Why GMO Labeling Will Never Work

Nikon J1 234Would you want to know if your food contained GMOs?

There has been a major push to get foods containing genetically modified ingredients labeled. Some brands have voluntarily done so, but most have not taken that step. Several countries around the world require GMO labeling, including China, Brazil, Japan and many others. While the US and Canada have debated going in this direction, there has been no binding action- yet. A poll conducted by The New York Times found that a whopping 93% of people want mandatory labeling for GMOs.

Some advocacy groups demand labeling because they claim GMOs are unsafe, and we as consumers should know what’s in our food. Even many supporters of GMOs agree that it would be best to just get on with it and label it already; the campaign against it is doing more harm than good, and people will buy food containing GM ingredients if they believe it is safe. While I can see the merits of such arguments, I believe it would be a colossal error to label food containing GM ingredients. Labeling food containing GMOs will ensure consumers avoid them- it’s a matter of simple psychology.

People Fear What They Don’t Understand

survey conducted in January by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA. For those who don’t remember high school science class, DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is our blueprint- it’s what makes us what we are. Almost every life form on the planet contains DNA. So, yes, all food contains DNA. But, if you didn’t know what DNA was, and someone asked you if you’d want to know if it was in your food, you probably would say yes. Why not? What if it’s harmful? It certainly sounds scary if you don’t know what it is.

Another example of the the general public’s ability to be fooled on scientific wording is the dihydrogen monoxide hoax. It all started back in 1983, in an April Fool’s edition of a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan. Apparently, dihydrogen monoxide had been found in the city’s water pipes, and it was “fatal if inhaled”. There have been several hoaxes since, each one stating dire warnings of the dangers of the substance. For instance, dihydrogen monoxide “may cause severe burns” and “has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients” and “everyone who consumes it dies”. What is dihydrogen monoxide? Well, its chemical name is H2O, but it is better known as water.

The truth is, if you frame it right, you can make anything sound terrifying. Take A&W’s new marketing campaign. They advertise their beef as “better beef” because it is produced without hormones or steroids. They ignore the fact that you would ingest more hormones from their fries than you would from conventionally produced beef. But, for the uneducated, why not eat beef produced without those components? It clearly sounds safer.

If you put a label on something as “product x free” or “contains product x” you immediately label product x as something ominous- especially if a quick Google search comes back with dozens of websites claiming how dangerous product x is. I suspect that if we label our foods with many of our breeding methods, we will create fear. Genetic modification is only one way of breeding advancements in our crops. One such breeding method is mutagenesis, which involves using mutagens such as UV radiation or mutagenic chemicals to cause random or site-directed changes to an organim’s DNA. A food product developed under this method can be labeled GMO free. I don’t want to demonize mutagenesis; it is an effective way to develop desirable traits in our crops. But let’s be realistic here; why is genetic modification somehow more dangerous than any other method?

GMOs already have an undeservedly bad reputation, especially considering how safe they are. If the government makes GMO labeling mandatory, the odds are very slim that their reputation will improve.

Are GMOs Actually Safe?

The simple answer is a resounding yes. I’ve heard the claim more than a few times that research on GMOs is scant, and Monsanto is funding a ton of propaganda. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, there are thousands of studies on GMOs. A literature review completed in 2012 delved into 1,783 studies on GMOs over a period of ten years (2002-2012). The authors couldn’t find one credible study proving GMOs are dangerous in any way whatsoever. In their words,

“We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops (source).” 

Another literature review, dubbed the “trillion meal study”, reviewed 29 years of livestock consumption of GM foods. The result? Not one negative health effect. Surely, in nearly 30 years, one animal somewhere must have become sick if GMOs were actually dangerous (read more here). The only studies that have shown dangers to GMOs have been shown to be biased and fatally flawed (an example is the Seralini rat study– it was redacted from its publishing journal).

Do We Really Need GMOs?

If you go to the World Population Clock, you’ll find a number somewhere above 7.3 billion, with over 72 million more added so far in 2015. Our population growth may be starting to slow down, but the reality is that there will likely be 8 billion people on this planet by 2024- a staggering number. How do we feed them all? We will need every tool available to us, genetic modification included. Moreover, it gives us the ability to reduce pesticide use, fortify our foods with essential nutrients (e.g. Golden rice) and grow more food on less land. Let’s try and leave the rainforests where they are. And, more importantly, let’s not let any more children die from Vitamin A deficiencies.

Everyone has heard of GMOs, but few have taken the time to understand what they are. You always fear what you don’t understand; it’s basic human nature. A greater public benefit would come from education on GMOs; what they are, how they’re made, and why we need them. Let’s stop giving people a reason to be afraid of them. Let’s take the unknown out of it. Consumers want to know what’s in their food: instead of giving them an acronym few actually can decifer, let’s explain to them why GMOs are in their food, and why it’s a good thing. If consumers knew the truth about GMOs, there would be no need for labels.

References:

American Association for the Advancement of Science. 2012. Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.

Eenennaam, A. 2013. GMOs in animal agriculture: time to consider both costs and benefits in regulatory evaluations. Journal of Animal Science and Biotechnology. 

Entomological Society of America. 2014. Insect-resistant maize could increase yields and decrease pesticide use in Mexico.

Gemma, A. et. al. 2013. Plurality of opinion, scientific discourse and pseudoscience: an in depth analysis of the Se´ralini et al. study claiming that Roundup Ready corn or the herbicide Roundup cause cancer in rats. Transgenic Research.

Nicolia, A. et. al. 2012. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Crit Rev Biotechnol.

What’s The Beef? M&Ms and Hormones. 2013. Farm Meets Fork.

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It’s All About The Weather Now

It has been just over a week since the Eastern Prairies suffered one of its worst storms in modern history. Mercifully, the weather has improved immensely since, with sun and heat gracing us in most of the days following the torrential rainfall. Many of our crops have recovered fairly well, or as well as can be expected, with some faring better than others. Some plants just have a greater ability to withstand severe weather better than others. Cereals, like wheat and durum, still look excellent, despite some lost acres that are still underwater. Our canola has come a long way, but its yield potential is very much a question mark. Other crops, like our lentils and peas, look quite poor, with a substantial amount of acres flooded out completely, and many other acres with weak yield potential.

We finally were able to complete our in-crop weed control a few days ago with our flax, which is still frustratingly wet. After nearly a week of hot, dry weather, I guess I kind of DSC_0092expected an improvement in the sogginess of our fields. I was unpleasantly surprised, with the sprayer leaving ruts far away from where the water lay. As we now move through some of our crops again with a fungicide, it is still shocking how many acres are lost.

Why do plants die from too much water?

A lot of plants have died from the substantial amount of water in the fields. While much of that water has now vanished, the plants have more or less gone away with it, especially susceptible ones like peas, lentils and canola. Like us, plants need oxygen for life, which is somewhat of an interesting thought, since you generally think of plants as “producing” oxygen. In normal conditions, plants take CO2 and light energy to create sugars, which they use for energy. When light is restricted, they cannot create sugar, so they have to use it, much like we do. When plants are waterlogged, a couple of things happen:

  • Roots cannot access oxygen. While leaves usually have lots of oxygen available from CO2, roots must access it from the soil. Little air pockets in the soil allow roots to “breathe”, but if water has filled all the air pockets, the plant can’t breathe, essentially drowning it. While the plant has some coping mechanisms, they are not overly efficient, and it will eventually be overcome by its inability to access oxygen. The root cells will die, slowly killing the entire root system; without the roots, the plant will die.
  • Since the soil is saturated with water, the plant cannot access the nutrients it needs for life, causing it to starve (more or less). Combined with root death, the plant has no chance to survive.

If the water can leave relatively quickly, say two days or so, the plant will usually recover, as many of them did. But for all too many plants, the water stayed around for far too long.

Not a pretty sight to see, but there are a lot of these spots.
Not a pretty sight to see, but there are a lot of these spots.

At this point in the growing season, we know that a certain amount of production is gone, never to come back. We have probably lost 10-15% of our acres from waterlogging so far, which, when you start to do the math on how much production that can be, is a substantial amount of money. The pressure is even greater now for the remaining acres to yield well, even just to make up for the lost acres.

At least we won’t need to worry about drought now… right?

It pains me to say this even more than it probably irritates you to read it, but despite all of the ridiculous rainfall we’ve gotten this year, and despite all the problems it has caused, sometime, in the next week or two, we will… need some rain. I know! I’ve spend the last two months complaining about too much rain, and flooding, and waterlogging, and everything that goes with it, but it is a sad fact of farming that crops need moisture every few weeks, regardless of how much they had previously. All of that horrendous torrential downpour we dealt with almost two weeks ago basically just ran off, filled up low spots, and killed crop. Since the soil was already full, it simply couldn’t take it any more, and the crop was pretty much unable to use any of it. Since then, we have had nothing but sun and heat, which has been perfect; but, with that comes a net drying of the soil. Soil probes that measure moisture in the ground recorded that canola in the flowering stage of its life uses close to 9 mm (that’s 3.5 tenths) of water per day! It doesn’t take long to empty 3 inches of water out of the soil then, does it?

This monster devours a lot of water!
This monster devours a lot of water!

Yes, I’m afraid that weather just isn’t really ever perfect for farmers, and we can always find something wrong with it! Don’t be too hard on us, though; remember, with 10-15% of our crop now gone, and much of the rest of it coming out of severe stress, we need all the yield we can get out of what we’ve got left out there. We will need all that we can get to make sure we can get our bills paid and hopefully have a chance to try this farming thing again next year (why? I am starting to wonder!).

Summer brings opportunities and hope… and threats

As we move deeper into summer, our crops are slowly advancing into their reproductive stages. This is a critical time of the year, when a rain at the right time can be worth a fortune. The flip side of that is that rain at this time of the year often brings hail, which can be devastating to crops at this stage of their lives.

It may be soon to be thinking about it already, but there is one possibility that looms like a black cloud over all of the hopes we have left for the crop this year. With such a cold and rainy May and June, crops are woefully far behind normal. While we got away with that last year despite our fears, every year is different, and luck can change awfully quickly. The thought of an August or even an early September frost is terrifying. It would devastate many of us.

DSC_0104For now, all we can do is monitor our crops for insects and disease and hope for the best. We have to do everything we can to ensure no pests take away what we have left out in the field, and that means carefully watching for disease, weeds and insects, and spraying for them if and when it is necessary. These are simply to finish the crop; there is nothing we can do now to hasten our crops’ maturity. That ship sailed after seeding was completed. It is in Mother Nature’s sometimes kind, but oftentimes wicked hands what happens to our crops now. I don’t know what the crops’ abilities are to recover from such a hellish spring, but I do know one thing for certain: the success or failure of the crop is now out of my hands. It’s all about the weather now.