The seductive, but corrosive impact of mythology will be a recurrent theme as historians explain the rise and fall of first-generation genetically engineered (GE) crop technology in the U.S. Here are just a few of the myths that arose along with the new crops:
GE corn will affix its own nitrogen.
Herbicide-tolerant crops will reduce herbicide use, and are good for the environment.
Bovine growth hormone will boost milk production, lower costs, and not impair cow health.
GMOs are needed to feed the world.
A couple of these myths have already fallen by the wayside. Others persist, like the idea that GE crop technology reduces pesticide use. It might have, if the industry had deployed/marketed it differently, but they didn’t and it hasn’t.
At some point in the next five to 10 years, just about everyone paying attention to corn, soybean, and cotton production will acknowledge that the era of near-sole reliance on herbicide-resistant crops, and especially glyphosate, is over.
The endgame as farmers try to spray their way around or through herbicide-resistant weeds will be ugly, costly, and raft with collateral damage, both on the farm (for a preview see Dicamba Watch) and for public health, especially in terms of reproductive health and the incidence and severity of birth defects (see recent evidence and a summary of major reasons here).
In an April 17, 2018 blog, Jonathan Foley, the ED of the California Academy of Sciences, takes on the “Zombie” myth that GMOs are needed to feed the world. He bluntly asserts this myth is “wrong and simply refuses to die.”
Anyone marginally skeptical of such claims will realize, after reading Foley’s powerful piece, how right they were to question this toxic pillar of “conventional wisdom” regarding the benefits of first-generation GMOs.
It is a quick read. He begins by explaining why the assertion that food production needs to double by around 2050 is wrong.
Population growth will increase food demand by around 22%. The other 78% of “needed” growth would be required if ~6 billion people shift to what Foley calls a “wasteful, inefficient, unhealthy” diet, like the typical U.S. and European diet.
Foley then points out that a concerted focus across the food system on sustainable use of food resources could go a long way toward meeting future demand, while also dramatically lightening ag’s environmental footprint.
“If you really wanted to feed the world, you’d tackle bigger issues” Foley argues, citing as examples food waste, poor dietary choices, and feedlot animal agriculture.
To promote public health, there are three vital changes that the U.S. ag and food systems must help bring about:
- Americans need to eat less, but more nutritious foods,
- Farmers need to reduce reliance on toxins and drugs for pest and animal health management,
- Crops and livestock should be raised in ways to enhance the nutritional quality of food, at least on equal footing with yield goals and production levels.
In Foley’s words, “…we are in a race between GMO+pesticide development and nature’s ability to adapt to our chemicals, with new, resistant weeds and bugs. And nature typically wins.”
He ends his essay by noting — “But, first, we need to dispel the myth that GMOs are ‘needed’ to ‘feed the world’. Because that’s just not true, and is never going to be.”
Clearly, others reached the same conclusion, and some years ago (see this 2013 UCS blog). And recently, some conventional-ag funded, public outreach programs have acknowledged the need to “move on” from the feed the world message, in the hope of finding a new way to engage with the public, to more effectively “tell our story” about how their food is produced.
But is the problem “the story,” or the parts of it grounded in mythology that does not square with the facts?
Jonathan Foley, “Zombie GMO Myths,” GlobalEcoGuy.org, April 17, 2018.