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Health & Nutrition

Organic versus conventional foods
the GMO issue


Article sections:
I.  Organic vs. conventional
II.  The GMO issue
  General information:
   A. What is GMO?
   B. The global scientific consensus
   C. Why do we have GMO?
   D. Several ways to tamper with plant genes
   E. Mutagenesis
   F. Is nature better?
   G. How are we using GMO in food crops?
   H. What are they afraid of?
   Detailed discussions: the Encyclopedia of GMO Myths
   I. Myths, rumors, propaganda and lies
       1. Glyphosate is highly toxic
       2. Glyphosate causes cancer
       3. Glyphosate causes autism (and a bunch of other diseases)
       4. Glyphosate messes up your gut flora (plus soil bacteria info)
          a. Glyphosate residue in food
       5. GMO corn is significantly different biochemically from regular corn
       6. Crop yields and agricultural inputs
          a. GMO doesn't increase crop yields
          b. GMO uses more pesticides and fertilizer
          c. GMO uses more water
          d. GMO doesn't reduce energy use
       7. GMO is leading to superweeds and superbugs
       8. GMO is wiping out monarch butterflies
       9. GMO is harmful to bees (with neonic discussion)
       10. There's glyphosate in rainwater
       11. Issues with contamination, cross-pollination, gene transfer
       12. GMO wheat is on the loose
       13. Monsanto drives Indian farmers to suicide
       14. Monsanto has bought off and impeded the scientific community
       15. Fact: Anti-GMO activists misrepresent science
       16. Monsanto has bought off the government
       17. Reality check: Is Monsanto big enough to buy off everyone?
       18. Anti-GMO funding facts: double standards, lawsuits and more
       19. Monsanto monopolizes the market
       20. Monsanto is price gouging
       21. Monsanto is persecuting innocent farmers
       22. Conclusion

Organic vs. conventional

There's a widespread belief that organically grown fruits and vegetables are more nutritious, safer, and better for the environment than conventionally grown produce. Intuitively, it seems like organic food ought to be better than conventional, and I was surprised when I found out that the available objective evidence says that there's really very little difference between them and they're about the same in terms of nutritional value, consumer safety, and environmental unfriendliness. But I'm not one to argue with the evidence, and there's too much of it coming from too many places for it to be likely that a major mistake has been made.

Major studies show that the nutritional content is basically the same (Stanford study, UK studies). Organic may have slightly more antioxidants and conventional may have slightly more protein, but the differences don't appear to be nutritionally significant. Dangour et al concluded that "From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs." Antioxidants are a double-edged sword by the way, they're basically toxins at heart and it looks like too many antioxidants might actually encourage the growth of cancerous tumors (WebMD, CARET study, WebMD2).

There doesn't seem to be a significant difference in the safety levels of organic and conventional produce.  They both have about the same level of fecal contamination and synthetic pesticide residue. Synthetic pesticide residues are so omnipresent that they are found even on produce that didn't use them, and fecal contamination comes from the use of manure fertilizer.  Conventional has slightly more synthetic pesticide residue (but the amounts are normally well within the safe zone), while organic has slightly more fecal contamination (which is a prime source of dangerous bacteria like salmonella and e. coli) and may have more mycotoxins and dangerous phenols. (NPIC, Organic Consumers Association, Food Safety News, Royal Society of Chemistry)

Contrary to popular belief, organic does not mean pesticide free.  It simply means that synthetic pesticides were not used.  Well, sometimes they weren't used.  Some synthetic pesticides and fertilizers ARE allowed on organic crops in the US and the EU (Hollyer et al, Forbes, European Commision). 

Organic pesticides made from natural toxins can legally be used on organic crops, and some of them are nastier than synthetic pesticides.  Large-scale organic farming usually looks pretty much the same as large-scale conventional farming, with pesticides, herbicides, monoculture crops and seeds that have been tampered with. It's not quite the same type of chemicals and altered seeds that conventional farming uses, but they have the same end result - dead bugs, dead weeds, and nice-looking produce. (Scientific American, Forbes, About Organic Produce, Colorado State, Real Clear Science, NPR, Pan-UK, The Risk-Monger). You can get chemical-free food when it's your own garden and you have complete control over what happens to it, or if you know an organic farmer who can tell you how they raised their crops.  But organic food that you buy at the supermarket was probably produced agribusiness-style including the use of chemicals. 

Organic pesticides are used in Europe as well as the US.  The bottom of page 2 of this European Parliament report says "Fertilisers and pesticides may only be used if they have been authorised for use in organic production". And how safe are the approved pesticides?  A 2011 article from Scientific American says "Just last year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union's safety evaluation that is required by law." Europe's organic standards were only slightly different from the US to begin with, and now they're effectively the same because the import restrictions between the two regions have been removed (NPR). What's acceptable in one place is equally acceptable in the other.

Organic pesticides are less effective than conventional ones, so many organic farmers compensate by slathering on more of it in order to get the same end result. There currently isn't a way to test for organic pesticide residues so we don't know how much of it there is on food or how much risk is added as a result. (Scientific American, Science 2.0) Only synthetic pesticide residues are tested, and organic produce has slightly less synthetic pesticide residue than conventional produce. But even on conventional produce, synthetic pesticides add just one tenth of one percent to the total toxin load. Studies have shown that 99.9% of the toxins in veggies were produced by the plant itself, and eating organic won't save you from that stuff. The toxins include carcinogens and mutagens (Ames).

Modern agriculture is unsustainable and that applies equally to organic and conventional. Both use pesticides and fertilizers. There's more fertilizer runoff with conventional agriculture but the runoff from organic farming is a problem too, and it's all devastating to the aquatic environment. Organic has lower crop yields which means that you have to put more land under cultivation to get the same amount of food, and that's devastating to land-based habitat (Seufert et al). A previous study by Badgley et al was more favorable to organic, saying that it could be as productive as conventional in some cases (although it currently isn't). The Badgley study has been criticized as fatally flawed (Avery), and Kirchmann et al say that all the meta-analyses of organic vs. conventional are flawed, while pointing out the results of several prior studies. Flawed though they might be,  the overall conclusion of the existing meta-analyses is that organic has significantly lower crop yields than conventional. Organic farming has a variety of other sustainability issues, and is worse than conventional in some ways and better in others (National Review, Genetic Literacy Project, Crop Live America). 

ScienceNordic points out an inherent conflict between more sustainable eating habits and organic farming.  It says that "most agree that sustainable food consumption means that people eat more vegetables, less meat, and waste less food". But eating less meat means that there will be fewer farm animals to produce the manure fertilizer that organic farms depend on so heavily, and that "increased reliance on organic farming will result in a negative soil nutrient balance, smaller crops and increased space requirements".

If humans don't start curbing their population growth and their desire to overeat (and there's no sign that either one is going to happen anytime soon) we will ultimately have to go to a different form of agriculture, probably one involving food that can be grown in vats in high-rise buildings. Hydroponic vegetables instead of soil-grown (if they can figure out how to make it practical for more crops), bugs instead of meat from vertebrates, GMO algae and yeast products that look, taste and nourish like real food. Hydroponic vegetables are normal enough, but those other items sound like a lot of fun, don't they?

What does the organic label really mean?  This is what the US Secretary of Agriculture said when the organic labeling law was passed:  “Let me be clear about one other thing. The organic logo is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality." (Hollyer et al). 

The bottom line is that there's so little difference between organic and conventional that there isn't a logical reason to pick one over the other, leaving you free to pick whichever one you prefer for whatever reason you prefer. If you think organic tastes better or if it makes you feel safer then by all means go for that. If you think conventional looks better and has a better price, there's no reason not to go for it. ALL produce should be washed carefully to get rid of any residues on the surface, because both types can have nasty stuff on the outer surface.

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The GMO issue

Conversations about organic versus conventional produce usually include a significant component involving the alleged dangers of GMO foods. Once upon a time this article didn't have a GMO section at all. But the subject comes up so often on a certain bird group, accompanied by so many different misconceptions, that my attempt to present the actual evidence has turned into a VERY long discussion. Frankenfood claims have turned this article into a monster, but you can click on "Back to Top" anytime you want to go back to the table of contents and pick out a specific section to read.

In the US, conventional crops are allowed to use GMO but organic crops are not. There are actually many types of GMO with many types of potential benefits (Wikipedia),  but the public controversy focuses primarily on genetically altered food crops.  There is great fear that GMO is dangerous somehow, but in reality it looks like it's as safe as any other kind of food. GMO is just another kind of seed, and the food produced with it is just food. GMO is just one of many useful agricultural tools in our quest to have a safe, reliable food supply.  It doesn't cause all the world's food problems, nor will it solve all the world's food problems.

What is GMO?

GMO is the acronym for genetically modified organism. These are life forms whose DNA has been altered in a specific location, using a targeted laboratory process aimed at producing a specific characteristic. A gene that can be used to control the  characteristic is identified and then modified to produce the desired result, often by bringing in a gene fragment from a different species that already does what we want.  AgBiosafety has a basic overview of the process.

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The global scientific consensus

The biggest producer of genetically modified seeds is Monsanto (a U.S. corporation) and it's not unreasonable to think that they might have enough political clout to cover up some inconvenient facts here in the US. But there's no reason to think that they could influence the European Union and the World Health Organization, and both of them have concluded that GMO is as safe as conventional crops (Summary of scientific consensus, EU full report, WHO Food Safety). The EU has stringent safety standards for GMO, and they have approved dozens of GMO crop varieties (Wikipedia).

The conclusion of the EU report was:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

In May 2016, the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (the most prestigious scientific organization in the United States) issued a lengthy report concluding that GMO was safe to eat and did not harm the environment, but also found that it had not led to a large increase in crop yields.  The summary alone for this report was 236 pages long.  The New York Times report on the story included a statement that “The inescapable conclusion, after reading the report, is the G.E. crops are pretty much just crops. They are not the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim.”

Biofortified points out the size and scope of some of the GMO studies that have been conducted. Popular Science says there have been more than 1,700 peer-reviewed safety studies on GMO.

Exposing Nutritional Quackery on Facebook has a nice long collection of quotes from a variety of international scientific agencies on the safety of GMO, with links to the sources.

The scientific consensus on GMO is about the same as the scientific consensus on climate change. The highly reputable Pew Research Center conducted a survey of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and found that 88% of the 3,748 scientists surveyed said GMO was generally safe. They also published information about the characteristics of the scientists who were surveyed. A Pew survey on climate change found a scientific consensus of 87%. You're not likely to ever find 100% agreement on anything, but these are strong majorities. The majority isn't always right, and in the case of climate change I would definitely like for them to be wrong. But the rational side of my brain won't let me wish this sort of thing away.

A 2017 paper by Sanchez & Parrott discusses the shortcomings in several studies that are frequently cited as evidence that GMO is harmful.

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Why do we have GMO?

Anti-GMO sentiment typically blames the greed of large corporations for these technologies. Large corporations do tend to be greedy, but there's more to it than that and this simplistic reasoning overlooks some stark realities. When it comes to the food supply, humanity has a choice to make.  We have to either control our urge to breed, reduce our food consumption, or produce more food.  It doesn't look like the first two are going to happen anytime soon; the population is growing rapidly and so is the obesity rate. 

That leaves us with the need to produce more food, but how are we to do it? Hydroponics is a great idea but currently it's not economically feasible for many crops, and in many cases it isn't environmentally friendly either because of its very high use of electricity and water (Modern Farmer). There's no political will anywhere (or a big enough army) to force a switch to a radically different type of agriculture focused on foods that can be grown in vats in high-rise buildings (like insects and algae).  Putting more land under cultivation causes serious environmental damage, destroying the world's remaining natural habitat and replacing it with farm fields. Climate change is hanging over our heads and a lot of our current crop varieties may not produce very well under future conditions, so we need to be able to respond quickly to changing conditions.  If we can get higher crop yields out of existing farmland we can limit the environmental damage, but we need new seed varieties for that. And that's where GMO comes in. It lets us choose the characteristics that we want the new crops to have.

The best article I have seen on the environmental benefits of GMO is this one written by Mark Lynas, an environmentalist and former anti-GMO activist who spent years vandalizing GMO crops and spreading anti-GMO propaganda. But then he learned more about the science behind GMO and his beliefs started to change. He's still an environmentalist but now he's pro-GMO. He says what I've been saying for quite a while now, but he says it better and in more depth. 

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Several ways to tamper with plant genes

Transgenic engineering is "true" GMO, in which humans took a living thing (a food plant for purposes of this article) and altered one or more genes in it to produce a desired result, using planned, targeted laboratory techniques instead of the traditional, much slower and less predictable agricultural practice of selective breeding or hybridization. Frequently (but not always) transgenic engineering involves inserting a gene from a different species into the plant.  It can also involve knocking out an existing gene in the plant to change the way it functions.

Transgenic engineering is not allowed for organic crops, but a similar technique called cisgenic engineering IS allowed for organic crops.  The difference between the two techniques is that cisgenic engineering uses only closely related plant species or even a genetically different plant from the same species. Obviously this is still genetic tampering, and it's easy to find articles from the organic community complaining about this technique, for example this one on Food Safety News.

The foregoing genetic engineering techniques might sound kind of creepy, but at least they are carefully planned, carefully controlled and safety tested. There's another technique that is none of these things.

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Mutagenesis - riskier than GMO and organic-approved

In mutagenesis (also called mutation breeding), plants are bombarded with radiation or toxic chemicals to produce uncontrolled genetic damage. If this process produces a plant with desirable characteristics they start selling the seeds to farmers (Science 2.0, Genetic Literacy Project), without knowing exactly what has changed in the plant. It's not a single-gene change like GMO; hundreds or thousands of genes in the plant may be affected. Using gamma rays from radioactive cobalt-60 seems to be the most popular mutagenesis technique, but I sincerely wish that they used radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. The results would the same, but can you imagine the public uproar? It would be quite a show.

The mutations produced this way are considered to be natural so it's perfectly OK to use mutagenic varieties for organic crops. Mutagenesis is virtually unregulated, and it's a lot cheaper to bring it to the market than GMO is (Bloomberg).  Anti-GMO agitation actually encourages the increased use of this technique so the crop varieties can avoid the unpopular GMO label.  How's THAT for Frankenfood? It's hard to see how this "natural" genetic tampering with organic foods is any better than GMO.

There are several websites stating that mutant varieties are not allowed in organic crops in Europe, but this appears to be wrong. The European Commission's overview of their organic standards says only that GMO is not allowed. The European Parliament has specifically ruled that mutagenesis is exempt from the GMO laws because it has a long history of safe use, and cisgenic cell fusion (GMO-style gene tampering using closely related plants) counts as a traditional farming method not a GMO. 

There are currently more than 3,000 mutant seed varieties that were created using mutagenesis, covering pretty much the whole spectrum of plant foods (Genetic Literacy Project). It's reported that 70-75% of mutant seed is produced for commercial crops and the remainder is for decorative/ornamental plants. Mutagenic crops are said to be "a sizable fraction of the world’s crops" but I can't find any data on what they mean by sizable. The New York Times says that the list includes varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum. Bloomberg adds the information that most of the world’s wheat, rice and barley are descendants of mutant varieties.

Stating the obvious, the scientific community says that mutagenesis is riskier and more likely to cause harm than GMO. The Bloomberg article includes these quotes:

"The U.S. National Academies of Science warned in 1989 and again in 2004 that regulating genetically modified crops while giving a pass to products of mutation breeding isn’t scientifically justified. 'The NAS hits the nail on the head and I don’t think that any plant- or crop-scientist will disagree,' said Kevin M. Folta, a molecular geneticist and interim chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. 'Mutation breeding is absolutely the least predictable.'"


'mutagenesis deletes and rearranges hundreds or thousands of genes randomly. It uses a man-made process that mimics with a greater intensity what the sun’s radiation has done to plants and animals for millennia, spawning mutations that sometimes are beneficial or hazardous to the organism. The randomness makes mutagenesis less precise than St. Louis-based Monsanto’s genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, the NAS said in a 2004 report. It’s the breeding technique most likely to cause unintended genetic changes, some of which could harm human health, the academy said.'

The Mutant Variety Database has a listing of mutant varieties, with a nice search function that lets you look things up based on a variety of different criteria, including plant name and country or continent of origin. The site is operated by IAEA, which is not an agricultural organization - it's the International Atomic Energy Association.  That's how nuked our food supply is, and why mutagenesis is sometimes called 'atomic gardening'. The search function reveals that 86% of the varieties in the database were created by physical mutation (aka gamma rays), 13% used toxic chemicals, and 1% used both.

The database reveals that the US is a weak competitor in this area, outpaced by at least 6 other countries (China, Japan, India, the Russian Federation, the Netherlands, and Germany).  What a surprise to find out that tiny little Holland is cranking out way more mutant plants than an industrial giant like the United States, although unlike the other countries Holland's were all flowers. German company BASF is quite a player in the mutant plant arena (Bloomberg).  Europe in general is miles ahead of us on this: they've produced 955 mutants (including 525 food crops), versus a mere 139 for the US (including 91 food crops).  China holds the single-country record with 810 (including 683 food crops), and the thought of mutant plants from China entering the world food supply should make everybody feel really safe and secure. Small, poor countries like Bangladesh, Cuba and Vietnam are getting in on the "make your own mutant crops" action. Even Burkina Faso has created a couple of mutants. I wasn't really aware that they were a country.

Note for people who want to play with the database:  some plants are called by a different name than what you might expect. For example corn is called maize and peanuts are called groundnuts.

Podevin & du Jardin tested the allergenicity of a transgene that's frequently used in GMO. They found that the allergy risk was very low. We can do this with GMO because we know exactly what we've added to the plant. We can't do it with mutagenesis because we don't know what's changed. This is why we can have more confidence about the safety of GMO than we can about the safety of mutagenesis.

People worry about GMO plants running amok and causing some kind of natural disaster even though they're heavily tested.  It's even easier to imagine mutagenic crops doing this. We make a bunch of unknown genetic changes in a plant, then put it out in an open field without any testing and wait to see what happens next.

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Is nature better?

The most realistic health risk with GMO is that a toxin or allergen might accidentally be produced in the plant. GMO developers work to avoid this, since it would reduce the market value of the modified plant and might even force its withdrawal from the market.  Meanwhile Mother Nature has already produced a very large number of toxins and allergens in plants with no assistance from mankind, and they do a considerable amount of harm.  In food plants grown with conventional pesticides, 99.9% of the toxins in the food were produced by the plant itself (Ames). The quantity of the natural toxins in food is too small to cause immediate harm, because we wouldn't consider a plant to be food if it was acutely poisonous. But we don't actually know what the long-term effects are of eating these toxic compounds on a daily basis.

We've been told that wheat is safe to eat for at least 11,000 years, and now all of a sudden there's a big fuss about wheat gluten being bad for us.  But wheat allergy (which is different than the gluten issue) is a very common problem, so it's obviously not safe for everybody. Some sources blame the gluten issue on hybridization (News-Herald) and some blame both hybridization and mutagenesis (Terroir Seeds).  But both are considered to be natural plant-breeding techniques, because we didn't choose the new configuration. We just did something to cause changes or damage and let the plant "choose" what form the damage would take. That's why it's OK to sell mutagenic varieties as organic. It's something that could have happened naturally. Especially if the plant happened to grow in Chernobyl.

There are lots of allergies to other natural foods too. There's obviously something in them that is irritating to the body and some individuals are more sensitive to it than others. Beans are so hard to digest that we often get audible complaints from our digestive tract when we eat them.

Natural contaminants like salmonella and mycotoxins are considered to be a much bigger health threat than any plant-breeding technique, and the type of food that's most likely to have these contaminants is... wait for it... organic! (Organic Consumers Association, Food Safety News, Royal Society of Chemistry)

Even the Natural Society, which describes GMO as dangerous, notes that "All plant breeding techniques can create unexpected and even potentially dangerous health effects in the form of naturally occurring toxins or allergens." Using "natural" techniques like hybridization is no guarantee that the result will be safe. 

Slate discusses a number of specific safety issues, pointing out that

it makes no sense to avoid GMOs based on standards that nobody applies to non-GMO food. Yes, it’s conceivable that you could overdose on vitamin A or ingest a viral or insecticidal protein from eating fruits, grains, or vegetables. But GMOs don’t make any of these scenarios more likely or more dangerous. In fact, if you look at illness or direct fatalities—or at correlations between food sales and disease trends, which anti-GMO activists like to do—you can make a better case against organic food than against GMOs.

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How are we using GMO in food crops?

At present there are four types of GMO traits that are approved for commercial use: herbicide tolerance, insecticide production, fatty acid composition (for canola oil) and virus resistance (Nature).

No one enjoys the idea of pesticides and herbicides, but they are essential to high crop yields. The less crops are destroyed by bugs and competition from weeds, the more food there will be. Most of the GMO controversy involves opposition to seed varieties which let us use herbicides and pesticides that are nontoxic to humans and most animals, resulting in less environmental damage and fewer toxic residues on food than what we have with non-GMO crops. GMO is also being used to develop more nutritious food varieties to help eliminate malnutrition in poor countries. Other potential uses include reduction of spoilage; resistance to certain pests and diseases; nitrogen-fixing capabilities, to make the plant self-fertilizing; more efficient photosynthesis, to improve crop yields; and better ability to cope with  difficult environmental conditions like heat, cold, or drought. You'd think that all this would be a good thing, but obviously some people don't see it that way.

Roundup. The best-known example of GMO involves "Roundup ready" corn and soybeans. Roundup is an herbicide that works by inhibiting a specific enzyme in plants. Humans and animals don't have this enzyme so Roundup doesn't bother them. "Roundup-ready" plants have been genetically engineered so they continue to function normally even when sprayed with Roundup.

Roundup is one of the least toxic herbicides in existence, which is why it's so popular. When it hits the soil it breaks down quickly into harmless compounds, and it doesn't harm anything but the plant that it's been applied to, with a couple of exceptions. It would NOT be a good idea to be out in the middle of the field breathing it in and collecting it on your skin while it's being sprayed, because a high level of direct exposure isn't safe. A surfactant in Roundup (not the active ingredient which is glyphosate) can cause problems for aquatic life, so something else needs to be used near bodies of water. There are alternate glyphosate preparations that don't contain this surfactant and can be used near water.

It's widely believed that Roundup-ready GMOs have had a severe negative impact on the monarch butterfly population. It doesn't harm the butterflies directly, but the use of Roundup has dramatically reduced the population of the butterfly's host plant (milkweed) in farm fields. As discussed later, it's questionable whether this actually has an impact on the monarch population, and it seems likely that severe weather events have had a bigger influence.  It's entirely possible that Roundup is part of the problem, but we don't have enough data to make that determination. In any case there is an obvious solution, and people are being encouraged to plant milkweed in their yards to support the butterflies.

The best-documented concern about the widespread use of Roundup is that it will lead to the evolution of "superweeds" that are as impervious to Roundup as the GMO crops are.  This is already happening and it's a serious agricultural problem  (US News). But the issue is not unique to GMO crops, because this kind of resistance can develop with any kind of pest-killing product. Like the monarch butterfly problem, the superweed problem is a separate issue from the safety of eating GMO foods. 

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).  Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil-dwelling bacterium that is commonly used as an organic pesticide. It produces crystal proteins (aka cry proteins) that have insecticidal effects against certain insect species, including butterflies, moths, flies, mosquitoes, beetles, wasps, bees, ants, sawflies, and nematodes. When an insect eats the toxin crystals they paralyze the insect's digestive tract, causing it to starve to death. Bt has no effect on humans and has few negative effects on other animals (UCSD), and large doses had no effect on birds (Extoxnet). It does not persist in the digestive tracts of animals that ingest it (Extoxnet).

Bt was first used as a pesticide in 1920, becoming commercially available in the US in 1958 and used extensively by organic farmers since then (UCSD-1, UCSD-2). In addition to its use in GMO, Bt is used in more than 180 pesticide products, and is used in home gardening and other settings as well as organic farming (NPIC). The use of Bt as an organic insecticide was fine and dandy with the organic community until it was approved for use in GMO plants that produced their own cry proteins, eliminating the need to coat plants with Bt. That was a very bad thing as far as the organic community was concerned. But the only known human health hazard of Bt is that it can cause respiratory problems if it's inhaled during spraying, which is something that obviously doesn't happen with GMO but can occur with organic farming and all other uses (UC Biotech). 

On the plus side, Bt corn has lower levels of mycotoxins than non-Bt corn (UC Biotech, Cornell).  Mycotoxins are very dangerous natural toxins produced by fungi, and a lower level improves the safety of the food supply.

Golden Rice. There are other GMOs aimed at making food more nutritious, for example "golden rice" has been engineered so it contains beta carotene. It's expected that this would have major health benefits in underdeveloped rice-eating nations where many people are too poor to afford vegetables. But it's not ready for the market yet, and its future implementation is being impeded by anti-GMO agitation from well-fed people in rich countries (Golden Rice Project, Wikipedia, NPR).

Questions have been raised about whether Golden Rice provides a meaningful amount of vitamin A. Research shows that the rice is an effective source of vitamin A (Tang et al), but that's not the same thing as saying there's a lot of it.  The developers have provided tables showing how much needs to be eaten (AgBioWorld). The tables are accompanied by statements that

"Golden Rice is not supposed to provide 100% of the vitamin A-supply, but to help surpassing the border line between malnutrition and sufficient vitamin A supply by complementing other dietary components. According to a rough estimation it should supply 50% of the daily intake"
"Golden Rice is at the 'proof of concept' state and under further development. We have carried out transformations aiming at an increase in the provitamin A content. Factor 3-5 appears feasible."

The International Rice Research Institute is conducting field trials on Golden Rice. They report that beta carotene production is consistent and the grain quality is similar to conventional. But they're not getting consistent results with the crop yield, so there are still some bugs to be worked out (IRRI).

Others. A variety of other GMOs exist (GMO Testing, Nature, ASU), and others are planned for the future.  The existing GMOs include improved virus resistance, an improved fatty acid profile, and modifications in the type of sugars that plants produce.  A GMO for drought resistance is under development, and it is hoped that in the future there will be GMOs with faster growth rates, higher crop yields, better resistance to adverse weather conditions including climate change, more types of disease resistance, and more improvements in nutritional value. The next to last page of this Prasha presentation mentions a potential GMO to reduce global warming by increasing the reflectivity of plant leaves. Now THAT'S a jaw-dropping idea.

GMO in medicine. GMO drugs are actively being used to treat several scary diseases.  For example cancer (AP, Tech Times,, Company of Biologists), HIV (Caltech), and Ebola (Genetic Literacy Project). Think about it folks. GMO drugs are having a direct interaction with the human body for the purpose of causing changes, and no one is screaming about it. Isn't the flap over GMO crops trivial in comparison to this, and doesn't the anti-GMO faction have more important things that they should be complaining about? GMO foods aren't expected to have any effect on the body at all, other than the normal results you get from eating non-GMO versions of the food. So far it looks like the GMO drugs are more effective than conventional treatment against some very nasty diseases, and the GMO has a lot less negative impact on the body than the conventional treatment too. But that's not the point. They're putting GMO directly into the body and calling it medicine.

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What are they afraid of?

The fear of GMO tends to be vague and nonspecific, based on the fear of the unknown and exaggerated concerns rather than a rational concern based on an identifiable risk. For example at Green America it says

"More and more studies point to the idea that there’s grave cause for concern about the health effects of consuming GMOs and the chemicals they are sprayed with, including food allergies, irritable bowels, organ damage, cancer."
They do not actually cite any studies of course. The risks they mention have not been observed and are not expected in people who eat GMO foods, because the genetic changes are not related to the plant's digestibility or toxicity. There may be risks for farm workers exposed to agricultural chemicals while working with GMO crops in the field, but non-GMO crops often require the use of more toxic chemicals so the risk might be even higher with non-GMO.

It's hard to come up with a rational reason to think that eating GMO plants is somehow more dangerous to our health than eating plants that mutated naturally. So far at least we aren't inventing brand new genes that could unexpectedly run amok; we are using existing genes whose action is known, desired, and tested for effectiveness and safety in the GMO organism. A smart corporation puts a high priority on human safety, for fear of huge lawsuits if nothing else, and there's ample evidence that Monsanto has a strong sense of self preservation. All DNA is made up of the same basic chemicals, so the newly transferred gene is made up of the same stuff we've been eating since life began. No adverse health effects have been observed from eating GMO crops. As mentioned earlier, the evidence for GMO's safety is so convincing that governments and large international organizations with major public health responsibilities (including the US, the EU, and WHO) have approved its use. 

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Myths, rumors, propaganda and lies AKA the Encyclopedia of GMO Myths

The preceding sections were a general overview of the GMO controversy. The rest of the article will be too long and detailed for casual readers, but it'll be the fun part for serious readers as we investigate the accuracy of those juicy horror stories that pervade the internet. But it's very long, so you'd have to be a real diehard to read it all through to the end instead of just checking out the topics of particular interest. Click on "Back to Top" anytime you want to go back to the table of contents and pick out a specific section to read.

We're told that Monsanto is evil and that GMO is destroying our health and the environment.  But when you consider all the available evidence instead of carefully selected bits of cherry-picked data, a different picture emerges. It looks like GMO is safe to eat and is less destructive than conventional methods. It looks like Monsanto is just a corporation that's conducting business in the normal manner, in keeping with the law and smart business practices. There are bound to be a few scoundrels in any large organization, but their presence isn't obvious.

Now on to the claims, which are roughly grouped into health and safety issues, agricultural and environmental issues, and business, legal and ethical issues. If the information below isn't enough for you, Thoughtscapism has a good series of articles on GMO myths.

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Glyphosate is highly toxic.  Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is very toxic to plants, but when it comes to animals it is one of the least toxic herbicides that we currently have available. Corn gluten meal is less toxic than glyphosate, but it's also a lot less effective.  Glyphosate is not completely nontoxic, but the toxicity is low. When used as directed, anyway - you shouldn't drink the stuff (Bradberry et al). Credible Hulk has information on how many pounds of food you'd need to eat daily to exceed the EPA tolerance levels for glyphosate.

The toxicity of a substance is measured by its LD50 number, which represents the amount that would be a Lethal Dose to 50% of the population that consumed it, expressed in milligrams per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg); a lower LD50 number indicates higher toxicity, and a higher LD50 number indicates less toxicity. The generally accepted LD50 for glyphosate is 5600, although most chemicals actually have a range of values depending on what type of animal was tested; some are more sensitive than others. All LD50 numbers in this article indicate the oral toxicity for some kind of mammal.

The University of Florida has a chart showing the LD50 numbers for several common herbicides and some other common chemicals. The only herbicide that's less toxic than glyphosate is imazaquin, which is mainly used for lawns not for farming.  The Genetic Literacy Project has different examples, showing that glyphosate is 5600 and water is 90,000. So yes, glyphosate looks pretty nasty compared to water, but it's far less toxic than a number of other things that we consume without a second thought.  The Government of Western Australia provides LD50 numbers for a long list of herbicides; they don't make it clear which ones are suited for farm use, but it's clear that glyphosate is less toxic than most.

Glyphosate's absorption rate in the body and in the skin is very low; it is eliminated from the body virtually unmetabolized and does not bioaccumulate in any animal tissue (Williams et al). 

Commercial herbicides usually have inert ingredients in their formulation, where "inert" means that these ingredients don't kill pests; it doesn't mean that they're safe.  Some of the inert ingredients can be toxic.  There are indications that Roundup as a whole is more toxic than glyphosate alone, due to a surfactant called POEA that is known to be toxic to some types of aquatic life. Because of this, regular Roundup should not be used near bodies of water, and alternate glyphosate formulations are available for use near water. Roundup has been shown to kill certain types of human cells in "glass dish" experiments, but in vitro experiments have little or no relationship to what happens in the real world under normal conditions.  There is insufficient evidence to conclude that glyphosate preparations containing POEA are more toxic than those containing alternative surfactants (USGS, Scientific American, Wikipedia).

Herbicides are usually assigned an LD50 number based on their active ingredient alone, not on their entire formulation, so we don't know how the inert ingredients in the different herbicides affect their total toxicity.  However Williams et al reported that the acute toxicity of Roundup in rats was very low, like that of plain glyphosate. POEA by itself has an LD50 of 1200 to 1260 in rats and rabbits, which makes it somewhat more toxic than Vitamin A and considerably less toxic than aspirin.  The Roundup ingredients label shows that it is 41% glyphosate and 59% other ingredients. There's additional information on what the other ingredients are here - POEA, water, and blue dye, with no indication of what their percentage is. It notes that POEA is contaminated with 1,4-dioxane at a level of 350 ppm. Dioxane is used in a variety of common products, including aluminum, inks, and adhesives. Its LD50 is 5170 (Wikipedia). It appears that POEA is used in laundry detergent (KAO), although it's hard to find other sources backing this up.

Pesticides (both herbicides and insecticides) are usually either oil based or water based.  Currently most pesticides are water-based, which means they require a surfactant to help them penetrate the waxy leaves of plants (UGA, PSU). There are numerous surfactants available, and little is known about their toxicity because they are not regulated ( Most of the research on the subject involves Roundup, but studies on other herbicides have found toxic effects from the surfactant (Garry et al, Sanchez et al).  This is an issue with pesticides in general, not just with Roundup. Natural surfactants exist, but their effectiveness is questionable and there is evidence that they contribute to the growth of bacteria and fungi (UGA).

What's the recommended herbicide regime for farmers who don't go the Roundup Ready route? Well, according to Purdue/OSU the field is first pretreated with choices like :

(1) glyphosate (there's no getting away from it, is there? As a reminder, it has an LD50 of 5600, and bigger numbers are less toxic than smaller numbers),

(2) Ignite (active ingredient = glufosinate ammonium whose LD50 varies. Dogs are very sensitive to it (LD50=200 to 400) while rats can tolerate up to 1660, which is three times more toxic than Roundup) (Pan-UK), or

(3) paraquat (LD50=100, meaning that it's 56 times more toxic than Roundup).  

Whichever one of those options you choose, you need to throw in some 2,4-D (the less toxic herbicide in Agent Orange, whose LD50 ranges from 375 to 1500 depending on what kind of animal you feed it to). It has a variety of interesting health effects at sublethal doses (Extoxnet). For options 2 and 3, you also need to add some metribuzin, whose LD50 ranges from 245 to 2300 (Extoxnet). 

That's just the beginning, because it takes quite a chemical stew to get the desired results in corn and soybeans without the Roundup Ready GMO.  After the crop is actually planted, there are several different combinations of chemicals to choose from, with varying LD50 numbers (Purdue/OSU, BASF, Farm & Ranch Guide, Weed Control Freaks, Red Power).

Why would anyone think that this is preferable to Roundup? Oh, and don't suggest going organic if you're concerned about crop yields. Organic has significantly lower crop yields than conventional, and we'd need to put a lot more land under cultivation to get the same amount of produce. Goodbye natural habitat. (Ponti et al, Genetic Literacy Project)

But let's go ahead and ask what kind of herbicides organic farmers use. Natural toxins of course, all designed to kill. Glufosinate is the most effective one (LD50 = 3570) (Duke et al, Turfgrass Science). There are phytotoxins from microbes, but most of the patented herbicides of this type are too toxic to actually be used. The most practical one is tentoxin, an Alternaria mycotoxin. It appears that its LD50 has not been established, but Alternaria mycotoxins in general are considered to be highly toxic (Duke et al, Micotoxinas). There are a number of organic herbicides based on plant essential oils, such as Green Match, Matran, and Weed Zap. The first one is based on lemongrass oil, which has an LD50 over 5000 (Spectrum Laboratory).  The last two are based on clove oil, which has an LD50 of 2650 (Spectrum Laboratory). Organic herbicides use surfactants, but there's little information on those. One last reminder: the LD50 of glyphosate is 5600, which is less toxic than most of the organic herbicides.

As an example of organic insecticides, pyrethrins have an oral LD50 for rats of 584 to 900 (Toxnet). Lime sulfur has an oral LD50 for rats of 820 (Tessenderlo). But for pure shock value you can't beat nicotine, which was a legal organic pesticide in the US through the end of 2014. It has an LD50 of 50 for rats and humans; the number for dogs is 9 (CDC). Sabadilla is 4,000 (Beyond Pesticides).  I looked at a few others, which mostly said "greater than 5,000."  You can say that about glyphosate too, but it's not an insecticide. I haven't looked very hard at the organic insecticides, so there might be some unpleasant surprises.

It's not true that Roundup Ready leads farmers to douse, drench, or flood crops with herbicides.  McHughen & Wager say that herbicide-tolerant GMOs have been given only limited immunity, and that too much of the herbicide - about twice the dose needed to kill other plants - will kill even the GMO plants.  I couldn't find any confirmation for this, but I did find an article by a farmer talking about the other factors that constrain them from using excessive amounts of pesticide (Genetic Literacy Project).

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GMO causes cancer.  Actually, if we follow the popular anti-GMO approach of assuming that correlation means causation, we have to conclude that it PREVENTS cancer.  Because cancer rates have gone down in the GMO era, particularly the rate of digestive tract cancers, and that's the part of the body that physically processes the GMO food.  Life expectancy has increased during this period too (World Climate Report).

The US National Cancer Institute has an 89-page report showing changes in cancer rates from 1975 to 2013. It's a pdf so your computer might ask if you want to open the file. The third page from the end shows that the incidence of colon and rectal cancer has gone from roughly 61 per 100,000 in 1975 to about 37 per 100,000 in 2013, That's a 40% decrease. These are incidence rates, not mortality rates.  It's not that fewer people are dying of cancer because of better treatment; it means that fewer people are getting cancer in the first place.

There isn't a chart like that for most other body parts. But figure 1.4 on page 69 gives some statistics for 2004-2013. Liver cancer went up 3%, kidney cancer went up 1%, stomach, esophagus and and urinary bladder cancer went down by 1 to 1.5%, and colon/rectal cancer went down by 3%. The overall cancer rate is down 1%.

The increased liver cancer rate is linked to alcohol abuse ( The higher rate of kidney cancer may be the result of better detection methods not a true increase (  The rate went down for the other major digestive organs.

The main support for the "GMO causes cancer" claims is a debunked, badly flawed study by Seralini et al which is discussed elsewhere in this article. There are no well-designed studies that found any connection between GMO and any disease.

There IS one official source that calls glyphosate a probable carcinogen, but this is because of the unusual way this agency works.  Two branches of the UN (the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization) issued a statement that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk in humans.  Another UN agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, has stated that it is a probable carcinogen.  Wired explains that the IARC studies whether chemicals can cause cancer under any possible situation—realistic or not—while the others looked at whether glyphosate can cause cancer under real-life conditions. The carcinogenicity rating assigned by IARC is the same as the rating for eating apples, drinking very hot beverages, and working the night shift (Genetic Literacy Project, Science Translational Medicine).

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Glyphosate causes autism.  Also inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, anorexia, dementia, depression, gluten sensitivity, Parkinson’s disease, reproductive issues, liver diseases and cancer. Those are the claims of Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT. Her title isn't as impressive as it sounds; this is a non-tenured position, one step above a postdoctoral fellow and several steps below a faculty member.  She doesn't have training in this area - her PhD is in electrical engineering and computer science, and she works in MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Based on her own website, it doesn't look like she's publishing anything in the field that the school hired her to work in. Here's a link to her best-known paper, which was published in a journal with a very poor reputation (Scholarly Open Access). 

The scientific community views her as a crackpot who commits a wide variety of scientific sins and publishes the results in low-quality journals. Her primary research technique is to look for bad things that happened after the introduction of GMO and assume that correlation indicates causation, misinterpreting existing studies, writing creative explanations that have little science and no evidence behind them, and making statements that simply aren't true (Science Translational Medicine, Genetic Literacy Project, Skeptoid, ScienceBlogs, Kansas Wheat). Seneff herself describes her work this way:

It’s all computer science. It’s all synthesis. So basically what I do is I read papers and I process them with the computer to help me understand them and interpret them and generalize and build a story. So it’s really a matter of studying. Mostly what I do now is study, and then write. Trying to understand biology (Alternet).

"Building a story" isn't science, but it's a good description of what Seneff does, and her own quote seems to acknowledge that she doesn't understand biology. Even the non-scientific Huffington Post can see how bad her work is. Seneff also promotes the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism (ScienceBlogs).

Seneff isn't the only one making meaningless correlations between glyphosate and a laundry list of health problems.  Swanson et al did it too. They found that the increase in glyphosate use was correlated with a rise in obesity, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and lipoprotein metabolism disorder (which seems to be a fancy term for cholesterol problems).  What's funny about this paper is that the first item on the list (obesity) is normally attributed to eating too much and not exercising enough, with the blame placed on factors like the tastiness and easy availability of junk food, and too much time spent sitting around being entertained by something on a screen.  The next four items on the list are strongly linked to obesity. It's obviously just a coincidence that these diseases went up at the same time glyphosate use did, but that didn't stop the authors from concluding that "The probabilities in the graphs and tables show that it is highly unlikely that the correlations are a coincidence."

The Swanson study mentioned several other diseases that aren't particularly related to obesity including liver cancer, and we've already pointed out that the National Cancer Institute says alcoholism is the factor behind that. There is absolutely no reason to assume that glyphosate has anything to do with any of these diseases, and better explanations are already available. It would make as much sense to correlate disease rates to the shrinking of the Arctic ice sheet or the presidents who have been in office during the last 20 years. It's pure junk science. 

But when it comes to spurious correlations, it would be hard to top this one.  From Mchughen & Wager:

During a conference on Science and Law conducted by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, a national judge, obviously an educated and (otherwise) intelligent man, asked how a GM cornfield would cause a man to become gay. During a divorce trial, he heard an argument that the husband’s (apparently de novo) homosexuality was caused by his strolling through a GM cornfield, and granted the divorce on that basis. His question at the conference was not whether it was true, but instead to satisfy his curiosity on the technical mechanism by which GM cornfields caused the now-ex-husband’s homosexuality.

Real scientific studies indicate that glyphosate has no health effects in humans and is not dangerous to them (Williams et al, Science-Based Medicine). There have been no successful attempts to make a legal claim based on health issues either.  The strongest attempt involved a claim about allergic reactions to the Cry protein in Bt, but lab tests were unable to find an allergic reaction (GMOAnswers). 


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Glyphosate messes up your gut flora. The inspiration for this one seems to be an article in The Guardian reporting (not very accurately) on a pilot study by Mao et al. The work was done through the Ramazzini Institute, which describes itself as a "non-profit social cooperative" dedicated to fighting cancer (Ramazzini Institute). It has turned to crowdfunding (yes, really) as a source of research funding on glyphosate (GM Watch). The Institute has been criticized by both the European Food Safety Authority and the U.S. Congress due to concerns about the scientific integrity of their past activities.  The Guardian article quotes a Monsanto executive as saying “The Ramazzini Institute is an activist organisation with an agenda that they have not disclosed as part of their crowdfunding efforts. They wish to support a ban on glyphosate and they have a long history of rendering opinions not supported by regulatory testing agencies.” Monsanto is obviously not the world's most objective source, but on the other hand the Ramazzini Institute does look like a very shaky organization, located in a country (Italy) that is a hotbed of anti-GMO activism complete with dirty tricks and funding from Big Organic.

Real science indicates that the idea that glyphosate residue in food will mess up your gut bacteria is not plausible. A serious scientific study by Nielsen et all that used the same type of rats as the Ramazzini study found that glyphosate had very little effect even at 50 times the European acceptable daily intake level.

The reason for this is simple: although glyphosate inhibits a metabolic pathway that's found in plants and bacteria (but not in vertebrates), the gut bacteria don't actually need to use this pathway. The pathway's purpose is to synthesize certain amino acids, but the bacteria are already swimming in these amino acids because the food that we eat is loaded with them.  Using the amino acids that are delivered to them is much more efficient than synthesizing them, so the only time the bacteria need to do any synthesis is if the host has a serious problem with their protein intake.

There are several excellent sources that discuss this more fully (Thoughtscapism, The Credible Hulk, Genetic Literacy Project, The Mad Virologist). In addition, they point out that there isn't enough glyphosate residue in food to actually kill bacteria; at most, it might slow their growth down if the host has a protein deficiency. Scroll down a bit for more info on glyphosate residue in food.

There have been some studies showing that there is a moderate negative effect when you put the type of bacteria found in the gut in a glass dish and pour high doses of glyphosate on it, but this tells us nothing about what happens in the body.

Side issue: soil bacteria. If glyphosate was going to kill bacteria, you'd expect the biggest impact to be on the soil microbiome, which is large and very important, and has a lot of glyphosate sprayed directly on it.  But far from being killed, the soil bacteria actually thrive on this stuff. The number of bacteria and some other organisms increases, because glyphosate is a food source for them. The only question is whether some types of organisms are more favored than others, and the study results are mixed. Some studies found no effect on soil communities apart from an increase in total bacteria, while others found that there may be some changes in the overall composition of the bacterial community (see Soil Association report, starting at the section called Effect of glyphosate on soil micro-organisms).

Glyphosate enables the use of no-till and low-till farming by killing weeds without having to frequently plow them under. No-till farming in general has beneficial effects on the soil microbiome (Schmidt et al, Genetic Literacy Project, GMO Answers). Wolmarans & Wijnand say "Changes in soil microbial communities associated with growing transgenic crops are less drastic and transient in comparison with agricultural practices such as crop rotation, tillage, herbicide usage and irrigation" and talk about the impact that herbicides in general can have on the composition of the soil's microbial community. That's right folks, glyphosate isn't the only thing that might affect soil bacteria, and the paper talks about some other herbicides that have a major impact. It doesn't really draw any conclusions about Roundup, saying that "Glyphosate application may increase soil microbial activity, which may be either beneficial or detrimental toward plant growth, and soil quality".

Thoughtscapism points out that "if glyphosate did cause big issues for beneficial soil microbes or nutrient problems for plants, that would soon lead to problems for the farmers. Note that glyphosate has been used for 40 years, and to the best of my knowledge, no such shift has happened. Impacts such as reduced yields, poorer soils, more bacterial diseases, or abnormal development would be something that farmers would be very quick to get to the bottom of".

Glyphosate residue in food. The European Food Safety Authority states that "current exposure levels are not expected to pose a risk to human health" and "the presence of glyphosate in feed, including imported feed... is not expected to have an impact on the health of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and chickens".

This EU report on human exposure to glyphosate residue in food examined the residue in foods and says,

The dietary exposure calculations show that under the unrealistic worst case scenario where all the crops, fish, seafood and animal products would contain residues at the maximum residue level or at 0.1 mg/kg if no current MRL exists, the consumer would only ingest 17% of the glyphosate acceptable daily intake. No impact on human health is thus to be expected for the consumer of food treated with glyphosate according to good agricultural practices.”

It also states that "there is very little transfer of residues from feed to animal tissues and no bioaccumulation of residues occurs."

The EFSA's review on animal exposure to glyphosate residue in feed is here.

Thoughtscapism talks about the vast amount of food that would have to be eaten to come anywhere near the safe limit.  Genetic Literacy Project discusses the low level of glyphosate exposure for both farm families and the ordinary consumer.

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GMO corn is significantly different biochemically from regular corn. That's the claim made in a paper by Mesnage et al. The author list includes the infamous anti-GMO activist Seralini, whose antics are discussed further in the funding facts section. So right off the bat there is good reason to question the objectivity and scientific soundness of this paper, before we even begin to read the text.

This paper appears to be an attempt to vindicate an earlier Seralini paper that was published, retracted when the severe flaws in the study were discovered, then republished again without additional scientific review.  The republication process was highly irregular, and the Seralini paper is generally viewed as discredited.

The Mesnage paper looks at the type of corn used in the earlier Seralini study. They tell us that standard biochemical analysis shows no significant difference between GMO corn and regular corn, but they used an "omics" analysis which does show a significant difference.  The abstract says that the differences "depending on context can be either protective or a cause of toxicity", but the anti-GMO press is ignoring the possibility that the changes might be beneficial.

The paper is so technical that it's almost incomprehensible to the ordinary reader. It focuses on polyamines called putrescine and cadaverine. Nasty names, but these are substances that are naturally present in the body as part of the protein metabolism process. They are even present in semen, but apparently do no harm there. They are toxic in large doses, but the oral toxicity is rated as low (Wikipedia). So it is doubtful that a little more would cause any problems.

At this writing, it's been less than two weeks since the Mesnage paper was published and we're in the middle of the Christmas holiday season. So the general reaction of the scientific community isn't known yet, but the early criticism is harsh. There is disagreement with the authors' definition of substantial equivalence, fault-finding with the experimental design, doubts about the validity of "omics" analysis in general, and indications that the results may have been skewed by fungal contamination of the test samples (Genetic Literacy Project, Science Media Center, comment section below the paper on Nature). It seems unlikely that the long-term reaction from the scientific community will be favorable.

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Crop yields and agricultural inputs. The crop yield is the amount of food that's harvested at the end of the growing season, usually expressed as the quantity produced on a specific unit of land (for example, bushels per acre).  Agricultural inputs are the things that have to be put into the field in order to get crops out of it - seed, water, fertilizer, pest control, and energy (mostly light and warmth provided free by the sun). The complaints in this area can be generally described as a failure to look at the big picture.  Critics are focusing on isolated pieces of information and ignoring important other pieces.

GMO doesn't increase crop yields. No, it doesn't. Not consistently anyway. Why would you expect it to? That's not what our current GMOs are designed to do. The GMO that saved Hawaii's papaya industry (Hawaii Tribune-Herald, GMO Answers) could be viewed as a yield enhancer, but it does it by preventing the crop from being wiped out by disease. Not by enhancing the plant's natural ability to produce. Our biggest current GMOs (Roundup Ready and Bt) are designed to make pest control cheaper, more targeted, and less toxic.  Any change in crop yield is incidental. Monsanto itself doesn't promise that its GMO seeds will increase yield:

"The degree to which a farmer enjoys increased yields because of insect and herbicide tolerance traits will in large part be determined by how effective the farmer’s weed and insect control programs were before planting a crop with these traits. If weeds and insects had been controlled well, then the insect and herbicide tolerance traits will not be the primary factor in increasing yield. In developing countries, where resources to effectively control weeds and insects are often limited, these traits have increased yield substantially. The same is also true for developed countries where there are particular pests that are hard to control--such as the corn rootworm complex or some perennial weeds."

Crop yields have improved dramatically in recent decades, but this is due to conventional hybridization and mutagenesis. These techniques are faster and cheaper than GMO, and they've been very effective at improving yields.  According to the USDA:

Over the past 70 years, yields of all major field crops in the United States registered a remarkable increase. For example, average corn yields rose from 20 bushels per acre in 1930 to 140 bushels per acre by the mid-1990s. Over the same period, cotton yields rose nearly fourfold, soybean yields increased more than threefold, and wheat yields climbed more than 2.5-fold. More than half of the yield gains are attributed to genetic improvements achieved by plant breeders.

GMO is a slower and more expensive process, so at present it's a less efficient way to improve yield than the other methods. That could change in the future, as we reach the limits of what we can do with conventional breeding methods. But for now, GMO is being used to develop traits that would be difficult or impossible to acquire any other way.

As Monsanto indicated, the adoption of GMO HAS led to dramatically improved crop yields in the developing world (Klumper & Qaim, Mutac et al, Nature, ISAAA).  The developed nations were quick to adopt new agricultural methods as they came along, because access to the new methods was easily available. When GMO came along, it was an isolated change because farmers were already using the latest techniques in seed, irrigation, fertilizer, and pest control. The third world was held back for a long time by lack of access to newer methods, but times have changed.  Now there are many farmers in developing nations who are adopting several modern techniques at the same time as they switch away from centuries-old farming methods. There are some sources that seem to credit GMO for the improvement in yield, because the yield improvement came at the same time GMO arrived (Klumper & Qaim, Mutac et al).  But you have to look at causation not correlation, and it's obviously the other techniques that are making the difference.

If you're switching from no insect control to Bt, then yes, the GMO will improve your yields. But it's because you've started using pest control, not because it was specifically a GMO form of pest control.  If you switch from effective spray insecticides to Bt, you won't see much difference. Table 1 of this paper by Qaim shows changes in crop yield and pesticide use after the adoption of Bt in 12 countries scattered throughout the globe. Yield increase by 0-37% and pesticide use dropped by 0-77%.  Only Australia showed no improvement in yield, and only Argentina saw no drop in pesticide use; all the other nations (including the US) showed at least some level of desirable change. The difference was greater in developing countries than in developed countries.

The Bt GMO may tend to improve yields even in countries that are already using insecticides.  But the Roundup Ready GMO can reduce crop yields, so that the overall combined effect may result in there not being much difference in crop yields in the developed nations.

The Plant & Soil Sciences Library says that the altered gene in Roundup Ready plants is like a traffic detour that lets you reach your destination but slows you down in the process. In Roundup-ready GMOs, "the pathway may not be as efficient and thus unable to produce as many amino acids. This can result in a slight decrease in yield especially if Roundup is applied at high rates."  If the rate of Roundup application makes a difference, this is a financial incentive to apply the minimum amount instead of splashing it around liberally.

I wonder whether the 2005 mandate to grow corn for ethanol might also contribute to lower average yields. The land that's being used for this purpose was marginal for farm use to begin with, and that's why it wasn't being used for food production until this change in policy made it worthwhile. Maybe it doesn't yield as much as good land, and it's dragging the average down.

In any case, this lower yield may not always occur. ISAAA says of herbicide tolerance technology, "The expression of these proteins does not damage the plant’s growth nor result in poorer agronomic performance compared to parental crops. Except for expression of an additional enzyme for herbicide tolerance or the alteration of an already existing enzyme, no other metabolic changes occur in the plant."  Perhaps the specific nature of the modification or some other factor makes a difference. A field test of several varieties of corn (both Roundup Ready and conventional) in five different fields got mixed results. Some of the Roundup Ready varieties performed better than some of the conventional varieties and vice versa (Penn State). The study concluded that some of the Roundup Ready hybrids were competitive with many commercial standard hybrids, and 

"This study also supports the findings of a previous study that the glyphosate resistant trait does not cause a reduction in yield potential. The large differences in performance among the Roundup Ready hybrids means that hybrid selection will be an important economic consideration in this system as it is in conventional herbicide systems."

Different opinions will probably continue to prevail based on individual experience with specific varieties of both GMO and conventional seed.  Some sources will say that conventional has higher yields than Roundup Ready (Modern Farmer) and others will say otherwise.

Even when yields are slightly lower, there are significant benefits to the farmer from using GMO.  It significantly reduces production costs and makes yields more predictable, improving farmers' profits (Science Based Medicine, ISAAA, Klumper & Qaim). 

A paper by Heinemann et al has stirred some controversy. It basically says that GMO doesn't improve crop yields (which is not a surprise) and that we don't need it. That last part is an opinion not a fact of course. The paper didn't really make sense to me, but I'm not a scientist so I'm not in a good position to judge. The paper compared US yields to European yields, and concluded that Europe was doing better.  There were too many words and not enough clear meaning for me. Plus they talked a lot about grand totals, but not in terms that were meaningful to me like yield per acre. The number of acres under cultivation has changed considerably over the years and not at the same rate everywhere, so grand totals aren't a meaningful way to make comparisons. I spotted some odd comments in the paper too which made me wonder if they had an agenda. So I went looking for science-based discussions of the paper.

Quantum Forest ran an analysis using the same numbers as the Heinemann study, and found that European yields were growing faster than American yields BEFORE GMO was introduced, but the trend reversed after that. They also made a formal comment that was published in the journal that published the Heinemann paper. This was followed by a reply from the original authors.  Make of it what you will, the subject is too deep for me.  GMO Pundit complained that the results of the Heinemann paper were skewed by the inclusion of data from the 10-year period before GMO was on the market, and that a different picture emerges when this data is excluded. This seems to be essentially the same complaint that Quantum Forest made. GMO Answers calls the Heinemann analysis weak, and one of the flaws that they point out is the use of aggregate numbers, which is the same complaint that I had.

Regardless of whether GMO raises or lowers crop yields, farmers are going to make their seed-buying choice based on the option that they expect to provide the greatest profit.  A choice that slightly reduces yields and greatly reduces costs might be more profitable than one that increases yields but doesn't reduce costs.  It is obviously in everyone's best interests if a seed can both increase yields and reduce costs, and it's in Monsanto's best interest to make a seed like that because it will keep the sales revenue flowing in.  If they haven't got a seed like that already, you can expect them to be working on it.

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GMO uses more pesticides and fertilizers.  As mentioned in the last section, the adoption of GMO has led to more pesticide and fertilizer use in developing nations, but it's not because of the GMO itself.  It's because the farmers are switching over from traditional techniques to an array of modern techniques that produce higher crop yields and higher profits (Mutac et al, Klumper & Qaim). 

But a different pattern is observed when you factor in the rest of the world. A  meta-analysis by Klumper & Qaim found that "On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries."  UK researchers Brookes & Barfoot say that GMO reduced global pesticide spraying by 553 million kg from 1996-2013. At GMO Answers, Brookes explains further that herbicide use in the United States initially declined during this period but began rising again in the mid-2000s because increasing glyphosate resistance made it necessary to start using other herbicides again; but even so, the environmental impact has been reduced significantly. In contrast, Benbrook says herbicide use went up by 239 kg while insecticide use went down 56 million kg from 1996-2011. His work was funded 100% by the organic industry, and the study has been heavily criticized for using subjective estimated data (aka making up numbers), among other issues (Forbes, Genetic Literacy Project).

The USDA has charts showing the GMO-related declines in insecticide use from 1995-2010 for corn and cotton (Bt soy was not approved until 2015), and the changes in herbicide use for corn, cotton and soy. The herbicide use drops and then rises again as weeds became resistant.  The chart does not show the reduction in herbicide toxicity.  For anyone who's interested, here's a much more extensive USDA report on pesticide use for 21 crops from 1960-2008.

Those are the facts. Now back to the myths.

A Vtdigger article on the fertilizer and herbicide use of Vermont dairy farmers is sometimes cited as proof that GMO uses more chemicals than other types of farming. The Vtdiggers article tells you upfront that their data comes from a pro-organic activist group called Regeneration Vermont (which I will call RV). Here's a link to the actual RV report, which is an exercise in flaming rhetoric not a sober scientific analysis. The Vtdiggers article on the RV report does provide some opposing viewpoints, but RV's anti-GMO claims get most of the attention and are not seriously questioned. 

The practices of dairy farmers are hardly representative of the farmers who make their living growing crops rather than producing milk. But we'll let that pass, and take a closer look at the report. It talks only about the use herbicides and fertilizer, not the use of insecticides. They seem to assume that correlation is the same as causation and it's all because of GMO, but it ain't necessarily so. They do not suggest that farmers are exceeding the legal limits for pesticide application.

The report says that 74% of the GMO corn in Vermont was Bt in 2012. They don't give any statistics for Roundup Ready, but if 74% of the state's GMO corn is Bt, it follows that at least 26% must be Roundup Ready since these are the only two corn GMOs that I know of.  The Roundup Ready amount might be more than 26%, since a lot of GMO corn seed has both Bt and RR. But the report says that glyphosate was only 8% of the total herbicide use in 2012 even though at least 26% corn was Roundup Ready. RV hypothesizes that farmers are buying Roundup Ready seed and then using other herbicides instead of Roundup.

It would be very strange for the farmers to pay extra money for Roundup Ready seeds if they don't want to use Roundup. They could buy cheaper seeds and use their favorite herbicides with those, and they do have plenty of other options (Foodie Farmer). Roundup kills all non-GMO plants so you don't need any other herbicides unless the weeds have developed Roundup resistance.  But you have to use Roundup heavily for the weeds to develop resistance, and the report indicates that Roundup isn't heavily used in Vermont. So there should be few if any Vermont dairy farmers who need to use both Roundup and some other herbicide. It's unlikely that the farmers are too stupid to know what Roundup Ready seed is for.

I've never seen it suggested before that Bt corn requires more fertilizer and herbicide use than non-Bt corn. Ditto for Roundup Ready. This is something that should be well publicized if it was true because farmers would need to know, but instead it seems to be such an off the wall idea that it's hard to find a respectable source talking about it at all. So there's probably something else going on. It's not entirely clear what that 'something else' is, but there are some strong clues.

Look at the tables in the RV report - the use of the various herbicides didn't change proportionally over the period. Metolachlor use increased by 600%.  Glyphosate use went up by 300%, which is a small change considering that the use of GMO crops went up 1100%. Atrazine went up 15%, and a couple of others went down significantly. The pattern of herbicide use is changing. RV says that a Syngenta herbicide called Lumax was the most popular herbicide in Vermont throughout the period.  Lumax is a blend of atrazine, metolachlor, and mesotrione, but the proportion of chemicals in Lumax has changed to have less atrazine and more metolachlor.

There's an obvious connection between the use of GMO and glyphosate. But there's no logical connection between GMO and Lumax, and the RV report doesn't explain why we should think that the rise in Lumax use has anything to do with GMO. In fact it points out that Lumax's atrazine-metolachlor combo made up 70% of herbicide use when GMO was only 8% of the corn crop. One of the tables indicates that the use of this combo was 88% in 2012. So here's a rather obvious explanation. Maybe the local weeds are developing resistance to Lumax and it takes a heavier dose of these chemicals to work now. Maybe Lumax just simply worked better when it had more atrazine in it, so they have to spray more of it to get the desired effect. Perhaps all this additional spraying is primarily on corn that is non-GMO or is Bt only without the Roundup Ready gene, and the 26% (or more) of the crop that is Roundup Ready accounts for only 8% of the total herbicide use. 

VPR says that if you look at atrazine use from 1999 to 2013, you'll see that it's down 40%, rather than up 15% as reported by RV. Total herbicide use was less in 2013 than it was 15 years earlier. The Genetic Literacy Project says that 2002 may have been chosen as RV's starting point specifically because that would show the results they wanted.

The data from official sources backs up this idea. Check out the USGS tables at Credible Hulk or the USGS itself showing the changes in the use of these older, more toxic chemicals on a national basis. The use of metolachlor on corn has dropped precipitously, from 45-50 million pounds in 1992-1997, to almost zero in 2002, and then crept back up to about 2 million pounds in 2012. To be fair, it looks like a new form of metolachlor called metolachlor-S hit the market in 1998 and has largely superseded the old version (USGS). It looks like the RV report considered only the old form of metolachlor, because the combined total national usage went from about 26 million pounds in 2002 to about 28 million pounds in 2012, not the six-fold increase shown in the RV report. The combined use of both forms was under 30 million pounds nationwide in 2012, so it's still down considerably from the 1999 level, when combined use was about 40 million pounds.

Official sources also shows that atrazine use is a bit less in 2012 than it was in 2002.  Vermont's reported pesticide use data also provides some backup. This data does not include pesticides that farmers applied themselves (Vermont regulations), so it's only part of the picture. But it shows higher application rates in 1999 than in later years. It's certainly starting to look like the critics are right and RV's timeframe was intentionally chosen to show an apparent increase instead of the significant drop that actually occurred.

Some sources claiming that GMO has caused heavier use of pesticides cite the single fact that glyphosate use has skyrocketed as proof of their statement. They fail to mention that the use of many other herbicides has dropped dramatically because of the switch to glyphosate.

A USDA report shows corn production in Vermont from 2002-2011. The yield per acre has stayed fairly steady, but there was a dramatic increase in the corn price from 2008 onwards.  This is the same time that herbicide use went up according to the RV report, and there's a very noticeable correlation between the rise and fall of the corn price in the USDA report and the rise and fall of herbicide use on the RV report.  Feed is a dairy farmer's biggest expense, and Vermont dairy farmers in general are struggling financially and trying to cut costs (Vtdigger-1, Times Argus, Vtdigger-2). Maybe it's a coincidence, or maybe they're throwing more chemicals on the fields trying to increase corn production.

The planting of cover crops on cornfields during the off season for corn has been growing rapidly in Vermont since 2007, which is the same time that the use of pesticides increased (Vtdigger). These crops need agricultural inputs too, and they're not Roundup Ready so they need a different herbicide.

RV's fertilizer data is meaningless.  They give fertilizer statistics for the entire state not for the corn crop. The USDA shows state production statistics for 2007 and 2012. The USDA report shows that although corn production for silage didn't change much, there was a significant increase from 2007 to 2012 in the production of grain corn, soybeans, forage crops, and hay, while the total acreage for these crops stayed about the same. An increase in production is an obvious reason for an increase in fertilizer use.  Even the RV report acknowledges that you need more fertilizer for high production (page 5).

The only information I could find on the fertilizer requirements of Bt versus non-GMO is near the bottom of page 44 in a report from the National Cotton Council of America. It says there is little evidence that transgenic traits in cotton affect nutrient concentrations in tissues or the uptake of nutrients. However there is one exception: if the use of Bt increases the crop yield by reducing pest damage, more nutrients will be removed from the field when the crop is harvested because more plant material is being removed. So higher levels of nutrient replacement will be needed to maintain the fertility of the soil. The same principle will naturally apply to any other type of seed or crop: the more plant material you remove from the field, the more nutrients you will need to replace.

There are some obvious mistakes in the RV chart on Vermont GMO Corn Usage, which shows that 109% of the corn crop was GMO in 2011, and in 2012 GMO was both 90% and 103% of the corn crop. The 109% error is repeated in two other charts. These are minor errors, but it makes you wonder how sloppy the rest of the reporting is.  Side note: the EPA shows changes in fertilizer use if you want to look at the fluctuations by state. There doesn't seem to be any particular pattern to it.

The RV report rants about the dangers of Bt and glyphosate, even though the scientific community agrees that they are not harmful when used correctly. The complaints about Bt are especially ironic, since Bacillus thuringiensis is a popular organic pesticide, and the bacteria itself is widespread in the environment. It causes problems for some types of insects (not all) but not for vertebrates, because it interferes with a function that vertebrates don't have. When used as an external spray pesticide, you have to coat the plant thoroughly with it, and non-pest insects that just happen to be in the area could potentially be harmed. Organic sites enthuse about Bt's environmental friendliness - as long as you're only using it on organic plants anyway (Mother Earth News, Organic Growers School). Many will then turn around and say it's dangerous in GMO form because you can't wash it off, but this is erroneous (Genetic Literacy Project). Hypocritical too, since it's common to inject live Bt bacteria into organic squash so the bacteria can multiply there and combat squash borers from within the plant (Organic Growers School).

Here's an interesting example of the way Regeneration Vermont presents information.  The Vtdiggers report included this statement:
Cary Giguere, chief of the Agriculture Resource Management Division, the data used in Allen’s report is correct, but the narrative he uses to describe the information from the state agency “represents one perspective, which adds to an anti-conventional agriculture sentiment.”

“He uses a limited selected subset of data to tell a story,” Giguere said by email. “He may have some valid points, however we respectfully feel that it does not capture and present the entire story. The piece is among the many the agency sees advocating that current agricultural practices are somehow not adequately protective. The dataset could also be cherry picked to support the opposing argument.”

At the bottom of this page, RV quotes the statement this way: “Cary Giguere, chief of the Agriculture Resource Management Division, [said] the data used in Allen’s report is correct…”. That's all. They leave the rest out, and you couldn't ask for better evidence of bad faith and lying by omission. The partial quote creates the appearance that this official has acknowledged that RV is right, when he's actually saying that they cherry-picked the data to present an inaccurate picture of the situation.  And the way they edited Giguere's statement proves that they don't hesitate to do that sort of thing.

The Regeneration Vermont report as a whole doesn't make any logical sense. It's so irrational that in spite of Giguere's statement, I wonder how accurate the data is. But even if most of the numbers are right, they don't support RV's conclusion that the increase in herbicide and fertilizer use is due to GMO. The GMO corn doesn't require these extra inputs, so the farmers must be doing it for other reasons.

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GMO uses more water.  You don't hear this odd claim very often. I can't even find any real-world data that could be twisted into this conclusion. The claim seems to emanate from ISIS.  No, not the terrorist jihad organization. The site states that "GM crops have been shown to be less water efficient". Shown by whom? The site doesn't attach a reference number to that particular statement so they may not have any support for it all.  They do attach reference numbers to some of their other statements, but you can't see the reference list unless you send them some money first. The link to download the fully referenced version of the article leads to Paypal. I've never seen such a thing before, and I think it's contemptible.  If their statements are true, then why don't they put the proof out where everyone can see it? Instead they're letting us read their dubious claims for free, and putting a "thwart or extort" barrier in front of people who want to check the accuracy of their story.

As further "proof" of their claims, ISIS tells us about one farmer - yes, exactly one - who says that his Bt corn didn't do as well the conventional corn. The Huffington Post talked to this farmer and you can read the story in more detail there.  The use of Bt corn has grown rapidly over the last 20 years and made up 79% of the US corn crop in 2016 (USDA). Most farmers obviously think it's satisfactory, and maybe a different GMO variety would be more suited to the conditions in this guy's fields. 

GMO Inside says "Studies of GM crops in developing countries and throughout the world have demonstrated that GM seeds need more water, fertilizer and pesticides than conventional crops."  It's not hard to figure out where this is coming from. Studies HAVE shown that third world farmers who plant GMO seeds use more fertilizer and pesticides than traditional crops, and they also get higher yields, higher prices for their produce, and higher profits. It's what happens when you switch from ancient techniques to modern methods.  But the studies I've seen didn't mention water use (Mutac et al, Klumper & Qaim).

If GMO seeds required more water it would be a major agricultural issue since irrigation costs money. You'd expect this information to be well publicized on agricultural sites and discussed in the scientific community.  But I can find NOTHING about GMO and water use from a respectable source, unless you count talk about a drought-resistant GMO that might be available in the future. Ironically, there is scorn from the anti-GMO side because the drought-resistant GMO isn't ready for the market yet; it's been in development too long for their taste.  But you can be sure that the complaints would be even louder if it WAS on the market already. 

The Genetic Literacy Project explains the complexity of developing the drought resistance trait - there are already many varieties of conventional seed that do well under drought conditions, but they don't do as well under normal conditions and this limits their usefulness.  The drought resistant GMO needs to do well under ALL conditions to be an improvement over what we already have.  Scientific research doesn't come with a guarantee of success, so we have to wait and see whether they can work it out. 

I can't think of any logical reason why our current GMOs would need any more or any less water than conventional crops. They basically function as normal plants except for the special attribute provided by the GMO. But the special attribute isn't related to the plant's ability to suck up and use water.

Here's one possible explanation for any increase in overall water use. For a number of years now there has been a US government mandate to mix ethanol with gasoline. Most ethanol is made from corn. This requirement has led to millions more acres of land being put under cultivation so we can put food into our gas tanks as well as into our pie holes. A lot of corn is GMO so it's probable that much of this new acreage is GMO too. When you have more land under cultivation you obviously need more water to keep everything growing. But the real cause of the increased water use in this case is stupid government policies, not GMO. Ethanol is even more environmentally unfriendly than petroleum, and I'd really like to see them ditch this policy and focus on developing cars that run on clean energy.

Mother Jones cites a quote from a meta-analysis from Seufert et al indicating that organic farming has better water retention than conventional (not specifically GMO).  This sounded reasonable to me, since I know that manure and compost fertilizer has beneficial effects on soil structure that you don't get with chemical fertilizers (University of Minnesota). It sounded so reasonable that I almost didn't go to the source to check out the quote.  So I was quite surprised at the different picture that emerges when you view it in context:

"Water relations also influence organic yield ratios—organic performance is -35% under irrigated conditions, but only -17% under rain-fed conditions. This could be due to a relatively better organic performance under variable moisture conditions in rain-fed systems. Soils managed with organic methods have shown better water-holding capacity and water infiltration rates and have produced higher yields than conventional systems under drought conditions and excessive rainfall. On the other hand, organic systems are often nutrient limited, and thus probably do not respond as strongly to irrigation as conventional systems."
They're saying that organic crops produce 35% lower yields than conventional when irrigation is used, but the yields are only 17% lower than conventional when rainfall is the water source.  Either way, for the same amount of water you're getting lower crop yields with organic than you are with conventional. The extra water-holding capacity of organic doesn't compensate for its low productivity, and on a per-bushel basis, organic farming uses more water than conventional. The Seufert study appears to be pro-organic, and its purpose was to identify the reasons that organic farming has lower crop yields than conventional.

The Roundup-Ready GMO can help reduce runoff and improve water retention by eliminating or reducing the need for tillage, which means turning the soil over for weed control. Tillage is not a very effective way to eliminate weeds however so some kind of herbicide will usually be needed too (Biofortified). With Roundup Ready, you get better weed control and any change in crop yields is far less dramatic than the low yields of organic farming. The benefits of no-till and low-till farming including improving soil health and reducing carbon emissions. Farmers who use GMO are not necessarily adopting conservation tillage, however; it's an option not a necessity. The available data indicates that there has been some increase in conservation tillage in the GMO era, but the rate is not dramatic (Grist). Perhaps it would help if the government offered farmers some incentives to adopt it.

The USDA says "Most organic producers used mechanical practices, such as tillage and cultivating for weed control, while conventional producers rarely used a cultivator and relied mainly on chemical weed control."  In terms of carbon emissions from the soil, it sounds like conventional farming is more environmentally friendly than organic since it stirs up the soil less.

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GMO doesn't reduce energy use.  But why would you expect it to? This complaint is actually part of the tillage discussion.  We just mentioned that Roundup Ready enables the use of low-till or no-till farming. And when you do less tilling you spend less time running tractors up and down the field, which saves some fuel. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't seem like the fuel savings would make much of a difference anyway, but some people feel compelled to argue about it. Earth Open Source for example says that Roundup Ready actually uses MORE energy. 

A paper by Bindraban et al is cited to support this claim. The part about energy use is on page 24. It says that on the farm, zero tillage requires 20% less energy than ordinary tillage, but the energy needed to produce glyphosate is greater than this. They fail to mention that it also requires energy to produce any other kind of herbicide, so those tractors running up and down the field are the only real difference in energy use between Roundup Ready and anything else. Non-Roundup Ready crops usually require several kinds of herbicides, and it might take even more energy to meet this need for non-GMO conventional crops.  The energy needed to produce organic herbicides is unknown.  But organic farming has dramatically lower crop yields, so their energy use per unit of food produced could be higher than other types even if they don't use herbicides at all.

Side note on fertilizer use: it says "Zero tillage requires less farm operations than conventional tillage. Fertilizer application rates are slightly higher in fields under zero tillage because soil nutrient release directly after planting is somewhat slower in fields that are not tilled." With slower release of carbon dioxide comes slower release of other stuff too, apparently. There's an up side and a down side to everything.

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GMO is leading to superweeds and superbugs.  This is true (New York Times, Tabashnik et al, Harvard).  Agricultural superpests are weeds and insects that have evolved so that the chemicals that used to kill them no longer have the desired effect.  This is a problem with all forms of chemical pest control, not just GMO. It’s been estimated that genetic resistance to every pesticide that will ever be invented already exists somewhere in the world, and it's only a matter of time until the pesticide meets up with the pest that can resist it (Biology Fortified).

Worldwide, more than 500 species of pest insects have already developed some level of resistance to conventional insecticides in the past 40 years (Penn State, MSU). This includes resistance to the Bt spray used on organic crops, which was first reported in the 1980s before the Bt GMO had been invented (Lateral, Cornell). There are 470 unique cases of herbicide resistance globally, involving 250 weed species, 23 of the 26 known herbicide sites of action, 160 different herbicides, and 86 crops in 66 countries (WeedScience). It's happening in the medical world too, with more and more germs becoming resistant to drug treatment and antiseptics (WHO).

This is a serious agricultural problem with no easy answers. To some extent, this problem is caused by large-scale monoculture (growing just one type of plant in an area), although the problem is much more complicated than "Roundup is bad". The benefits of monoculture outweigh the disadvantages, but there is room for improvement in the current system (Weed Control Freaks).  Techniques like crop rotation, intercropping (two different types of crops mixed together or close together), and alternating between different types of pesticides can help prevent the development of resistance (IRAC, Biology Fortified).  But these techniques have limitations.  Crop rotation can interrupt the life cycle of some pests but not others (SARE, Western Farm Press). Some crops (like apples) simply can't be rotated because the plant is slow-growing and long-lived. Intercropping can actually make problems worse if the crops aren't carefully chosen. Some pests are only susceptible to certain pesticides, and rotating chemicals may not be feasible.

Another way to slow the development of resistance is with refugia - pesticide-free fields planted near fields that use pesticides. This technique can be used with any kind of agriculture that uses insecticides - it isn't limited to GMO. It seems counterintuitive, but the pesticide-free zones work by allowing the continued survival of non-resistant pests, so that their genes continue to predominate over the genes of the resistant members of their species (Understanding Evolution). Refugia also promote the survival of insects that prey on or otherwise limit the population of crop-eating pests (Dietrick Institute). The refuge can be planted with a non-GMO variety of the crop plant or it can be something entirely different - the only requirement is that it needs to be a friendly habitat for the crop pest that you're paradoxically trying to encourage.

To help prevent the development of Bt-resistant insect pests, the EPA requires the use of a refuge as a condition for planting Bt corn; at least 20% of the acreage must not contain the Bt trait (University of Wisconsin). Harvey-Samuel et al report that this strategy has been largely successful, but multiple cases of Bt resistance have now been reported. Two reasons for the emergence of resistance have been proposed: (1) farmers not adhering strictly to the refugia requirements, and (2) toxin levels in the Bt plants that were too low to consistently kill heterozygous resistant insects (Tellez-Rodriguez et al).

Neppl reports that the success of refugia depends on four factors: that the resistance trait is recessive, that there is random mating, that adults will travel sufficiently between toxic and nontoxic plants, and that there is a complete lack of insecticidal action in the refugia. She says,

"The refugia strategy is imperfect, but its successes are well backed by data. It is important to remember that the susceptible population is a resource that can be depleted.";
Major seed companies have gotten in on the act with "Refuge in a Bag" products (Farm Industry News).

There currently doesn't seem to be a similar concept for weed control, probably because weeds don't have the essential trait of being able to travel from one area to another looking for a mate. For weeds that rely on pollinators, it might be feasible to plant some susceptible weeds in the refuge and let the pollinators take care of the rest. It would take more creativity to find a solution for weeds that don't rely on pollinators, but it might be possible to come up with something that would work.  The current solution to the Roundup-resistance problem is to use old-fashioned herbicides (which are more expensive and more toxic) in addition to Roundup or instead of Roundup. This is not very satisfactory for anyone but the manufacturers of the more-toxic herbicides.

Tillage (turning over the soil) is a chemical-free way to eliminate some insect and weed pests. But tilling encourages some insect pests and is only partly effective on some weeds (SARE, Yenish et al).  Unfortunately tillage contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide from the soil, and also contributes to erosion and fertilizer runoff.  Conservation tillage reduces these environmental disadvantages and no-till farming eliminates them, but you also lose some or all of the benefits of tillage (Oregon State, Modern Farmer). Eliminating the need to control weeds with tillage is considered to be one of the benefits of Roundup.

In some cases it might be possible to simply re-engineer the GMO to solve the resistance problem.  Monsanto has already created a second-generation Bt cotton gene after the pink bollworm developed resistance to their first-generation seed (Monsanto). But this approach might not always work, so it's desirable to use other techniques to help prevent resistance from developing in the first place.

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GMO is wiping out monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies are heavily impacted by a variety of threats including habitat destruction (especially on their wintering ground in Mexico) (Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Watch), toxic pesticides, predation, and bad weather. The current GMOs don't cause direct harm to the butterflies - it has been determined that pollen from Bt corn is not a danger (Nature, GMO Answers), and Roundup has little or no toxicity to insects (Entomology Today).

But the Roundup Ready GMO may cause indirect harm to the monarch population by reducing the amount of milkweed in farm fields.  Milkweed is an essential food source for monarch caterpillars because it's the only thing that they eat.  It appears that Roundup really has had a major impact on the milkweed population. The connection between milkweed reduction and population seems so obvious and logical that it is widely taken for granted that this has a major impact on the monarch population. But a 2016 paper casts serious doubt on this idea (Inamine et al, JPR).  Based on 22 years of monitoring data from sites all over the country, they concluded that the populations had remained stable during their milkweed-using time at the butterflies' summer breeding ground, and that the population losses were occurring during the fall migration, at a time when milkweed was no longer being used.

It's entirely possible that this paper is correct.  I looked into the scientific backup for the reduced-milkweed idea, and found that it was much shakier than I expected. The hypothesis is primarily based on a single paper by Pleasants and Oberhauser, which used actual field studies. A couple of other papers (Flockhart et al, Zalucki and Lammers) used computer simulation to determine that this was a plausible scenario, but we don't know how well their results correspond to reality.

The Pleasants paper has some very noticeable limitations. They only sampled populations in the Midwest, instead of looking at other areas too to see whether there were differences in regional population trends. They refer to an earlier study that compared egg density in milkweed at agricultural sites (farm fields) and non-agricultural sites like pastures and roadsides. Egg density was higher at the agricultural sites, apparently because milkweed grows best in disturbed soil so milkweed density is higher in fields. The paper notes the loss of milkweed at agricultural sites, but it doesn't look like anyone has checked to see whether the butterflies have compensated by laying more eggs at non-agricultural sites. There's no reason to assume that the butterflies wouldn't make this move; they didn't evolve in farm fields, so a more natural environment ought to serve their needs.

The study looked at egg laying patterns and not at caterpillar survival rates. The paper seems to implicitly assume that the survival rate is the same in both locations, which could be VERY wrong. There's usually a lot of pest control effort going on in a farm field, and not so much in other places.  Monarch caterpillars aren't an agricultural threat since they don't eat anything but milkweed, but there are many other types of caterpillar that do eat crop plants. So unless they're using the Bt GMO, farmers normally use insecticides to eliminate caterpillars in both conventional and organic farm fields, and these chemicals don't discriminate between the good caterpillars and the bad ones.

Millions of monarchs are killed by toxic pesticides, and neonicotinoids are thought to be a particular problem (Monarch Joint Venture). The problem isn't just in the field itself, because milkweed next to farm fields is easily contaminated with neonic pesticides (Pecenka & Lundgren). However this is question of sublethal doses that might cause problems, not an established fact. There is considerably more research on the effect that neonics have on bees, and the threat may not be as severe as we previously thought.  This is discussed further in the section on bees.

The Bt GMO has substantially reduced the use of organophosphate pesticides. It's targeted and only takes out the insects that eat the crop plants (Klumper & Qaim). So the use of this GMO substantially reduces the insecticide danger for monarchs. Another benefit of the Bt GMO (in general, not for monarchs) is that it helps restore the population of predator insects and other insect diversity (The Scientist). Conventional pesticides are the real toxicity problem, because they actually poison the butterflies. Roundup does not.

Here's a strange-but-true possible alternate explanation for why the butterflies lay eggs at higher densities in farm fields. Tellez-Rodriguez et al reported that Spodoptera frugiperda (a moth), given a choice between laying eggs on Bt corn and non-Bt corn, had a strong preference for the GMO corn. It's hypothesized that the Bt corn leaves are more attractive because they have less insect damage. Could the use of conventional insecticides in a farm field make the milkweed there look more attractive to monarchs?  They're not the only insects that eat milkweed at some stage of their lives, plus there are some predator insects that stalk their prey on milkweed ( Pesticides would ultimately be bad for the survival of the butterfly, but all they'd see on the surface is that there's not a lot of competition for the milkweed.

Pesticides are not the only problem.  Milkweed caterpillars might be benign, but milkweed itself is an agricultural pest and farmers don't want it in their fields. It's officially designated as a noxious weed in 35 U.S. states and several Canadian provinces.  It spreads rapidly and competes with crops for nutrients and other resources, it's difficult to eradicate once it's established, and it's toxic to livestock and humans too (New York Times, Monarch Watch, MSU, USDA).  But it's not toxic to the caterpillars, and they actually eat it to make themselves toxic so they'll be less vulnerable to predators. Milkweed growing in a farm field is likely to be removed before long, and any eggs or caterpillars on the plant will be lost. For all we know, milkweed availability in fields might actually contribute to butterfly declines by causing so many eggs to be laid in a place with a lowered chance of survival.

I couldn't find much scientific analysis of the merits and flaws of the Pleasants study, but the complaints include (1) assuming that declines in milkweed were the reason for the decline in monarch populations, (2) assuming that Roundup was responsible for milkweed decline without looking at other potential causes, and (3) failure to investigate the decline of milkweed in non-agricultural areas (Weed Control Freaks, Genetic Literacy Project). The first two are the scientific sin of assuming that correlation means causation. The last one takes things for granted in a different way: the paper states that they only had real data on milkweed numbers in non-agricultural areas for 1999-2003, and the "decline" from 2004-2010 is an assumption not an observation. They basically made up some of the data, and don't know whether the non-agricultural milkweed really declined during this period or not. The milkweed in these areas wasn't being sprayed with Roundup, so I don't see why we should assume that it declined.

Another study on herbicide tolerance indicates that we can't just blame the problem on Roundup because other types of agricultural intensification may play a role (Egan et al, Strange Behaviors). The Egan study just makes me say "Huh?", but people who understand it say it's significant.

So even if the milkweed-decline idea is right, there isn't enough data in the Pleasants paper to make it look more convincing than the Inamine study. Reliable data is hard to come by, so we don't know how accurate Inamine's findings are either.

We don't even really know what constitutes a normal population level.  There are indications that the population has declined significantly since the 1870s. Much of this decline had occurred by 1990, with logging at the Mexican wintering grounds as a major factor (Brower).  One interesting hypothesis about other factors is that the conversion of prairies to farmland and the cutting of forests may have forced the monarchs to eat a less toxic kind of milkweed, which made the caterpillars less toxic and therefore more vulnerable to predation (Brower page 338).  Page 345 of the Brower article indicates that huge variations in population were noted as far back as the 1870s.

Part of the problem is that it's difficult to estimate the population at the summer breeding sites (Jepsen et al). The best population indicator we have is the area occupied by monarchs on their wintering ground, and we didn't start tracking that until 1993. Most sources seem to consider the time when the Roundup era really got underway to be somewhere around 2003, and we don't know whether the population levels from 1993-2002 were normal, above average, or below average. This paper by Swengel was the best information on population data before 1994 that I could find, and it's pretty limited.

It isn't hard to think of another potential cause for the current low numbers.  It doesn't look like anyone has done a serious study on the correlation between weather conditions and monarch populations, which is a strange omission considering how sensitive and vulnerable the butterflies are to weather. Monarch eggs do not hatch in very dry conditions, and temperatures above 95 F or below freezing can kill monarchs in all stages of the life cycle, as well as damaging the milkweed they depend on (Ecology Online). Rain will injure and kill butterflies if they can't hide from it (Scientific American), so it's likely that severe storms also take a toll.

The next part of the discussion is based on population charts like this one. There have certainly been some very low numbers in recent years, but 2006-2007 is part of the Roundup era and the population then was higher than half the years before 2002. There's room to argue about whether 2003-2004 is part of the Roundup era, but it's higher than most of the years that came before it.  This anti-glyphosate site says that there was 100 times more milkweed in 2001 than there was in 2003-2005. The accuracy of this statement is very doubtful, but if we accept it at face value then there have been some nice surges in the butterfly population in spite of a precipitous drop in milkweed availability. 

I couldn't find any explanations for the large drops in 1997 and 2000, but these years aren't part of the Roundup era so we can't blame it on GMO. The drop in 2004 was caused by a storm (CNN). The drop in 2009 is attributed to a record level of precipitation followed by freezing temperatures, and there were severe drought conditions at the wintering ground from 2008 to 2011 (NRDC page 11 of 23). The years 2012 to 2014 had a whole series of bad weather events (Monarch Butterfly Journey North). There was also a drought from 2010-2013, particularly in Texas (Wikipedia). The weather in Texas has a major impact on the monarch population (Science World Report, Weather Watch), and a large swath of the butterflies' migration path was scorched by wildfires in 2011 (NWF). Chron points out that dry weather and wildfires have affected the availability of milkweed. The weather in Texas has swung to the opposite extreme since the end of the drought, with a series of heavy rains and flooding events in 2014-2016. There is no word on how this has affected the butterfly population.  The 2015-16 wintering season in Mexico started out with a nice population surge (CBD), but a late spring storm killed up to half the butterflies (CBC News).

In short, it looks like all the major downward fluctuations since 2002 can be explained in terms of weather events. The upward fluctuations can probably be explained the same way, but I didn't look for weather data on those years. The frequency in severe weather events has been intensifying in recent decades, particularly since 2000, and this is attributed to climate change (Smith & Katz, U.S. Climate Change Science Program). EDF points out the effect that climate change has on the timing of monarch butterfly migration, which has the potential to disastrously affect survival rates. Climate change may soon make the monarchs' wintering ground unusable (Monarch Joint Venture).

All things considered, it looks like bad weather and climate change might be a better explanation for monarch population drops than the use of Roundup. There could be other factors too, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Roundup really is part of the problem. But when a population is being hammered this often by bad weather, it's not surprising that their numbers might drop, with an uphill battle to recover. It's possible that we're looking at correlation without causation as far as GMO is concerned. 

Regardless of whether the milkweed-limitation hypothesis is correct, it certainly won't hurt the butterfly population to have more milkweed available. This is a much more constructive solution to the problem than complaining about GMO. There's a movement encouraging people to plant milkweed on their property to support butterfly populations, although it's important to plant native milkweed not tropical milkweed which causes parasite problems ( Monarch Joint Venture, Science). The USDA has created an incentive program to pay farmers for voluntarily planting milkweed on part of their property (USDA, NSAC). Monsanto has also pledged money to this cause (Genetic Literacy Project). There has been at least one study on enhancing milkweed growth with a well-timed mowing program (Fischer et al).

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GMO is harmful to bees (with the neonic issue).   Scientific Beekeeping has a detailed, thoughtful article on this subject, written by a biologist. The first part of the article is a general discussion of GMO, then it gets down to GMO's impact on bees.  Some selected quotes:

On Bt:

"A recent and very well-designed experiment on the effect of GM Bt corn pollen upon the growth and survival of honey bee larvae was recently performed by a team of independently-funded German researchers...
Results: surprisingly, the larvae fed the pollen from the “stacked” GM corn containing a combination of three different Cry proteins exhibited a higher survival rate (100%), than those fed non-GM corn pollen! To me, a big plus for this study was that they also included a positive control of pollen from a wild plant said to be harmful to bees—only about 30% of those larvae survived! This finding confirmed that even some natural pollens are quite toxic, and that we should compare any toxicity trials of pesticides with those of the natural phytotoxins in nature.
Analysis: CCD and colony mortality occur even in the absence of GM Bt crops; feeding GM Bt pollen to adult bees or larvae does not cause observable adverse effects.
Verdict on Bt crops: The specific Bt cry proteins used in GM crops were intentionally chosen to not cause harm to bees. There is no evidence to date that they do. On the other hand, Bt crops require less use of insecticides that are clearly toxic to bees."

On Roundup Ready:

The EPA has thoroughly reviewed the research and found glyphosate to be practically nontoxic to bees (and humans). They have found the same for Roundup’s adjuvant polyoxyethylene-alkylamine. However, some beekeepers tell me that they see increased bee mortality following the spraying of glyphosate, but are not sure whether it was a generic product, or perhaps contained additional ingredients (surfactants, fungicides, or insecticides) added to the tank mix.
Analysis: there is no strong evidence that the spraying of Roundup or generic glyphosate herbicide is directly causing significant bee mortality. However, Drs. Jim and Maryann Frazier have legitimate concerns about the effect of some adjuvants—especially the organosilicones.

Biological plausibility: the elimination of weeds reduces bee forage.

The success of Roundup Ready technology has allowed farmers to largely eliminate weeds from their fields (at least until the inevitable resistant weeds take over). But they don’t stop there—nowadays they practice “clean farming” and use herbicides to burn off every weed along the fencerows and in the ditches—the very places that bees formerly had their best foraging. This elimination of flowering weeds severely reduces the amount of available of bee forage, plus kills off the host plants of native pollinators (such as monarch butterflies) and beneficial insects...

Many of the weeds in North America are old friends of the honey bee. On the other hand, honey bees were never exposed to corn, soybeans, sunflowers, or squashes until recently; neither corn nor sunflowers supply complete amino acid profiles in their respective pollens. Until the advent of Roundup Ready, the weeds in an around crops provided alternative nectar and pollen sources for bees; today there is often nary a bee-nutritious weed to be seen in or around a field of corn or soybeans...

Huber’s research found that plants following in rotation after Roundup applications the previous year could be lacking in trace elements due to the residual glyphosate in the soil! Lack of trace elements causes serious stress and disease in other livestock, and it’s possible that honey bees may also be affected. The above susceptibility to fungi due to the use of Roundup may then lead to increased application of fungicides, a number of which are demonstrably toxic to bee brood.

But nothing in nature is simple. Eliminating the competition of weeds and insects may allow plants to hold back from the production of natural toxins. And a surprising piece of research found corn kernels from plants sprayed with either of two different herbicides actually contain more of the healthful carotenoids...

[Regarding examination of bee-related trends in the Midwest] in a state covered in corn and soy, colony productivity did not appear to be affected by the introductions of either Bt or Roundup Ready corn, nor by the universal use of neonicotinoid seed treatments (between corn and soy, on over roughly two thirds of the entire state land area). Note that honey yields actually increased for a few years following the introduction of clothianidin seed treatment!

Tellingly, hive numbers started to decrease after the arrival of varroa [bee mites], and plummeted in the late 1990’s as fluvalinate failed as a miticide, and many beekeepers simply threw up their hands and quit the business.

Verdict on herbicide tolerant crops: from a nutritional standpoint, the increased use of herbicides, and the associated weed free “clean farming” has certainly not helped the bees in corn/soy areas, but it is hard to make a case for them causing colony collapse.

Verdict on GM crops in general: Allow me to quote from the USDA: …there is no correlation between where GM crops are planted and the pattern of CCD incidents. Also, GM crops have been widely planted since the late 1990s, but CCD did not appear until 2006. In addition, CCD has been reported in countries that do not allow GM crops to be planted, such as Switzerland.

To summarize, a biologist beekeeper has concluded that GMO has not had an observable impact on bees, although the loss of flowering weeds in fields is not desirable. The use of Roundup may lead to increased application of fungicides which is not good for bees, but in some other respects the use of Roundup may actually help improve the health and survival of bees.

Multiple other studies agree that the Bt GMO is not harmful to bees (GMOAnswers lists several) and that glyphosate has low toxicity to bees even when it is sprayed on them (Entomology Today). Forest Info reports the results of multiple studies, most of them finding no lethal or sublethal effects on bees as a result of glyphosate exposure. However one study (Herbert et al) found impaired learning ability but no effect on foraging behavior, and another (Helmer et al) found a reduction in antioxidant levels but no ill effects. These results of these studies have been exaggerated for anti-GMO propaganda purposes of course.

With so little in the way of actual problems to report, a variation on the theme is to say that GMO is evil because the seeds are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides.  It's true that many of them are, but the rhetoric leaves out the fact that a wide variety of non-GMO seeds are coated with neonics too. It's a widespread practice that's not related to whether a seed is GMO or not. You won't find neonics on organic seed because they're not approved for organic use, but you'll find them on the seeds for just about everything else, including corn, wheat, rice, other cereal grains, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, nuts, wine grapes, cotton, hay, and grass seed (Penn State, Environment 360). Since there is no inherent relationship between GMO and neonic seed coatings, the seed companies can simply stop applying the coatings any time they decide that it's best to do so. And that day may very well come. 

This is an article on GMO not neonics, but we'll discuss them anyway since they do have a connection to the GMO issue.

Although it's possible to use neonics as a spray, they are highly toxic to beneficial insects in spray form, so they are mostly used as a seed coating. They function as a systemic pesticide in this form, entering the plant tissues and being ingested by insects that feed on the plant. The toxins get into the pollen and the nectar however, so there is a potential for unwanted toxic effects on pollinators. The toxins can also be taken up by the roots of nearby plants (Pecenka & Lundgren).

Neonics are controversial, and both their safety and their effectiveness is still being studied. Neonics DO kill bees if it's sprayed directly on them (Entomology Today), but the effect of neonic seed coatings on bees is unclear. It's generally accepted that they are not lethally toxic to bees, but they may have sublethal effects that contribute to parasite infestations and impair bee health. Neonics have been suspected as a factor in colony collapse disorder (CCD), but now it looks very much like this is not actually the case (Dively et al, Forbes), and the scientist who promotes the idea has been heavily criticized (Scientific Beekeeping, Huffington Post). Colony collapse disorder was a major issue in 2006 and it still isn't well understood, but it was apparently a short-lived phenomenon.  Bee populations are bouncing back as the use of neonic seed coatings continues to increase, and terms like "bee-pocalypse" and "bee-mageddon" are no longer taken seriously (Forbes, Washington Post, Scientific American). 

Scientific Beekeeping has a two-part article on the subject (Part 1, Part 2). It says, "many beekeepers feel strongly that the widespread use of the neonicotinoid insecticides has been a good thing—there are far fewer spray kills nowadays than back in the bad old days (in 1968 an estimated 83,000 colonies were lost to pesticides in California alone). However, there remain several unresolved issues and unanswered questions about these insecticides." It proceeds to discuss these issues in detail. The overall conclusion is that there are no significant problems for bee colonies associated with neonics.

“Many lethal and sublethal effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees have been described in laboratory studies, however, no effects were observed in field studies with field-realistic dosages... Not only is there no compelling evidence to date that exposure to seed-treated crops is causing harm to bees, but there are plenty of examples to the contrary, such as the thriving bee operations in the Corn Belt. Neonicotinoid seed treatments actually appear to be living up to expectation as reduced-risk insecticides. When skeptical researchers have tested actual pollen and nectar from seed-treated crops, they invariably confirm that any neonicotinoid residues are indeed quite low."

Scientific Beekeeping also reports that there is scant evidence that neonics cause any harm to birds, and actually appear to be a major improvement over previously-used insecticides (SB-1, SB-2).

It has been found that individual bees might die prematurely due to the effect of neonics, but the colony simply increases production to make up for it so there is no harm to the bee population as a whole (BBC). There is concern about the dust that arises during the planting of neonics, but an extensive discussion on Scientific Beekeeping indicates that it's not a serious problem.

Most people would probably agree that the current indiscriminate use of neonics isn't desirable. There are still considerable gaps in our knowledge (Lundin et al).  Penn State says that the use pattern "suggests that neonicotinoids are often being used as an ‘insurance policy’ against uncertain insect attack, rather than in response to a documented pest threat.”

We need more information on the effectiveness and risks of neonics so we can use them more wisely. This work is currently underway (and it should have been done a lot sooner IMO). The EPA has determined that neonic seed coatings are not effective in raising soybean yields, and there's agreement with this in Canada (Western Producer). Entomology Today says that neonics may produce higher yields with rice under the right circumstances. An EPA assessment of the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid found that the pesticide levels were unacceptable in the nectar and pollen of citrus and cotton, but there was not a problem with corn and leafy vegetables. EPA assessments for three more neonic pesticides (clothianidin, thiametoxam, dinotuferan) are forthcoming.  As more information of this sort becomes available, we can expect the use of neonics to be fine-tuned through government regulations and/or the voluntary actions of the seed companies.  Avoiding ineffective or unwanted coatings on their seeds is in their best interest because it lowers their production costs.

Summary: the available evidence indicates that GMO does not harm bees. Neonicotinoid pesticides may have some harmful effects, but it doesn't appear to be as much of a problem as we originally thought. Neonics are an issue for conventional agriculture in general, not just GMO.

In other news, it is reported that a number of popular organic pesticides are highly toxic to bees (Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Bee Culture, ACSH, Genetic Literacy Project). At least one of them (neem oil) is bad for butterflies, including monarchs (Monarch Butterfly Garden).

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There's glyphosate in rainwater.  OK, this one is actually true, at least in regions where large amounts of glyphosate are used (Chang et al). Pretty much everything that you put on a farm field is expected to end up in the rainwater.  Farming involves activities that churn up the dirt and put dust in the air.  Most of it quickly settles back down to earth, but particles that get blown high enough can travel for miles and even cross oceans before something brings them down again. Rain washes the dust out of the atmosphere, so whatever crap was floating around in the air will then be in the rainwater. And I mean "crap" literally - there's bound to be some manure particles blowing in the wind. Pesticides and fertilizers in general are expected to contain at least some dust particles if they weren't completely powdered to begin with, and on dry, windy days some of it is going to get airborne.  Farms are the biggest source of air pollution in parts of the US, Europe, and China (Bauer et al; plain-English information at The Earth Institute and AGU100).

Like all things Roundup-related, the detection of glyphosate in rainwater has caused a great deal of panic in anti-GMO circles.  What they don't tell you is that the amounts were miniscule, overall pesticide use has declined significantly due to Roundup, and Roundup is far less toxic than the pesticides it replaced (BioFortified). There are worse pesticides in the rainwater than Roundup (Vogel et al).

The presence of pesticides in rainwater has been known since at least the mid-1980s, before the glyphosate era really got underway (Nature). A European study found that half the substances they tested for were in the rainwater (Dubus et al). The issue apparently hasn't been studied much in areas outside the US and Europe, but you can expect it to happen pretty much everywhere that pesticides are used, meaning "all over the world". But I can find no evidence that any government in the world is doing anything about it, so they must not consider it to be a major problem.  There has been an ongoing effort to regulate problematic air pollution for the last 50 years, so it's not that no one cares about air quality. Not surprisingly, a Swiss study found that the pesticide concentration in rainwater was highest during and immediately after the time the pesticides were applied (Bucheli et al), so to some degree the effect variable and intermittent. 

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Issues with contamination, cross-pollination, gene transfer.  There are a number of concerns about DNA from GMO plants doing some traveling and getting into places where it wasn't intended to go.

First we need to understand how plants reproduce. Most flowers have both male and female reproductive organs. During plant breeding, the transmission of DNA takes place through the movement of pollen, which contains the male gametes.  Pollen starts out on the male part of the flower part (called the stamen) and is transferred to the pistil (the female part). The pollen is deposited on the stigma, and the reproductive cells end up in the ovule, where they meet the female gametes and fertilization takes place (ProFlowers). Seeds form at the base of the pistil in the ovule.

There are two basic types of pollination: self-pollination, where pollen is transferred to a stigma in the same flower; and cross pollination, where pollen is transferred to a stigma in a different flower.  There are two main ways that cross pollination takes place: wind pollination, where the pollen floats on air currents and relies on luck to end up in the right place;  and the use of nectar to lure animal pollinators like insects, hummingbirds, and bats, who get pollen on their bodies while they're feeding and inadvertently carry it from one flower to another.

The DNA of self-pollinating GMO crops like soybeans isn't going to leave the flower so it obviously doesn't have much opportunity to go anyplace where it isn't wanted.  But the DNA of cross-pollinating plants does travel, and our control over where it goes is limited. Corn is primarily wind-pollinated. Cotton and canola can self-pollinate or cross-pollinate with the help of bees.

The four main GMO crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. The fuss over cross pollination is mostly about corn. Soy is self-pollinating, cotton is inedible, and canola is scorned as unnatural even without GMO because it's a hybrid, as if there's something unusual about that. So there's not a lot to get upset about those crops, but corn is a different issue because it's very widely used. But corn is pretty unnatural to begin with - it's so different from its wild ancestor (a grass called teosinte) that scientists had a hard time figuring out where it came from (National Geographic, Vox).  Cross pollination on the other hand is a completely natural process, and GMO corn is genetically so similar to all other corn that they have no problem interbreeding. People are unhappy because an unnatural plant is doing something that's completely natural to it.

Nonetheless, it's said that GMO crops are contaminating non-GMO crops, and the complaints are especially bitter when organic fields are involved. The same type of cross pollination takes place anytime there are different varieties of the same crop planted in close proximity. Whether GMO is involved or not, cross pollination of different varieties is hybridization that can cause undesired characteristics in the current crop (NCSU) as well as seeds that won't breed true in the second generation. But you don't usually hear complaints about non-GMO conventional crops contaminating organic fields, or about organic fields contaminating anything else, because people only seem to get excited when GMO is involved. There are no reports of GMO cross pollination causing any noticeable change in the appearance or edibility of the produce; it's the mere idea of it that upsets people.

Crop plants (GMO or otherwise) can also cross pollinate with wild plants that are closely related enough to interbreed.  This does not necessarily mean that there will be any undesired effects; the cross-pollinated plants could acquire traits that either enhance or diminish their ability to thrive, or have no effect on survival at all. Canola is genetically compatible with a number of weeds and there is gene flow between GMO canola and these weeds (Scientific American). There is no GMO wheat on the market at present, but gene flow has been observed between weeds and herbicide-resistant wheat produced by conventional methods (OPB).

It's obviously undesirable to transfer traits to crop-pest weeds that enhance their survival and make it more difficult to control them. No increase in survival fitness has been observed to date, but it could happen.  Besides potentially transferring herbicide resistance and insect resistance to weeds, future GMOs could conceivably transmit traits like drought tolerance, salt tolerance, and heat or cold tolerance.

The scientific community doesn't seem to be particularly concerned about it though.  Although transfers between different varieties of the same crop species are common, crop transgenes rarely transfer to wild populations (Ellstrand). When a transgene does get transferred, it doesn't mean that the trait will persist. Many hybrids reproduce with difficulty if they reproduce at all, and subsequent generations may bear little resemblance to the parent plant. And even if the trait does persist, it's not really any different than the pesticide resistance or adaptation to other difficult conditions that plants evolve so easily without any help from genetic engineering. But the situation obviously bears watching, with some sort of idea about how to deal with problems before they arise.

Like this perhaps: Chinese researchers have come up with a clever way to control the unwanted spread of Roundup Ready plants (Li et al). Corn is usually tolerant of the herbicide nicosulfuron, but they engineered the corn to be both Roundup resistant and nicosulfuron sensitive.  Spraying a field with nicosulfuron would therefore kill the GMO corn without harming the rest.  Nicosulfuron is a synthetic herbicide, so this particular solution couldn't be used by organic farmers; but it might be possible to find an approach that would be suitable for organic farming. The study talks about a similar tactic for rice.

Contrary to popular belief, Monsanto does not sue farmers whose crops are accidentally cross-pollinated with GMO, and it's unlikely that the courts would support them if they did. There are no grounds for a lawsuit unless there's some kind of intentional wrongdoing or negligence on the receiving farmer's end. On the contrary, if the farmer reports the problem to Monsanto the company sends someone out to removed the unwanted cross-pollinated plants. Monsanto does go after farmers who intentionally seek out and plant seed from cross-pollinated plants and then claim it was an accident when they get caught. There are more details in this section

At the marketplace level, cross pollination between GMO and organic isn't an insurmountable problem. "Organic" doesn't mean 100% GMO free. European labeling laws for GMO don't consider GMO to be present until the level exceeds 0.9% (Eur-Lex, OTAA). Many national organic farming bodies have set thresholds between 0.1% and 0.9% for the maximum amount of GMO content in organic produce (Price & Cotterr). The North America-based Non-GMO Project follows the European standard, and will give their seal of approval to foods whose GMO content is less than 0.9% (Non-GMO Project).

According to European organic standards (OTA),

"Certified organic farmers must use certified organic seed if commercially available. This means that often the same seed used in non-organic production may at times be used in certified organic production. Considering that non-organic products have typically shown higher GM content than organic, seed purity is critical to contamination prevention in organic... testing indicates that, if one starts with seed that is verified by test to contain very low or no GMO contamination, the likelihood of producing a crop that exceeds 0.1% GMO is extremely low, and the likelihood of producing grain that contains more than 0.9% is close to zero."

The USDA hasn't set a specific tolerance level for GMO content, which seems rather remiss of them.  But they don't get upset about trace amounts of GMO in organic produce.  According to Mchughen & Wager,

"Many organic farmers fear the mere presence of any GM material in their organic crops jeopardizes the organic status. But the rules, at least in the USA, are clear. Organic status is based on a method of farming, so as long as the organic farmer follows the organic procedures, the organic status is not threatened, even if some prohibited material finds its way into the otherwise organic crop. It is curious the organic industry has generous allowances for the presence of all manner of otherwise prohibited materials, usually on the order of 5%, but there is zero tolerance for intentional presence of GM material. Curiously, this ‘zero tolerance’ for GM was established within the organic industry itself, not by any open or democratic process... All of the friction between organic and conventional or GM farmers would dissipate if the organic industry would adopt a reasonable tolerance for GM materials, as they have for other undesired products."

So in general, organic farmers can maintain the required purity level by starting out with GMO-free seed from a reliable vendor, just as any other farmer needs to buy fresh seed from a dependable source to avoid seed that was cross-contaminated by whatever their neighbor planted last year. A century ago it was the norm to hold back seed from the current crop to use for next year's crop.  But buying new seed every year became the new norm decades before GMO existed, due to the rise of different varieties and hybrids that don't breed true in the second generation. Another technique for avoiding cross-pollination issues is to time the planting of seeds so that one variety isn't pollinating at the same time as an adjacent different variety.

Cross pollination can cause some agricultural issues whether GMO is involved or not, but hybrid produce that is not suitable for sale will not make it to the market. The only problem from the consumer's viewpoint is a psychological issue with the perceived genetic purity of the food. But it wasn't genetically pure to begin with. Even if it wasn't cross-pollinated by a different variety in a neighboring field, and even if you don't count the various other ways that man has tampered with the genetic profile, there Mother Nature herself has done some creative interspecies gene.  It's called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). 

One of the anti-GMO fears is that modified DNA from GMO foods will become part of our bodies, with particular fear of a plant virus fragment in the Roundup Ready GMO (which affects cauliflower but not humans in its intact form). These fears were raised by a paper by Spisak et al finding that there was plant DNA circulating in human blood. The study did not involve GMO, nor did it say that there anything dangerous about having DNA from food in the bloodstream. The results of this study have not been replicated, and it's possible that the outcome was the result of contaminated blood samples (Lusk).

But in any case it's not a problem. If food DNA really was found circulating in the human bloodstream, it must be a normal occurrence that happens with all kinds of food. The Spisak study itself said that their results "confirms our hypothesis that the presence of foreign DNA in human plasma is not unusual." We're obviously doing a pretty good job of not turning into a head of cauliflower or an ear of corn, and we're already eating a lot of plant viruses along with our food (Mandal & Jain, Forbes). These viruses are inside the plant because that's where they replicate, so we can't avoid eating them (Penn State). So if DNA from plants or their viruses is really circulating in our bloodstream, nature has obviously equipped us to deal with it.

We already have plenty of viral DNA in our genome that arrived there through purely natural processes, and so does our food. Horizontal gene transfer is a hallmark of both vertebrate and invertebrate genomes.  "HGT in animals typically gives rise to tens or hundreds of active ‘foreign’ genes, largely concerned with metabolism" (Crisp et al). Gene transfers are common among single celled organisms, and transfers from them to higher organisms also occur relatively frequently. Viral DNA has been naturally incorporated into at least 9 plant families, including Brassicaceae and Solanaceae (Chiba et al). Some common vegetables belong to those families.

It appears that humans have at least 145 genes that were horizontally transferred from viruses, bacteria, and other single-celled organisms (Science). It's estimated that 5 to 8% of the human genome (100,000 pieces) came from retroviruses (National Geographic). The whole concept of genes from one organism being "foreign" to another is evaporating (Genetic Literacy Project).

Even though it's a relatively common occurrence on the evolutionary scale it doesn't happen very often on the human time scale - it's estimated that viral DNA is incorporated into the human genome about once every 4 million years (Genetic Literacy Project). But keep in mind that we've been talking about direct transfers from viruses and bacteria to their host organism, not about DNA transfers between higher life forms like food plants and the animals that eat them. It's possible for horizontal gene transfers to occur between more complex organisms (Arthropoda), but this appears to be much rarer than transfers from viruses. So the probability of DNA transfers from GMO plants to humans or animals is extremely low, and is not expected to have any impact on human health, animal health, or the environment (Keese, Brigulla & Wackernagel).

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GMO wheat is on the loose.  GMO wheat has never been put on the market, but it has been tested in limited field trials in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, a small number of GMO wheat plants have been found growing in Oregon and Washington state with no explanation for how they got there. Intentional sabotage has been suggested as a possible explanation in the Oregon case (Bloomberg), and there are enough oddities in the situation for it to be possible. But I'm not into conspiracy theories, so for the sake of argument let's assume that cross pollination from the original test fields is the explanation. 

It's not a big deal. Natural selection isn't going to favor the survival or non-survival of this wheat versus the ordinary wheat. Growing wheat crops aren't sprayed with Roundup so the GMO wheat doesn't have any special advantages in the field, and it will get harvested along with all the other wheat so it's not going to remain in the field spreading its seeds around after the regular wheat is gone.  Most wheat seeds are hybrids, requiring the farmers to buy fresh new seed every year instead of holding some of the crop back, so the farmer won't be inadvertently planting GMO wheat seed in the spring.  A small number of "escaped" GMO wheat plants are apparently persisting outside of farm fields, but the laws of probability say that they must be keeping company with a much larger number of "escaped" non-GMO wheat plants. These "feral" wheat plants can happily cross pollinate with each other and with cultivated wheat in fields. But without any selection pressure to favor the GMO wheat, there's no way that it will come to predominate, and it will always be a very small percentage. As discussed in the previous section, "organic" and "non-GMO" do not mean 100% GMO free, so a tiny amount of GMO wheat mixed in with a large amount of non-GMO wheat doesn't jeopardize a product's commercial status.

The reason GMO wheat hasn't made it to the market is because wheat farmers aren't interested in it. They're concerned that the wheat market in Europe and Asia wouldn't buy it. So at present, most of the world's wheat crop is still mutagenic, and people who want something to worry about should be thinking about that instead of GMO.

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Monsanto drives Indian farmers to suicide.  IMO the anti-GMO attacks are stooping pretty low with this accusation. They're twisting and distorting a serious social problem to make it fit their agenda.  Farm suicide is a global issue that has nothing to do with the type of seeds being planted.  It happens because farming is a high-stress hard-labor job with serious physical and financial risks built into it. Crops are frequently destroyed or damaged by the capriciousness of Mother Nature, and when the global harvest is bountiful the law of supply and demand can drive the market value of the crop down to an unprofitably low level. It's a hard way to make a living, and in tough times the despair can be be overwhelming.

In India, the financial problems caused by crop failure are compounded by the exorbitant interest rates charged by rapacious Indian moneylenders. Indian moneylenders have used loan-shark practices for centuries. Farmers aren't the only victims, although they might be the biggest bloc of victims simply because they make up such a large percentage of the population. About 52% of farmers are indebted (Government of India). Literal debt bondage was outlawed in India in 1976 but the practice still continues, and is considered to be a form of modern-day slavery (CNN, Human Rights Watch, Wikipedia). 

Economics Discussion lists 5 major causes of rural indebtedness in India, and neither GMO nor Monsanto are on the list. They say the biggest cause is inherited debt, incurred long before GMO existed. Number 2 is crop failures caused by natural disasters like drought and flood. The desire to make land improvements is number 3, number 4 is social obligations like weddings and funerals.  Last on the list is high interest rates and moneylender fraud.

Recently there has been a rise in farmer suicides that respectable sources attribute to several consecutive years of crop failure caused by bad weather (BBC, Al Jazeera, Think Progresss, Indian Express). But even so, the National Post reports that the suicide rate for farmers in India is about half the rate for the general population, noting that the rise in farmer suicides began seven years before GMO cotton was introduced.

The farm suicide problem is widespread and is not limited to any particular crop or any particular type of seed.  Kennedy & King found a correlation between suicide and small landholdings, debt, and planting capital-intensive cash crops like cotton or coffee. The paper says that in the case of cotton, the cost of seed is just one of many expenses: 

"Cotton cultivation requires relatively large capital expenditure and it is widely argued that these costs have increased dramatically since the liberalization of the economy. Due to restrictions put in place by multinational companies, seeds need to be bought every year. Large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides are required, and these have become increasingly expensive due to a reduction in subsidies. In addition, cotton cultivation is very water intensive, but since the early 1990s the amount of public money spent on irrigation has fallen and farmers are increasingly forced to invest in their own systems. In many cases, cotton cultivators must borrow money to pay for these capital outlays and this is particularly true for marginal farmers with very few resources."

A 2008 review by the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that

"We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a "resurgence" of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons. Third, our analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. In contrast, many other factors have likely played a prominent role. Nevertheless, in specific regions and years, where Bt cotton may have indirectly contributed to farmer indebtedness, leading to suicides, its failure was mainly the result of the context or environment in which it was planted."

At present, cotton is the only GMO crop in India.  The adoption of modern agricultural technology that came along with the introduction of GMO has been a tremendous boon for Indian cotton farmers. It has increased crop yields, reduced insecticide use, and improved farmers' standard of living (Nature, Kathage & Qaim). Indian farmers like Bt cotton so much that about 95% of the cotton crop is currently GMO. It's so popular that the Indian government tried to develop their own indigenous Bt cotton (and botched the job, unfortunately) (Naturee).

Issues in Science and Technology does a nice job of explaining the disconnect between the anti-GMO claims and reality. As an example of how non-oppressed by Monsanto India is, the government is currently involved in a skirmish with Monsanto over price controls, in which both sides say they don't care if Monsanto pulls out of India (Wall Street Journal, Times of India). Realistically, there are concerns about this on both sides - Monsanto would lose the revenue from the lucrative Indian market, and on the Indian side they're worried about the country's ability to keep up with the latest cotton technology if Monsanto leaves. But the mere fact that this conversation is taking place shows that Monsanto isn't calling the shots in India.

Mother Nature and the global cotton price are calling some shots though. The Times of India says the demand for Bt cotton seed is down in 2016, and the demand for native cotton seeds is up. Obviously Indian farmers do have other options, and they use those options when they want to. Apparently the main reason for this switch is a pest control problem with the white fly, because Bt doesn't protect against it but native cotton has natural resistance. Bt does protect against pink bollworm, which is a major risk, but the bollworm is starting to develop resistance so there's less confidence in Bt. Some farmers are switching to other crops instead of cotton because of poor yields and lower cotton prices.

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Monsanto has bought off and impeded the scientific community to cover up the dangers of GMO.  The anti-GMO sector says we can't trust the scientific consensus because Monsanto funds and controls most of the research. The evidence says that this isn't accurate, and anyone who's familiar with the research world knows that it simply doesn't work that way.  As of May 2016, the combined worth (market capitalization) of oil industry giants Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and BP is 14 times the worth of Monsanto. Have they been able to buy a scientific consensus on climate change that is favorable to their product?  Obviously not.

Check out this chart from the National Science Foundation showing where funding comes from for university research in general. Industry donations are the small purple band near the top of the chart, which looks like it's about 2% of the total.  Boston University says that the percentage of corporate funding is starting to increase as U.S. government funding shrinks. This is the natural outcome of government tax-cutting and budget-cutting moves, so blame Uncle Sam if corporations start getting more influence over academic research.   

Other sources back up the notion that corporate funding is a small piece of the academic research pie. Biofortified and the Genetic Literacy Projectt used the independent GENERA research database to analyze the funding sources for GMO research.  Based on a sample of 400 studies, they found that half the GMO studies were funded entirely by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations, with no industry support at all. Government-funded GMO studies are global, with the US making up about less than half of the total.  The papers with no industry support generally reached similar conclusions to those that did have industry support.

Researcher Kevin Folta reports that corporate sponsorship makes up about 2% of the research funds at his institution (the University of Florida) and says "If we are bought and paid for, we're bought really cheap and not paid well". He says that most academic researchers don't have corporate funding, and he receives no funding from Monsanto. 

But Truthwiki says we can't trust Folta because he actually did get a $25,000 grant from Monsanto, and they also report some joking comments as if they were serious. This is just plain funny.  Academic researchers don't get to personally keep a penny of their grants - it all goes to the school, which uses part of the money to pay the costs of the research project and applies the rest to the school's overhead costs.  A large grant makes the school administrators feel very fond of the researcher, and it allows larger-scale research projects that enhance one's academic fame.  A $2 million grant would definitely help a researcher's resume.  But $25,000 is a trivial amount that doesn't impress anybody, and wouldn't mean much to a prominent researcher even if they could stick it in their pocket.

Forbes tells the truth behind the story - it wasn't even a grant to Folta. It was a donation to the university foundation, who used part of the money to pay for educational seminars (mostly travel expenses) conducted by Folta. I haven't seen any other accusations that mentioned a dollar amount at all.

The anti-GMO Food & Water Watch reports that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical each made donations to the National Academy of Sciences in the range of $1-$5 million each, and says that "These conflicts [of interest] greatly limit the scientific capacity of the NRC". This information was taken from NAS's 2014 financial report, and sure enough you can see the contributions from these companies listed on page 41-42. You can also see that were about 75 other donors who provided similar amounts and 22 donors who gave more (and some of these other donors would obviously oppose GMO if they thought it was dangerous).  Page 52 of the report tells you that NAS's total revenue for 2014 was $358 million;  $231 million of it was from government contracts and grants. Monsanto's contribution doesn't look very significant, does it?

Biofortified reports that after Monsanto does their own in-house research, they will sometimes fund a study somewhere else to see if an independent researcher gets the same results. It is NOT in their best interests to fudge the results. It's very expensive to lose a product liability lawsuit, and if something is dangerous it's best to find out about it before it hits the market. If they knew the product was dangerous and covered it up, corporate executives could face criminal charges as well as lawsuits. One can argue that no, it's all an evil plot because Monsanto wants to make lots of money selling a dangerous product. But the possible legal repercussions from doing this are very real, so it would be a very short-sighted move by the company.

There have been complaints about Monsanto not letting researchers study their seed unless they signed an agreement that essentially promised to not say anything negative about it. I thought that this was going to be a major "smoking gun" issue, but I had to think again.  In 2010, the American Seed Trade Association (representing Monsanto and other major players in the industry) negotiated an agreement that allowed greater access and academic freedom to researchers, to the apparent satisfaction of both the industry and the scientists who complained about the limited access (Grist, Yale Environment 360).

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Fact: Anti-GMO activists are blatantly misrepresenting scientific findings. Hundreds of scientific papers on the subject have been published.  Only a handful have found any indication that there might be a problem; about 10 or 12 is the number usually cited by anti-GMO writers. The findings of some have been twisted to mean something that is not actually in the paper. The ones that actually did find some kind of "danger" were strongly criticized by the scientific community for flaws in their methodology or for making conclusions that weren't justified by the evidence (for example this critique by Professor Parrot). The Genetic Literacy Project discusses the way that several studies have been distorted for anti-GMO propaganda purposes.

Here's a distortion that I discovered on my own.  After the publication of a 2012 paper by Podevin & du Jardin, anti-GMO sites started reporting that the authors had discovered a fragment of a dangerous plant virus gene encoded into many forms of the transgene.  The gene fragment really is there, but this isn't a discovery, the gene fragment isn't dangerous, and its presence in the transgene isn't an accident.  It was intentionally engineered into the transgene, and its presence has been public knowledge for decades. Dozens of scientific papers have been published about it going back to at least 1982 (Hohn et al).

The actual discovery in the Podevin & du Jardin paper was that the gene fragment doesn't appear to have any allergenic properties. But instead of talking about the real subject of the paper, the anti-GMO reports seized on this casual statement from the introduction and said it was a shocking new discovery:  "Of the 86 single transgenic plant events that have been authorised in the United States, 54 contain one or more copies of the CaMV P35S".  The authors of the paper made a public statement saying that the scare-mongering stories were wrong (Sense About Sciencee). Alan Dove PhD has a plain-English explanation of what the paper is really about, and points out that the real conclusion to be drawn from the paper is that the GMO plants containing this gene fragment are as safe as non-GMO plants. Other sources discounted the notion that plant viruses were somehow dangerous to humans and other animals, and pointed out that in reality, people eat a lot of plant viruses at the same time they're eating their veggies, and the specific virus used in the GMO already infects many plants with no recorded effect on human health (Forbes). 

Slate points out a number of dubious arguments and demands being regarding GMO research. Academics Review analyzes and rebuts 65 anti-GMO claims made in the book Genetic Roulette by Jeffrey M. Smith.  The article that you're reading right now has a section on the the distorted reporting about herbicide use on Vermont dairy farms.

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Monsanto has bought off the government.  Do you know who is a bigger player in Washington than Monsanto?  The insurance industry.  If GMO makes people sick they will have to pay the medical bills, and they don't want to do that because it cuts into their profits.  Follow the Money reports that Monsanto has made $40 million in political contributions over a period of 25 years. That's an average of $1.6 million per year. The insurance industry spends roughly $150 million a year on lobbying ( When it comes to buying politicians, it looks like they're outspending Monsanto by about 100 to 1. Automakers spend about $50 million a year on lobbying. But the insurance industry has proved time and again that they're more powerful than the auto industry (which is a lot bigger than Monsanto), and got laws passed requiring safety equipment (like air bags) over the objection of the auto makers.  It doesn't look like the insurance lobby is standing in the way of GMO, which indicates that they don't think it's a health risk.

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Reality check: does Monsanto have enough money and power to buy off the global scientific community and major governments? And the intimidation power to make sure that not one single person that they've tried to bribe has blown the whistle on them? 

Monsanto isn't nearly as big as the anti-GMO contingent seems to think.  Monsanto didn't make the 2015 list of the largest 500 companies in the world, although most of their main competitors did (Fortune).  They didn't make the 2015 list of the 10 most profitable companies in the US (Fortune) or the 50 most profitable companies in the world (Statista). They're currently rated #189 in the Fortune 500 rating of US companies (Fortune). Their annual gross revenue is about $15 billion (Yahoo Finance; it's expressed in thousands, so you have to add three zeros to everything to get the real numbers). From 2011 to 2015, Monsanto's annual net profits ran in the neighborhood of 15% of gross revenues (Stock Analysis on Net, Ycharts), which is good but not spectacular. Their quarterly earnings fluctuate up and down wildly. As of July 2016, Morningstar gives Monsanto a 4-star rating, but 5 stars is the highest rating.

If you really want something to complain about in terms of price gouging and financial power, take a look at Apple - their annual sales revenue averaged about $200 billion (Yahoo Finance) and their profit margins averaged about 40% (Ycharts). Their 2015 net profit was $53 billion, and Monsanto's $2 billion profit for that year is pitiful in comparison. Apple has 15 times the sales of Monsanto and 26 times the profits, and they patent and copyright their products too.  Yet I never hear anyone complaining about how evil Apple is.

The skillful management at Monsanto has drawn the praise of the business community ( (Fortune). From Morningstar's analyst report (available to subscribers only):

Monsanto's efforts in biotechnology have been hugely successful. Farmers value the reduced pesticide use, time savings, and yield protection provided by Monsanto's traits. About 90% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn grown in the U.S. contain a Monsanto trait... Monsanto made the decision early to broadly license its traits to competitors, leading to rapid adoption. This decision has created a GM seed industry with multiple licensing deals, collaboration efforts, and frequent lawsuits among the main players...  Monsanto made the decision early to broadly license its traits to competitors, leading to rapid adoption. This decision has created a GM seed industry with multiple licensing deals, collaboration efforts, and frequent lawsuits among the main players... While the firm's main competitors have worked to close the gap in seed and trait share, we still view Monsanto's research and development pipeline as a step ahead... We think the company will continue plowing about 10% of sales into research and believe its collaborations with the likes of BASF will make those dollars even more meaningful. Monsanto offers partners access to its world-class distribution and conventional seed-breeding capabilities, without the need to purchase their own seed platforms.

Good businesspeople they might be.  But the company obviously isn't big enough to force their products on the world if the world doesn't want what they're selling.

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Anti-GMO funding facts: double standards, conflicts of interest, namecalling and lawsuits There are howls of outrage because Monsanto provides funding for studies and makes donations, even though the amount is often insignificant. But I haven't seen these people complaining when anti-GMO researchers get significant funding from Big Organic and similar partisan sources.

A little background: The biggest frog in the small pond that is the anti-GMO scientific community is Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, who is frequently described as being blatantly anti-GMO. It looks like most or all of his research funding comes from businesses and organizations that are anti-GMO, not from neutral sources like government grants. He is best known for his study linking Roundup to tumors in rats (Environmental Sciences Europe). The study was printed in a prominent scientific journal, retracted by the journal after the study's methodological flaws were discovered, then republished in another journal "to give the scientific community guaranteed long-term access to the data in the retracted paper" according to Nature. The republication took place without a new scientific review; in effect, the new publisher has not passed judgment on whether or not it has any scientific merit.

The European Food Safety Authority reviewed the study and concluded that "the study as reported by Séralini et al. is of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessments" (EFSA). An EFSA review of a previous Seralini study concluded that "the assumptions underlying the statistical methodology employed by Séralini et al did not hold and therefore would lead to an excess of spurious significant results " (EFSA-2). Keep in mind that this is a European agency and Europe is not GMO-friendly. But in spite of that the EFSA ruled against Seralini's anti-GMO outcome, because that's how wrong it looked to them.

There are complaints by the anti-GMO community that Monsanto pressured the original publisher of the Seralini study (Elsevier) to put a former Monsanto employee in charge of reviewing all GMO research. This criticism overlooks that the person in question (Dr. Richard Goodman) quit working for Monsanto in 2004 after seven years of employment, long before the Seralini study came along in 2012, and took a new job at the University of Nebraska where he still works. He obviously wasn't satisfied working at Monsanto and thought he'd be better off somewhere else.

Monsanto didn't have anything to do with Goodman's appointment as an associate editor; he got the job because he was an expert. While they were considering the retraction, the journal let Seralini decide who would NOT be allowed to examine his data, and they complied with Seralini's request to exclude Goodman (Retraction Watch, Science Direct). The professor who decided years earlier that he didn't want to work for Monsanto any more wasn't involved in the decision (Nature).

It's funny how the anti-GMO side assumes that people express their eternal loyalty to Monsanto by leaving the company and going somewhere else, apparently hoping that sometime, somewhere, many years down the line, they'll have an opportunity to do a favor for their ex-employer. I've seen complaints against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas because he worked for Monsanto for four years in the 1970s and now has the audacity to rule on cases involving Monsanto. If anybody has reason to worry about him being biased, it should be Monsanto itself. He decided a long time ago that Monsanto was not a place that he wanted to be, so he got out of Dodge.

There are complaints that Seralini attempts to manipulate the media through techniques like the unusual press embargo that he instituted prior to the paper's original release and its re-release (Ars Technica, Embargo Watch, Embargo Watch-2). This move is condemned by journalists as a blatant attempt to grab the media spotlight before anyone has time to evaluate the study's merits (EUSJA, Discover, Motherboard). Forbes reports that the embargo did not apply to journalists with well-known anti-GMO views, and that the release of the study was tied to promotion of Seralini's new book.  In a separate issue,  Seralini's press release for the republished version of the paper said it had been peer reviewed, when in fact the new publisher had not reviewed it (Retraction Watch).

The Genetic Literacy Project reports on Seralini's funding sources, the scientific criticism of his work, and the conflict between his results and the results of publicly funded studies. The GLP report includes a list of funding sources for Seralini's current study. It's all organic this and natural that, without a single government grant or other dispassionate source on the list. A second Genetic Literacy Project article provides more info.

The funding for the Roundup-and-rats study consisted of 3.2 million from CRIIGEN, an anti-biotechnology organization headed by Seralini, which receives major funding from Big Organic businesses and anti-GMO organizations (GMO Pundit).  A book written by Seralini called "Tous cobayes" (All guinea pigs) proudly goes into detail about how they funneled corporate funding through this organization to avoid the appearance of impropriety (L'Obs in French and an English translation by Google Translator). The translation is hard to read, but paraphrasing loosely it says "It was not conceivable that [these industry sources] could be the direct sponsor of the study. We would look like scientists funded by the lobby of supermarkets". So Seralini's organization CRIIGEN took the money instead and used it to fund the study. They didn't want to avoid the actual reality of being scientists funded by the supermarket lobby, they just wanted to avoid the appearance of it. A similar earlier study was funded by entirely by Greenpeace with an undisclosed budget (GMOSeralini; see funding statement near end of paper).

If it's a serious conflict of interest to receive a small amount of funding from Monsanto, shouldn't it also be a conflict of interest to receive large amounts of funding from organizations that have a vested interest in the results? But anti-GMO activists seem unconcerned about this issue.

Here's something interesting that might fit into the "conflict of interest" theme. The GMOSeralini website says "Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, his colleagues, and the organizations with which they are affiliated have no connection with the owners or editors of this website and bear no responsibility for its content."  It also lists an email address for Harry Rowlands. If you start listening at the 1:42 mark in this Youtube video, you'll hear Rowlands state that this is Seralini's website, and Rowlands knows this because he's working with Seralini and set up the website for him. Rowlands' name is on the site so it's obvious that he really is connected to it.  So why does the site say it has no connection to Seralini and Rowlands says otherwise? Did somebody realize that it looked bad for Seralini to be officially connected to a propaganda site bearing his name?

Summary: there are some potential conflicts of interest here and a possible attempt to hide affiliations. 

There is some very nasty name-calling against Monsanto (sometimes called Monsatan) and people who don't agree that GMO is evil, including accusations of genocide (Natural News) and a long rant against the director of the Genetic Literacy Project (TruthWiki). Side note: notice how the TruthWiki article starts out by stating that GLP is funded by Monsanto and then provides absolutely no evidence to back up this claim. GLP's funding sources can be viewed here.

What happens when the name-calling goes in the other direction?  Can the anti-GMO activists take it as well as they dish it out?  Well, Prof. Seralini obviously can't.  He's been busily suing people in the French courts for libel and defamation, which are legally serious forms of name-calling.

The legal saga begins with a report on GMOSeralini saying that Seralini's team had won defamation and forgery cases related to Seralini's research. The story was repeated by a large number of anti-GMO websites declaring that Seralini had been vindicated in a victory for scientific truth (Natural News, for example). Some add the bizarre statement that there is a peer-reviewed letter in Seralini's favor (Daily Sheeple, for example) but otherwise these stories don't seem to know anything beyond what they copied from the GMOSeralini article. There's no such thing as a peer-reviewed letter, but following a series of links from the Daily Sheeple eventually turned up an open access "paper" by Fagan, Traavik, and Bohn. It's basically a pro-Seralini recitation of the history of the rat-study debacle, and there's no science in it unless you count their recap of Seralini's findings.

The study itself has certainly not been vindicated or proven right, because libel and defamation cases don't address the merits of the study at all.  All these cases prove is that people said nasty things about Seralini himself as an individual, and a judge agreed that they shouldn't have said it. GMOSeralini (GMOS) tells us very little about the nasty things they said, but I've got the juicy details.

We'll stick with the GMOS report for the anti-GMO version of the story since it's the original source for all the others. Let's start with the forgery case.  GMOS says that in Nov 2015, Marc Fellous (the former president of France’s Biomolecular Engineering Commission) was indicted for forgery (specifically, forging an unnamed scientist's signature on a document to say that Seralini's study was wrong), in a libel trial that Fellous lost to Seralini; that the details of the case haven't been publicly released; and that sentencing is expected in June 2016.

This GMOS story is too garbled to make any sense.  Forging a signature isn't libel, it's a criminal act. An indictment is an order to stand trial, not a guilty verdict, and it's strange to announce a sentencing date before the trial has even begun. It's not true that details of the case are unavailable, because I found quite a bit in independent sources.  Many of these sources are in French, but Google translator does a good enough job to get the message across if you can't read French.  I'm mostly French-incompetent myself but can read a little. For French articles I'll provide links to both the original and the English translation.

The forgery case begins in January 2010, when Fellous had the audacity to suggest that Seralini's Greenpeace funding may have compromised his scientific objectivity. He also described Seralini as a poor researcher, a merchant of fear, and a militant. Seralini sued him for libel.  Seralini seems rather thin-skinned; the anti-GMO faction insists that mainstream GMO scientists are despicable scumbags who spread lies in return for Monsanto funding, but there are no reports about these scientists getting their knickers in such a knot that they go to court over it.

In January 2011 the judge ruled that the comment about Greenpeace was defamatory but the other insults were just ordinary scientific debate.  The judge apparently felt that even the Greenpeace comment wasn't too far out of bounds, since all Seralini received was a symbolic award of 1 (L'Express in French and English; also Reason).

So in May 2011 Seralini's organization CRIIGEN went back to court charging that Fellous had submitted a document at the previous trial that had a forged signature of Charles Sultan on it, copied from a real signature on a letter. Seralini told the court that he asked Sultan about it and Sultan said he had signed the original letter but not the second document. It appears that both documents were basically character references, one saying that Fellous was a good scientist and the second expressing support for him and demanding that scientific debates be conducted in appropriate scientific forums (Inf'OGM-2 in French and English). There is no indication that either document is directly related the Seralini affair, although the second one sounds like it might have suggested that the courts are not an appropriate place to settle scientific debates.  Sultan expressed surprise that the definitely-authentic document was used in the defamation trial. There's no way to know from a distance what happened with the questionable document. Fellous is a geneticist of considerable standing and his credentials are strong enough without resorting to forgery; but smart people do stupid things sometimes so it's up to the court to figure out what happened.  Sultan is a pediatric endocrinologist - a field with no visible relationship to genetic engineering -  so it's not clear why his support would carry any weight with the court anyway. Apparently he's also a good buddy of Seralini, since he's a council member for Seralini's organization CRIIGEN. It would be doubly foolish to forge his name on a document since it would be so very easy to get caught.

Apparently there were no more developments in the forgery case until November 2015, and it's not clear what happened then because the French terminology used in the article ("mettre en examen") has several different translations ranging from 'review' to 'investigate' to 'indict' (Word Reference, Google Translator). But whatever it means, Inf'OGM (in French and English) said that the Tribunal de Paris decided to "mettre en examen" Fellous for the forgery charge. There's nothing in the Inf'OGM news story indicating that anything at all was expected to happen in June 2016.  The June 2016 sentencing date predicted by GMOS has come and gone, apparently without them or anyone else saying another word about the case.

Now we come to the other defamation case. In 2012, the French news magazine Marianne published a story about the controversy surrounding Seralini's rat study.  I couldn't find a copy of the actual article, but all sides seem to agree that the comment that provoked the lawsuit was not an original statement by the article's author (Jean-Claude Jaillette); it quoted a statement made by an American writer (Henry Miller) in an American website article (Forbes). Miller's article accused Seralini of intentional fraud, with a variety of spicy comments and a link to a previous Miller/Forbes article talking about Seralini's "science for propaganda" approach. Both articles are scathing denunciations of Seralini's work.

Imposteurs (in French and English) did a story on the case. The quote from the Forbes article has been translated from English to French and back again, and the retranslation on Imposteurs is different from the original.  But it looks like this is the sentence in the Forbes article that was quoted in Marianne:

"There is so much wrong with the experimental design that the conclusion is inescapable that the investigators intended to get a spurious, preordained result."

Instead of suing the American writer who actually accused him of fraud, Seralini sued the French writer who quoted the comment. Jaillette testified that when he wrote the article it showed the source of the quote, but the copy editor cut out the attribution. Nonetheless, the judge determined that even though Jaillette himself hadn't accused Seralini of fraud, he was guilty of defamation because his story included an accusation made by someone else. Maybe it's just the language barrier, but I don't understand the judge's reasoning. Here in the good old USA, quoting other sources is just normal freedom of the press. Jaillette and a co-defendant were assessed fines and damages adding up to a total of about 10,000 (Inf'OGM in French and English).

Here's a case that was NOT reported on GMOS. In October 2012, Daniel Dubost (a retired academic from the University of Caen) made a blog post called "Seralini the Buffoon"  using language like "dangerous lunatic", "rogue science", "scientific buffoon", and "puppet of the university". Dubost also expressed his desire to file a lawsuit against Seralini, to get him barred from public service for his alleged scientific misconduct and assorted other sins. There's no indication that Dubost ever actually filed a suit against Seralini, but Seralini certainly filed one against him. It looks like the trial began in September 2015, and at present has been postponed to October 2016  (ForumPhyto in French and English; Inf'OGM in French and English).

And people complain that Monsanto files too many lawsuits.

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Monsanto is monopolizing the market, leaving farmers with no other choice. Apparently the US Department of Justice would disagree, since they dropped an antitrust investigation against Monsanto in particular and the seed industry in general in 2012.  Reports from the anti-GMO faction say this event is mysterious, but there's really nothing mysterious about it.  The antitrust allegations were made by Monsanto's rival DuPont, who dropped the charge in return for Monsanto's agreement to not make them pay a $1 billion judgment for patent infringement (NY Times, Law 360). Sounds to me like the competition in the seed industry is actually pretty hot if they're suing each other like that. The DOJ is keeping an eye on the situation however, and it's reported that a proposed merger between Monsanto and German chemical giant Bayer would probably prompt a new antitrust investigation. The reports include the information that the combined entity would control 28% of the world's pesticides, 36% of U.S. corn seeds, and 28% of soybean seeds (Marketwatch, CBS News).  That's concentrated enough to be worrisome, but it's far less than what the anti-GMO reporting would lead you to believe.

As of right now, Monsanto controls less than 25% of the proprietary seed market. There are thousands of non-GMO seed varieties available on the market, and you can buy them from Monsanto's competitors - the top 10 are listed here, and together they account for 2/3 of the global seed market, which means that 1/3 of the world's seeds are available from smaller companies (GMWatch). Check out the Foodie Farmer for some information on just how much choice farmers have. A farmer-written article on the Genetic Literacy Project talks about the factors that go into seed choice.

But reliable sources report that 90% or more of some crops is GMO.  That's because Monsanto licenses its patented seeds to other companies - Monsanto's competitors - who sell the seed and make a profit. A royalty is usually but not always paid to Monsanto when the seed is sold. The agreement does not prevent these other companies from selling non-GMO seeds and other competing products. If Monsanto's GMO seed is dominating the market, it's because their seed is so advantageous to farmers that most of them don't want to use anything else. Farmers are primarily buying GMO for certain crops because they LIKE the GMO. If other companies aren't putting GMO seeds on the market, it's because they don't want to deal the challenges and risks of the long, expensive development process.

There are some governments who are willing to do it though.  China wants to become a global leader in GMO technology (Bloomberg, South China Morning Post), which they will probably want to sell to the rest of the world just as they sell their other products. If people are suspicious of Monsanto, how much more interesting will the public discussion be when Chinese GMOs hit the market?  India has already tried to develop their own indigenous GMO for Bt cotton, but they hit a major glitch. Somebody screwed up and used Monsanto's patented Bt gene as the basis for the "homegrown" GMO instead of developing it from scratch, which is a huge legal no-no (Nature). The first reader comment to the Nature article is from the co-PI of the project who blames a specific individual for the error. Wowza. You don't usually see accusations like that in public.

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Monsanto is price gouging. GMO seed is certainly more expensive than conventional seed. The price difference varies, but GMO Answers has charts illustrating the difference for several different examples. There are two reasons for this difference.

The first reason is that it's expensive to create GMO seed, and the company needs to recoup its investment.  Mutagenesis and hybridization are much cheaper ways to produce new varieties (Bloomberg).  Monsanto spends $1.5 billion a year - 10% of their sales revenue - on research and development. That's not all GMO research; a lot of that money goes into traditional plant breeding. They're also researching the targeted use of bacteria, fungi, and other living organisms to protect and nourish seeds: techniques with conceptual roots in organic farming. They have 30 research facilities and 250 breeding sites around the world, because it takes a LOT of work to do what they're doing (Bloomberg).

The second reason is that this is simply how the marketplace works (Adam Smith). A sale takes place when a willing seller and a willing buyer, both acting in their own self-interest, agree upon a price. The price of GMO seed is the balance point between what Monsanto is willing to sell for and what farmers are willing to pay. When farmers are willing to pay less, Monsanto will have to choose between lowering the price to maintain the same sales volume, or not lowering the price and selling less seed.  This is how the law of supply and demand works, and it's currently reported that the demand for GMO seed is starting to slip (Fortune, Morningstar). Grain prices are down so farmers are cutting back on spending in general. They're less willing to shell money out for seed and fertilizer, among other things. Commodity prices fall when the supply exceeds the demand, and apparently farmers have produced too much soy and cotton for their own good.

That's not the only reason why farmers are switching away from GMO.  Public demand has pushed the market price of non-GMO crops higher than the price for GMO, and the increasing resistance of crop pests has reduced the amount of money farmers save by using GMO.  Farmers are out to make as much money as they can just like Monsanto is, and increasing numbers of them think they'll make more money with non-GMO (Modern Farmer).  If Monsanto wants to keep their customers they'll have to do something to make their products more attractive. Lowering the price is one way they could go, and they may need to do this with some of their products if they want to keep selling them. The patents on Monsanto's earlier GMOs are starting to expire anyway, so other companies are free to market generic GMOs using the same technology (Biology Fortified, MIT). Monsanto doesn't have the competitive edge on the older varieties any more so farmers have no incentive to pay a premium price for the seed.

Another way they could go is to apply some of that $1.5 billion a year in research costs toward solving the problem of pest resistance, not only with new GMOs but with new techniques that help prevent resistance from developing in the first place.  Monsanto is interested in all aspects of crop technology, not just GMO (Bloomberg), so it seems likely that that they'll go this route too.  One proposed technique that's right up Monsanto's alley is to fight Bt resistance by releasing GMO insects carrying genes for Bt susceptibility so they can interbreed with a resistant population and destroy their resistance (Harvey-Samuel et al).  The same results can be obtained by releasing naturally susceptible insects into the area , but they are a depletable resource (Neppl). This is obviously a weak excuse for using GMO instead of simply breeding susceptible insects in captivity to insure the supply, but there may be other arguments in favor of using GMO for the job.

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Monsanto is persecuting innocent farmers.  Monsanto is suing farmers who are so flagrantly guilty of patent infringement that the company has not lost a case. Seed patents are not unique to Monsanto, and neither are the restrictions on how those seeds can be used.  For example, Pioneer's rules for their patented non-GMO wheat seeds (the capital letters are all Pioneer's) say:

When a customer purchases a Pioneer wheat variety or trait having the protection of an issued patent, the purchaser is granted a limited license to ONLY PRODUCE A SINGLE CROP OF GRAIN OR FORAGE FOR FEEDING OR PROCESSING. The patent prohibits any unauthorized making, selling or using of the patented variety. NO SEED CAN BE SAVED from this commercial crop and used for planting purposes. Persons willfully infringing this patent protection are subject to multiple damages and costs.

If the purchaser has an elevator or conditioner clean or store the grain from a patented wheat variety, and that grain is cleaned or stored for sales or replanting THE ELEVATOR OR CONDITIONER IS ALSO LIABLE AND SUBJECT TO DAMAGES AND COSTS.

The Plant Patent Act was signed into law in 1930, and U.S. Patents filed since 1995 give the patent holder the exclusive right to the manufacture, use, and sale of the invention for a period of twenty years. An article on the Princeton website (apparently written around 1989) shows that more than 2,000 plant patents were issued between 1931 and 1962, and hundreds more were issued in every decade since then.

Why do we give companies these rights?  To encourage innovation and progress. There wouldn't be any incentive to spend time and money developing something new if someone else could just swoop in and take advantage of their work before the inventor had a chance to make some money from it. Developing new seed varieties is expensive and can take years (especially for GMO), and there's no guarantee of success.  Golden Rice is an excellent example of this - it's been under development for more than 20 years, and they're still working to improve it to the point that it can be put on the market.  Patent rights give the developer time to recoup their costs and profit from the fruits of their labors for a while before the doors are thrown open to competitors who want to make a profit without the risks involved in developing a product. The continued sales rights to the product also provides the inventor with the funds to keep on developing new products, and Monsanto is very active in product development.

It's impossible to find statistics on seed patent lawsuits before the GMO era; no matter how I word the search terms, the results are a flood of Monsanto-related articles.  However I did find a 2009 case where South Dakota State University sued several farmers for infringing their wheat patent (Successful Farming). Evidently seed patent lawsuits aren't just for big companies. The article reports that several other universities have filed similar lawsuits and won, and that "Universities say protecting intellectual property helps spur further research efforts in wheat... Unless there is a reward, they can't continue to make an investment on behalf of farmers." The same principle applies in the corporate world, and BASF won a $25 million judgment against a group of Arkansas farmers who used rice seed improperly (Grain Net).

Maybe there weren't any seed patent lawsuits until recently. In the past, there wasn't much need for patent infringement lawsuits because most of the patented seeds were hybrids that wouldn't breed true (Global Agriculture, Penn Live). Violating the patent by saving seed for the next crop wouldn't do much good, because the farmer wasn't likely to be satisfied with the quality of any crops produced this way. They had to go to the seed company every year to get suitable seed. This changed when the rise of mutagenesis and GMO made it possible to buy patented seeds that would breed true, and patent infringement suddenly became a practical reality.

Why aren't farmers allowed to hold back some of their current crop to use as seed for the next crop?  For the same reason that you're not allowed to buy a movie on DVD and make copies of it for sale.  You're dealing with a product that someone else spent a lot of money and effort to create, with a high risk that it wouldn't succeed.  People who want to enjoy the benefits of the product are legally and morally expected to pay the creator who made it possible. Without this legal protection, the developer of a new seed variety would be able to make exactly one sale to each farmer, because the farmers would make their own copies every year thereafter.  The manufacturer couldn't cover their development costs doing business that way, and very soon there would be no new seed varieties coming out.

Let's look at some of the cases.  In the Schmeiser case, Monsanto sued a farmer whose canola crop was cross-pollinated by a neighbor's Roundup-ready canola.  Schmeiser sprayed his own adjacent fields with Roundup to find out which plants were Roundup Ready.  He saved the seed from the GMO plants, stored it separately from his other seed, and planted it the next year, thereby acquiring a supply of GMO seed without paying a penny to Monsanto. Somebody tipped off the company, and Schmeiser refused to pay when Monsanto approached him. Testing revealed that he had hundreds of acres of canola that was 95-98% Roundup Ready (Mchughen & Wager). The court concluded that such a high percentage couldn't be accidental (Canada Supreme Court). But Schmeiser said that he didn't apply any Roundup to the crop, and I haven't seen any discussion of the case indicating that anyone was able to either prove or disprove this claim. If he didn't use Roundup then he didn't actually use the GMO trait and didn't receive any benefit from it. The case went to the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled that he had infringed the patent but didn't have to pay damages to Monsanto because he hadn't profited from it (Wikipedia, Genetic Literacy Project). Schmeiser went on to become the hero of several anti-GMO documentaries. The farmer's behavior in this case certainly doesn't look innocent, but there's enough room for doubt to result in some very bad publicity for Monsanto. I have to wonder about why they pursued the case; maybe to prevent other farmers from seeing that this is a good way to beat the system.  

In the Bowman case, a soybean farmer used properly purchased Roundup Ready seed for his first crop of the year, and in keeping with the contract he didn't save any of the crop for seed.  But the second crop of the year is riskier than the first, so he wanted to use Roundup Ready seed without paying the premium price.  So he bought commodity soybeans from a grain elevator in a perfectly legal transaction, assuming (correctly) that they were mostly Roundup Ready. These beans are normally intended for human and animal consumption, but Bowman had other ideas - he planted them.  He then saved the seeds from this crop and used them for the next season's second crop.  He continued to do this for eight years until he got caught (Genetic Literacy Project, New York Times). The US Supreme Court unanimously found in favor of Monsanto, and it doesn't look like the anti-GMO faction is even trying to pretend that Bowman was an innocent victim. 

The Pilot Grove case and the Maurice Parr case were against seed cleaners who helped farmers save GMO seed for replanting (Wikipedia). If you recall Pioneer Seed's rules listed earlier in this section, you'll know that this is a no-no. In the Ralph case, a farmer hid a truckload of seed for a friend, then violated a court order by burning the seed so it couldn't be used as evidence against him. He also ended up pleading guilty to mail fraud related to the case and went to prison for it (Rense). In the Michael White case, the defendant admitted to knowingly planting, producing, saving, cleaning and selling unauthorized seed. He then went on to become the hero of an anti-GMO documentary called Seeding Fear.

In short, Monsanto is suing farmers because it is prudent business practice to protect themselves from people who are trying to cheat the system.  The company says that many of these cases come to their attention when an honest farmer reports a neighbor who is breaking the rules (Monsanto). You can believe that or not, but it's hard to imagine how they would find out about it if somebody with personal knowledge of the situation didn't rat out the violator. As of this writing, the company site says that out of 325,000 American customers, they have initiated a patent lawsuit 147 times and gone to trial in 9 cases, winning every time. That's fairly consistent with what other sources say. It's not the entire story however and Wikipedia lists a few missteps along the way. Monsanto sued Gary Rinehart for patent infringement, then dropped the case against him after they determined that it was actually other members of his family that were breaking the rules. What happened to all the other lawsuits? Settled out of court or dropped, apparently.

Taking legal action against violators may be good business practice but it can be bad public relations, especially when you've got enemies looking for people they can portray as your hapless victims.  Monsanto really sucks at spin control, and that's why they're often called the most hated corporation in America.  

It should be obvious by now that contrary to popular belief, second-generation GMO seed is not sterile.  Monsanto wouldn't care whether farmers held back seed for replanting if the seed wouldn't grow. So-called Terminator Genes to prevent GMO seeds from reproducing do exist, but they have never been put on the market (Motley Fool, Pop Sci).

Hybrid seeds are a different matter however; they don't breed true in subsequent generations because that is the nature of hybrids. Many GMO hybrids do exist (Penn State), and they are subject to the same laws of nature as any other hybrid.  You need new first-generation seed on a regular basis, and it's not practical to create your own so you have to get it from the seed company. This is sometimes called a biological patent, because Mother Nature forces you to buy from the seed company.

There are also stories like this one, reporting on widespread seed piracy and do-it-yourself hybrids between GMO plants and local varieties in India, with less than stellar results.  Planting seed like that is very likely to lead to failures in the second generation, resulting in rumors about the sterility of GMO seed.

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In conclusion. The public furor over GMO is based on information that may seem on the surface like it ought to be true. But in reality the anti-GMO claims have very little substance, and there appears to be an element of intentional deception in some of the claims. Many of the people spreading anti-GMO rumors have good intentions, but it's basically paranoia - the irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist.

It's important to keep a close eye on the activities of corporations and governments and the general state of the world, but the best way to do that is to be well informed about what's really happening. We have to understand what the real problems are before we can do anything to solve them. Running around screaming "Wolf! Wolf! The sky is falling!" is counterproductive, since it distracts people away from the real issues. As it currently stands, a good acronym for the anti-GMO movement would be SMFON.  So Much Fuss Over Nothing. Need some evidence?  Just look at what a long article I had to write to address the rumors, only to find that there's very little to it.

Copyright 2014-19 Carolyn Tielfan all rights reserved