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The Top 5 Lies About Biotech Crops - Don't believe the anti-biotech hype.
Reason ^ | February 22, 2013 | Ronald Bailey

Posted on 02/25/2013 6:16:14 PM PST by neverdem

The Institute for Responsible Technology, an organization opposed to crop biotechnology, has published a list of reasons to avoid GMOs—that is, genetically modified food. It’s a mish-mash of misinformation and disinformation. All of the institute’s assertions are unfounded, but here are the five most dubious claims on the list.

1. GMOs Are Unhealthy

Every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of biotech crops has found them to be safe for humans to eat.

Credit: Library of Congress
Credit: Library of Congress

A 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” In 2003 the International Council for Science, representing 111 national academies of science and 29 scientific unions, found “no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.” The World Health Organization flatly states, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

In 2010, a European Commission review of 50 studies on the safety of biotech crops found “no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” At its annual meeting in June, the American Medical Association endorsed a report on the labeling of bioengineered foods from its Council on Science and Public Health. The report concluded that “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

Unfortunately there is no shortage of fringe scientists to gin up bogus studies suggesting that biotech crops are not safe. My personal favorite in this genre is Russian researcher Irina Ermakova’s claim, unpublished in any peer-reviewed scientific journal, that eating biotech soybeans turned mouse testicles blue.

One widely publicized specious study (also cited by the IRT) was done by the French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini and his colleagues. They reported that rats fed pesticide resistant corn died of mammary tumors and liver diseases. Seralini is the president of the scientific council of the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, which describes itself as an “independent non-profit organization of scientific counter-expertise to study GMOs, pesticides and impacts of pollutants on health and environment, and to develop non polluting alternatives.” The Committee clearly knows in advance what its researchers will find with regard to the health risks of biotech crops. But when truly independent groups, such as the European Society of Toxicologic Pathology and the French Society of Toxicologic Pathology, reviewed Seralini’s study, they found it essentially to be meretricious rubbish. Six French academies of science issued a statement declaring that the journal should never have published such a low-quality study and excoriating Seralini for orchestrating a media campaign in advance of publication. The European Food Safety Agency’s review of the Seralini study “found [it] to be inadequately designed, analysed and reported.”

Sadly, such junk science has real-world consequences, since Seralini’s article was apparently cited when Kenya made the decision to ban the importation of foods made with biotech crops.

2. GMOs Increase Herbicide Use

First, so what? This claim is simply an attempt to mislead people into thinking that more herbicide use must somehow be more dangerous. As a U.S. Department of Agriculture report has noted, planting herbicide resistant biotech crops enables farmers to substitute the more environmentally benign herbicide glyphosate[PDF] (commercially sold as Round Up) for other synthetic herbicides that are at least 3 times as toxic and that persist in the environment nearly twice as long as glyphosate.” Glyphosate has very low toxicity, breaks down quickly(PDF) in the environment, and enables farmers to practice conservation tillage, which reduces topsoil erosion by up to 90 percent. So the net environmental effect is still positive.

Credit: Library of Congress
Credit: Library of Congress

Second, it must be admitted that there are few honest brokers when it comes to this issue. Most of the research on biotech crops and herbicides is underwritten by either activist groups or industry. I have drawn my own conclusions, but I provide a fairly comprehensive review of the various studies on this question below.

When it comes to biotech crops and pesticide use data, the go-to guy for anti-biotech activists is Charles Benbrook. After a long career with various anti-biotech groups, Benbrook now serves as a research professor in the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. He has a long history of publishing studies allegedly showing that the adoption of biotech crops boosts the use of pesticides. Four years after commercial biotech crops were first planted in the United States, for example, he concluded in 2001 that herbicide use had “modestly increased.” Benbrook’s article contradicted research published the year before by scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who had found that biotech crops had reduced pesticide applications.

In a 2004 report(PDF) funded by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Benbrook asserted that “GE [genetically engineered] corn, soybeans, and cotton have led to a 122 million pound increase in pesticide use since 1996.” In contrast, a 2005 study(PDF) in Pest Management Science, by a researcher associated with the pesticide lobby group CropLife, reported that planting biotech crops had “reduced herbicide use by 37.5million lbs.” A 2007 study(PDF) done for the self-described non-advocacy think tank National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, founded in 1984 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, reported that planting biotech crops in the U.S. had reduced in 2005 herbicide use by 64 million pounds and insecticide applications by about 4 million pounds. Another 2007 study, by a team of international academic researchers led by Gijs Kleter from the Institute of Food Safety at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, concluded that in the U.S., crops genetically improved to resist herbicides used 25 to 30 percent less(PDF) herbicides than conventional crops did. In 2009, Benbrook issued a report for the anti-GMO Organic Center claiming that “GE crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops.”

Benbrook’s latest study, issued last year, found that the adoption of pest-resistant crops had reduced the application of insecticides by 123 million pounds since 1996 but increased the application of herbicides by 527 million pounds, an overall increase of about 404 million pounds of pesticides. The media—including Mother Jones’ ever-credulous anti-biotech advocate Tom Philpott— reported these results unskeptically.

Benbrook largely got his 2012 results by making some strategic extrapolations of herbicide use trends to make up for missing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, the USDA does not provide herbicide use data for corn in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2011, for soybeans in any year after 2006, and for cotton in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2011. (The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service is expected to issue a report updating national herbicide and insecticide usage later this year.)

As the University of Wyoming weed biologist Andrew Kniss points out, in order to get an increasing herbicide trend, Benbrook’s extrapolations turned a negative herbicide use trend for corn positive. He did the same thing to a neutral use trend for soybeans. Meanwhile, a 2012 study(PDF) by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot at the PG Economics consultancy found planting modern biotech crop varieties had globally cut pesticide spraying by 997 million pounds from 1996 to 2010, an overall reduction of 9.1 percent. Brookes and Barfoot calculated the amount of pesticide used by multiplying the acreage planted for each variety by the average amounts applied per acre.

3. Genetic Engineering Creates Dangerous Side Effects

The Institute for Responsible Technology’s list simply fearmongers on this one, claiming, “By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects.” Not really.

Credit: Robby Ryke / / CC BY-NC
Credit: Robby Ryke / / CC BY-NC

All types of plant breeding—conventional, mutagenic, and biotech—can, on rare occasions, produce crops with unintended consequences. The 2004 NAS report that I alluded to above includes a section comparing the unintended consequences of each approach; it concludes that biotech is “not inherently hazardous.” Conventional breeding transfers thousands of unknown genes with unknown functions along with desired genes, and mutation breeding induces thousands of random mutations via chemicals or radiation. In contrast, the NAS report notes, biotech is arguably “more precise than conventional breeding methods because only known and precisely characterized genes are transferred.”

The case of mutation breeding is particularly interesting. In that method, researchers basically blast crop seeds with gamma radiation or bathe them in harsh chemicals to produce thousands of uncharacterized mutations, then plant them to see what comes up. The most interesting new mutants are then crossed with commercial varieties, which are then released to farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Mutant Varieties Database offers more 3,000 different mutated crop varieties to farmers. Many of these mutated varieties are planted as organic crops. Among of the more recent new mutant offerings are two corn varieties, Kneja 546 and Kneja 627. Whatever genetic changes wrought in these corn varieties by induced mutagenesis, they must be far less known to researchers than any changes made to standard-issue biotech crops, yet these mutants get practically no regulatory scrutiny or activist censure.

The point here is not that mutation breeding is inherently dangerous. Given its solid record of 80 years of safety, it's not. The point is that the more precise methods of modern gene-splicing are even safer than that.

The Institute for Responsible Technology warns that producing biotech crops can produce “new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.” There is no evidence for any of this. Consider the panic back in 2000 over Starlink corn, in which a biotech variety approved by the EPA as feed corn got into two brands of taco shells. Some 28 people claimed that they had experienced allergic reactions to eating “contaminated” tacos. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested their blood and found that none reacted in a way that suggested an allergic response to Starlink. As far as cancer goes, it is worth noting that even as Americans have chowed down on billions of biotech meals, the age-adjusted cancer incidence rate has been going down. In fact, research shows that biotech corn engineered to resist insects is much lower in potent cancer-causing mycotoxins(PDF).

4. GMOs Harm the Environment

As exhibit 1 for this claim, the institute recycles the fable that biotech crops harm monarch butterflies. This particular meme was jumpstarted in 1999 when a researcher at Cornell University poisoned monarch butterfly caterpillars in his laboratory by forcing them to eat milkweed leaves coated with pollen from an insect resistant corn variety. Of course, the larvae died since the Bacillus thuringiensis gene inserted into the corn specifically targets caterpillar pests like rootworms.

Countering misinformation takes a lot of work, but eventually the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a series of articles evaluating the effects of biotech corn on monarch butterflies in the wild. The researchers described the product’s impact on monarch butterfly populations as negligible.” A 2011 review of more than 150 scientific articles found that “commercialized GM crops have reduced the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity, through enhanced adoption of conservation tillage practices, reduction of insecticide use and use of more environmentally benign herbicides, and increasing yields to alleviate pressure to convert additional land into agricultural use.”

Meanwhile, no matter what effects either conventional or GM crops have on biodiversity in crop fields, they pale in comparison to the impact that the introduction of modern herbicides and pesticides 60 years ago had on farmland biology. Thanks to GMOs, farmers' fields became dramatically more productive and comparatively weed- and pest-free.

5. GMOs Do Not Increase Yields, and Work Against Feeding a Hungry World

As evidence for this assertion, the institute cites the Union of Concerned Scientists' 2009 report Failure to Yield, calling it “the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.” But this report is less than honest when evaluating biotech crop yield information: biotech crops boost yields chiefly by preventing weeds from using up sunlight and nutrients and insects destroying them.

Credit: Library of Congress
Credit: Library of Congress

More recently, a 2010 review article in Nature Biotechnology found that “of 168 results comparing yields of GM and conventional crops, 124 show positive results for adopters compared to non-adopters, 32 indicate no difference and 13 are negative.” With regard to feeding the world, yield increases are greater for poor farmers in developing countries than for farmers in rich countries. “The average yield increases for developing countries range from 16 percent for insect-resistant corn to 30 percent for insect-resistant cotton,” the Nature Biotechnology article notes, “with an 85 percent yield increase observed in a single study on herbicide-tolerant corn.”

A 2012 article by two British environmental scientists, reviewing the past 15 years of published literature on the agronomic and environmental effects of biotech crops, finds that they increase yields and produce impacts that are largely “positive in both developed and developing world contexts.” They add, “The often claimed negative impacts of GM crops have yet to materialize on large scales in the field.”

Indeed they have not.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Politics/Elections; Technical
KEYWORDS: biotechnology; cropbiotechnology; gmo; gmos
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1 posted on 02/25/2013 6:16:21 PM PST by neverdem
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To: neverdem

Still, it is 100% true that if you eat even so much as a single meal containing even a small trace of a genetically modified food, you WILL die!


Of something...

2 posted on 02/25/2013 7:00:10 PM PST by null and void (Gun confiscation enables tyranny. Don't enable tyranny.)
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To: neverdem

My real problems are two fold. (1) Proper labeling so that you know and can choose GMO or not. (2) Monsanto/ADM is a very aggressive bully against farmers who choose not to use their product. If some of their pollen blows over in your field, then you owe them money. They will take you to court and farmers can’t afford to fight them.

3 posted on 02/25/2013 7:07:06 PM PST by BipolarBob (Happy Hunger Games! May the odds be ever in your favor.)
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Comment #4 Removed by Moderator

To: neverdem

I guess Europe has got it figured out.

5 posted on 02/25/2013 7:20:08 PM PST by PraiseTheLord (economic civil war ?)
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To: neverdem

If GMO crops are so wonderful, they should be proud to label them as GMO. I continue to be amazed that so-called conservatives could support a position that allows producers to withhold information from consumers.

Ask no questions. They’ll tell you all you need to know.

6 posted on 02/25/2013 7:28:25 PM PST by Will88
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To: neverdem

Well, this answers my concern, i.e. ingesting roundup will not harm you. Think I might go out now and buy a couple quarts for breakfast for me and the kids.

7 posted on 02/25/2013 7:28:39 PM PST by deweyfrank
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To: Thurston

It will actually sell like Mustangs because it is soon going to be the only game in town except for organic.

The Bt gene that they splice into most of the seeds comes from the soil and is a natural bacteria that kills plant pests and it is an acceptable product for organic farmers to use on their crops, they just don’t splice it into the seeds.

I have no problem eating them and in the future, if you eat and don’t grow your own you will eat them too and they will overtake the market.

If farmers can double their yields, use fewer chemicals, less fuel and less time why wouldn’t they plant GMO?

8 posted on 02/25/2013 7:29:26 PM PST by tiki
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To: tiki

I seem to recall hearing of hundreds, or maybe THOUSANDS ! , of farmers in India committing suicide - due to ravages suffered after accepting and planting GMOs.

9 posted on 02/25/2013 7:37:17 PM PST by PraiseTheLord (economic civil war ?)
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To: neverdem

As someone already mentioned....if these GMO products are so wonderful....they would not mind at all to label them. That alone tells me this Free Trade Communist Globalist fluff piece is BS

GMO worshipers are as bad as the Global Warming NutJobs

10 posted on 02/25/2013 7:38:34 PM PST by SeminoleCounty (GOP = Greenlighting Obama's Programs)
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To: neverdem
GMO technology is re also producing some vastly expensive pending problems. Monsanto's "RoundUp Ready" genes have cross-pollinated both Poa annua (a grass) and Conyza canadensis (an astercae), two of the most promicuous families of aggressive weeds. In this habitat restorationist's view, this is a pending disaster, particularly for farmers and ranchers because plants in these families constitute some of their most pernicious weeds. Monsanto will eventually force me to buy ever more of their expensive product with this technology. I pay, they benefit.

For Monsanto deliberately and slowly to destroy the usefulness of glyphosate after the patent runs out and force customers (and with them the US taxpayers who enforced their patent monopoly for 34 years) then to buy their hot new and far more expensive patented alternative herbicides (which is what I have always thought Monsanto was doing with "RoundUp Ready") is, IMO, an eventual cause for class action compensation.

11 posted on 02/25/2013 7:57:03 PM PST by Carry_Okie (The environment is too complex and too important to be "protected" by government.)
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To: Will88
If GMO crops are so wonderful, they should be proud to label them as GMO.

As a conservative, you want to force manufacturers to add additional labeling to their foods to address a problem that doesn’t even exist? Nothing like a good conservative to come up with a costly solution that is wholly disproportionate to a nonexistent problem. But here you are....

If GMO foods are so dangerous to your health, as you appear to believe they are, why not allow companies to voluntarily label their foods as "non-genetically engineered" in an effort to market their products to the scientific illiterate consumers who want to avoid GMO foods? Oh, we already do? Um, never mind.

If there are lots of scared people like you out there, then these hordes should be storming the shelves for products with exactly this labeling. Maybe you see it. I don't. In the meantime, most everything you eat has been genetically modified in some way over time, yet here we are living longer and healthier lives than at any other time in history. Go figure.

I'm surprised that you're not up in arms that food manufacturers aren't required to provide you with sustainability information, and proof that they pay their workers, in whatever country they may be located, a living wage. How can so-called conservatives support a position that allows these evil providers to withhold such important information from consumers? It's a real horror, I tell ya.

12 posted on 02/25/2013 8:17:34 PM PST by Mase (Save me from the people who would save me from myself!)
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To: SeminoleCounty

I don’t care if they label them, we label everything else, I’m just saying that it’ll be slim pickings to find something that doesn’t have a derivative of a GMO product.

The technology has developed so fast that they are even modifying minor crops. Honey, you know that bees get pollen from GMO crops. Meat, cattle are fed GMO crops. Sugars from cane, beets and corn all GMO.

The technology saves farmers money and the yields are over the top. The reason we aren’t going crazy about a shortage of corn because of the drought is because so many acres were GMO and even in the drought they yielded well.

Back to Roundup Ready type seeds, these are not GMOs they are bred not modified. Glyposphate is a salt and it disrupts plant growth. There has been extensively tested and it has shown little to no toxiciy to humans.

13 posted on 02/25/2013 8:19:49 PM PST by tiki
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To: tiki

I have a question. I am by no means an expert in this matter. But, if I grow, say soybeans, that are roundup ready and these beans are only used as special seed for consumable soybeans, are the product soybeans roundup ready?

14 posted on 02/25/2013 8:35:30 PM PST by deweyfrank
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To: Mase
As a conservative, you want to force manufacturers to add additional labeling to their foods to address a problem that doesn’t even exist?

Lol, no one can say whether there will be problems with GMO foods, and there will soon be more meat products from GMO animals and fish. Consumers have a right to know what they are buying, and to buy or not buy based upon what, in their judgment. is best for them.

You want government to be Big Brother and decide what consumers can or cannot know about what they buy. This is just one more case of a bought and paid for Congress bowing to the wishes of big contributors and ignoring very basic labeling information that is useful to consumers.

Producers don't want to label because they know a significant number of consumers will decline to buy GMO products, a decision which is absolutely a basic right.

15 posted on 02/25/2013 9:03:49 PM PST by Will88
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To: neverdem

I don’t care how many studies are done on the matter. I am against GMO food products on principle. I don’t want them. It’s not what the good Lord provided in His natural way. The fact that this bothers some people (most of whom seem to benefit financially from GMOs) is not a concern for me.

16 posted on 02/25/2013 9:09:22 PM PST by GodfearingTexan
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To: Will88

It isn’t a mystery or rocket science champ. There are very few GM crops out there and they have gained huge market share because farmers like them. So anything with corn, soy or sugar from beets is likely to be GM.

More people have died from herbal supplements than have ever been harmed eating GM food.

17 posted on 02/25/2013 9:20:53 PM PST by allmendream (Tea Party did not send GOP to D.C. to negotiate the terms of our surrender to socialism)
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To: allmendream

‘more people have died from herbal supplements_______’

Whoa - here now - have never heard that - - -

18 posted on 02/25/2013 10:37:51 PM PST by USARightSide (S U P P O R T I N G OUR T R O O P S)
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To: El Gato; Ernest_at_the_Beach; Robert A. Cook, PE; lepton; LadyDoc; jb6; tiamat; PGalt; Dianna; ...
FDA Approves Genentech’s Kadcyla (Ado-Trastuzumab Emtansine), the First Antibody-Drug Conjugate for Treating HER2-Positive Metastatic Breast Cancer

Sweat protects us from dangerous bugs

The Mediterranean Diet: The New Gold Standard?

Researchers Develop Injectable Gel to Repair Damaged Hearts

FReepmail me if you want on or off my health and science ping list.

19 posted on 02/25/2013 10:48:17 PM PST by neverdem ( Xin loi min oi)
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To: Will88; SeminoleCounty


And products could easily be (proud to be) labeled GMO free, the way some milk products advertise - what is it? brest-free or something. . .

20 posted on 02/25/2013 10:49:22 PM PST by USARightSide (S U P P O R T I N G OUR T R O O P S)
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