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Published on May 16th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan

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Greenwashing Genetically Modified Crops

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One of the biggest weapons in GMO companies’ arsenal is the claim they make repeatedly that genetically modified (GM) crops are needed to help feed to world in the face of global climate change. There’s one problem with this claim, though — it’s total greenwashing and untrue.

From a Food & Water Watch fact sheet, Greenwashing Genetically Engineered Crops, here’s a nice little paragraph:

Monsanto advertises that biotech crops can feed the world “from a raindrop,” suggesting that GE crops are especially climate change resistant. In 2011, Roger Beachy, then-director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary research agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, suggested to Scientific American magazine that GE crops protect traditional small farmers by reducing the need for agrochemicals. But this greenwashing doesn’t change what is just agribusiness as usual: more agrochemicals, more fossil fuels and more intensive agricultural production.

Fewer Agrochemicals Used on GM Crops = A Lie

Theoretically, sure, GE crops could use fewer agrochemicals, but, in actuality, they are designed to survive more intense spraying than tradition crops and they do, in practice, get sprayed with a lot more agrochemicals.

Most GE crops are designed to be tolerant of specially tailored herbicides (mostly glyphosate, known as Roundup). Farmers can spray the herbicide on their fields, killing the weeds without harming their crops. Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant (“Roundup Ready”) corn, soybeans and cotton were planted on 150 million U.S. acres in 2009. Glyphosate use on these Roundup Ready crops has grown steadily. Between 2001 and 2007, annual glyphosate use doubled to 185 million pounds.

Such widespread and excessive use of Roundup have resulted in the creation of “superweeds” that are resistant to the chemical, threaten crops to an even greater degree, and require the use of even more toxic agrochemicals. “Even the biotech company Syngenta predicts that glyphosate-resistant weeds will infest one-fourth of U.S. cropland by 2013.”

And what does this mean when it comes to crop yields and feeding the world?

“Agricultural experts warn that these ‘superweeds’ can lower farm yields, increase pollution and raise costs for
farmers. Farmers may resort to other herbicides to combat superweeds, including 2,4-D (an Agent Orange component) and atrazine, which have associated health risks, including endocrine disruption and developmental abnormalities. Moreover, as glyphosate-resistant weeds strangle cropland, farmers have returned to deep tilling for weed management, abandoning tillage practices designed to slow soil erosion.”

Roundup Causes Serious Problems for Humans

Studies have found glyphosate/Roundup causes serious deformities and neurological problems in vertebrates (humans are vertebrates, in case you forgot) and have found it damages human cells even when the levels of exposure are below the level recommended by the manufacturer.

The Drought Protection Lie

There is a lot of talk about the ability to create drought-resistant crops, but no proof of their reality, and even if they could be created, there’s no precedence to show that biotech companies would really increase the creation and access to food for most people in the world who are struggling with this issue.

The research has yet to achieve the complex interactions between genes necessary to endure environmental stressors such as drought.

Traditional breeding methods for stress tolerance are more resilient to disruption and climate change than GE crops because they complement and thrive in nutrient-rich and biodiverse soil. Even if research succeeded in developing drought-tolerant crops, biotechnology companies would control any viable seeds, potentially putting new seeds out of reach for poor countries.

Crop Yields: Conventional vs. GM Crops

The grand claims of GM-crop-yield-reductions are just that, claims. While there may be potential in gene modification to create greater yields (in the short term), this is not really what the biotech companies care about. And the results show it.

Biotech companies have focused on developing crops that are designed to work with the herbicides they sell, not on developing high-yield seeds. A 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists survey found that herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans had no yield increase over non-GE crops, and insect-resistant corn had only a slight advantage over conventional corn. A 2001 University of Nebraska study found that conventional soybeans had 5 to 10 percent higher yields than herbicide-tolerant soybeans.

A 2006 Environmental Science and Technology study found that low-input farms in developing countries had significant yield gains. A 2007 University of Michigan study found that organic farming in the developing world had higher yield gains than conventional production and could feed the global population without increasing the amount of cultivated land.

The bottom line: there’s a ton of greenwashing going on in the GM crop industry. And, unfortunately, a lot of people have fallen sucker to it.

For more on how GM crops “benefit biotech companies, not farmers” and how they will NOT “feed a hungry planet,” check out Food & Water Watch’s full Greenwashing Genetically Engineered Crops fact sheet.

Related Stories:

  1. GMOs Linked to Organ Disruption in 13 Scientific Studies
  2. THE GMO Video
  3. USDA Favors Monsanto over Organic Industry, Consumers

Photo via wstryder

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.



  • http://Web PC

    Wow. Do you even know what genetic engineering is? First off, there’s no such thing as superweeds. There’s glyphosate resistant weeds. Big difference. When I see that term, I know someone doesn’t understand what they’re talking about, because that’s just a scary weasle word, like frankenfood. Resistance can happen with anything and everything that has a strong selection pressure. That this is news shows the level of understanding here. Furthermore, glyphosate is all they’re resistant too; they can still be handled by any number of other methods. If Superman couldn’t be killed by bullets but he could be killed by knives, clubs, explosives, and everything else, we wouldn’t call him Superman, we’d call him Bullet Resistant Man. Big difference. That you simontainously complain that glyphosate is dangerous then complain that overuse means farmers won’t be able to use it anymore…which is it, or are you just complaining? And note that the problem with these resistant weeds isn’t the damage they’ll cause, but the gains they threaten to hamper. That’s right, you think farmers LIKE buying chemicals? You think they like spending time and money to buy and spray that stuff? Did you ever once pause to consider that they might have a reason for doing that? Guess what, they do. No till farming. Tillage causes a lot of damage. Herbicide tollerant crosps are a solution. A flawed one, yes, but one that has done a lot of good by preventing soil erosion. It isn’t as black and white as the anti-GMO side likes to believe.

    Furthermore, yeah, some studies have claimed that glyphosate is damaging, but that’s not how science works. Science works by looking at those, and all the other evidence. Cherrypicking is a tactic of pseudoscience. It’s like those supposed 19 studies that ‘prove’ GMOs themselves are dangerous…if those were the only ones, then yeah, that’d mean something, but there are hundreds more that say otherwise and no known reason as to why they would be dangerous. So a few people like that Huber guy say glyphosate is dangerous…big deal.

    And I like how you conveniently left out the Bt crops. How much chemical spray have those crops prevented (hint: a lot). Hey, there’s that cherrypicking again.

    As for drought tollerant crops, you could make the agruement that the Bt crops are a form of drouhgt resistnat crops already out there…with less bugs damaging their roots, the crops are better able to withstand drought. And that you think there’s no evidence of drought resistant GMO traits says you don’t follow the issue very closely. It takes, what, three seconds to find a bunch on Google? Peopel all over are working on that. And while you might have a point that biotech companies might not just go into developing natuoins and give it away for free, but at least they’re not actively blocking it, cause guess who would even if it were free? Look at Golden Rice. It isn’t Monsanto who is fighting that, it’s the anti-GMO nutters. Yeah, I love how you guys complain that companies won’t just give stuff away from free, then when someone wants to give it away for free, you stop them. Just like the glyphosate thing, nothing but complaining because it makes your asinine scientifically illiterate point seem valid.

    As for that UCS study you cite, they have no problems ignoring the reduction in pesticide use and benefits of no till farming to push their point, and they neglect to mention that, in developed countries, our yields were really high before GMOs because of the pesticides ect. we used, and so after how much higer were they going to go, but neglect to mention that in developing countries where they don’t use those chemicals the yield gains were much higher. Hey, more cherrypicking to make a point, that’s becomeing a theme here isn’t it? As for the organic ones, I’ve never seen those studies, but maybe if the organic promoters listed what specific techniques worked and why instead of lumping everything in an artificial, dogmatic book of organic regulations, people would start taking them seriously. Organic is dogma, not science, and even if they were right about everything (and I’m not saying they are, but nor am I saying they’re wrong about everything) it’d still be dogma. Drop that and maybe they’ll have some points. It’s absolutely true that biological methods (green amnure, crop rotation, intercropping, biodiversity [very important that one], proper use of benefitial insects and fungi, ect) have applications and should be further researched, but that doesn’t mean drawing some stupid line in the sand and declaring technology evil and acting as if synthetic and natural are chemical properties. That’s just silly, and it is irrational and illogical.

    And about your corporate thing, yeah, there are big companies that are mostly doing GE, but to act as if they’re the only ones, to act as if they own a technolgoy, is like saying that McDonalds owns cooking because they do so much. Read up on the Rainbow papaya. Anti-GMO peopel were against that one too, even though no corportation was involved. Heck, they’re against things like the HoneySweet plum (produced by the USDA), fungus resistant potatoes (produced by the UK government), virus resistant grapevines rootstocks (produced by the French government, later burned down by arsonists), Golden Rice (produced by a charitalble NGO), and the Arctic apple (produced by a small Canadian company). Being against large corporations, fine, whatever, but it’s just a canard when the anti-GMO movement alos opposes NGO, government, and small company work too.

    In conclusion, yes, a lot of people, including the experts have have been studying this subject for decades, have bought into the so-called greenwashing, as if you understood what you’re talking about, which I don’t beleive you do, so would you. Genetype affects phenotype, in the end, it’s as simple as that (more or less), and plants really don’t care where the genes came from.

    • http://theMOMU.wordpress.com Alice Elliott Brown

      It appears that, among its other functions, Monsanto must be employing a staff of people to surf the Internet and post these idiotic defenses against rather clear arguments for non-GMO food. They must have quite a bit of money invested in this area, because everywhere you go, a perfectly rational and well thought out article gets this sort of “how dare you” response.

      • http://Web PC

        Oh wow, corporate shill accusations, like I haven’t heard that one, oh, every time. Monsanto has a blog; go there and post an anti-GMO comment. Know what? No one will acuse you of being a plant for the organic industry (which, need I remind you, is a $29 billion a year industry, compared to Monsanto’s $10.5 billion revenue).

        So everyone everywhere who supports GMOs is working for Monsanto or whatever other boogie man you like, yeah, right. It’s telling which side needs a conspiracy to defend it’s points. This is why science can’t win. Anything that supports GMOs, no matter how much evidence there is or how strong the scientific consensus, is obviously part of the conspiracy, while anything that is against them, regarldess of how minor or poorly done, no matter how many contradictory points of data you have to ignore, is the elusive one true proof that they are bad in every single imaginable way. And then you guys wonder why no one (well, no experts anyway) takes you guys seriously. The anti-GMO movement is a joke.

        As for my idiotic defense, you didn’t even understand it, did you?

  • http://Web mike

    PC too long did not read lol.

  • Says it like it is

    Mr. Shanan’s article is all heresay! WHERE are the references to his claimed facts?

    • http://importantmedia.org/members/zshahan/ Zachary Shahan

      Says it like it is: the facts are in the quotes, linked above, which include the references

  • http://Web Dan

    Wow, great, GREAT work, Zachary! Excellent article. And one way you KNOW it was great is because of how agitated you made the trolls, like “PC”

    Slowly but surely, thanks to people like you, the truth is getting out.

    Labeling, labeling, labeling. 95% of American consumers polled want it. Just give us a choice, that’s all we ask.

    Give us a choice, label the GMO’s, and Let The Free Market Decide!

    (Oh yeah, and stop Corporate Welfare. Stop subsidizing GMO welfare crops with American Tax Dollars. If it weren’t for the Farm Bill sham, there would be no GMO’s. There is no market for them.)

    Less than 1% of all the tens of billions of dollars paid out every year in Farm Subsidies goes to fruit and vegetables. You know, the stuff Americans need to eat more of. Instead, our tax dollars are subsidizing GMO’s – at both ends. Tax payers underwrite production of GMO’s and then tax dollars are needed again to BUY the end product, in the form of Foreign Aid (i.e. dumping GMO’s on other countries), because NO ONE WOULD WILLINGLY BUY AND EAT THIS CRAP.

    If there were a Free Market in American Agriculture, GMO’s would disappear tomorrow. And the world would be better off. Big time.

    • http://www.cleantechnica.com Zach

      Thanks, Dan. Agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, & agreed :D

    • http://Web PC

      Troll, so is that what they call people with actual experiance now? How long have you spent in a lab? No time at all? How many blots and gels have you run? Don’t know what that means? Didn’t think so. When did ingorance become a point of view? I’ve done stuff in this field. I’m speaking from fact; if that constitutes one’s admission as a troll, then wow, no wonder nobody takes you anti-GMO guys seriously.

      Anyway, as for labeling, sure, go ahead, if you want. You talk of a free market solution, create a demand for products labeled as non-GMO. But don’t force everyone else to label for your beliefs; that’s not free market at all. That’s making other people do what you want them to whether they want ot or not. If, say, a Mulsim wanted meat labeled as halal, that’s fine to create a market for it, but it’s not fine for him to demand that everything he doesn’t want to eat be labeled haram. Same you you. You want to avoid GMOs, fine, but don’t make everyone else bend over backwards for it. Really, you should already know what’s GE: corn, cotton, soybean, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, and summer squash. This whole ‘label what we already know’ thing reeks of just trying to scare people, especially considering that genetic engineering is a process, not a product, so labeling something as GMO says little anyway. Now of course, if you can find something inherently wrong with GMOs, some thing that, somehow, ends up in every single one no matter what gene is inserted or how it is inserted (but somehow never in any purely natural gene movement like homologous recombination, transposons, and horizontal gene transfer), then fine, it should be labeled. Name the specific protein or compound, and label it. Hydrogenated oils aren’t labeled because of the hydrogenation process, they’re labeled because they contain trans-fats. So, name the exact compound if you want labeling. Vague appeals to unknown unkowns, moving goal posts without ever stating what ‘long term’ means, and poorly done, half baked, never repeated or confirmed s doesn’t cut it. That’s quack talk. Put up or shut up. Anyone who wants labels should say exactly what they want labeled, and while you’re at it please describe the biochemical pathway that created it, detail the genetic basis of the thing, and explain why it only happens with human induced transgenes. But they never do. Which leads anyone who has a clue to beleive those people don’t know what they’re talking about and got all their information from that time they saw Jurassic Park.

      Furthermore, I think more people would be much more open to GMOs if certain groups were not making blatent lies about them. You guys remind me of the anti-vaxxers. All scare, no substance, then acting like you have a point because you’re dishonest.

      And hey, I agree with you on the subsidies. It’s crazy how much we give for people to make unhealthy stuff like HFCS and how little focus goes to nutrient dense horticultural crops. But that’s a total ignoratio elenchi; it has nothing do do with genetic engineering. It was like that before GMOs, it’s like that after them. Personally I think that money would be better spend researching alternative biodiverse crops like murnong, taro, chaya, jujube, yellowhorn, cloudberry, tuna/nopal, and quinoa.

      • http://www.cleantechnica.com Zach

        Dan, could you enlighten us on the issues brought up in these three posts:

        1. GMOs Linked to Organ Disruption in 13 Scientific Studies (http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2011/04/11/gmos-linked-to-organ-disruption-in-13-scientific-studies/)

        2. THE GMO Video (http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2010/10/11/the-gmo-video/)

        3. Toxin from GM Crops Found in Human Blood, Canadian Scientists Find (http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2011/05/17/toxin-from-gm-crops-found-in-human-blood-canadian-scientists-find/)

        & could you provide us with scientific studies not funded or conducted by GMO companies?

        that would go a long way towards countering the concerns millions upon millions of people who have looked into the matter have about GMOs.

        • http://Web PC

          I’m guessing by Dan you mean me, ya? Sure, I’ll give it a whirl.

          First off, it seems like the first two rely heavily on Jeffery Smith and Gilles-Eric Séralini. Here’s the darnedest thing, I looked in NIH and found not a single piece by Smith. Nothing, zip, nada, ziltch. What should it tell you that he absolutely bypasses being critically reviewed by experts and instead goes right to the same people he’s selling books to? He’s a showman, nothing more. Google over to Academic’s Review to see some of his half truths and full lies. As for Séralini, again, I’m really not too impressed. The guy’s funded by Greenpeace and seems to have an ax to grind, but as for the study of his that I’ve seen, it was mostly playing games with statistics then making an unsubstantiated point. If you’re point is relying on them, that don’t impress me much. It might go over great with non-scientists, but if you’re basing your agreements on stuff lambasted by the scientific community (and make no mistake, they are) then what have you really accomplished? Nothing good. Think about it.

          Here’s the thing to consider. Are there studies out there claiming a link to GMOs and health problems? Absolutely. There are also studies claiming a link between vaccines and autism, disproving global warming, proving homeopathy, claiming that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and disproving evolution. Are there scientists who oppose GMOs? Absolutely. Every single person I’ve met in relevant fields here at my university has supported them, but they are out there. But Google Project Steve. There’s a list of about 1200 people with PhDs named Steve. Does that mean that all scientists are named Steve, or that even a number worth considering are? No. Same thing here. Consensus is not defeated by a handful of dissenters, particularly when the data they’re putting out is wuzzy at best, and by and large, those who work with GMOs, and furthermore, all these ‘smoking gun proof that GMOs cause fill-in-the-blank’ should be put into the context that they are. Google XKCD Significant. Lack of context can make even meaningless background noise (which, yes, you would expect to find) seem meaningful, either unintentionally or deceptively. Also, you can only play that corporate conspiracy card for so long against consensus. There are scientists all around the world, employed in both private and public institutions, doing all sorts of things with genetic engineering. And I’m not just talking about agriculture either. How do you think they study genes? How do you think they follow proteins? Genetic engineering. Most anti-GMO people don’t know that GE plants are only one aspect of genetic engineering. If there was anything wrong with it, it would have turned up a long time ago, and not in agriculture.

          As for the last one, I really don’t have much to say about that one. I gotten around to reading it yet, so I’m not willing to make much of a comment on it. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s not, however, what I’ve heard about it the technique they used would have been unable to detect anything at the quantity they claim to have found, they found something below the threshold of detection, leading to the possibility that all they really found was background noise, a false positive. And I admittedly don’t know much about toxicology, my biological knowledge is pretty limited to things with leaves, however, what I need to know before making to much of a judgment is, first, is Bt the only protein that does this. There are all kinds of unique proteins in everything you eat, from kiwis to shitake to turkey, and it would really, really, be something else if it was just this one that persisted and not every other protein. Second, assuming that is is the case, I would also need to know is it really in sufficient quantity to harm anyone? Plenty of things you eat have a small amount of naturally occurring toxins, but that’s no reason not to eat broccoli. And even if it does really happen, it is unique to Bt, and it is harmful, what does that mean about GMOs? Absolutely nothing. GMO traits have been bad before (a GMO pea in Australia for example, one of the few things that Smith gets almost right), but that doesn’t mean the every other GMO is bad. Genetic engineering is a process, not a product. Think of it like cooking; just because one person cooks something poorly doesn’t say anything about anyone else’s cooking. And boy, wouldn’t it be something if they got that Bt exposure from organic produce, huh? The whole thing reminds me of that Huber story…hey, what a convenient coincidence that the things we’ve been opposing are unique among everything else out there in the damage they cause. There’s coincidence, then there’s that.

          And ultimately, you can prove me wrong by simply telling me what it is in GMOs that’s dangerous. Just a couple of words will go a long way to proving me wrong. You can’t say GMOs are dangerous because they’re GMOs. That’s a circular agreement. That’s like saying mercury is dangerous because it’s mercury…no, it’s dangerous because it breaks disulfide bonds in proteins. Before I can oppose GMOs, I need to know why, and preferably, how that danger arises. No one has ever answered that. Even assuming the claims about Bt and Ht crops are correct, that says nothing about every other GMO that is also being opposed, like Golden Rice and the Rainbow papaya. Now, let me ask, what proves you wrong? All good science must be falsifiable. If you can’t be reasonably proven wrong, then you’re not dealing in science, you’re dealing in faith, and there’s nothing wrong with that of course, just as long as you aren’t making predictions about the real world based on it. You can’t prove that something isn’t there, science doesn’t prove negatives, so I can’t, for example, prove that there isn’t an invisible unicorn running around, because there’s always another test to run, an an unknown unknown that could be in play, but after so much looking, I think the possibility of the unicorn can be safely ruled out. What I’d like to know is what it would take to rule out the claims of GMO harm. If you want no one claiming it, well, that’ll never happen. Look at vaccines. Over 50 years since they wiped out smallpox we still have nutters claiming vaccines don’t work, heck, there are still germ theory of disease denialists out there, so I think we can safely expect 50 years from now the same people will be saying the same things about GMOs. If something is controversial, there will be something to back the controversy, of that you can be certain. And sure, you can continue to appeal to the long term, but you can do the same thing with other new introductions to the diet (that argument works great against biodiversity), and anything else, and without giving guidelines as to how that can be falsified, it’s just hot air. And of course I’m not saying you can’t oppose the corporations and monopolies and all that, in fact, it’s probably a good thing that there are people to keep them in check (although all the anti-GMO sentiment has done is increase regulation to the point that no competitors can get approval, pretty much handing Monsanto the market), but that has nothing to do with the science

          And since I’m tired of typing, here’s your studies:
          http://www.biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/independent-funding/
          Now, since you’re all about independent funding, I take it you’ll stop pushing Greenpeace funded Séralini and Jeffrey ‘Makes a Living on Selling Fear’ Smith, hm? Cant’s say I agree with you that anything I say will counter any concerns. The anti-GMO thing crossed the line from rational concern to pop culture some time ago, and as they say, you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into

          • Biotech

            Well I was going to angrily reply to this BS about GM food being terrible, but you really covered all the bases.

            I wish you had written an article instead of these people citing bunk sources.

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  • http://green-and-energy.com Thomas – Electric Car

    Thanks a lot for this article. I´m from munich and GM food is a harsh discussed topic in Germany and especially in bavaria because people claim to live and eat a little more green than the other germans. But there are so many offenives from companies promoting GM food always focussing on those points you disprove in your article!

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