GMO Label Opponents Spend Millions To Fight Prop 37 As Advocates Cite Rising Pesticide Use, Health Risks

Food Fight: Biotech Spends Millions To Fight GMO Labels As Critics Warn Of Rising Pesticide Use, Health Risks

On page 16 of the Biotechnology Basics Activity Book, a "Kidz Quiz" asks the question, "Does biotechnology help people reduce their use of pesticides?"

According to the messages relayed in the book, the correct box to check is "True."

The members of the industry group Council For Biotechnology Information, the book's publisher, are the same companies currently pouring millions into a campaign to keep genetically-engineered foods from being labeled as such on store shelves in California.

This so-called "Big Six" -- BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta -- have now contributed more than $13 million to defeat Proposition 37, which is slated to appear on the state's Nov. 6 ballot. The measure, experts say, could significantly thwart the rapid growth in the use of genetically-engineered crops (so-called GMOs) since their commercial introduction in the U.S. in 1995.

But fewer GMOs could mean more pesticides, according to industry calculations. As Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for the coalition fighting the proposition, told The Huffington Post: "Biotech crops use fewer pesticides, which is a benefit to the environment, to workers, and to the surrounding communities."

So, why would the country's largest producers of pesticides oppose a measure that could ultimately preserve the sale of pesticides?

David Pimentel, an emeritus professor at Cornell University who has long argued against agriculture's chemical dependencies, offers an explanation: "Most genetically-engineered crops use more pesticides, not less."

It all depends on how you dice the data.

Perhaps highest on the public's radar concerning this biotechnology is fear of the unknown or unnatural -- thus the use of the term "Frankenfood." There have been hints that genetic tinkering in food could trigger allergies in consumers. Still, better understood are the known health risks associated with the use of pesticides, which can result in food, air and water contaminated with toxic chemicals linked to birth defects, hormone disruption and a host of other health risks.

"Pesticides have real, known, documented, proven, harmful impacts on health," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist with the non-profit Pesticide Action Network. "The dirty little secret behind genetically-engineered crops is they increase pesticide use dramatically."

Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center in Oregon, has been studying the effects of genetically-engineered crops on U.S. agriculture. Using data from the USDA, he recently estimated an increase in pesticide use of about 400 million pounds over the first 16 years of its commercial use.

Two popular biotechnology traits available in genetically modified crops today are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. The former creates a crop that isn't harmed by the same chemical that poisons weeds; the later results in a plant capable of producing its own insecticide. In the first few years after their introduction, both traits did cut down the use of pesticides, particularly the insecticide resistance, Benbrook noted during a presentation at the University of California, Irvine, in April. However, Benbrook added that the 90 million pound increase in herbicide use on herbicide-tolerant crops between 2010 and 2011 is actually six times larger than the initial reduction between 1996 and 1998. And the insecticide-saving benefit of the insect resistant crops are now dwindling.

The problem: growing resistance among insect pests and weeds to the chemical concoctions, which leads farmers to apply larger quantities of chemicals to achieve the same level of pest control.

Asked about pesticide use, industry representatives and the USDA pointed to a study published in 2010 by The National Academies, which suggested that the use of toxic pesticides had for the most part declined following the advent of biotech crops.

But Benbrook, of The Organic Center, noted that this report only addressed the impact of genetically-engineered crops on herbicide use through 2002.

"That's about when resistance was starting to kick in," he said, adding that the authors also finalized the report before evidence began surfacing of the health dangers posed by the herbicide that crops have been programmed to resist, Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate).

"I think that in many cases, some of the nastier and more troublesome pesticides were indeed replaced largely due to genetically-engineered approaches (initially)," Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University, told HuffPost. "The problem comes when we have unexpected occurrences like glyphosate-resistant weeds -- then the pendulum swings way back in the other direction."

Krupke referred to industry's recent response to the spread of Roundup-resistant weeds: the engineering of crops resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange. Weeds resistant to this even more toxic product are already popping up.

Benbrook now predicts a 73-fold increase in the pounds of 2,4-D applied to corn by 2019, compared to a low point in 2002.

Some insects are also beginning to develop resistance to genetically-engineered crops, which can result in the use of additional outside pesticides. But more concerning to some are the toxins these crops are already programmed to carry, and a new variety of sweet corn based on this biotechnology is on its way to store shelves.

The toxin currently has no known health risks for humans, although critics warn that there may not yet be enough evidence to be certain and the toxin has been found in the blood of women and unborn babies.

"It is a mark of arrogance of modern man to assert there will never be any risks," said Benbrook, who still has hope that biotechnology could become safer and more beneficial in the decades ahead.

He added that labeling genetically-engineered foods, which is already required in about 50 other countries, would not only give consumers a choice about whether or not to eat the altered foods, but would also help scientists evaluate what, if any, risks are posed.

The pesticide and biotech industry, on the other hand, considers labeling an expensive scare tactic.

"The pathway to providing information about foods produced with biotechnology is through facts and science, not through labeling requirements that are intended to influence consumer opinion by using fear," Courtney Beck, spokesperson for Bayer CropScience, said in an email.

The children's activity book, said Richard Lobb of the industry-led Council for Biotechnology Information, is one way they are trying to "educate the public on the role of biotechnology."

Stacy Malkan, media director for the California Right to Know ballot initiative, counters that the book is "exactly why we need Prop 37."

"We need to be having a public dialogue about biotechnology," she said, "not ceding the education, and the future of our food system, to Monsanto."

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, Syngenta's name was misspelled. We regret the error.

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community