Recent reports point to an Italian meta-analysis on GMOs as evidence that all of our worries surrounding bioengineered crops are no more than pseudoscience – but according to experts, this is far from the case.
The analysis, which was published in Scientific Reports in February, examined 6,000 studies conducted over the course of two decades and found that genetically modified corn boasted increased crop yields and significantly fewer mycotoxins – a common toxic chemical byproduct – as compared to non-bioengineered corn.
The results, according to Futurism, may be "the final chapter" in the GMO debate.
“There have been, for a variety of largely unscientific reasons, serious concerns surrounding the effects of GMOs on human health,” writes the outlet. “This analysis confirms that not only do GMOs pose no risk to human health, but also that they actually could have a substantive positive impact on it.”
This is, unfortunately, not the whole story when it comes to GMOs: here are three reasons we still need to worry about their effects on our health and that of the planet.
1. GMOs encourage the use of dangerous herbicides.
GMOs and herbicides like glyphosate are often addressed in the same breath, and not for nothing: while GMO technology can be used for a variety of beneficial processes, such as the development of golden rice, a genetically engineered rice that biosynthesizes beta-carotene for increased nutrition, an overwhelming majority of crops produced using this technology is bioengineered to resist chemical herbicides, thus allowing – and even encouraging – farmers to spray their crops and introduce these chemicals into our food system.
“Much of the danger associated with the most common genetically engineered crops are related to the ubiquitous use of the herbicide glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup),” explains Mark Kastel, co-founder of the organic watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute. “There has been exponential increase in the use of this particular agrichemical since the introduction of genetically engineered field crops.”
Not only is glyphosate more present in the environment due to GMO crops that are resistant to it, but it's also more present in our bodies: studies have shown that glyphosate is absorbed by the crops upon which it is sprayed.
“Those types of herbicides are systemic,” explains Wil Hemker, Entrepreneur Fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation. “Since those plants, those edible crops, can tolerate it more, there's more of that material sitting inside the plant tissue.”
The increased presence of glyphosate in crops leads to an increased presence in humans: one paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last October tracked the glyphosate levels in the urine of 100 people since the 1970s and found a rising trend in its presence. And while some say that these trace amounts of glyphosate are not cause for concern, others are not so sure.
In 2015, the World Health Organization found that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. While some groups, including the EPA, refute this evidence, much of the evidence of glyphosate's safety has been shown to have been influenced, at least in part, by Monsanto.
In other words, while GMOs' essence as genetically modified crops might not be cause for concern, the way in which the majority of GMO technology is used certainly is.
2. GMOs contribute to a lack of biodiversity.
Genetically modified plants are engineered to be stronger and better than other cultivars. This sounds like a dream come true, until you realize that this means that farmers around the country – and even around the world – will all soon be planting the same seeds and growing the same plants.
“The genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant cultivars have enabled a radical change in farming practices,” explains Kastel, who notes that the presence of GMOs has contributed to an accelerated shift towards industrialized agriculture.
Lack of biodiversity can lead to a large number of problems, as Hemker explains. In a polyculture system, biodiversity is used to the farmer's advantage: different crops are planted to create an ecosystem that needs little outside pest control or tilling. Conversely, monoculture farms require farmers to treat for pests, introducing chemicals into these farming systems – even when the systems are organic. This contributes to environmental problems ranging from algal blooms linked to chemical runoff into water systems to resistant bugs that don't respond to traditional pesticides.
“If you have a narrow genetic pool of these kinds of crops,” explains Hemker, “they then become more susceptible or less robust. They can be attacked by a disease, and it can cause a significant global blight.”
While GMOs are not necessarily in diametric opposition to renewable farming practices, these techniques certainly encourage the use of monocultures. It's therefore exceedingly important that, especially as developments on newer gene editing techniques such as CRISPR continue, biodiversity remains at the forefront of our agritech goals.
3. There's too much we still don't know about GMOs.
Perhaps the biggest reason we should remain wary about GMOs isn't necessarily that they've been proven to be dangerous, but rather that very little has been proven about their safety at all.
“Through intimidation and contractual limitations, research looking at the human health implications of many genetically engineered crops has been limited,” says Kastel.
Most of what we know about the safety of GMOs is controlled by the biotech industry through lobbying, deceptive authorship techniques, and more.
"These novel lifeforms are flooding into the marketplace with little regulatory oversight," says says Courtney Pineau, Associate Director of the Non-GMO Project. "It is impossible to know the impacts of a lifetime of GMO consumption, and it will be many more decades before humankind fully understands the complicated impacts of GMO agriculture."
“There have been no direct studies on human health and virtually no lifetime feeding protocols looking at the impacts on laboratory animals and livestock," Kastel says. "It's a grand, uncontrolled experiment taking place right now on our children.”
In short, the book is far from closed on whether GMOs are truly safe or not. But given the evidence stacking up against them, it seems best to err on the side of caution.