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Saturday, June 4, 2016

The GMO debate just got a lot more complicated

GMOs May Be Safe to Eat, But Some Are Still Bad for the Planet

For years, one of the major arguments that has been made against genetically engineered crops is the fear that, by tampering with a plant’s DNA, it could potentially cause health issues for consumers. 

It’s an understandable worry, however, the scientific consensus now seems to be undeniable: Whatever faults GMO crops may have, they are safe for human consumption.

A new, incredibly comprehensive 400-page analysis from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argues very persuasively that the past two decades of research have revealed no increased ill effects in populations that have consumed GMOs.

And it’s important to be clear about one thing: This is not simply another industry study bankrolled by Monsanto or Dupont. Most of the 20 experts involved in putting together this review are academics.

It is, instead, the result of a review of more than 1,000 studies on the effects of GMOs, testimony from more than 80 expert witnesses, and more than 700 public comments. It’s basically a summary of everything the scientific community has learned about GMOs over the past two decades.

While some of the researchers involved have served as consultants for bioengineering companies in the past, the fact that the report pulled data from thousands of different sources makes any claims of direct industry influence on the results implausible. 

At most, environmental organizations have accused the authors of this study of watering down their findings to avoid taking a firm stance one way or the other on the issue.

The researchers compared disease reports from the U.S. since the ’90s with those from Europe, where GM crops are not widely eaten, and found absolutely no long-term pattern indicating an increase in disease coinciding with the introduction of GM crops. 

There was no demonstrable correlation between GMO consumption the development of cancer, obesity, Type II diabetes, celiac disease, food allergies or autism.

At a certain point, we need to accept that the overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that GMOs are safe to eat, and insisting otherwise is no longer a reasonable objection environmentalists and consumer advocates can aim at the industry.

Just Because GMOs Are Safe to Eat, Doesn’t Mean They’re Vindicated

However, the new report is not unequivocally pro-GMO, and just because the crops in question are safe to eat doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to support mandatory labeling in food. 

There are still plenty of reasons consumers might want to avoid products that use this method in their production. For one thing, there are plenty of us who find Monsanto’s business practices unethical, and would prefer not to support them. For another, there’s the potential environmental impacts of GMO crops to consider.

One thing the authors of the report have stressed, over and over, is the fact that we should be evaluating GM crops on a case-by-case basis, rather than simply writing off the entire method used to create these new breeds of plants.

While the report found no direct link between GMOs and environmental damage, it also noted that there is plenty of evidence of insects developing resistance to crops which contain built-in pesticides, and that many weeds are rapidly developing a resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

That’s a major agricultural problem: These crops were created with the intention of requiring lighter applications of pesticides and herbicides, but farmers are increasingly going to have to use larger amounts of more toxic chemicals to keep weeds and pests in check.

The report doesn’t address the controversy over the increased use of glyphosate or the fact that it’s recently been classed as a probable human carcinogen by multiple government organizations. 

This is actually one case where accusations of the report “watering down” information are probably warranted, and it’s disappointing that the authors couldn’t find room in a 400-page document to discuss the issue.

All that being said, pesticide resistance isn’t a problem unique to GM crops — it’s a built-in feature of our industrialized agricultural system. But given that GM crops like Roundup Ready plants and BT corn aren’t actually solving the problem they were originally created to address, it raises the question: What advantage is there to growing these GM versions over conventional crops?

In the past, the industry has claimed that herbicide- and insect-resistant crops have an overall increased yield when compared to conventional plants. 

However, the new report shows that not to be the case: In fact, it seems that GMOs have failed to increase American farmers’ crop yields at all. Given this new information, it’s worth asking whether these particular genetic modifications are necessary and which GM crops, if any, have a legitimate place in our agricultural system.

Not All GMOs Are Created Equal

As much as the anti-GMO lobby hates to admit it, there are cases in which GM crops are actually a positive development for human health and agriculture.

While Roundup Ready and BT crops appear not to be among them, by tarring all GMOs with a broad brush, we risk stifling projects that could help fight malnutrition in poor countries and rejecting crops with an improved ability to resist devastating viruses and fungi that could potentially wipe out entire harvests. 

While these two applications are not the reason behind most genetic engineering in the U.S. market, this is not research we should be discouraging or trying to ban.

Scientist and media personality Bill Nye made the astonishing announcement about a year ago that, after lengthy study and a personal visit to Monsanto’s headquarters, he had changed his mind about GMOs and no longer broadly opposed the industry. 

While some were suspicious that he was being paid to endorse the biotech industry, Nye’s views on the subject appear to be much more nuanced than simply cheering on Monsanto.

What Nye has actually said is that he no longer believes that GMOs are inherently bad, but that introducing any new species to the environment can have unintended consequences: By creating vast monocultures, we’re reducing genetic diversity in the environment and harming many plant and animal species.

While many GM crops, in particular staple crops like corn and soy, are a major part of this problem, we do ourselves a disservice by only pointing the blame at biotech. 

This is actually a much larger problem with the agriculture industry in general, and the more time we spend focusing on GMOs as the villain, the less effectively we’re going to be able to address the root cause.

What’s really important is focusing on developing a more sustainable and eco-friendly system of agriculture in general, not simply ridding our food supply of GMOs. Purchasing organic foods and supporting GM labeling laws can still be part of that effort, but it can’t be the only focus.

Many anti-GMO organizations are understandably disappointed with the content of the National Academies’ research for not vindicating their long-held beliefs about GMOs — but instead of trying to deny the findings or invalidate them, we should be using them to drive a new conversation about the dangers that industrial agriculture poses to the environment and finding real solutions to mitigate those problems where possible.