:00 PM, ardoucette wrote:

    Stoffel wrote:

    The way that farming is increasingly practiced now -- where one or two crops are grown on huge swaths of land -- biological diversity is sacrificed for short-term profits.

    You seem to ignore the facts of life.

    Considering the SIZE of our plantings of course we have to plant in large swaths.

    Planting of corn, our biggest domestic crop, was 97 million acres

    Wheat acreage reached a four-year high of 56 million acres

    Soybeans were sown on a record 78 million acres.

    Canola was sown on 67 million acres (most in Canada)

    Alfalfa was sown on 56 Million acres

    Sugarbeets were sown on a record 35 million acres

    Cotton was sown on 10 million acres

    Sorghum was sown on 4 million acres

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 12:10 PM, ardoucette wrote:

    Stoffel wrote:

    Kill off the undesirable forms of life (pests and/or weeds) while maintaining the integrity of the crop that we want to harvest. But already, problems are arising from this paradigm.

    But it is ONLY a problem to Monsanto's sales of these particular strains of seeds.

    If weeds become resistant to Glyphosate, then they will have to use a different herbicide and if bugs become tolerant of bT then they will have to use a different pesticide.

    Given evolution no one expected that these particular GMO traits would be successful forever, but this does NOT cause a reason to be WORRIED about GMO crops.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 12:13 PM, jdmeth123 wrote:

    Pesticides ruined potato farming in my area but not how you think. Without herbicides it took skillful cultivation to control the weeds. With herbicides any illegal immigrant could steer a sprayer across the field and have a clean crop. Root worm and nematode pesticides gave a synergistic effect and doubled yields of perfect, disease free spuds.

    Fifty years ago there over 100 small farms, today there less than ten big farms easily worked with a few Mexicans. Progress, and yes, a big farmer did take over my land.,

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 12:18 PM, ardoucette wrote:

    Stoffel wrote:

    But perhaps the greatest threat -- that which strikes the most fear in Americans -- is the one we don't yet know about. Genetically modified crops have been around on a large scale for only about two decades.

    In that time, no obvious and alarming health threats have been observed by reputable sources.

    The question comes up, how many decades would it take to satisfy you?

    See that's the point.

    There is NO POSSIBILITY of long scale human tests that keep all variables the same except for GMO crops.

    But we have the closest possible thing.

    The US has been eating these foods for 2 decades.

    Japan and the EU has abstained.

    If there WERE any health differences they would be obvious by now.

    They aren't.

    More importantly, while GMOs make up a small part of the typical US resident's diet, they make up almost ALL of the diet of our livestock, and so if there were any problems there, we would also see it.

    We don't.

    This entire article is just about creating Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt and is not at all helpful.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 12:21 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    In the meantime, the Management of DuPont mandated by their business model of FOOD-to-FUEL & FABRICS is feeding to a huge factory in Hull England jointly owned with oil giant BP, 1.1 million tonnes of wheat yearly to manufacture into costly biofuel to put in the tanks of cars and trucks. That's on top of the trainloads of corn DuPont gobbles up to make corn carpets and corn clothes (DuPont Snorona).

    DuPont's paradigm, FOOD-to-FUEL & FABRICS, stokes food price inflation and draws down limited global food supplies to use as an industrial raw material. Are hungry children supposed to gnaw on DuPont corn carpet, and drink down DuPont wheat "gasoline"? ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 12:27 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    We're more than mildly curious:

    Why was our comment CENSORED, with its reference to millions of hungry children crying out in pain, reduced to skin over bones and left to die because of the overriding ignorance of hostile African leaders?

    Political correctness run amok, again?

    ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 2:28 PM, ardoucette wrote:

    Actually, you blame it on DuPont, but its MANDATED by the govt of the UK

    The Vivergo facility will convert around 1.1 million tonnes of high-starch UK wheat into 420 million litres of ethanol each year. This will represent around one-third of the UK’s ethanol demand under the government’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, said Phil New, CEO of BP Biofuels, speaking at a meeting of the UK’s Parliamentary Low Carbon Transport Group last week. The bioethanol should produce less than 50% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of conventional petrol over its lifecycle, he added

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 3:07 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    The U.K. government did not force DuPont against its will to manufacture bread into bad-mileage ethanol. While bragging about feeding and nourishing the planet out to the year 2050, the DuPlicitous executives of DuPont and their PR tricksters are quietly engaging in a massive commercial operation burning up 1.1 million tonnes of food, wheat, yearly.

    ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 4:44 PM, ardoucette wrote:

    Of course they did.

    That is the nature of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation

    Renewable fuels by necessity come from growing something and fermenting it.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2013, at 7:48 PM, edmondicke wrote:

    ar doucette is a paid Monsanto troll. Don't take anything he says seriously.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 3:24 AM, pfffft wrote:

    The "reasons" this guy mentions (with exception of BT resistant pests) actually concern glycophosphate, and not transgenic technology. Glycophosphate resistant weeds are caused by continuous (irresponsible) glycophosphate use, and can be prevented by rotating herbicides. So, they are not a direct effect of transgenic technology itself. While glycophosphate resistant GM crops do encourage increased use of glycophosphate, other GMO's could be designed to be resistant to other herbicides in order for farmers to implement a proper rotation routine.

    More research must be done for GMO's to gain approval than any other food source in history. When testing a GMO food, every protein is mapped out, so, I'm not sure what he means when he says "great unknowns." No research has been done indicating that GMO's may be harmful endocrine disruptors, although research has been done that indicates glycophosphate might.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 3:52 AM, pfffft wrote:

    Didn't mean to come off as such a jerk. I think we all get confused at times when reading through the vast amounts of research done on GMO's and herbicides. I'm just a laymen looking for facts, so am hardly an authority on the subject. However, there's no doubt that Brian Stoffel is mistakenly projecting the potential hazards of glycophosphate onto transgenic plant technology.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 9:35 AM, ardoucette wrote:

    @edmondicke wrote

    ar doucette is a paid Monsanto troll. Don't take anything he says seriously.

    LOL

    I'm not, but even if I was, would that make what I post any less true?

    If you had a valid rebuttal to my posts you would post them, not try to use the old ad hominum argument.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 9:40 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    "Though farmers are supposed to grow non-GMO refuse areas to guarantee superbugs are less common, it hasn't stopped them from developing."

    Actually, the areas with resistant pests are the ones that have the lowest compliance rates when it comes to planting refuge areas. It is the fault of the farmers, not the seeds.

    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/09/22/are-farmers...

    --Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 9:48 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    "[Monospeciation] is all fine and good until a new bug or weed comes along (see above) that is resistant to customary treatments. Then, because of a lack of diversity, that new threat can wipe out a whole year's harvest. While GMOs per se aren't to blame for this phenomenon, they help encourage and proliferate such practices."

    There's a big difference between Roundup Ready crops and those with Bt toxin. The latter have actually been shown to increase biodiversity since less chemicals have to be applied to such fields.

    "Genetically modified crops have been around on a large scale for only about two decades.

    In that time, no obvious and alarming health threats have been observed by reputable sources."

    Ugh, I hate this argument haha. How long will it take and how many scientific studies with the conclusion "no health links have been found" need to be conducted before it has been enough time? I am open-minded to the possibility of unknown health risks, but there are plenty of technologies utilized on a large-scale today that have unknown risks.

    --Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 12:32 PM, hardkraft wrote:

    How is any of this GMO specific? Any attempt to control pests produces resistance. When farmers turn to chemicals because GMOs loose their advantage, they turn to the old chemicals that they abandoned decades ago.

    Biodiversity is diminished wherever agriculture is practiced. It was that way since the beginning of agriculture. Things are getting extreme not because of GMOs but because more precise and efficient technologies.

    The unknown, seriously? There have been hundreds of studies on GMOs but for sure some will always fear the unknown.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 12:59 PM, Mqwef wrote:

    The first argument - "superbugs" and "superweeds" - applies to anything and everything farmers do to protect their crops. Just because some birds learn to ignore them, isn't a reason we should "worry" about scarecrows. All weed and pest remedies (including pulling weeds / killing pests by hand) lead to weeds/pests that are resistant to the remedies.

    Fundamentally, increasing resistance of weeds and pests is just one of the many evolutionary pressures our species must overcome in order to survive. We're tool-using species. This means that we use tools to overcome evolutionary pressures. Scarecrows, pesticides, and GMO cultures are the tools we need in order to overcome this particular pressure *and stay alive*.

    We don't have much in the way of claws, horns, hair, and hoofs. Take away our tools, and we die. Simple as that.

    The second argument - "Nothing bad happened over the last 20 years, but something might in the far future" - Well, bad things happen. Including problems with the tools. When they do, we deal with them. Usually by fixing old tools or creating new ones.

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