After the negative environmental and health implications of producing and consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were revealed, many consumers started boycotting GMOs. The non-GMO movement gained significant momentum, enough so that many governments banned GMOs and some companies publicly announced their support for GMO labeling (click here to learn more).
At the consumer level, many choose to purchase organic goods rather than conventional items that may contain GMOs. However, the distinction between non-organic and organic food becomes blurred when it comes to biotechnology.
At a produce level, organic means it cannot be GMO, but for other food items things get more tricky.
Genetic modification is essentially the process of altering the DNA of a given plant or animal to give it a favourable characteristic. GMOs were originally introduced into the food system to generate positive externalities, creating super-crops which could potentially help solve the growing global food demand.
But as with many other industries, once corporations recognized the potential for profitability in GMOs, they went from being a way to better society, in this instance to curb starvation, to a new source of revenue. As a result, most GMOs do not possess multiple desirable characteristics but rather only one, resistance to Monsanto’s incredibly toxic herbicide, RoundUp. Farmers can spray their GM crops with RoundUp without harming the plants, but this added convenience comes with serious implications.
Environmental and Health Issues Associated With GMOs
Monsanto quickly monopolized the seed industry, thus rapidly increasing the production of GMOs worldwide. As a result, farmers started producing single, uniform crops, known as monoculture, which decreases biodiversity by disrupting population dynamics and ecosystem roles. Increased usage of RoundUp also causes weeds to develop immunity to the herbicide, creating super-weeds, which threaten both the environment and the crop.
GM crops have contributed significantly to the rapid decline in bee population, commonly referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Research has shown that when bees consume Monsanto’s insecticide for GM corn crops, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), it attaches to receptors in the stomach lining and prevents bees from eating. This breaks down the stomach wall, rendering bees more susceptible to spores and bacteria and ultimately weakening their immune systems. One study confirmed that exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, compromises honeybees’ long-term performance and learning capabilities. Although bees don’t die immediately upon contact, glyphosate can be transferred between bees and eventually result in colony-wide death if passed down through generations.
The correlation between CCD and GMOs is indisputable, but how does this relate to our society? The United Nations stated that bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that represent 90% of global food supply. Without bees, we could not satisfy current global food demand let alone reach the capacity required to meet rapidly increasing projected demand levels due to population growth.
Not only are GMOs harmful to bees and other wildlife, they pose a serious threat to human health as well. One study showed that traces of RoundUp are often found in soybean products. Although small, these traces are potent to three human cells (umbilical, embryonic, and placental) in dosages far less than the concentration typically used in farming.
Human consumption of GMOs has also been linked to gluten disorders, birth defects, breast cancer, autism, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Despite the detrimental effect GMOs have on our health, the FDA approves GMO production and consumption. This is in part due to the regulations governing safety testing, which are inadequate and lacking substantial scientific support. To read more about the health risks associated with GMOs and why governments support them, check out our articles here and here.
Does Buying Organic Mean Non-GMO?
By law, the answer is yes. The United States and Canadian governments prohibit companies from labeling their products “100%/Certified Organic” if they contain GMOs. On the other hand, products that claim to be “made with organic ingredients” only require 70% of those ingredients to be organic under the USDA. Thus the remaining 30% could be genetically modified. Of course there are also some loopholes; for example, the casing around a “USDA Organic” sausage could be from traditionally farmed animals that are fed antibiotics and GM foods, and the hops found in organic beer could be grown inorganically.
Although the number of organic farms is growing as demand rises, they still only hold a small portion of the farmer’s market (no pun intended). It is estimated that 95% of canola oil and sugar beets grown in Canada is GM and in 2013 the European Union estimated that 90% of soybeans and 98% of corn grown in Canada was GM. Other statistics from the Canadian and US governments vary widely; there are contradictions and little transparency in the amount of GMO crops. The comparison between the number of GMO and non-GMO crops in the US is similar, as the US is the leading producer of GM foods globally. Since so many of the crops grown in North America are GM, cross-contamination can easily occur between GMO and non-GMO crops.
Despite the “Organic” sticker on your food, there is still risk of GMO contamination in some crops. GMO contamination can happen in several ways:
- cross-pollination between GMO and non-GMO crops
- trace amounts of GMO ingredients found in animal feed
- seeds traveling by wind
- migratory birds taking root in the soil of an organic farm
- ingredient suppliers that co-mingle various sources.
Supplier integrity is a murky area, as the seed industry is controlled largely by “The Big 6” corporations: BASF, Bayer, Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Syngenta. These corporations have rapidly increased acquisitions since the 1990s, including organic seed companies, particularly in the past five years. Not surprisingly, Monsanto leads this industry and has formed relationships with all of the other Big 6 players, holding cross-licensing agreements with each. This diagram provides a visualization of corporate ownership in the seed industry.
There’s no questioning whether GMO contamination takes place; at least 25% of organic feed corn and 6% of organic soybean contain traces of GMOs. There are some preventative measures farmers can take such as building barriers between neighboring crops, but there are no rules governing this and it isn’t a foolproof solution.
I am not suggesting you do not purchase organic products. Organic foods are typically more sustainably produced and considerably healthier than conventional foods because of reduced pesticide use. However, it is important to read past the bolded labels and understand what you’re buying. Although organic foods are often GMO free, it is clear that this cannot always be guaranteed. If you’re trying to reduce your intake of GMOs, in addition to eating organic you could also buy products verified by the Non-GMO Project, a North American NPO that offers third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO foods and other products.
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