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Health Concerns Over GMOs Distract Consumers From the Real Problem Of Monoculture

Earlier this month a controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini linking genetically modified corn to cancer was retracted by the peer-reviewed journal that published it.

The retraction, based on the post-publication assessment that its findings were inconclusive, generated such explosive commentary that there's already a Wikipedia page dedicated to the so-called Séralini Affair. The event and its ongoing fallout affirms that few agricultural topics are as politically charged as the purported safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Are these fabricated substances--which appear in almost all highly processed foods--killing us?

One cohort of advocates--a cohort that triumphantly promoted the Séralini study when it hit the presses in September of 2012--thinks they just might be. It insists that GMOs are untested and unregulated agents that cause--or contribute to--serious health problems. Relying heavily on the precautionary principle (while stoking an inveterate hatred of the biotech giant Monsanto), these skeptics note, as Tom Philpott explained in Mother Jones, that when it comes to GMOs, consumers are "eating in the dark."

Another group--one that rejoiced when the Séralini piece was retracted--contends that not a single study has yet linked GMOs to human health problems. Citing the potential of GMO crops to achieve higher yields on less acreage, these supporters take solace in the assessment of several scientific organizations--including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, and the National Academies--that have deemed GMOs safe to consume.

Because this debate is trapped in the vice of the precautionary principle--after all, there's no identifiable moment when future safety of anything can be assured--it necessarily lacks an end point. Discussions are at this juncture little more than media theater. This is unfortunate. It's unfortunate because our popular obsession with the perpetually elusive health consequences obscures a deeper reason we might want to be wary of GMOs: it's not human health per se that's at stake with this technology--it's the health of the planet.

Instead of dubious health claims, concerns over GMOs should center on the culprits of corn and soy. These are the two most widely planted and ecologically troublesome crops grown in the United States.  And 88 percent of the corn and 94 percent of the soy grown on US land just so happens to be genetically modified.

Corn and soy are monocultural staples that come with measurable environmental consequences. Together, they account for more pesticide use--up to 81 percent of all pesticides sprayed in some years--and are the country's biggest consumers of nitrogen fertilizer, which runs off and damages aquatic ecosystems. Corn needs up to 120 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre. Kale requires as little as 50 pounds per acre. In terms of energy consumption, corn and soy are the energy hogging SUVs of the plant world.

But it's not only corn and soy production that's the problem. It's also how these crops are used. Instead of being fed directly to people, the country's largest mass of edible plant material goes into the maws of beasts. Indeed, over 95 percent of US feed grain production is in corn and 60 percent of all corn and 47 percent of all soy is used for animal feed.

Not only do corn and soy make factory farming possible, but animals stuck in the industrial system do a miserable job of efficiently converting this feed into edible flesh. It requires 15 pounds of feed and 1,799 gallons of water to make one pound of beef.  For the purposes of comparison, a pound of tomatoes (grown for humans to eat!) requires no feed and needs only 23 gallons of water.

As if matters couldn't make any less ecological sense, this cycle of inefficiency also contributes to global warming. Fifteen pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, are emitted to make a pound of beef. Cows produce excessive amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, far more potent greenhouse gases.

Whether or not GMOs are dangerous for humans to eat remains an open question. It promises to remain that way for a while. By contrast, in so far as GMOs contribute to the production of corn and soy--and right now they are integral to it--there's no question that they pose a clear threat to environmental health.

That's what we should be getting worked up about when it comes to this technology, one that, like it or not, is already embedded in our food system.

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I’m the author of several books about food and agriculture, including A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, American Pests: Our Losing War on…

I’m the author of several books about food and agriculture, including A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, American Pests: Our Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT, and Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I live in Austin, Texas, where the most agriculturally ambitious thing I do is grow herbs in large pots on my back deck. I’m employed as a professor of history at Texas State University, where I teach courses in environmental history. A journalist once called me a “contrarian agrarian,” a description with which I take issue. But only sort of.