In defence of genetically modified food

More scientists are coming around to GMO safety. Why are environmentalists, who preach the science of climate change, not listening?

A scientist examines an ear of corn in one of Monsanto's GMO testing labs. (Daniel Shea)

A scientist examines an ear of corn in one of Monsanto’s GMO testing labs. (Daniel Shea)

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s view of life beyond its doors is pretty disturbing for a burrito chain. A few years ago it released an animated short film that showed a scarecrow poking around a dusty, dystopian world where long tubes extrude “beef-ish” meat, mechanical milkers suck cows dry and robots repeatedly stab chickens with hormone-filled needles. The intended message was clear: Big Food is ruining the planet, Chipotle’s 1,900 locations and hundreds of suppliers notwithstanding.

So it came as little surprise when Chipotle said last spring it was ridding its U.S. restaurants of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The term refers to plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to resist pests, disease or even commercial herbicides by inserting genes from other species. Critics dubbed such products “Frankenfoods” and have called for mandatory labels, if not outright bans. Chipotle declared it was “G-M-Over it.”

While Chipotle’s anti-GMO stance seemingly jibes with its “Food with integrity” promise (which, incidentally, took a hit last year when more than 500 people in a dozen U.S. states contracted food-borne illnesses after eating at its restaurants) the company’s explanation for going GMO-free begs credulity. “We don’t believe the scientific community has reached consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption,” Chipotle says on its website, implying a level of familiarity with the life sciences not normally associated with fast-casual restaurants. Chipotle goes on to cite a 2012 study documenting increased use of herbicide and pesticides on GM crops and speculates ominously about an “escalating arms race with weeds and insects.”

Such is the nature of the emotional, often hyperbolic debate around GM foods, which first reared their head in the 1990s when agri-giant Monsanto introduced varieties of canola, corn, cotton and soybean genetically engineered to be resistant to its Roundup brand of herbicide. On the one side are seed companies and farmers, who like the convenience and improvements in crop yield. On the other are activists who are concerned about unforeseen health and environmental impacts. A hungry, confused public is caught in between.

Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers on the day that the company announced it will only use non-GMO ingredients in its food. The company announced that the Denver-based chain would not use the GMO's, which is an organism whose genome has been altered via genetic engineering, in the food served at Chipotle Mexican Grills. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers on the day that the company announced it will only use non-GMO ingredients in its food. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But the discussion shows signs of undergoing an important shift in tone—in part because of climate change. Not only do companies like Monsanto profess to have the tools to feed a world increasingly stricken by drought and pestilence, but the listen-to-the-science mantra that environmental groups espouse when taking on climate-change skeptics has proven difficult to square with their anti-GMO campaigns, which tend to gloss over much of the available scientific research on GM foods. In 2013, British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas became one of the first to publicly admit his anti-GMO stance had become “intellectually incompetent and dishonest,” while U.S. TV personality and science educator Bill Nye (the Science Guy) last year revisited his cautious outlook on GMOs after visiting Monsanto’s St. Louis labs. In February, state-owned ChemChina agreed to pay US$43 billion for Swiss agricultural giant Syngenta, which sells both conventional and GM seeds. That’s more than double what China National Offshore Oil Corporation paid for Canadian oil and gas firm Nexen back in 2012, demonstrating that the country of 1.3 billion clearly places strategic importance on boosting the efficiency of its farmland.

Related: A founder of the anti-GMO movement on how he got it wrong

Of course, none of this is to say GM foods are perfect—only that they’ve been unfairly demonized in a society that often conflates “natural” and “healthy.” Like any new technology, there are pros and cons, risks and benefits. But, for the first time in years, the atmosphere seems conducive to a rational discussion about GM food and its potential. That’s a good thing, too, because the industry is busy readying ever more items for the dinner table, including a genetically modified salmon that could soon be bred on Prince Edward Island. We might as well understand what’s on the menu.

Chipotle may be among the most sanctimonious retailers to have taken a stand against GM foods in recent years, but it certainly isn’t alone. Whole Foods has promised to label any GMO products in its stores by 2018. General Mills, meanwhile, said two years ago it would start making its Cheerios breakfast cereal with non-GMO ingredients, as did Post Foods with Grape Nuts. More than 2,000 retailers have signed on to the Non-GMO Project, a third-party verification program acting in the absence of laws requiring mandatory labels on products containing GM ingredients.


It’s not easy being GMO-free, however. Chipotle was forced to add a disclaimer to its GMO tough talk, since the meat and cheese in its burritos and bowls most likely comes from cows and pigs that ate genetically modified feed. The same goes for the beverages sold in its restaurants, “including those containing high-fructose corn syrup, which is almost always made from GMO corn.” Whole Foods similarly explains on its website that about 88 per cent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, as is 95 per cent of sugar beets, 93 per cent of canola and 94 per cent of soybeans. “It’s impossible for us to exclude GMOs as an overarching standard at this time,” the grocer says, adding GMOs are “pervasive” and can be found in 70 per cent of packaged foods.

So what, exactly, have food companies been feeding us? At present, most genetically modified ingredients stem from cereals and crops that have either been engineered to be resistant to specific herbicides, like Monsanto’s Roundup (made with glyphosate), or resistant to certain kinds of pests, as is the case with Bt corn and Bt Cotton (Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium, which is the organism the organic farming industry relies on to make a popular natural pesticide).

More consumer-facing GM products are on the horizon, however, and Canada has emerged as an unexpected leader in the field. Summerland, B.C.’s Okanagan Specialty Fruits last year received approval from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to grow and sell the world’s first non-browning GM apples in this country after figuring out how to “turn off” the gene that makes the flesh discolour. Similarly, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last fall for the world’s first genetically modified fish. The AquaAdvantage salmon is a farm-raised Atlantic salmon imbued with growth hormone genes from a Chinook salmon and an eel-like creature called an ocean pout. The changes allow it to grow much more quickly—a potential boon for the aquaculture industry. Though Health Canada has yet to sign off on GM salmon for Canadian consumption, AquaBounty’s CEO Ronald Stotish is optimistic. “We are hopeful the Canadian government will approve our application just as the U.S. FDA has done,” he says. (Both Okanagan Specialty Fruits and AquaBounty are owned by a U.S. conglomerate called Intrexon, whose name and slogan—“A better world through better DNA”—seems inspired by the 1982 movie Blade Runner.)

Needless to say, such petri-dish creations run opposite to the current Western obsession with all manner of “natural” and “authentic” food trends. Free-range. Nose-to-tail. Organically grown. Basically anything reminiscent of how one’s great-grandparents once subsisted, minus the subsistence part. It’s here where the gulf between agribusiness and consumers once seemed insurmountable—that is, until the drumbeat of science became too difficult to ignore.

There is now a long list of national bodies that suggest approved GMOs are no riskier to eat than conventionally produced food. In addition to regulators, they include: the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the Royal Society of Medicine, the World Health Organization and the European Commission (even though more than a dozen European countries want to ban GM crops). Moreover, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of scientists who belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 88 per cent believe it is safe to eat GM foods, compared to just 37 per cent of the public at large. That’s slightly higher (one percentage point) than the number of scientists who believed climate change was “mostly due to human activity.” Given that just about everything we eat, from apricots to zucchini, has been genetically modified though selective breeding practices, astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up the feelings of many within the scientific community when, two years ago, he suggested anti-GMO activists should just “chill out.”

Does that mean there are zero concerns? Not exactly. About 300 European scientists and legal experts signed a joint letter a few years ago that said, in effect, there wasn’t yet enough evidence to say GMOs are completely safe, or unsafe for that matter. Similarly, a study last year by a researcher at Tufts University highlighted about two dozen studies where GMOs were fed to animals that later showed adverse effects or “health uncertainties.” The author, sensibly, recommended trying to replicate the results “to see if they hold up to rigorous testing.” The WHO says on its website that “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”

The Betty's Byre booth at Queen's University campus farmer's market

Critics’ concerns go beyond safety. Many have also complained about the agricultural industry’s heavy-handed tactics, including patenting GM seeds and then suing farmers who save seed and replant without a licence. Others are worried about cross-contamination, since some farmers, particularly organic ones, could be locked out of some markets if GM seeds are carried onto their land by birds or wind. At the same time, recent studies have shown increased spraying of glyphosate over the past decade as GM crops were quickly adopted around the world, suggesting the emergence of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” (a problem, it should be noted, not strictly limited to GM crops). “It’s been 20 years since the first genetically modified crops were approved in Canada,” says Lucy Sharratt, the Ottawa-based coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a coalition of farmer, environmental and international development organizations with concerns about genetic engineering. “But there’s been no evaluation from the federal government as to the risks and benefits of that experiment.”

Andreas Boecker, an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s department of food, agricultural and resource economics, argues that the sooner Canadians realize GMOs are neither a magical cure nor a pox on humanity, the better. “It would be a big mistake to ban a technology for more or less ideological reasons,” he says. “Where the debate has to go to be productive is to look at risk management.” He likens GM food to automobiles in this respect, noting thousands die in traffic accidents but we continue to drive because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The one difference with GM foods, Boecker says, is each one is unique, meaning “we have to look at every single product case-by-case.”

It’s for this reason that calls for mandatory labelling of GM foods have been so controversial. While groups like CBAN argue consumers have a right to know what they’re buying, food companies counter that government-mandated labels imply a hidden danger, and note GM foods are more extensively safety-tested than conventional varieties. Nye, for his part, has argued the industry should slap “proudly GMO” labels on its products and let the market decide—which may not actually be as suicidal as it sounds. The Arctic apple, after all, trumpets its non-browning qualities as its main selling point. Similarly, the AquaAdvantage salmon is being pitched as a more sustainable alternative, since the fish “can be produced in land-based facilities closer to population centres, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of transportation.” It’s conceivable that future GM foods may offer even more attractive advantages.

One thing’s for certain: GM technologies aren’t going anywhere. Florida orange growers are looking to genetic technology to help them battle citrus greening disease. Bananas, another at-risk monoculture, may also need a GM fix to keep them on supermarket shelves. Others see a bright future for drought-resistant GM crops as farmers around the world grapple with climate change.

Even Chipotle might not be immune. Two years ago the burrito chain warned that its popular guacamole could be at risk if severe weather events, expected to become more frequent as global temperatures warm, caused avocado prices to spike. The Internet went into panic mode. It thus remains to be seen what Chipotle executives find most scary: a future full of “unnatural” GM foods, or one populated by millions of irate customers.


In defence of genetically modified food

  1. ya, the same science that gave us prilosec, asbestos, lead, agent orange, flame retardant, PCB’s, and a million other toxic substances that are destroying the earth and its inhabitants. You can stick GMO’s right where the sun don’t shine..

    • …but lead and asbestos are 100% natural so they should be completely safe?

    • everything is toxic at some dose.

      What left wing nuts fail to grasp is the world is getting healthier and safer from the very things they fear.

    • human beings are living longer healthier lives than they have ever done in all of history

      and YOU are anti science???

    • ya….Life678……the same science that gave us the germ theory, vaccines, antibiotics, penicillin, electricity, computers, modern travel, big bang theory, evolutionary theory, modern agriculture, ……… science, though not perfect, is the best method we humans have come up with to try and find out what is really happening in the physical world.

  2. My concern with GMO’s is not food safety. Any GMO organism Monsanto creates it patents. In the future it potentially could garner the market on any or all foods. I fail to see where this is beneficial to the public at large. Beyond that neo-nictinoids, designed as an insecticide seems to be toxic to beneficial insects such as honey bee’s.

    • Patents only last for 20 yesrs

  3. Anti GMO mobs are like the Anti Vaxxer’s. They hold their hands up to their eyes to not see any science proving them wrong so they can continue to feel the glow from their righteous cause. The circumference of their vision is as small as as a tube of Pringles. They refuse to see the benefits of Vitamin A in rice that saves eyesight, drought resistant crops in rain scarce area’s and increased crop yields on a world that is over capacity on human life. We have been eating GMO’s for generations and I am still waiting for the apocalypse.

    • That’s a decent analogy Brighid. And most of the anti-vaccine crowd seems to be concentrated on “the right.”

      GMOs, bacteria and viruses, atmospheric reactions to GHGs, none of them depend on politics.

      • Most of the anti-vaccine crowd is right here in California, and the ideology got its start thanks to a Hollywood actor… believe me, it’s left-wing parents all the way.

    • No they are not the same.

      You get to choose what food you eat.
      You do not get much choice regarding vaccines. Take what the government demands you take or you are in trouble.

      BTW the anti-vax science is weak but not non-existant.

      CDC covered up a study that found a small but statustically significant increase in autism inm african american male babies who received the vaccine in a very narrow time window after birth.

      So what is the harm of letting people choose separate M, M, and R vaccines, or pay extra for ones without mercury ?

      • Hate to correct you misperception but the MMR vaccine and any pediatric vaccine for that matter has no mercury in it. Thimersol is what concerns the anti-vaccine crowd. It is the type of ‘mercury’ you are referring to and it is used as an antibacterial preservative in multi-use vaccines. At present, the only multi-use vaccine is the flu shot. Every other vaccine comes as a single use vial and no preservative like Thimersol is required so no mercury like substance is required. For children in Canada, we give a flu shot in an inhalant. Children are not being exposed to any Thimersol. People in the know like to say your children get more exposure to mercury in a can of tuna than they would in a flu sot. It is a different kind of mercury but the accuracy is pretty spot on. Let’s be honest with our interactions on this subject. No mercury in pediatric vaccines.

  4. As a member of the left, I reject the characterization that “the left” opposes GMOs. Folks I interact with, including the graduate students I teach, have no knee-jerk rejection of GMOs. I, and they, really just want to understand the specifics and at least consider the unintended consequences. But most of us recognize the necessity of GMOs in an overpopulated, overhot, underwatered world.

    You see, one of the differences we are seeing between the left and the right this election cycle is that the left is not nearly as ideological. The left is a collection of groups — labor unions, minorities, tree-huggers, social liberals, intellectuals, urbanites, hippie-wannabes, etc. — that join together for political expediency … generally, there is a more rigid common ideological underpinning to “the right,” usually based on small government, Christian beliefs and (growing less frequent I think) military strength. Many of the groups on the left are very pragmatic on most issues, including GMOs. While the hippie-wannabes and some of the tree-hugger crowd may have a knee-jerk opposition to messing with nature, that doesn’t define “the left.” If GMOs work, and we can feed more people under more stressful environmental conditions, and there are no proven adverse enviro impacts, then “the left” with which I interact do and will support them.

  5. Yeah, science is awful. Modern medicine saving lives just leads to overpopulation, recycling allows us to have a computer in every home… improvements in fuel economy lessens pollution… Nuclear powerplants release less radioactivity into the atmosphere than COAL powerplants do…

    Yeah, clearly science is awful.

  6. As stated above,
    “At present, most genetically modified ingredients [GMOs] stem from cereals and crops that have either been engineered to be resistant to specific herbicides, like Monsanto’s Roundup (made with glyphosate), or resistant to certain kinds of pests, as is the case with Bt corn and Bt Cotton (Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis.”

    This is THE major challenge with GMOs. There is a high probability that those who eat or wear them, are being exposed to pesticides such as glyphosate which has been labeled as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. And just recently , according to the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) intends to list glyphosate as known to the state to cause cancer under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.”

    So much for the claim that glyphosate is “safer than table salt” according to GMO industry proponents!

    • Hey, glyphosates don’t kill the bugs that are selected to survive bt seeds by god, so glyphosate won’t kill humans. On the other hand, the farmers who go bankrupt paying for gmos seeds that fail to produce good crops do kill themselves and the crop failures cause famines that kill many others.

    • You will disagree with me but there are no GMO ingredients. There are food items and ingredients in food products made from crops harvested from GE traited varieties, plant varieties that have acquired a portion of their genes via biotech mechanisms. But the genetic traits of the crop variety, whether acquired via biotech or not, does not mean the harvested products, or processed items made from them like sugars and oils, differ in any meaningful way as food by identity, composition or nutritional value. I will not convince you of that, and you will never convince me that the act of genetic engineering itself creates a wholly different organism, — a variety of corn with a trait added by GE is still just corn, just a different variety of corn no different than a variety of corn with traits acqired by induced mutation, chromosome splitting, cross breeding or spontaneous mutation are just a variety of corn. Food products from them are not, for instance, MMO (mutation modified organism) food. Now the trait added may make material difference in composition whether acqired via GE, cross breeding, mutation or other method.

      I am interested in your thoughts on two question, and I don’t ask to be confrontational. You were very critical about using genetic engineering to instill herbicide tolerance. Herbicide tolerance is but one use of genetic engineering. I don’t dispute that by volume of harvested product from GE traited varieties, HT traits were the most common characteristic of the ge acquired trait. However, by range of traits that can be and have actually been added to various crops, both actually released for use by the public or in development, HT is quickly becoming a small minority of traits added by GE. For example, genes for disease resistance was added to papayas, potatoes and chestnuts that have nothing to do with herbicide tolerance. In fact, in some cases, the trait would help avoid application of ah chemicals currently used to manage the disease problem.

      Here is my question. Suppose we outlawed that particular use of genetic engineering, I.e. instilling resistance to a herbicide, bit allowed it for other applications, say disease resistance, drought resiliency, nutritional enhancement, so that you could be certain that no food product was derived from herbicide tolerant plant — would you still oppose genetic engineering? Second question, suppose there were hundreds of food items from GE traited plant varieties on store shelves where the trait acquired via GE had nothing to do with herbicide toletance, but there were other food items from GE traited varieties where the GE acqired trait is herbicide tolerance. Are you still opposed to all use of GE under that scenario? And finally, there are food products from plant varieties that are bred for herbicide tolerance but genetic engineering was not used just normal crossbreeding was used (e.g. clearfield sunflowers). Are you opposed to herbicide traits acquired by any method of genetic modification, or just when added by ge.?

      • You are right. I strongly disagree when you say “there are no GMO ingredients.” If that were true the Verified Non-GMO label would not be possible.

        Given the fact that the majority of GMOs in our food supply are HT or Bt means that consuming them increases the inadvertent consumption of pesticide compounds. I don’t want to eat foods that are designed to be repeatedly sprayed with pesticides nor do I want to eat foods that are themselves insecticidal and have outlined my reasons for this before. The biggest challenge is the way pesticides like glyphosate work to disrupt the shikimate cycle and its impact on the gut microbiota that are key to staying healthy and supporting a vibrant immune system.

        I believe that we rely far too heavily on the use of pesticides, herbicides fungicides, irrigation and petroleum products in general for farming and we are slowly poisoning our soils and poisoning and depleting precious non-renewable water sources.

        I do not oppose GE per se; there are some very interesting targeted techniques for fighting cancer by genetically altering bacteria a viruses to fight cancer that hold great promise. What I oppose is the meme that GMOs will help feed the world when the real motivation as demonstrated by the current GMOs on the market is to help their manufacturers sell more of their specific designer pesticides. These same companies are spending millions to block food product labeling laws which I find reprehensible. The recent case by the Washington State AG versus the Grocery Manufacturers Association on how they fought the food labeling billing that state is very revealing.

  7. The left is the party of science unless the question is GMO food, nuclear power, vaccinations or when does life begin. Then they become the party of ooga booga and we don’t know that.

  8. When there are hundreds of GMO wheat varieties that are created by the farmers and shared with each other based on how well the adapt to local soils and weather, with all the profit going to the farmers, then GMOs might offer some benefit.

    But mostly GMOs work only in theory, only when farmers use chemicals, water, fertilizers they can’t afford and pay high prices for the seeds they can’t afford. In the US, the government spends billions to support the big corporations to ensure farmers can pay the high costs of gmos. In places like India and Africa gmos provide no benefits because farmers can’t afford all the extra inputs.

  9. It is precious that you don’t see that their moronic stance on GMOs and their equally fervent, but unscientific, views on climate, are complimentary rather than conflicting.

    • The problem with most arguments in favour of GMO, such as this article, is that they only say it is safe for HUMAN consumption. What about the bees that pollinate the crop, or the butterflies whose caterpillars feed on them, other insects, birds that feed on them, What is the effect on related plants that may cross-pollinate with the GMO crop and the insects that feed on them? What is the effect on the soil organisms that decompose the husks? Before I would be willing to knowingly consume GMO products I want to know that they are safe for the biosphere, not just me, And I haven’t seen any of the studies that purport to claim that GMO food is safe that address this issue. I’m waiting, I’m listening, I’m willing to read scientific papers. What I refuse to do is just blow off the effect on other life forms. So convince me.

      • I find it completely interesting how we have been cross pollinating forever with no thought to the new species we have created, yet when corporations do it, we become suspicious and certain it is bad for us. When is the last time you ate a watermelon with seeds? I have a friend who went overseas to a third world country and all the watermelon he ate was full of black seeds? When was the last time you heard of a case of Malaria in the west? Bill Gates and his foundation have been fighting this disease in third world countries and best they can do is provide mosquito nets because

      • I find it completely interesting how we have been cross pollinating forever with no thought to the new species we have created, yet when corporations do it, we become suspicious and certain it is bad for us. When is the last time you ate a watermelon with seeds? I have a friend who went overseas to a third world country and all the watermelon he ate was full of black seeds? When was the last time you heard of a case of Malaria in the west? Bill Gates and his foundation have been fighting this disease in third world countries and best they can do is provide mosquito nets because

        • malaria has become medication resistant and it kills all the young men in villages. These are third world problems. We in first world countries invent problems like GMO’s being dangerous when there is no evidence that they are and now the scientist are admitting there is no evidence just as there is no evidence vaccines do anything but save lives. People in third world countries would love to have our problems.

  10. Genetic engineering is in a revolutionary phase now, with more and more complex changes now possible and even easy. It is already transforming cancer treatment via adoptive cell transfer. Will GMO haters reject the therapy that could save them because they would thereby themselves become a GMO?