In the international movement for a safer and more sustainable food system, few issues have captivated eaters like genetic engineering. Products made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are all over our supermarket shelves, and much of the produce we consume derives from seeds designed in a laboratory to withstand powerful herbicides and pesticides.
As questions swirl around the safety of genetically modified foods—especially now, a little over a month before Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law goes into effect—big food companies and chemical companies have their public relations teams working in hyper-drive to attempt to quell the storm. On the other side of the fight, there's even a new feature-length drama, “Consumed” that “explores the complex world of genetically modified food” and will hit select theaters this summer.
Amid the rumors, politics, and corporate spin, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. To help you out, we’ve put together a simple guide to some of the top myths about GMOs, many of which are covertly being pushed by big agribusinesses and manufacturers.
Myth #1: GMOs are safe for human consumption.
The science is simply not settled on whether or not consuming genetically engineered foods can trigger health consequences, so it’s too early to introduce GMOs into the mass-market food supply. The safety of specific GMOs aside, the fact remains that we’re engineering food crops to withstand glyphosate, a toxic herbicide that's the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—the World Health Organization’s source for information about cancer—has actually labeled it a possible carcinogen. Selling foods sprayed with glyphosate is irresponsible and dangerous.
Myth #2: GMOs mean less toxic chemicals being sprayed on our food.
There’s evidence that when farmers know the crop they’re growing has been genetically engineered to tolerate pesticides and herbicides, they spray more of them. In fact, over the past 20 years, more than 2.6 billion pounds of RoundUp have been sprayed on U.S. crops.
Myth #3: GMOs are a proven solution to help eliminate weeds and pests, safely.
Actually, the more pesticides and herbicides are sprayed over fields, the more resistant pests and weeds become. Farmers are now finding frightening new “superweeds” in their fields—mutations that have over time become resistant to the very chemicals meant to stop them. Bugs are even evolving to resist pesticides, destroying entire fields of GE corn. It simply isn’t accurate to say that the introduction of GMOs has been a rousing success.
Myth #4: GMOs are ecologically harmless.
As GMOs force us to spray more and more chemicals on our fields of food, the environment suffers. Pesticides are contaminating the air near farms, threatening the health of children and families. Topsoil is being degraded as well, declining at up to 40 times the rate at which it can be replenished.
Myth #5: GMOs do not need to be labeled.
Big Food, Big Ag, and their proxy groups are working tirelessly and pouring millions into campaigns to prevent what would be a small label printed on most of the food we eat: “made with genetically modified ingredients.” Meanwhile, Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect next month, and while some food companies have promised that they’ll pass the cost of re-printing their labels along to consumers, others have already committed to going along with the legislation nationwide. (And as the Environmental Working Group has pointed out, industry claims that food prices will increase are simply false.)
Given what we know about the harm inflicted on our bodies and environment by toxic herbicides and pesticides, the corporate control over our seeds and food supply, and the questions that remain to be answered—labeling foods made with genetically modified ingredients is a common-sense solution.
Photo credit: bottlerocketprincess via Flickr