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Non-GMO doesn’t mean no pesticides

Annie Baxter Nov 26, 2015
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A lot of Americans are worried about foods made from genetically modified crops, which largely means products that have corn, soy or sugar beet ingredients.

The genetic material of those crops has been modified in some way.

Critics of GMOs eschew the synthetic chemicals applied to genetically modified crops, such as the weed killer glyphosate.

“A lot of people are worried about that,” said Megan Westgate with the organization the Non-GMO Project, the de facto standard-setter for Non-GMO products.

A genetic tweak can make crops tolerate glyphosate. That means farmers can apply it and only kill the weeds, not the crops themselves.

Some experts say glyphosate is less toxic than the herbicides farmers previously used. But there is a problem with weeds growing resistant to glyphosate.

“Farmers, in addition to spraying the glyphosate, now sometimes need to spray a second or third herbicide to kill the weeds that are resistant to glyphosate,” said Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Jaffe said while herbicide use has increased with soybeans, that spike hasn’t occurred with corn.

What’s more, he said, GMO corn has helped lower the use of insecticides used on that crop.

Jaffe said there’s no easy way to net out whether GMOs end up compelling farmers to use more or fewer synthetic chemicals overall.

“The short answer is: it depends,” he said. “You really have to look at each crop and its cropping system on a case by case basis.”

And the world of Non-GMOs is not exactly the Garden of Eden, by contract.

“Consumers that are buying Non-GMO food are under the misimpression that it automatically means there’s a net environmental benefit,” said Mac Ehrhardt of Albert Lea Seed House in Albert Lea, Minn.

Ehrhardt sells corn and soybean seeds with and without GMO traits. He said farmers who buy the Non-GMO seeds will likely still spray their crops with synthetic pesticides.

“He or she is still going to be spraying with herbicides, using an insecticide, possibly a fungicide,” he said.

Erhardt said in some cases farmers may indeed use fewer chemicals, but the label Non-GMO doesn’t guarantee it.