5 Things We Learned From the New York Times GMO Investigation

Last Update: April 6, 2020

With only a few exceptions, the New York Times has been a reliable supporter of the use of biotechnology in agriculture and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Headlines from the last couple years include “Stop Bashing GMO Foods, 100 Nobel Laureates Say”; “How I Got Converted to GMO Food”; and “Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe, Analysis Finds,” among many others that lean heavily toward acceptance of chemicals in our food supply.

So you can imagine the surprise on Sunday when the following headline hit the Times front page:

“Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops

It was a bombshell indeed. But just how have GMOs broken their promise of decades ago? Here’s a rundown of five of the main takeaways from the Times’s report.

1: GMOs were introduced with big promises

In Canada and the United States, the practice of modifying a crop’s genes at the seed stage was introduced with a twofold promise. First, there was the idea that by making seeds immune to weedkillers and many pests, they’d grow so abundantly that they could feed the world’s growing population. Second, it was thought that as a result, farmers wouldn’t need to spray as many chemicals on crops.

2: Europe said no to GMOs

Genetically engineered crops did not take root in Europe the same way they did in the United States and Canada. There was always more skepticism about “fooling with nature,” the Times article states, and even in recent years, “Marches Against Monsanto” have been bigger in European cities than in North America.

3: GMOs haven’t increased crop yields

In the last three decades, crop yields in Western Europe—where fewer GE seeds are planted—have largely kept pace with the same crops in GMO-saturated U.S. and Canada. According to data analyzed from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number of hectograms of rapeseed (canola) harvested per hectare planted have largely tracked at the same pace since the mid-1980s. The same is largely true for corn—of which about 90 percent is genetically modified in the United States.

4: GMOs haven’t reduced pesticide and herbicide use

In theory, crops that have been modified to resist weeds and bugs should require fewer herbicides and pesticides, right? Not so. Countries that use GMOs are actually spraying more chemicals on crops than before seeds were modified. While fungicide and pesticide use is down overall in the United States, we’re spraying lots more weed-killers. According to the data analyzed by the Times, the largest herbicide increase is in glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp and enemy number one for opponents of chemicals in our food. Meanwhile, France, which has outlawed GMOs, has drastically cut the spraying of fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides in agriculture.

Why is glyphosate use up so much in areas with more GMOs? Because the weeds it was created to kill have grown resistant to the chemical. In fact, some experts say the goal of creating herbicide-resistant seeds was actually to sell more herbicide. And companies like Monsanto are in the process of repeating that strategy, which has made the company billions.

“The latest seeds have been engineered for resistance to two weedkillers, with resistance to as many as five planned,” the Times article states. “That will also make it easier for farmers battling resistant weeds to spray a widening array of poisons sold by the same companies.”

These poisons include 2,4-D, the active ingredient in infamous war chemical Agent Orange, and dicamba, which may already be in use illegally in Louisiana.

5: Chemical companies are in denial

Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer at Monsanto, roundly denies the conclusions the Times report makes, claiming the paper had cherry-picked data points to reflect poorly on the industry. He says farmers would not be paying to use technologies—GE seeds and chemical pesticides—that were not working for them, and flatly denies that herbicide use is up everywhere.

“While overall herbicide use may be increasing in some areas where farmers are following best practices to manage emerging weed issues, farmers in other areas with different circumstances may have decreased or maintained their herbicide usage,” Monsanto said in a statement.

That’s not stopping the companies from expanding their operations around the world.

“G.M.O. acceptance is exceptionally low in Europe,” said Liam Condon, the head of Bayer’s crop science division, which recently acquired Monsanto. “But there are many geographies around the world where the need is much higher and where G.M.O. is accepted. We will go where the market and the customers demand our technology.”

That should scare us all.

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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