Many green-living advocates recommend that consumers avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and any produce or meat treated with herbicides, pesticides, hormone boosters, and antibiotics. However, some experts say these chemicals don’t necessarily have negative health effects. Others claim that Big Agriculture needs to use these methods, or else, it would be impossible to meet global demand for food.
What’s the truth? Is our food safe to consume, or are modern agricultural methods causing more harm than good? And in an age where GMO crops, antibiotic-drenched meat, and preservative-packed products are difficult to avoid, how can you shop both sustainably and safely?
Let’s clarify some basic terms:
GMO: Genetically Modified Organism
While technically, all domesticated plants and animals have been genetically altered by humans, GMO species have had their genes modified in a lab. Typical Mendelian cross-breeding might entail seeding new plants from a frost-resistant variant with one that has better color, for example. GMO purports to shorten the process by directly inserting the genes for frost-resistance and the genes for desirable color into a seed. Usually, the goal is to prevent crops from spoilage and improve harvest yield. However, people are concerned about toxins that may appear in GMO products.
There are also environmental concerns, as the more we attempt to artificially control animal and plant behavior, the more problems we create. For example, microbes that continually encounter antibiotics eventually build resistance to those compounds, while insects that are otherwise beneficial to the ecosystem are killed by pesticides.
Agrochemicals include any compound that is used to prevent disease, improve crop yield, or modify products in an agricultural setting. Common agrochemicals include herbicides to remove weeds that steal nutrients from desired plants, pesticides to keep insects and rodents from feeding on crops, and preservatives to prevent produce from spoiling.
Animal husbandry also increasingly relies on agrochemicals, many of which are derived from natural hormones. For example, Bovine somatotropin (bST), also known as bovine growth hormone, is a pharmaceutical based on cows’ natural milk production hormone. Dairy cows treated with bST produce more milk that can be bottled and sold to human consumers.
Other hormones are meant to stimulate mating behavior, increase muscle mass (and therefore meat yield), or prevent infection even if animals are kept in crowded environments.
Unfortunately, we’ve had relatively few unbiased studies on the long-term effects of agrochemicals on the end consumers: us. We’re at the top of the food chain. The question is, what chemicals are making their way up to us?
What Happened to American Agriculture?
The rising use of genetic modification and chemical treatments in agriculture is nothing new. For decades, farmers have struggled to meet ever-increasing demand. They need to produce enough to sell their produce to a wide market — and they can’t afford . So while farmers have long cross-pollinated and fertilized crops to boost their harvest (or cross-bred animals for better meat or temperament), these processes take years. Agrochemicals are designed to shorten their timeframe.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Humans have been domesticating plants and animals for millennia. And no one can begrudge farmers (who have often gotten the short end of the stick) for trying to keep up their business.
The problem is similar to what we’ve seen in the cosmetics and healthcare industry. As problems emerged in the post-industrial age, corporations developed band-aids rather than sustainable solutions. Then, they found ways to market new products to address the side effects of those band-aids.
For example, look at soil depletion and how farmers now must use agrochemicals just to meet their minimum. Since the early 1920s, the U.S. government has handed out generous subsidies to farmers. In hopes of recovering during the Great Depression, farmers relied on corn and wheat, hoping to produce enough to stay afloat. Unfortuantely, when supply exceeds demand, prices drop — and farmers were left with poor profits and even poorer soil due to monocropping. The government actually limited the promotion of those mono crops, but the damage was done. As trade restrictions raised the price of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup became a more affordable sweetener, and farmers kept up their heavy corn production. This means the soil is continually depleted by this resource-intensive crop, while the need for fertilizer and pesticides skyrockets.
Today, farmers cannot afford any wiggle room in their crop yields, especially since the original government subsidies have given way to performance-based incentives. Farmers must rely on pesticides to ward off insects, herbicides to remove invasive plants and weeds, and GMO crops that can get to market quicker.
Can We Trust Studies?
It may sound like a conspiracy to suggest that mega corporations such as Monsanto have interfered in the research and publications on these topics. But in fact, it’s common practice for companies to fund or even write studies about their products.
For example, let’s look at glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup, Monsanto’s signature product. Back in 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared this compound to be “probably carcinogenic.” The following year, they clarified that small doses of glyphosate are acceptable, based on studies of acute dosing of pure glyphosate . But let’s face it: no one is chronically exposed to pure glyphosate. It’s almost always a formulation such as Roundup, and the exposure tends to be chronic as the compound lingers in crops, soil, and waterways!
Multiple meta-studies (research on previously done studies) have found links between exposure to glyphosate formulations and increased risk of lymphoma or myeloma. Yet one of the oft-cited studies allegedly disproving this link was funded by Monsanto — who also ran a smear campaign and filed lawsuits against the IARC for their 2015 report. Often, actions speak louder than words.
It’s also worth noting that per the EPA, agrochemical corporation may conduct their own research. While these studies are not permitted to be published in peer-reviewed journals, there’s nothing stopping them from disseminating those biased results to the press.
So, the issue isn’t necessarily that all research on toxins and chemical engineering is funded by Big Ag. Rather, it’s that corporations such as Monsanto have huge PR departments. Plenty of universities and independent chemists are eagerly studying the effects of agrochemicals on humans.
Tip: When reading studies, scroll to the bottom and look for a “Conflicts of Interest” or “Disclosures” section. All articles published in peer-reviewed journals are required to disclose all co-authors’ affiliations as well as the funding source for the study.
Shopping with a Conscience: How to Support Farmers
Food-safety and environmental advocates agree that refusing to purchase these chemically enhanced products is the best way to hurt Big Ag — right in their wallet. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find (or afford) non-GMO, organic produce or meat, which are notoriously expensive.
And of course, no one wants to hurt the farmers who are desperately trying to survive with depleted soil and perfomance-based government subsidies.
The solution is to shop local whenever possible. Big Ag includes large corporations that mass-export meat, dairy, and plant products. Their goal is to be as profitable as possible, which means they rely on agrochemicals to reduce costs. While smaller farms may have limited resources, they also embrace sustainable practices. After all, they can’t afford to have their fields go fallow or their animals fall ill!
If you must shop big brands, go for brands that limit the use of questionable agrochemicals and GMO species. The Environmental Working Group has a great tool that will help you cut through the marketing.
In short: you need not distrust all studies nor boycott certain foods on principle. Our farmers are in a strained position while agrochemical corporations such as Monsanto are eager to boost their profitability and cover up any ill effects. The key is to do your homework and hit Big Ag where it hurts. By shopping local and/or organic whenever possible, you can protect your health, your wallet, and ultimately the planet.
This article is based on an interview with Carey Gillam, an investigative journalist specializing in agrochemicals and the author of Whitewash and The Monsanto Papers.