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Tell GMO Producers To Stop Being So Organic!

by Eric Hall

November 29, 2014

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Donate One of the common arguments against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), specifically plant GMOs, is that it allows farmers to spray "toxic" chemicals to kill various pests from bugs to weeds to help maximize crop yields. Anti-science websites often post scary pictures showing farmers in full protective gear while handling these chemicals, making the claim that the protective gear is proof these chemicals are harmful, and thus shouldn't be used on crops. These websites also encourage people to eat organic foods, because they are "safe" in comparison to these GMO crops.

As Alison Hudson pointed out, "Yes, the Dose Really Does Make the Poison." Anything is poisonous if you are exposed to enough of it. And depending on the chemical, it might not be just the dose, but the frequency of the dose. If I take 400 mg of ibuprofen (the OTC dose) every four hours for a few days, I am very unlikely to have any significant effects on my body. But if I took it every hour (even at the safe dose), I would be in serious trouble after a few hours. Not only is it dose dependent, but it is dependent on how fast my body metabolizes or gets rid of the thing I am ingesting. Finally, method of exposure matters. If I eat a pear, I am exposed to 10-12 milligrams of formaldehyde. I certainly wouldn't want to breathe that much in over a short period of time. (In fact: you need formaldehyde to live.)

If organic supporters are worried about exposure to pesticides, they should look more carefully at the products they support. Though a bit dated, a survey in 2005 found 95% of people who bought organic did so to avoid pesticides. However, studies consistently show organic farming requires application of higher amounts of pesticides and herbicides and more often than their conventional counterparts.

They might also want to look more closely at the dose. The most common conventional farming chemical chosen by organic supporters to pick on is glyphosate (Roundup). This herbicide is used to kill weeds, while the genetics in the crop are designed not to be harmed by it. The LD50 (a quick way to roughly judge toxicity) in rats for glyphosate is 5,600 mg/kg. Table salt will kill a rat sooner. Pyrethrin, an insecticide derived from chrysanthemum plants, is a pesticide used in organic farming. Depending on which formulation is used, the LD50 ranges from 200 mg/kg to 2,600 mg/kg. Still not very dangerous, but more lethal than glyphosate.

An interesting note about the picture above as proof that conventional herbicides and pesticides are dangerous: a video on the website "The Kids Should See This" shows how an organic farm grows cauliflower. The video is actually pretty good, and it doesn't get overly preachy about how organic is "better." Interestingly though, within the video a farmer is spraying an insecticide which the narrator tells us is a soap which suffocates the insects, with the idea that because it is a "soap" it is safe. As the Facebook group "We Love GMOs and Vaccines" points out, if it so safe, why is the person dressed in protective gear on the tractor?

Apparently, wearing protective gear is the organic thing to do.

We shouldn't judge chemicals based on a "natural" label, a perceived "ickiness," or on fear-mongering from pseudoscientists. It should be our goal to reduce the use of all pesticides and herbicides not because they are dangerous, but because reducing their use reduces the energy needed to produce the food, and could theoretically lower the cost of food as well. So while I might share a goal with the organic promoters in reducing pesticide and herbicide use, my goal is based in science and reality.

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by Eric Hall

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