Genetically modified foods, or GMOs, have been the subject of much controversy. Companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta have come under fire for creating pesticide resistant crops because they allow for more chemicals to be used in agribusiness. While most of the debate centers on these GMO foods, the methods used by organic farmers to control weed and insect infestations remain neglected.
The Trouble with GMOs
Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been breeding crops for maximum yield and taste, manipulating and cross breeding them to create new strains. This has led to hybrid fruits and vegetables and for the most part, they are perfectly harmless. In the age of science, this process is taken inside the laboratory where DNA itself can be manipulated in a variety of ways.
Monsanto has become infamous for its Roundup Ready crops that have been genetically altered to resist their chemical herbicide, Roundup. By creating seeds that can tolerate the herbicide, the company has created a market for Roundup and has sold both in unison.
One unforeseen side effect of using GMO crops is that instead of decreasing the use of herbicides and pesticides, they are instead used more heavily. As more and more Roundup is used, it builds up in the soil of perennial crops and accumulates over a period of 6-8 years and ends up on the dinner plate, despite Monsanto’s claims that Roundup is biodegradable.
Crops have also been bred to contain the naturally occurring bacteria Bt, which organic farmers use for pest control. After worldwide distribution of Bt infused crops, the insects that used to be repelled by it are developing an immunity which in turn causes farmers to use even more toxic pesticides to compensate.
Enter Dow Chemicals. The company was recently authorized by the Environmental Protecting Agency to sell engineered corn and soybean crops that are resistant to their herbicide, Enlist Duo. This herbicide was developed in response to the failings of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup because weeds were becoming resistant to Roundup. One troubling aspect to this development is that the herbicide used by Dow Chemicals contains the same chemical agent used in Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant developed by the same company and used in Vietnam that has been linked to multiple health issues and environmental problems.
What we are seeing is a trend in which plants and wildlife adapt and become immune to chemical herbicides and pesticides that require the use of even more potent and harmful treatments. In turn, plants and animals adapt and become immune to the pesticide in an ongoing cycle that is ultimately unsustainable and harmful. The end result is that the produce that lands on your table is increasingly treated with more and more pesticides and herbicides.
Are Organic Crops Safe?
Conventional wisdom is that in order to avoid pesticide laden fruits and vegetables you need to buy organic produce. The problem with that is oftentimes, the organic treatments used by farmers are inadequate and are often supplemented with synthetic pesticides and herbicides. A study carried out by Berkeley indicated that farmers using Rotenone had to use up to 7 times the amount of pesticide to equal the protection of 2 applications of chemical pesticide. The toxicity of organic Rotenone is not fully understood however it is known that it is toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Further, the longevity of these organic pesticides are unknown.
What may be more shocking is that while chemical pesticides and herbicides have been long known to contain cancer causing agents, organic substitutes have gotten a pass. This is largely because organic pesticides have been assumed to be safe because they were natural. Research has shown that nearly 50% of these organic substances have been found to be carcinogenic as well, dispelling the long held myth that organic means non-toxic.
How to Reduce Pesticides in Your Diet
While it is thought that farmers markets are too costly for the average shopper, the reality is that local produce is cheaper. In recent years competition has driven down prices dramatically and allows even the most frugal shopper to find good produce at decent prices in local markets.
Further, some local farmers actually use insects as pest control. It has been demonstrated that introducing beneficial insects and plant life can curb the population of crop destroying insects. These insects prey on omnivorous species that can otherwise damage crops. While it may take more planning on the part of the farmer, this is the best way to avoid using toxic chemicals. With the added bonus of being able to communicate directly with the farmer, the local farmers market is your best choice if you wish to buy pesticide free produce.
What are your thoughts on GMO vs. Organic produce? Leave a comment below and let us know.