Responses to Popular Anti-GMO Arguments & Rhetoric
The typical rhetoric from the anti-GMO crowd can range anywhere from harmless, benign questions to malignant, ignorant claims based on complete scientific illiteracy.
There are hundreds of questions, concerns, and claims from the anti-GMO movement, some more legitimate than others, but I will only be addressing a few of their main talking points.
I am also going to make a quick disclaimer right now that even though Monsanto is going to be mentioned a lot, the main point of this article is not to defend Monsanto whatsoever. The main point is to debunk and refute the actual claims about GMOs and other issues or concerns that surround them. But unfortunately, it is very difficult to address these claims without also talking about Monsanto because the anti-GMO activists tend to falsely equate GMOs and Monsanto in their arguments. What we need to establish is that there are many, many other agricultural biotech companies that use GM technology as well. It’s not just Monsanto. But regardless, I don’t think it’s any secret that these anti-GMO activists absolutely loathe
Monsatan Monsanto and single them out. These activists hate Monsanto so much, in fact, that any type of association with the company can put a target on your back. Simply mentioning Monsanto can suck the air out of a room, and it gets much worse if you’re actually trying to defend them. So I’m going to try really hard to keep the focus on debunking the actual claims of the GMO arguments rather than simply defending Monsanto.
Monsanto is a massive, multi-billion dollar corporation that looms over the agriculture industry with its GMO seed patents and monopoly on food production.
I would rate this claim misleading at best. Otherwise, I would consider it just flat-out false.
Firstly, Monsanto is not a massive company. They net about $15 billion annually. Sure, they’re by far the biggest biotech seed company, but as far as corporations go they’re only about the same size as Whole Foods. So it is absolutely ridiculous to posit the notion that 2% of a $900 billion agriculture industry should be considered a monopoly.
Second, almost every seed that farmers use is patented, including organic seeds. Almost all seeds used in large-scale farming production today are known as hybrids. Hybrid seeds are simply seeds that have been produced through cross-pollination, and the first generation seeds produce very high quality crops. However, when hybrid seeds are replanted (second and third generation) the crops produced are considerably inferior to the first generation. So even if farmers wanted to collect and replant the seeds, the end payout would still make it an ill-advised business move. Because of all this, farmers instead buy new seeds each season for whichever crops they grow. This ensures that they are getting a batch of seeds that will produce the true high quality crops they are trying to grow.
Lastly, corporations all produce their own hybrid seed cultivars. Of course a corporation is going to patent the seeds they produce in order to protect their intellectual property, just as an artist trademarks their artwork in order to protect their intellectual property. Either way, patenting seeds has been happening long before Monsanto or the organic movement came onto the scene.
So while this statement is correct in saying Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar corporation that patents seeds, it’s grossly misleading in the way that it leaves out a lot of very important information that effectively renders the entire premise of the argument false.
Monsanto produces an extremely toxic herbicide, Glyphosate [Round-Up], and they genetically modify crops to be resistant to it so they can sell more Round-Up.
Again, this statement is extremely misleading and false, yet it tends to be a very common claim – or one of the variations of it – from the anti side. There are multiple layers to this one, so my response here will be a bit lengthy.
To get the easiest part to debunk out of the way, while Monsanto does produce glyphosate, it is not a huge manufacturer of it anymore. Their patent for glyphosate expired in 2002. Once the patent expired, companies in China became the main manufacturers. So the line of logic that asserts Monsanto genetically modifies their crops in order to sell more Round-Up is demonstrably fallacious. Monsanto genetically modifies their crops to be resistant to glyphosate because glyphosate is one of the safest and most effective broad-spectrum herbicides on the market.
Now we can focus on the misleading claim that glyphosate is extremely toxic. Okay yes, glyphosate is extremely toxic… to plants. It’s toxic to the weeds that compete with the crops we cultivate, hence why it’s called an herbicide. But the massive amount of evidence that has been collected after publishing and reviewing thousands of studies overwhelmingly suggests that glyphosate is relatively harmless to humans and animals. So not only is Monsanto a very small manufacturer of RoundUp, glyphosate has become one of the most researched substances in the world.
All glyphosate-based herbicides on the market today must meet rigorous standards of approval set by regulatory and health authorities to protect the public, including infants and children. They must pass EPA, USDA, and FDA safety standards, including the safety standards of all the other countries that produce or import glyphosate-based herbicides, or herbicides in general. Comprehensive long-term toxicological studies repeated over the last 30 years have time and again demonstrated that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk in humans. The U.S. EPA groups glyphosate in the lowest and most favorable category, E, indicating evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans. Most recently, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment released its decision on behalf of the European Union, concluding, after a four-year review, that there is no cause-and-effect link between glyphosate exposure and cancer.
The mountain of evidence from thousands of studies points in the direction that glyphosate is non-carcinogenic and that the safety standards for exposure to humans and animals, which are set by international regulatory bodies, are indeed safe.
But okay, let’s pretend that all those studies are wrong or biased and that glyphosate really is toxic to humans and animals. Well like I said, glyphosate still has federal safety limits set on how much can be sprayed. And even then, even with the safety limits, Round-Up is still usually sprayed at levels below that recommended amount. About 22oz of Round-Up are sprayed per acre. Or in other words, about as much as 2 soda cans per acre. And only a fraction of the rate applied is actually herbicide. This is something the anti crowd will never tell you, but if you go to a Home Depot or any place that sells RoundUp, take a look at the ingredients label. Only 41% of it is actually glyphosate. And on top of that, farmers dilute Round-Up further by mixing it with a lot of water. What is sprayed over a field of crops is a highly diluted mist.
And this is where we have to talk about dosage, because the toxicological illiteracy really starts to show in the anti-GMO crowd when they start talking about chemical toxicity. Even with all the information I have talked about, they will still claim that glyphosate is not safe at any dosage. Horse shit. Toxicology 101: the dosage makes the poison. This is very important knowledge to have in life because this rule applies to literally every single chemical, substance, molecule, anything that you will ever interact or come in contact with. If somebody ever tells you that something is toxic, your next question should be: “at what dosage are toxic effects produced?” If they cannot give you that information, or refuse to do so, then they are either deliberately lying to you or are mislead or misinformed themselves. You simply cannot tell someone that something is toxic without also providing them with the associated dosages.
So going back to the fact that the dosage makes the poison, I have a few simple examples for why that is true. Water, aka the dreaded dihydrogen monoxide, in a high enough dose will kill you. Formaldehyde is another example. People mostly tend to think of this substance to be inherently deadly. It’s used in embalming fluid, and it’s just like ew, gross, and icky, right? I mean, how could formaldehyde ever possibly be considered safe? Well, it’s the dosage. Our bodies naturally produce formaldehyde during our metabolic processes. That’s practically just high school level biology. But the levels of formaldehyde that our bodies produce are so low that they don’t cause any toxic effects. Again, this is why basic knowledge in biology, chemistry, and toxicology is so important.
So we’ve covered the importance of dosage, but to understand this next part we also need to delve just a little bit into what’s known as LD50. LD50 refers to the dosage of a chemical at which 50% of test animals die. High LD50 = good, low LD50 = bad. The higher the LD50, the less toxic it is; the higher dosage you need in order to produce toxic effects.
Here is a chart that ranks substances, from water to cyanide and beyond, according to the EPA’s categorization of their toxicity levels:
As we can see, glyphosate is ranked as one of the least toxic things on the list, with a very high LD50 (5600 mg/kg of body wt). It’s so high in fact, that dose for dose it is less toxic than sodium chloride, aka table salt (LD50 3000mg/kg wt). It’s less toxic than vitamin D even (LD50 10). So it looks like anti-GMO activists who try to warn us about the dangers of glyphosate are forgetting to mention all these other substances that make glyphosate seem absolutely benign. They sure don’t want vitamin D banned. And how ridiculous would it be to try and ban salt?
Further, just as a quick thought experiment: If glyphosate really did produce toxic effects at levels that are not unlikely for someone to be exposed to, then we should expect an epidemic of sick farmers across the nation because those are the people who are in more contact with it than anybody else. But that clearly is not happening. And even if glyphosate really was a carcinogen, that still means nothing without the associated levels of exposure. According to the EPA, estimates based on long-term studies on rats and mice, a 165-pound human would need to eat 150 milligrams of glyphosate per day before he or she would need to start to worry about chronic adverse effects. Considering the miniscule amounts of pesticide residues permitted in our food, our 165-pound person would need to eat somewhere around 65 pounds of produce every single day. And that would still be contingent on that person never washing their fruits and vegetables.
But perhaps the most interest things on this list, and what comes to a surprise to a lot of people, are that organic pesticides, like rotenone and copper sulfate, are orders of magnitude more toxic than glyphosate. But of course you never hear about those. And there are many more organic pesticides that are currently approved for use in organic farming that are also far more toxic than glyphosate. This point is important because anti-GMO activists tend to be highly supportive of organic farming. While I think organic farming is great, misleading people through misinformed rhetoric is absolutely condemnable. The organic industry has made billions selling products that people fully believe are cultivated using zero pesticides. Then these activists use those false assumptions to attack the GMO side. And the hypocrisy is astonishing. How dare organic companies call for transparency with GMOs while they sit on a throne shrouded by deceit. And I will go further into how shady Big Organic is.
The World Health Organization lists glyphosate as carcinogenic to humans.
I know I already went over the fact that glyphosate has not been shown to be “extremely toxic to humans and animals,” but this specific claim does need a bit of a deeper dive because I hear it brought up quite frequently, independent from the glyphosate-toxicity argument. So what they are referring to here is the fact that the IARC found that glyphosate “may be carcinogenic to humans.” For those who may not know, the IARC (International Association of Research on Cancer) is a branch of the WHO, but they are just one group that has looked at a link between glyphosate and cancer. To speak further about the actual claim though, the IARC never said glyphosate was for sure carcinogenic to humans, but of course that’s what all the anti-GMO headlines say. There were actually two other groups part of the WHO that looked at this same issue but came to a different conclusion: that there is no link between glyphosate and cancer. It’s 2 to 1 with the consensus that glyphosate is not linked to cancer. The IARC disregarded dozens of scientific studies and relied heavily on papers that created false associations.
Further, the IARC drew conclusions based on a limited data review debated during just a one-week meeting. This process is in stark contrast to periodic regulatory reviews. For example, the regulators in the United States and Canada began reviews of glyphosate in 2009 and concluded their research more than five years later, in 2015.
Monsanto created Agent Orange and therefore cannot be trusted with our food supply.
This argument, while very popular, is based on complete historical ignorance. A lot of people, especially anti-GMO activists, don’t realize that there are actually two Monsantos. Agent Orange was in fact made by Monsanto, along with DOW Chemical, but the Monsanto that made Agent Orange during the Vietnam war was a chemical company. In 1996 the chemical Monsanto company also happened to buy an agricultural company, long after the use and production of Agent Orange. The chemical Monsanto company developed the drug Celebrex and the company was then purchased by Pfizer in 2002. (Additional link: http://www.pfizer.com/about/history/pfizer_pharmacia). Pfizer had no interest in the agribusiness so they spun the agricultural company off, but they kept that company’s name Monsanto. (Additional links: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/why-the-climate-corporation-sold-itself-to-monsanto, http://www.wikinvest.com/stock/Pfizer_(PFE)/Monsanto-related_Matters). And so the Monsanto seed company that we know today is a completely separate entity from that original Monsanto chemical company.
Monsanto (the seed company) was distinct from Monsanto (the chemical company) and Pfizer, with its own bylaws, a different board of directors, and completely different management from Monsanto (the chemical company) or Pfizer. Monsanto (the seed company) kept the name “Monsanto” because they felt it would be too expensive to change. Changing the name, they estimated, would cost about $40 million.
Biotech companies oppose GMO labeling because they’re trying to keep us uninformed about their products, which have not been proven to be safe for human consumption.
Nothing about this is even remotely true. Biotech companies oppose current legislation on GMO labeling not only because it is unnecessary, but because it makes no sense. After decades of research, millions of dollars spent, and thousands of papers published in scientific journals, there has never been a documented adverse effect from consuming GMOs. Many argue the debate about GMO safety is over and the pro-side won. Now, the anti side flaunts their studies that say otherwise, but when you actually read the full text of their studies, and you read the reporting on those popular studies, you quickly find out that a large amount of them have either been retracted, highly criticized, not even peer-reviewed, or some other reason that makes their claims dubious at best.
A meta-study published in 2014 was designed to analyze the health effects of consuming GMOs. The sample size, which is truly staggering, consisted of 100 billion animals that were fed 90%-100% GMO feed spanning over a period of 18 years. The results were then compared to animals that ate 100% non-GMO feed. So what were the results? The researchers found literally zero adverse health effects in the animals given GMO feed compared to those who did not. If this isn’t the clearest and most compelling evidence that GMOs are absolutely safe to consume then I don’t know what is.
A popular study that is brought up by anti-GMO activists quite often was one conducted by Gilles-Eric Séralini. His paper was highly criticized and actually ended up getting retracted due to many factors such as horrific controls and bad test subjects, inconclusive results, and other flaws. The paper was unfortunately republished with a new abstract and conclusion in SpringerOpen, but as Retraction Watch reports, ESE, part of SpringerOpen, is too young to have an official Impact Factor (IF). The journal is calculated to have an IF of .55. That would place it about 190th out of the 210 journals in the “environmental sciences” category at Thomson Scientific. And the study is still highly criticized by hundreds of independent scientists who say the rewritten study still contains all the flaws of the original one. In fact, the editor of the republished paper has said that the new version was not peer-reviewed.
An anti-GMO study was actually recently retracted due to plagiarism. This is what scientific fraud looks like, and it’s on the anti-GMO side. This is serious stuff; he’s at the center of an ethics inquiry and may lose his license.
The studies that really hold up to scrutiny, the ones with replicated results, the ones with the most robust testing, are the ones that have come to the conclusions that GMOs are safe.
In fact, the scientific consensus on GMO safety is as robust, if not more, than the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real. Now, many anti-GMO activists will claim that Monsanto simply pays off scientists to forge data and publish results which favor GMOs, or that Monsanto pays off organizations to make false statements in support of GMOs. Never mind the fact that the anti-GMO side literally has shills such as the guy who plagiarized data in his study, but using just a little bit of critical thinking should bring you to the conclusion that this claim makes absolutely no sense. Going back to a chart I cited at the beginning of this article, Exxon Mobil makes about $400 billion annually. This is important for a simple reason: If a $400 billion company cannot pay off even a tiny sliver of the world’s scientists and organizations to say that climate change isn’t real, how in the world could a small $15 billion company like Monsanto be able to successfully pay off so many scientists and world health organizations? The claim is absolutely ridiculous. And yet this is still one of those areas where the lay-public loves to just cherry-pick the science. I’m sorry, but you can’t just pick and choose what science you want to follow and then reject what you don’t like. That’s not how science works. Science is objective. It’s truth. It’s not opinion. We go where the evidence points us to, not our feelings.
But to expand on the point that labeling is unnecessary, I think the term “GMO” has become a bit of a false dichotomy because it more refers to a [breeding] process than an actual thing. Kind of like how the USDA organic label doesn’t refer to the actual quality of the food, but rather just the process in which it was cultivated. Genetic modification is a process, demonstrably. And okay, so what if people want to label that process? Well then we would also have to put a GMO label on literally every single thing that we eat.
All traditional farming since the beginning of time has been genetically modified through selective breeding and crossbreeding, we’re just better at it now. Traditional breeding methods can change anywhere from 10,000-300,000 genes in a single crop. With crossbreeding, desired genes are inserted with other genetic material, aka genetic modification. There are no safety testing requirements for this method, and almost all crops are made this way. For example, broccoli does not exist in nature. You could search for a thousand years and you will almost certainly never find broccoli growing in the wild. In reality, it was derived from wild mustard; we chose favorable genes that we manipulated and expressed through selective breeding until we came to the end result of broccoli. Broccolini sure doesn’t exist in nature. That’s a crossbreeding of broccoli and kale. And I’m sorry, hipsters, but your kale “superfood” is a GMO in and of itself. But besides that, we are mixing foreign DNA from two plants to create an entirely new crop. The bananas we eat are completely different than wild bananas, which are practically inedible. Wild bananas are tiny and circular, they taste bitter, and they’re filled with seeds. These are all foods that have been contrived by humans through the manipulations of genes, and yet no one is scared to eat them.
Many people don’t know this, but there’s a form of genetic modification that is common in organic farming called Mutagenesis. In Mutagenesis, seeds are subjected to high levels of chemicals and radiation in order to speed up the mutations of favorable genes. There is no way of assessing how many genes are altered because it’s completely random, and there is absolutely no safety testing required for this method. But guess who spends millions of dollars fighting labeling laws for this method while pointing the finger at the other side? This is where I wanted to expand on the shockingly shady, scummy, and hypocritical marketing structure that the organic industry operates under. How do they have the gall to call for transparency when they are one of the most deceptive and misleading industries out there? They rely on the gullibility and scientific illiteracy of the public. It’s truly mind-blowing. Seriously, get in contact with some major organic companies and ask them about mutagenesis labeling. You’ll get some interesting responses.
Now, the form of genetic modification that is so controversial, when we talk about GMOs like corn and soybeans, uses a process known as Transgenics. This method changes about 1-4 genes in total. We insert the desired genes only at known locations where testing has shown that it’s safe. It is extremely precise. It’s also highly tested. In order for any GMO product to come to market using this method, it has to undergo 10+ years of safety testing and pass EPA, USDA, and FDA standards. Then on top of that, they need to pass the safety standards of every single country that we export to as well, and those countries conduct their own independent research.
So biotech companies are opposed to GM labeling for good reason: GMOs have not been demonstrated to pose any inherent risks, and a label would imply that they were somehow inferior to other products. If there truly were a reason to be worried about GMOs, then labeling would not be an issue. But even then, labeling a breeding method still doesn’t really tell you anything anyways because you would get absolutely no nutritional information from that label. Like I said before, genetic modification is a process, not a thing. If you want to label a process, then why don’t we label every other form of cultivation? Radiation mutagenesis that I was just talking about should have to be labeled too, but again, guess who is fighting to keep that in the dark. Artificial selection from traditional farming, fecal fertilization, and a myriad of other irrelevant details should all have to be labeled as well. It’s our “right to know,” right? Or is it?
Here are a few quotes from some of the leaders of the GMO labeling movement:
“We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” – Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director, Center for Food Safety
“Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85% of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe.” – Dr. Joseph Mercola, Mercola.com (By the way, this is completely false. Europe is actually one of the largest importers of GMOs.)
“The burning question for us all then becomes how-and how quickly-can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.” –Ronnie Cummins, Director, Organic Consumers Association (Is this an admission of a marketing ploy?
So is labeling really about our “right to know?” No. For them, it has never been about “knowing what’s in your food,” and many people are just blindly following them.
Further, there are already non-GMO labels. Why do we need more labels? That would just force biotech companies to spend even more on unnecessary labels and that would hinder their research for even better products to come to market.
And not only would putting labels directly cost them more money, they would also lose revenue because Dr. Joseph Mercola is right. The vast majority of the public assumes that GMOs are bad and evil, and they would absolutely avoid GMO products purely based on these unfounded fears and their gullibility from lack of scientific literacy. Not to mention that it’s basically impossible to avoid GMOs even in organic farming. The anti side claims they’re all about “transparency and the right to know,” but that’s actually not true at all as I demonstrated above. Their work is not going to be finished if labeling gets passed. The label issue is just a wedge in the door for them. Once labeling legislation gets passed, their arguments will then become “If GMOs are so safe, then why do we have to label them?” And there are multiple historical examples of that exact situation happening where groups fight for something just to get a wedge in the door and then change their narrative after the fact. Chiropractors and the USDA organic label are perfect examples of that.
The chiropractic industry lobbied legislatures for years to allow them to become licensed, but their motions were always rejected. Chiropractors argued that licensing them would allow them to regulate themselves better and they would be able to weed out the really bad quacks and cranks. Eventually, they got through to the legislatures and they got their licenses. But now that they are licensed, they instead use them as validation of legitimacy even though those licenses were never intended to be taken that way. But the lay-public doesn’t understand that so they fall prey to chiropractors who convince them they’re legitimate simply because they have a license.
A similar thing happened with organic industry. The USDA eventually gave the organic industry their label, but the USDA specifically said in their press release that these organic labels say absolutely nothing about the actual quality of the food; rather, the label simply refers to the process in which it was cultivated. But the second the organic industry got that label, organic products exploded. Like seriously exploded, because the lay-public didn’t understand that the labels didn’t say anything about the actual quality of the food. They just see the label and assume it means “healthy.” And the organic industry absolutely spun it that way and continues to spin it that way.
These historical examples are why so many proponents of GMOs oppose labeling; because we know that the labeling issue is just a wedge in the door for the anti side. Do you really think they will stop if they get GMOs labeled? Of course they won’t. If GMOs become labeled, their arguments will shift to “if GMOs aren’t dangerous, then why do they need to be labeled?”
Biotech companies can already spend billions of dollars for about 10 years of research on products that must pass EPA, FDA, and USDA standards before they come to market. Organic genetic modification through mutagenesis requires zero safety testing. If people really want the right to know, the organic industry has all their non-GMO labels that they can afford from not having to spend billions of dollars on research.