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Luddites Whine While GM Foods Save the Planet

This week, the European Food Safety Authority rejected an attempt by France to ban a strain of genetically modified corn. France believes the corn, introduced by St. Louis-based Monsanto and called YieldGuard, is harmful to the environment and poses a risk to human and animal health. The EU disagreed.

Genetically modified foods are a contentious issue. Activists have been known to sabotage fields of genetically modified crops, and thousands of protesters recently marched in DC in an effort called “Occupy Monsanto.” A lot of people believe these altered crops and foods are bad for human health, pose a risk to more “pure” strains, contribute to deforestation and global warming, and bankrupt small-time farmers. The monocultures that result from widespread use of GM crops, they add, put agriculture at risk of disastrous destruction by some future disease or pest.

Perhaps they don’t realize a few important things about genetically modified crops and foods. There is no accepted scientific evidence that GM foods are bad to eat. And despite claims to the contrary, there is ample evidence that GM-crops are better, not worse, for the environment.

70 percent of the world’s soybean crop is now genetically modified. Much of it is used for animal feed, and it is usually modified to make it resistant to herbicides and pests. Using the genetically modified version of crops, therefore, spares farmers the expense of pesticides, and brings greater profits as their crop yield increases on average. The environment benefits, too, from the crops’ pesticide-free, “no-till” farming, which releases less greenhouse gas than alternative methods and reduces soil erosion.

As Henry Miller and Graham Brookes point out in Forbes, there is a delicious irony in France’s attempt to ban genetically modified foods:

The anti-genetic engineering views of Europe, where there is a demand for the use of certified non-genetically engineered soybeans and derivatives for use in the EU livestock sectors, have actually encouraged deforestation in South America:  Those market pressures have encouraged the cultivation of non-genetically engineered soybeans on newly-cleared land in the northern Brazilian region specifically because it is more remote from the mainstream soy-producing states in central and southern Brazil where genetically engineered soybean production dominates, in order to avoid “contamination” by the latter.  In other words, some of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for soy cultivation can be traced to the baseless antagonism to genetic engineering and the demand for non-genetically engineered production of soybeans in the EU.

The fears of activists that genetically modified monoculture crops will be wiped out by some mysterious disease or pest are yet to be realized. And GM-crops, it seems, have much to offer farmers and the environment. France’s attempts to ban modified crops are failing, as they should.

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  • Corlyss

    In Europe, Monsanto=Evil American Corporation trying to kill Europeans.

  • Hold up, now — I’m a biophysicist and really dislike the wacky crusade some of my non-scientist friends have about GMOs. Agreed, the peer reviewed science suggests that they are not only safe but beneficial to health and to the environment and should be developed further. There are formally possible cautions about environmental effects and allergens but I think these possibilities are being well studied and have not materialized.

    But you go wrong in your final paragraph. Worries about genetic monoculture appear to be legitimate; it’s just that these are not a specific problem of GMO foods — indeed, their non-GMO commercially farmed counterparts are subject to the same threats. For this exact reason — and I don’t think you’ll find a single researcher working in that field who disagrees — the preservation of as much genetic diversity as you can find for any given crop, not only as a hedge against disease but as feedstock for more genetically-enhanced product.

    You mistakenly cast it as a question of GMOs _versus_ gentically diverse culture, as do some GMO critics.

  • rkka
  • Walter Sobchak

    And there I thought you were going to challenge the NYTimes piece today about GMO foods today featuring the usual cogent critiques from “many concerned voter”

  • WigWag

    Luddite is the perfect description for the ignoramuses who object to genetically modified food. Don’t they realize that virtually every item of food we eat, whether from plant or animal sources, is genetically modified?

    The only question is whether the genetic modification has been accomplished through selective breeding or through modern techniques taking advantage of advances in molecular biology. Either way, the genetic modification in question is an entirely man-made phenomenon. If our forebears were as encumbered by politically correct nonsense as millions of modern day Europeans agriculture would never have been developed and we would still be wearing animal skins and earning our livelihood as hunter-gatherers (come to think of it by contemporary standards wearing animal skins isn’t politically correct either).

    To be fair though while it’s mostly the ignorant left that objects to genetically modified food, there are plenty of crackpots on the right as well. Many of the morons who object to the fluoridation of water or administering vaccines to prevent childhood diseases are right wing antigovernment dopes.

    The Luddites of the world on the political left and right deserve each other.

  • Silly Wabbit

    Once again thank you for the wonderful post and this great blog.

    “And despite claims to the contrary, there is ample evidence that GM-crops are better, not worse, for the environment.”

    I cautiously suggest the author does not understand the full complexity behind the resistance to GM foods and their ecological advantages and disadvantages.

    For one, the most common GM crops are those who are designed to be pesticide resistant (round-up ready soybeans etc). These cultivation of these crops is obviously not ecological better than organic.

    This raises serious concerns about cross-breeding between pesticide resistant GM crops and nuisance plants (ie weeds). There is some evidence that pesticide resistant weeds are already evolving. This, of course, will require new GM varieties that can resist even higher levels of pesticides. I suppose its a matter of what you are comparing it to, but GM foods are almost invariably designed to with stand higher degrees of toxins.

    Additionally, GM foods require strict enforcement of intellectual property rights; for GM to be profitable for seed companies folks who save seeds have to be prosecuted. A lot of folks who question GM foods don’t like this aspect.

    ” There is no accepted scientific evidence that GM foods are bad to eat.”

    It’s more accurate to say that results are mixed. There are at least 500 articles on MedLine the author could check out.

    I’m not, BTW, opposed to GM on a personal level. But the author makes some claims that may go a little too far.

    Thanks for reading and thank you for this wonderful blog.

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