WTF to do about GMOs?

GMOs are a divisive topic. They are either going to save humanity or destroy the planet depending on whom you ask and the discussion around them has become toxic faster than you can say "corporate shill" or "anti-science luddite".

Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals through selective breeding since the dawn of agriculture, indeed it was by modifying wild grasses like wheat and barley that agriculture was even invented. So what is different this time?

The science of genetics started in 1865 with Gregor Mendel's famous experiments involving crossing different varieties of peas but it wasn't until 1944 that the mechanism underlying the phenomena was identified as Deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA. In the twenty years between 1952 and 1972 many advances were made that allowed scientists to cut certain sequences of DNA, paste them back together, this is called recombinant DNA, and then use a virus to insert this recombinant DNA into a cell. In 1974 a mouse became the first transgenic animal, followed by the first transgenic plant, tobacco, in 1983. So the difference between selectively bred organisms and transgenic organisms is that the DNA that is inserted into transgenic organisms can be taken from a completely different type of plant or animal or even plant DNA inserted into an animal.

So, is this a problem and what is the purpose of this? In many ways the goal is the same as conventional plant and animal breeding; to make plants and animals with more desirable qualities whether that is drought tolerance, disease or pest resistance or any other desirable feature.

One enormous benefit of genetic engineering has been the ability to modify the genes of mice and rats for use in the laboratory. Being able to engineer mice with specific genes has greatly aided the study of genetic diseases.

One of the primary reasons given by GM supporters is that the GM crops are needed to feed a growing population.

So is this true? Do genetically modified crops such as Roundup Ready corn or soybeans or rapeseed have higher yields than conventional crops? Fortunately, politics has provided us with a natural experiment. While the US government has put up few roadblocks to the adoption of GMOs, many countries in Western Europe have banned them completely. These countries have a similar climate to the American Midwest as well as a similar level of technology and economic development so they function very well as a comparison group. In a 2013 study comparing the crop yields for these two regions, researchers found that between 1985 and 2009 there was no significant difference in the yield of corn (maize) per hectare (one hectare equals 2.47 acres) and that the yield of wheat per hectare was actually better in the European countries. In this instance GM crops don't live up to the hype.

Another benefit of GM crops that proponents like to bring up is better insect and disease resistance. On that front genetic modification has definitely delivered. According to one study analyzing the impacts of modified crops researchers found that GM crops had reduced pesticide use by 14%. That is a definite improvement and shows the potential of this technology. Genetic modification is also being used in two different ways to fight the citrus greening disease that has affected 90% of Florida's citrus groves. One is using a modified virus to inject existing trees with  the same defense mechanism that spinach possesses. This is showing great potential and should be approved for use by 2019. The other approach is designing new trees with the defense against this disease built in from the beginning. This is showing promise but will take longer to reach the market.

So are these new disease and pest resistant crops safe to eat? Nearly all the studies conducted to date have found that there is no real difference in how the body processes GM crops or conventional crops. One study found that rats fed a diet of corn that had been modified to produce the BT protein that is fatal to insects developed tumors at a faster rate than the control but that study was retracted by its authors due to problems with the small sample size. A 2014 study in in Egypt showed that rats fed GM corn later showed that same genetic modification in their own DNA. This is called lateral gene transfer and is something that GM advocates said was impossible. It is not known what the longterm health affects of this would be.

So is that the conclusion? Are GM crops safe? While GM advocates like to trumpet that the scientific consensus is that GMO crops are safe for human consumption, a 2016 consensus statement signed by over 300 researchers in the field stated that there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs. They specifically state that the evidence for and against GMOs is contradictory and that long term toxicology studies are needed to accurately determine risks. Another issue they bring up is the confusion of what health effects are caused by the GM crops themselves and what are caused by the herbicides and weedkillers they are treated with.

Like many other things how a thing is used matters more than its intrinsic safety or danger. The same car that can drop kids safely at school can be used as a weapon for mass murder if driven into a crowd. The primary gene that has been added to crops in the US has been resistance to the herbicide Roundup, otherwise known as Glyphosate. When Glyphosate was first developed in the 1970's it was thought to be completely safe to humans because it uses an enzyme pathway that does not exist in mammals. It was actually marketed as being "as safe as salt".

However, in the last several years there has been a steady flow of new studies showing negative effects of glyphosate such as; a 2009 study indicating that glyphosate causes cell death in human embryos, 2012 study that indicated that glyphosate causes cell death and damages mitochondria, a 2014 study showing that glyphosate causes neuro-toxicity in the brains of rats, and a 2016 study that it negatively impacts intestinal flora. In the last five years the overwhelming majority of studies about the effects of glyphosate have shown it to have a negative impact on health. Two different meta-studies, one published in 2016 and one in 2017, evaluate all the new evidence of the last few years and call for new testing standards for toxic effects and state that the protocols that EPA and other agencies are using for testing toxicity are outdated.

Like many other things how a thing is used matters more than its intrinsic safety or danger. The same car that can drop kids safely at school can be used as a weapon for mass murder if driven into a crowd. The primary gene that has been added to crops in the US has been resistance to the herbicide Roundup, otherwise known as Glyphosate. When Glyphosate was first developed in the 1970's it was thought to be completely safe to humans because it uses an enzyme pathway that does not exist in mammals. It was actually marketed as being "as safe as salt".


Genetic modification of crops in the US has contributed to the growth in the use of glyphosate in the US from 12,474 metric tons in 1995 to 113,356 metric tons in 2014 in the US according to the National Agriculture Statistical Service and the EPA.

Mounting evidence strongly indicates that there are serious health concerns with glyphosate based herbicides and herbicide resistance is a major use for GM crops.

Fundamentally we need to change how we think about agriculture. As  the UN FAO  have argued, 'ʹ75%  of  the  additional  food  we  need  over  the  next  decades  could  be  met  by bringing  the  production  levels  of  the  world'ʹs  lowest yield  farmers  up  to  80% of  what  highest yield  farmers  get  from  comparable land'ʹ  (Molden,  2007). They argue they we need to focus on skills and techniques not just technology. GM crops can be part of the conversation just not the entire conversation and we need to look at the affects of what we do across a wide spectrum.

This is a part of the reason why we are very proud of our Organic Toasted Coconut Chips. They are not treated with glyphosate and because coconut trees are long lasting perennials they can be part of multi-crop systems that help to increase farm yields while mimicking natural systems and restoring the land.