When genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were first in the news, headlines raised concern over hybrid fish tomatoes and other “frankenfoods” finding their way onto our shelves. Opponents worried about safety, while supporters touted these crops as a way to both increase yields and decrease pesticide use. An article in last weekend’s New York Times highlights how GM foods have failed to deliver on both of these fronts.
In the European Union, where GM crops are highly regulated and not widespread, crop yield has grown at approximately the same rate as in the United States and Canada. More disturbingly, herbicide use in North America has risen by 21% while simultaneously falling by 36% in France. By genetically modifying seeds to be resistant to common herbicides, famously Monsanto’s Roundup, food scientists unwittingly created roundup ready, invasive weeds. This forced many farmers to turn to stronger chemicals, such as 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange whose long-term risks may be harmful to humans.
Why are GM crops largely rejected in the EU, while they have gained such a large market share in North America? The EU operates under what is known as the precautionary principle, meaning that prior to allowing a product to be sold, the EU’s Food Safety Authority conducts a risk assessment on human, animal, and environmental health. The product must be deemed safe before it is authorized in Europe, and a clear label of GM foods allows consumers to make an informed decision about what they buy. The United States takes a different approach. In the NY Times article, Harvard School of Public Health Professor David Bellinger explains, “These chemicals are largely unknown… We do natural experiments on a population and wait until it shows up as bad.”
While the initial concerns of the safety of GM foods seem to be largely unsupported by research, the benefits of such crops appear equally without merit. The article concludes with the idea that GM crops may have some promise in developing countries where “need is higher,” but comparing the US to EU, our use of GM crops has not put us ahead.
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