We find the word “sustainable” used to describe certain agricultural practices. Problem is, various groups use it in different ways and there doesn’t seem to be agreement about what it means. Recently, Dannon Yogurt, a French-based company, came up with its own definition of the word. They decided to adopt a policy that they would only use milk produced from feeds that are “non-GMO,” that is, feeds that are not made from genetically modified organisms. They believe this will “help improve sustainable agricultural practices” by improving soil health, water quality and reduce carbon emissions. This prompted a quick response from six prominent farm organizations. They included American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation and the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
In a letter to Dannon, they said that eliminating GMO feeds is the exact opposite of sustainable agriculture. They pointed out that eliminating GMOs would cause farmers to stop using safe farming practices that have increased farm productivity over the last 20 years and reduced the carbon footprint of our agriculture. That included using fewer pesticides, weed control herbicides, gasoline or diesel fuel and water. It would be like turning the clock back 100 years and forcing farmers to use outdated technology. Many studies and much research support these claims along with assuring us of the safety of foods produced from GMO crops.
Last summer, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine issued what is one of the most comprehensive reports ever written by the scientific community on genetically engineered food and crops, or GMOs. They examined hundreds of scientific papers written on the subject, sat through hours of testimony from activists and considered hundreds of comments from the general public. Their conclusion was that they “found no substantial evidence that foods from genetically engineered crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”
They also looked at some of the claims made by anti-GMO activists. Do GMOs cause cancer? No, when comparing cancer incidence in the US where GMOs are widely grown to the United Kingdom, where they are mostly unknown, they found no real difference. They looked at the claim that GMOs cause kidney disease and found that rates have barely changed in the past 25 years. They found no major differences as far as allergies, celiac disease or autism are concerned.
Looking at all the evidence, it might seem that this National Academies report would stop the debate about GMOs. It probably won’t.
Dannon Yogurt is using their anti-GMO approach under the name of “sustainable” as a marketing tool, a way to sell more of their products. A better approach might be to use innovative packaging or developing new products to sell more of their yogurt. Better yet, why not talk about the benefits of GMOs to helping us produce a needed food supply down the road?
The National Academies report did point out some drawbacks to GMOs. Their overuse has led to resistance to them from some weeds and insects. In these cases, going back to other control methods would be needed. Also domination of the technology by big companies might restrict access to improved seeds on small farms and in poorer countries. Regardless of these concerns, the debate about GMOs, their safety and benefits should be put to rest.
Written by John Parker, an independent agricultural writer and graduate of The Ohio State University.