by Marion Nestle
May 26 2011

That pesky GMO issue again

The L.A. Times has one of the better stories I’ve seen lately about genetically modified (GM) foods.  I don’t usually write much about this topic because there is so little new to say about it.

I’ve been writing about GM foods for 20 years now and I’d call it a stalemate.  The industry says:

  • GM foods are absolutely necessary to feed the world.
  • Farmers love them.
  • They are harmless.

Farmers do like using them because they do not have to do as many pesticide applications or worry as much about weeds.

But the first and third points are highly debatable, as the article discusses.

I worry most about two aspects of GM foods:

  • They encourage corporate control of the food supply and monoculture (never good ideas)
  • They do not give consumers choices because they aren’t labeled.

The LA Times illustrates both points in one terrific graphic:


The states are starting to act, but this is really the FDA’s issue.  It’s time to get the FDA to reverse its 1994 decision not to label GM foods.



  • Two quick things:

    1) I’m not sure that farmers really love GMOs, not from what I’ve heard. I hear a lot of farmers expressing worry about breeding pesticide-resistant weeds by the over-application of herbicides, but that might have something to do with the circles I run in. Also, I’ve seen other articles pointing out that Roundup use actually increases with GMO crops, because they can, and so they do.

    2) The article refers to Roundup as a pesticide but actually it’s an herbicide. Kind of an important distinction in my book.

  • Yikes, I meant “breeding herbicide-resistant weeds” above.

  • tom

    great info, the more the better

  • Subvert

    I wish they’d drop that “GMO’s are necessary to feed the world” crap! They should say they’re “necessary to overproduce cheap commodity crops to 1) flood global markets and supply aid which keeps smaller, poorer countries dependent and weak, and 2) supply a steady stream of ingredients to go into processed garbage food.”

    And yes, both of the above “encourage corporate control of the food supply and monoculture”…

  • Here in the EU we have been much more vocal in our objections to GM foods, resulting in mandatory labelling and check-back system. As a UK resident I realise that without European protests we would have sleep-walked into passive acceptance of corporate-determined health and nutrition. Who wants to be a lab rat?

  • Mary

    I know you are all for science- and evidence-based labeling Marion. Can you please specify the science-based criteria you want to see on the label, and why?

    Your two reasons: corporate control and choice really don’t seem to be science-based. If they are somehow, can you please source your claims?

  • Mary, how about this, from the linked article? “Canadian researchers this year reported that the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their umbilical cord blood samples contained a pesticide implanted in GMO corn by the biotech company Monsanto, though digestion is supposed to remove it from the body. “Given the potential toxicity of these environmental pollutants and the fragility of the fetus, more studies are needed,” they wrote in Reproductive Toxicology.”. Perhaps a warning a la cigarette cartons in Canada? ‘This food contains GM materials that may be harmful to pregnant women and fetuses?’

  • Benboom

    Uh-oh – this article is a dog whistle for the site’s resident troll. 🙂

  • Thank God for Marion Nestle and those journalists like her who resist the temptation to take the ‘easy way out’ when reporting a story! This is a serious topic that deserves serious consideration and action by our government agencies. Ms. Nestle gets it right again! We all need to listen to her research-based observations.

  • isaacschumann

    Eden Balfour,

    The Bt found in blood discussed in the study could have come from a number of sources, including ge crops as well as organic ones. It is true that the Bt protein breaks down in a few days, however, the bacteria itself, which can form a spore, can persist and proliferate for years. Bt has a very low or negligible toxicity in humans, it is not particularly alarming or surprising to see very small amounts of it in blood. sources below:

    While I think ge crops should be used and can have a positive effect, I do not think they are the only way to feed the world, they are one tool among many. I also agree with Marion that a labeling system is needed.


    I would appreciate hearing your commentary on this study, if time allows. I have read it over once, and cannot see how they determine that the Cry1Ab came exclusively from ge corn and soybeans.

  • Anthro

    After lengthy deliberations and discussions with a few plant biologists over at the Biofortified blog, (several of whom made some pretty disparaging remarks about my most respected public health advocate), I came to pretty much the same conclusion as you state in the post.

    I can’t quite buy their argument that they are simply “speeding up the natural process of plant breeding”. If they were only using plant genes, I might be able to, but when you put a gene from another Kingdom into the plant, I can’t help getting a little skeptical.

    Many of the other issues are political and the biologists simply refuse to acknowledge these problems. They simply deny that it is their problem what Monsanto does with the results of their work! They stopped answering my emails when I pressed on this. They also somewhat apologized for their remarks about Marion’s scientific cred when I blasted them.

    On the other hand, I am not totally opposed to GM for the fear based reason so many others seem to be. The evidence is just not there. Perhaps it can be part of the “feed the masses” solution. That’s another whole argument.

  • Jon

    Yeah, the really hilarious thing is that the Center for Consumer Freedom opposes labeling GMOs. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance isi strength. And I’m in the hospital after proving black is white and getting crushed by a stampede of zebras.

  • Mary

    @Eden: Scientists I know that have looked at the paper you cite (and I mean really read it, not just internet postings about it) find that the controls on that paper are awful and conclusions are impossible to draw from that.

    And how sad that asking for the scientific basis for Marion’s statements is considered trolling. Marion herself expects that on claims–she said so in the post just down the page a bit:

    “People like buying products with a “health aura,” no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science. Science is irrelevant here. Marketing is what’s relevant.”

    What do you think Marion? Is it trolling to ask for claims to not be a marketing issues, but a science issue? Are you trolling your own blog with requests like that?

  • isaacschumann, thanks for the information. I have to admit I am fuzzy enough on the science to be waffling on my opinion on GM safety, but firm enough in my opinion of corporate control of food supply to agree with Marion on that.

    Anthro, if I was less cynical I’d be horrified at the compartmentalization of the biologists you talked to. Almost makes one want to invoke Godwin’s law.

  • *provoke, not invoke!

  • Barb

    Well, they seem to do it (genetic modification) because they can, not because it’s a productive idea. Over time, most of these things become vulnerable to other pests, and so the industry perpetuates itself by creating more problems that will need solutions. In contrast, more natural, integrated systems grow stronger, more resiliant, and need fewer inputs over time. Check out Elliot Coleman’s books about his organic vegetable production and soil building practices.
    Jennifer, it’s ok, pesticide is the general term covering more specific terms like herbicide, insecticide and fungicide.

  • Anthro

    Here is an interesting discussion of Organic vs. BigAg farming written by a plant geneticist who is married to an organic farmer. I have corresponded with her and like much of what she has to say because it is science based. But you will note that when she discusses “seed producers” she completely avoids even using the word Monsanto. This is my problem with her and her colleagues. Also, she was extremely critical of Marion’s “understanding of science” which I found absolutely insulting. She retracted, in part, when I reproached her.

  • Of all the risk factors for chronic disease facing America today, the most serious is the severe shortage of natural, nutritious, chemical free food and GMO’s are neither natural, nutritious, or chemical free. We as American consumers have the right to know how our food is produced and what is in the food we eat in order to make informed and wise decisions as to what we choose to eat and feed our families but the U.S. federal government feels that they have the right to make this decision for us by refusing to label these foods.

    Currently more than 40 countries, particularly in Europe, have either banned or partially banned genetically modified food and/or have laws in place requiring them to be labeled giving the citizens of those countries the freedom to choose not to eat it. Some of these countries are among the world’s healthiest and include Japan, Australia, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, and Norway.