Category Archives: Environment

Organic Vs. GMO. Do I need to pick a side?

You should be on neither side. The side we should all be on is the side of producing the healthiest food in the most efficient way, with the least impact on the environment.  Sometimes this will mean using organic methods.  Sometimes it will mean using conventional farming methods.  Sometimes it will mean incorporating a novel technique like genetic engineering. The right way forward is to work together, not to have an ongoing fight where you have picked a side and sticking to it regardless of the facts.  Let’s look at this false dichotomy a little more closely.

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What does the certified organic label tell you?

It tells you that the producers have checked off a list of guidelines.  It does not mean that there are no or even less pesticides used.  It just means that different natural pesticides have been used.  However, natural does not mean better or less toxic.  We should want to be able to choose foods that used the safest pesticides possible.  This might be a natural pesticide.  It might be a synthetic pesticide.  The organic label is telling you nothing about the safety of the pesticide just its origin.  Furthermore, despite what cherry picked studies that pro-organic people cite, the science overall shows no difference in the nutritional value of organic vs. conventional foods. There are ways to farm that maximize the nutritional value of crops, but such methods are not indicated by an organic label.

What does a GM label tell you? 

It tells you that an ingredient in the food was produced using genetic engineering.  It tells you nothing about the purpose of that engineering.  A GM product that is resistant to a herbicide,  like Monsanto’s Round-up resistant corn might be something you want to avoid.  Note that the problem with this GM product is not the genetic modification, but the fact that it is sprayed with more herbicide than a non-resistant variety. This is an example of a product that increases pesticide use.  On the other hand you might prefer to eat a GM Bt crop.  Bacillus thuringiensis toxin is one of the most common pesticides used by organic farmers in the form of a spray.  It is derived from soil bacteria. GM crops have been developed that produce the toxin themselves.  The upside is the GM crops effectively reduce pest by producing less toxin than would need to be sprayed on the crops for the same reduction in pests. This is an example of a product that decreases pesticide use.

Bottom line is when you pick up a package and it says “organic”, or “GM free”, or “contains GM products” , as packages at Whole Foods will soon be labeled, keep in mind that label is telling you absolutely nothing about how healthy that food is for you.  It is really just a marketing strategy, and a very effective one.  If you really want to get on the side of more healthy food, don’t fall into this trap.  Advocate for the healthiest most environmentally friendly food possible, no matter what technology is used to produce it.  Unfortunately there isn’t really a sticker that you can put on a box that can indicate that.

For more reading I recommend this blogger at Scientific America.  She digs far deeper into the issue than I do.