What to Know Before You Shop: Myths and Misconceptions about GMOs and farming

Food is important to all of us. Not only is it the fuel we run on, it also brings communities and families together and is the focal point for traditions and celebrations of cultures around the world. We care about the way it’s grown, its environmental impacts and how it affects us when we eat it. For years there’s been lots of discussion about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pesticides and the long-term effects they have on the human body.

In articles here at Farm to Table, we explore the many paths to producing Canadian food, whether they be organic or conventional, with or without GMOs — but with so much misinformation out there on GMOs and the differences between organic and non-organic, it’s hard to make informed choices on what we buy. In this article, we look at some of the myths and misconceptions about the way your food is grown, so you can walk into the supermarket with a clearer sense of how to find the food that meets your values and nutritional needs.

Common myths and misconceptions:

Health and safety of GMOs have not been tested

GMOs in Canada go through, at a minimum, a seven to ten-year process of research, development, testing and safety assessment before they can be approved for sale.  For every GMO food approved in Canada, a decision document describing the novel food and summarizing the safety information used to determine its safety as a food is posted on the Novel Foods and Ingredients page of Health Canada's Web site.

Some GMOs are created to be immune to specific herbicides, allowing the farmer to eliminate weeds with the herbicide without damaging their crops. The prime example of this is Monsanto's RoundUp Ready Crops, which are immune to the herbicide RoundUp (otherwise known as glyphosate). So far, studies have found that there are no health risks from RoundUp used in farming.

Besides, when it comes to food safety, some of the most toxic culprits are found in our natural environment — E. coli, salmonella, listeria, to name few. The good news is that with proper food preparation methods, we can manage safety risks from these types of pathogens. Check out this Farm to Table article for tips on food safety at home.

GMOs cause cancer

News about a study that linked RoundUp pesticide to cancer in rats spread wildly, and the factoid that RoundUp causes cancer can be still be found circulating today. However, that study was retracted for various reasons. One of the key complaints had to do with study design. For a two-year trial, researchers used a strain of rodents that spontaneously develop tumors and other health problems after 18 months. A much more detailed list of the issues with the study can be found here.

In terms of the pesticides used along with GMOs, no reproducible studies have shown that RoundUp is harmful to humans.

 Not all organic labels mean the same thing

What does organic mean to you? Does it mean the food was grown without chemicals being sprayed on it? Does it mean that the food was grown naturally and without GMOs?

In Canada, every province has different rules for defining the term “organic” and the process through which something is certified organic. While there are federal regulations, these apply only to producers who want to use the Canada Organic label and to those who sell organic products across provincial, territorial or international borders. For products produced and sold in the same province, provincial regulations apply.

This 2017 report shows that in Canada “locally produced organic food in certain provinces can be promoted and sold locally as ‘organic,’ even though the farmer hasn’t been certified as an organic producer.” That means unless you see a Canada Organic certified label, you might be paying extra money simply for the word organic and nothing else. Have you ever purchased an organic avocado? Well, there is no such thing as a GMO avocado. Sometimes organic is simply a marketing term. 

The same can be said for the "GMO-free" label on many crops. Do a quick google search whenever you see this label, as many vegetables have never been genetically modified and therefore have no GMO alternative, making the label meaningless. In Canada, there are only five GM crops grown commercially: Canola, corn, soy, sugar beet and alfalfa.

Organic is more sustainable

Many people believe that organic means that no pesticides were used, but in many cases due to an organic crop’s reduced immunity to pests, more pesticides are used than in conventional farming. The main difference is that organic farmers use natural pesticides, while conventional farmers use synthetic pesticides. Problem is, studies have found that in some cases not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species.

Now, this doesn’t mean every organic pesticide is worse than every synthetic pesticide, but it does prove the point that natural does not beat synthetic as a rule. That’s why so many farm organizations call for scientific evaluations that are proven with empirical evidence.

As an example of an environmental benefit in conventional farming, think about factors like using less water and reducing GHG emissions. Herbicide-tolerant crops can be sprayed with herbicides to deal with weeds so that farmers don’t have to till their fields. This reduces fuel use by tractors as well as soil degradation and water runoff — and it sequesters (stores) more carbon in the soil.

GMOs are unnatural and therefore worse for you

While we’ve already addressed the “natural is inherently better” myth above, we have yet to talk about GMO crop development. A lot of people believe that because the process of genetic modification is done in a laboratory, there may be harmful consequences. In reality, plants have been modified genetically through traditional breeding practices for hundreds to thousands of years. And this can happen in or out of a laboratory. Working in laboratory simply speeds the process up while making the genetic changes more accurate.

Don’t believe that? Take a look at this infographic that compares the original watermelon versus the one we have today:

Infographic by James Kennedy

Through thousands of years of breeding and evolution, the watermelon has changed from a small, bitter fruit that required a hammer to open to the juicy party snacks that we enjoy today. They can be grown in a wide variety of climates, taste sweeter, contain more vitamins and come in over 100 different varieties. With today’s technologies, these same effects could have been accomplished in decades instead of millennia.

It is important to note that biodiversity is an extremely important aspect of having a healthy farm. If all farmers were to grow one variety of crop and then a dangerous pest began destroying them, we would face disastrous food shortages. This is what happened during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Developing new strains of food is essential to combating disease and pests.

The subject of conventional versus organic farming should be changed to a discussion of conventional farming AND organic. The existence of one does not mean the death of the other. As long as consumers continue to seek out organic food, farmers will be happy to produce what meets their needs. Both approaches to farming are necessary to meet the values and needs of a growing population.