Ignorance of scientific facts leads to attacks against GMOs, pesticides and organic foods
By Mike Jiggens
A misunderstanding of the facts associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and organically-grown foods has led to further attacks against science and chemical pest control products.
Dr. Paul Giordano, a turfgrass specialist with Bayer CropScience, spoke at length on the subject in March at London, Ont.’s West Haven Golf Club before an audience of golf course superintendents. The presentation was part of a series of winter turf academies sponsored by Plant Science and Bayer CropScience.
GMOs and how they are perceived by the public has become a topic of much debate in recent years. Giordano said he became inspired to speak about the issue following a change in opinion about the subject by one of the world’s most recognized science educators, Dr. Bill Nye—better known to television audiences as Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Nye had addressed GMOs in a chapter of a book he had written a couple of years ago, but cautioned readers to be wary of them, claiming there were still many unanswered questions. Giordano said Nye received some backlash from the scientific community about his opinion which led the author to further research GMOs and obtain the facts he felt he lacked.
“He ended up retracting a lot of those initial thoughts and opinions he had in his book, and went back and revised his book to say he changed his mind.”
After dealing with leading university scientists and companies working with GMOs, Nye has since gone on record as saying GMOs are safe and the public shouldn’t be as suspicious of them as many believe they should.
As a scientist himself, Nye chose a scientific approach to explore the opinions he had formulated, acknowledging the information he originally had wasn’t well researched.
“Most people in society don’t do that,” Giordano said. “We make our minds up based on things we watch on the news or a Google search that we did. We draw a line in the sand and that’s our stance.”
There is currently a “war on science” being waged in the world, Giordano said, in which such topics as climate change, the moon landing, evolution, vaccinations and various conspiracy theories are under attack. All are fairly complex scientific ideas or reasonings which the general public doesn’t take the time to understand, he said. People will hear what they want to hear and formulate their own opinions.
“Clearly there is a war going on against science, and that is very evident with regard to certain topics.”
Among those topics is GMOs, he said. A survey was conducted in 2015 among 3,000 scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asking them if they believed GMOs were safe to eat. A total of 88 per cent of the respondents said GMOs were in fact safe for consumption, stating the research exists to back their claim.
The same survey was conducted among the same number of American adults, yet only 37 per cent said GMOs were safe to eat.
The sharp gap in the results between the two sets of individuals surveyed illustrates a point of what science knows is true vs. the opinions the public makes on such matters, Giordano said.
Crops are traditionally bred through different breeding techniques, many of which have been used for millenia, he said. When breeding, different species or cultivars are crossed, and anywhere from 10,000 to 300,000 genes are changed within plants to create a new variety. Breeders are unaware of what desired gene or trait will come from the cross breeding. Giordano said it usually takes several years before the desired traits are realized, and there are no safety checks required.
Breeders can go to market with a traditionally-bred food crop at any time. There is no regulation governing that, but the vast majority of the plant’s genetic makeup has been changed.
Over the years, scientists have developed techniques to expedite some of the changes realized in food products. One method was to expose them to mutagens in which attempts can be made to mutate the plant into a more precise fashion. The technique is rarely used anymore because it can now be done in a more concerted way that is accurate and dedicated toward the genes for which scientists have the most interest. Giordano said science can now hone in on precisely which traits are desirable and whether the plant is drought-tolerant, insect-resistant or disease-resistant, and which gene can be targeted and altered to achieve the desired result. One to four genes on average is changed.
Giordano said the approach is with targeted precision, but the requirements and regulations to reach that point are “ridiculous,” costing hundreds of millions of dollars decades before any of the altered crops can come to market.
He said news broadcasts will often depict various protests taking place around the world against various science-oriented issues, but he added there is never sufficient research available. The news will report that cancers, allergies and infertilities are all going up.
“Certainly we need to make that connection, and it’s obvious it’s GMOs,” he said in jest, adding, “The science just hasn’t been done, they’re not safe and there’s no credible evidence that we should be eating them.”
Giordano said it is easy for someone to make a protest sign to insinuate that GMOs are the reason for surges in health setbacks, but there is no real context into the sign’s message. Protesters will say there is an increase in cancer, and it must be GMOs which are causing it.
A scientific study conducted a couple years ago compiled almost every single independent research study ever been done on GMOs people eat and employ into the environment.
“The conclusion of that study was unequivocally there is no credible evidence that GMOs pose any unique threat to the environment or the public’s health.”
The study took into account all the research which has ever been done on GMOs over the past 20 years on an independent basis. Giordano said it would take four hours or more to simply read the titles of the 2,000-plus studies.
“Do you think any of those protesters that are on the street have ever taken the time to read one of these in its completion or maybe even the title? I can almost guarantee you, no.”
Even though the research has been done, anti-GMO factions will argue it hasn’t and that there is no telling if GMOs are safe, he said, yet it has been proven they are safe.
Ethically, there are those who will say scientists have no right to own or patent life in genes, and there are some issues with that, he said.
“That’s more of an agricultural ethics question that I’m not here to address. I’m here to address the science behind it.”
Giordano said the issue with GMOs is that it has become a propaganda war. He likened it to the propaganda launched by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, saying that if a big enough lie is told and constantly repeated, the public will eventually believe it. But, he added, propaganda wars tend to claim real victims.
As an example, Giordano spoke about a vitamin A deficiency in some Third World countries which has led to early childhood blindness, affecting more than eight million children over the past 10 years. The condition often leads to death.
Science figured out an answer to the situation about 15 years ago, he said, noting a golden rice rich in Vitamin A was developed using genetic modification. Critics of the genetically-modified food source claim that “evil” corporations are trying to control the food source. The company which developed the golden rice product have offered it for free to Third World countries experiencing a deficiency in Vitamin A.
“But it’s still banned in key regions around the world, and it’s costing many people their lives.”
Giordano wondered how the Vitamin A deficiency problem could be allowed to continue when an obvious solution has been found. He cited organizations such as Greenpeace which spend millions of dollars each year to orchestrate protests they believe are in the world’s best interests. He said these organizations burn fields, and their entire agenda is based on keeping such genetically-modified organisms out of the public’s hands. The problem, he said, is that the people populating these affected regions believe what they are being told by Greenpeace and similar organizations, and feel they are doing the right thing by banning GMOs.
“Greenpeace, on average, spends about $7 million a year to orchestrate protests around the world against genetically-modified organisms. It only costs $2.6 million to develop that golden rice. They’re spending a lot more money to get rid of it around the world than it actually costs to invent it. It’s madness, really, but it just puts things into perspective.”
The impact of GMOs in the developed world is that, on average, chemical pesticide use has been reduced by about 37 per cent, crop yields have increased by about 22 per cent, and farmer profits have increased by about 8 per cent. The data was taken from a study conducted in 2014, Giordano said.
He noted protesters don’t like the use of pesticides on plants—which is typically at the top of their list of complaints—but GMOs are actually solving some of that problem.
Celebrity health practitioner Dr. Mehmet Oz has had to retract entire episodes of his television show due to misinformation he initially provided to his viewers, Giordano said, noting the doctor had once alarmed the public by stating 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually on GMOs. But he didn’t provide the context of what he was saying, including the total acreage of land on which the pesticides were applied.
Giordano also said internet food blogging sensation Vani (The Food Babe) Hari has advocated to her online audience about what they should and shouldn’t be eating as a means to rid their bodies of toxins. Her theory is that if a food ingredient read on a product label cannot be pronounced, it shouldn’t be consumed. Hari was challenged by someone who asked her if she thought it was safe for him to consume a food item which contained dihydrogen monoxide. She upheld her motto that if the ingredient cannot be pronounced, the food shouldn’t be eaten.
Dihydrogen monoxide is water.
“It just shows that there is a complete lack of science and credibility or scientific responsibility just telling people what they think they want to hear, and she’s making a lot of money off of it.”
Giordano said a study of the organic food industry shows an 83 per cent increase in the production of organic foods over the past decade. Even during periods of tough economic times, consumers were willing to spend extra on organic foods. The study showed that people spent hundreds of millions of dollars on premium-priced organic foods based on false or misleading perceptions about comparing food safety, nutrition and health attributes.
The marketing of organic foods is intentionally deceptive, Giordano said, adding a lot of money is spent on behalf of the organic industry to lobby legal initiatives against GMOs and pesticides. Attempts are being made to have the labeling of GMOs mandated.
He said grocery store customers who read a label on a product denoting it as genetically modified are apt to skip by that product and instead choose one labeled as organic because of the stigma associated with GMOs.
“Even though we know they’re (GMOs) safe, it’s a marketing tactic that they use, and they’re very successful with it.”
Giordano recalled an article he read last year which questioned why the non-GMO label on Tropicana organic juice meant less than it seemed. The Tropicana company wanted to include a label on its juice to let consumers know it wasn’t genetically modified.
“The problem is there currently is no such thing as a genetically-modified orange that is available on the market. Anything that is 100 per cent orange juice, by default, automatically is not GMO. It would be like calling turfgrass gluten-free. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Tropicana knew if it placed such a label on its juice that people would be drawn to it and purchase it over another brand, Giordano said, adding he finds it interesting that Tropicana parent company Pepsi has spent millions of dollars lobbying against having to place GMO labels on their soft drinks and Fritos chips.
Pepsi doesn’t want to put the label on their chips, yet wish to place a non-GMO label on their orange juice simply because they believe they can sell more of it, he said.
“It’s a crazy, absurd world we’re living in. It’s all coming down to marketing tactics.”
Another example of an intentionally deceptive marketing campaign is that for California Blends vegetables sold at Whole Foods stores in the United States. Giordano said, in spite of the name, the organic vegetables are actually a product of China which makes its marketing somewhat deceptive.
Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the organic label is a marketing tool and not a statement about food safety nor is it a value judgment of food nutrition or quality. Defenders of organic, however, will say it is more sustainable than foods grown conventionally.
A couple of years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture surveyed 68 of the most frequently-consumed crops. Of those surveyed, 59 exhibited a yield gap of poor performance on the organic farms vs. the conventional farms. Most notably, strawberries were down 61 per cent, tomatoes were down 61 per cent, tangerines were down 58 per cent, carrots were down 49 per cent, cotton was down 45 per cent, peanuts were down 37 per cent, and rice grown organically had a 39 per cent yield gap compared to its conventional counterpart.
“The whole analysis of that study said that to have raised all the U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of an additional 109 million acres of land.”
The additional acreage would have been required to achieve the same yield as that from conventional farming. Giordano said the study clearly suggests there is no way enough food can be grown organically that would feed not only the population of the United States, but the entire world.
People who wish to eat healthier foods are driven toward those grown organically. A 2015 study conducted at California’s Stanford University addressed the question: are organically-grown foods safer or healthier than those grown by conventional methods?
The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and meats with an extensive statistical analysis of all information to examine the signs of health benefits by adding organic foods to one’s diet.
“The conclusion of that study was that fruits and vegetables labeled organic are no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, and there were no obvious health advantages of implementing organic foods into one’s diet.”
The argument still exists, however, that organics are better for human consumption because they are grown pesticide-free, Giordano said. What many people don’t know is that there are, in fact, several pesticides which can be used in organic production, he added.
Copper is a known fungicide, and several copper compounds can be used to control fungal diseases. Giordano compared the organic copper fungicide with the synthetic mancozeb in terms of their health effects and acute toxicity. The synthetic was rated as “practically non-toxic” by the Environmental Protection Agency. In terms of health effects, the synthetic was rated as non-toxic by oral route, but the organic was said to be potentially kidney and liver damaging. The synthetic had a low toxicity rating for earthworms and birds for its environmental impact. The organic, on the other hand, was seen to be “very” toxic to earthworms and toxic and harmful to small animals.
In the soil, the synthetic was gone within six to 15 days. The organic, however, is non-degradeable and doesn’t go away.
“Are these organic products safer? Of course not.”
Giordano said 99 per cent of the pesticides humans consume occur naturally. A study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley suggests humans ingest about 10,000 more natural pesticides than they do synthetic. It is the dose which differentiates the poison from the remedy, he said.
Presenting a list of various things which included caffeine and different fungicides, he said caffeine was, “by far,” the deadliest item listed. Common table salt, he noted, is more toxic than many of the fungicides we regularly use today.
The risk includes both toxicity and exposure. Chemicals with a low toxicity would mean one would have to be exposed to it for an extremely long period of time for it to become a risk. For a person to die from a caffeine overdose, he would have to drink about 100 cups of coffee in one sitting.
Iprodione, a fungicide at risk of being removed from the marketplace by Health Canada, is used in a spray mixture before being applied to turf. A person would have to drink 10 gallons of an iprodione spray tank mixture in one sitting for the chemical to be lethally toxic, Giordano said.
It’s the chronic exposure we’re concerned about, he said.
When looking at the cancers most associated with the consumption of carcinogenic materials, one would believe cancers of the stomach, liver, uterus and colon would be on the rise with the perceived increase in the amounts of pesticides used today.
“But, in fact, those cancers have been dropping over the last 50 years.”
A better understanding is needed, he said, to make the distinction between real science and junk science.
The diseases which affect human beings and those which affect plants are similar, Giordano said. Human fungal pathogens include athlete’s foot, yeast infections, nail fungus and ringworm. Fungal diseases of turf include dollar spot, summer patch and anthracnose. Both human and turf fungi are similar in terms of how they grow and where they grow, and are both treated in much the same manner.
“We use triazole fungicides in just about every aspect of fungal infection on living things. When we use them on plants, we call them pesticides and they are deemed bad. When we use them on humans, we call them medicine. They’re triazole fungicides.”
Insects which attack humans, such as fleas, ticks and head lice, which get into our hair or burrow into our skin, are no different than the insects which attack turf, including grubs, chinch bugs and mites. The same chemistries used to treat insect pests on plants are the same as those used to treat head lice on children and pets.
“We’re rubbing these things on our heads and our children’s heads, but God forbid you spray them on your lawn.”
Giordano said he finds it interesting that companies manufacturing household consumer products can get away with as much as they do while the turfgrass industry must bear the burden of proof.
“They can use words like ‘germs’ and ‘allergens’ and ‘germicides’ and ‘disinfectants.’ These are pesticides. They’re killing bacteria, fungi, viruses… In fact, in a lot of ways, I can guarantee you they’re more toxic than the things we’re using out on our lawns and our turf.”
Those companies have the convenience to use such terminology and not have to be accountable for some of the claims they make.
“We need to be proactive.”
The industry must continue to fund the research and get the message out, he added.
Several ecological journals have stated in recent years, through their own research, that golf courses and the environment can live in harmony with one another, and that golf courses are actually more ecologically desired than other land uses. Not many people are reading these types of publications, however, Giordano said, suggesting the industry isn’t doing a good enough job to get the message out.
“We still get the negative stigma that we’re just green scars on the landscape and we’re dumping toxic chemicals onto our grasses.”
Plenty of studies have been done about the benefits of healthy, functional turfgrass, including erosion control, surface water protection, chemical biodegradation, soil restoration and improvement, heat dissipation and temperature moderation, wildlife habitat and multifunctional greenspaces in urban environments.
Giordano said the industry needs to let science tell the story. Allowing activists to tell the story for the industry results in the message becoming twisted and deviating from the truth, he said.