Our culture's obsession with clean eating has made genetically modified crops almost taboo—even fast food chains like Chipotle tout their use of organic veggies—even though there is no concrete evidence that says GMOs aren't safe to eat. However, a new study by the New York Times suggests that the debate surrounding GMOs has missed a core problem: genetic modification has not led to increases in crop yields as promised, and, perhaps worst of all, has not led to a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.
The Times used data from the United Nations to compare rates of crop yield and herbicide/pesticide use in Europe, where GMOs have largely been rejected, to Canada and the U.S., which have both embraced the use of genetically modified crops.
According to their analysis, the U.S. and Canada don't have an advantage over Western Europe when it comes to crop yields, even though GMOs are often advertised as a way to feed as many people as possible.
More troublingly, herbicide use in the United States has increased even though major crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton are being genetically modified. Furthermore, the U.S. has fallen behind France—the biggest agricultural producer in Europe—in reducing the overall use of pesticides. Over the past two decades, the use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by 65 percent in France compared to a decrease of 33 percent in the U.S. France's use of herbicides has decreased by 35 percent compared to an 21 percent uptick in herbicide use in the U.S.
And while fears about eating genetically modified crops may not have much scientific merit, it's telling that GMO use in the U.S. hasn't led to a significant reduction of harmful pesticide use. Pesticides have been linked to developmental delays and cancer, and GMOs have long been marketed as a method of reducing pesticide use.
Joseph Kovach, a retired Ohio State University researcher who studied the risks of pesticides, told the Times that the purpose of engineering bug-resistant plants was to reduce insecticide use, but the goal of herbicide-resistant seeds was instead to sell more herbicide.
Monsanto, one of the global GMO giants, countered that an overall increase in herbicide use is not indicative of all farmers in the U.S.
"While overall herbicide use may be increasing in some areas where farmers are following best practices to manage emerging weed issues, farmers in other areas with different circumstances may have decreased or maintained their herbicide usage," a spokesperson told the Times.
Despite staggering crop prices and the mixed effects of GMOs, the next generation of genetically modified produce should be hitting the market soon, and new developments are always underway—by 2025, Monsanto's corn seed will reportedly have 14 "stacked" traits and be resistant to five types of herbicides.