The Science Behind GMOs & The Future Of Food

Happy Monday, team! As many of you know, I had the absolute privilege of touring the Monsanto Research & Development facility in St. Louis this past weekend. I have never been in a room with so many individuals who possessed at least one Ph.D. in my life.

Talk about imposter syndrome!

While not in possession of a P.H.D. myself, I was told that I was picked for the tour and roundtable discussion due to my view on bioethics, my sociological views on the subject matter, and the uniqueness of an individual in the world of fitness that accepts GMOs with such open arms. I can live with that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am sure some of you are wondering how much money a Monsanto shill like myself made from this trip. I was reimbursed for the $130 I spent on gas to drive there (7 hours each way). I was not reimbursed for the near-$100 I spent on my own food, which brings my total weekend profit to -$100 for the trip. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Now that we have that out of the way, I would like to touch on some of the points we discussed during the roundtable, some myth-busting regarding GMOs/genetic editing, as well as some talking points we discussed during the tour. Finally, I would like you to check out a 10-minute video I recorded of Monsanto’s Genome Futurist (coolest job title ever) Larry Gilbertson discussing in detail the process that involves the editing of a specific plant’s gene for its desired result.

Sadly, Monsanto wouldn’t show us the T-Rex Paddock, the Velociraptor breeding pits, or the GMO chickens with laser optic sights and breast-mounted miniguns. Maybe next time.

Our first stop was discussing BT corn with this scientist from India. He told us the story of how he was born in India, where his family had one acre of land to grow crops and feed themselves. He stated that traditional methods of non-GMO crops and an ox-pulled plow never yielded enough crops for their family, and as he grew older, he became interested in Monsanto and their approach to genetic editing in order to increase crop yield, lose fewer crops to insects, and increase the health of the soil.

As you can see in the photo above, the GMO crop fairs significantly better than the crop grown the traditional way, even with pesticides. The whole point of a GMO is to use fewer pesticides, which in return reduces carbon footprint because vehicles aren’t required to spray the crops continuously throughout the growing season. He also touched on the fact that organic crops still use up to 20 pesticides in order to reach maturity, dispelling the myth that GMOs use more pesticides than organic crops.

In the photo above, you can see that the corn borer insect is not interested in the BT crop that Monsanto uses on the left, leaving a healthy root system. The non-GMO crop on the right, however, is clearly delicious to the insect, and looks on the verge of death. This is why farmers are such big fans of GMOs, as their crop yield is increased and more resistant to pests, and are necessary to feed the world’s population of 7 billion people (which will be at 9+ billion by 2050).

The room in the photo above was quite interesting. They are testing a crop that will be grown specifically in Brazil. Not only does the room perfectly mimic the temperature and humidity of the Brazilian climate, it also mimics the light spectrum from the sun throughout the day that Brazilian experiences, as light in the morning is different from light in the afternoon or evening.

This handy poster showed us the evolution of the plant we know today as corn, that began thousands of years ago as a near-worthless plant called Teosinte. What began as a plant that was the size of a pinky finger, with a few kernels, became the modern corn plant that is the size of a forearm, yielding up to 700 kernels. All of this was possible due to human intervention and selective hybridization.

This chart showed us how natural selection and human intervention via plant breeding have improved crops over the millennia. As you can see, some of our favorite vegetables all got their start from a single plant: the yellow mustard plant. I don’t know about you, but that modern banana sure looks a lot more delicious than a wild musa.

In the video above, Genome Futurist Larry Gilbertson discusses the exact process that goes into making a GMO plant. It’s a 10-minute video that explains in detail everything you ever wanted to know about the process. Please give it a watch and impress your friends with all your knowledge.

The tour of the Monsanto R&D facility was a fantastic and eye-opening experience, even though they refused to show us their dinosaur hybrids. I mean, come on: they didn’t even show us how they replaced the gene sequences of the hadrosaurs with West African frog DNA. Pretty selfish if you ask me.

Now, I wanted to discuss some myths and facts regarding Monsanto, GMOs, and the future of food.

Myth: GMOs permeate every level of the food industry, and most fruits/vegetables are now GMOs. Fact: There are only 10 GMOs available on the market, so don’t waste your money on GMO-free salt. They are: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets.

Myth: GMOs are bad for the environment and soil. Fact: GMOs were specifically designed to not only be better for the environment, they are also better for the soil. They are currently working on plants that can use up to 30% less water than conventional plants. They also use fewer pesticides/herbicides, as well as turn over the soil less often, which has increased nutrient-rich topsoil by up to 1,800lbs per acre per year. This also decreases carbon emissions, further helping the environment.

Myth: Monsanto sues farmers if a stray Monsanto seed falls in their field. Fact: Monsanto has only sued farmers if that “stray” seed somehow turns into that farmer having an entire field of Monsanto-based seed crops that the farmer didn’t pay for. In the court cases that Monsanto has won, Monsanto donated all the money recovered to local farming communities.

Myth: Monsanto designs their seeds to go bad after a year in order to force farmers to buy new seeds. Fact: All seeds, regardless of whether or not they are from Monsanto, are not very useful after a year. It doesn’t make sense to store them. In addition to this, Farmers are not forced to buy Monsanto seeds in any way. They CHOOSE to keep buying them because their crop yields increase, while production costs decrease, benefiting everyone who consumes and purchases the food.

Myth: GMO seeds can trigger human allergies. Fact: Monsanto CANNOT produce a seed that has literally any chance of triggering a human allergy. It takes up to 13 years and $150 million to produce a single viable GMO product. With that production time and cost, if there was any chance of a lawsuit due to triggering a human allergy, the lawsuit would bankrupt the company.

Myth: GMO foods have not been tested for safety when it comes to consumption. Fact: Over 900 studies, 20 years and 20+ scientists, researchers, agricultural and industry experts reviewed animal studies, allergenicity testing, North American and European health data to conclude that GMOs are not only safe, there is no substantial evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available GMO crops and conventionally bred crops.

Myth: GMO crops kill off bee populations. Fact: BT crops are designed to only target the specific pest that destroys a specific crop. This means that insects like bees, ladybugs, worms, and butterflies are unaffected and can continue to thrive. The GMO insect-resistant crops have also yielded in a decrease of insecticide used on cotton by 592 million pounds, and 192 million pounds of corn.

And finally, the myth that GMO crop production has resulted in tens of thousands of farmers committing suicide in India. This is a flat-out lie. Here is some info from the Genetic Literacy Project:

“Thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide each year — hundreds of thousands over the past three decades. The claims linking Monsanto, GM seeds and the globalization of the food supply to suicides emerged in the mid 2000s, promoted most aggressively by GMO critic and activist philosopher Vandana Shiva. During the past decade, claims of mass suicides of Indian farmers have been repeated often enough to become almost established fact in mainstream media outlets.

But there is a wealth of evidence, including numerous academic studies, showing that India’s farmer suicide problem is not particularly high when compared to other countries and it’s not linked to India’s only approved GM crop Bt cotton, which is engineered to repel the pink bollworm.

The suicide trend started in the 1980s — well before the 2002 introduction of GM seeds to that nation. Farmer suicides are also common in the developing and developed world, particularly in countries that are not growing GM crops. According to the World Health Organization, overall, male and female suicide rates in India are not notably high–they are lower for example than in France and Scotland, which cultivates no GM crops.

Rates of farmer suicides in India, particularly among men, have gone down since the introduction of GM cotton.

Researchers point to a range of causes for that nation’s suicide trends, including a poor agriculture infrastructure, the use of non-traditional credit sources and crushing debt for farmers with little in the way of a safety net following crop failures.”

In closing, if you claim to be an evidence-based coach or nutritionist that is also against the hard science of GMOs, you aren’t evidence-based at all. There is nothing wrong with buying everything organic, if you can afford it, but there is no benefit either. That has been tested ad nauseum. Monsanto is concerned with food production for a planet with an exploding population. Buying local is nice, but not feasible to feed the world, no matter how good it makes your morals feel. The current total land mass that is used globally for food production is roughly the size of South America, for 7 billion people. There will be 9 billion people in 25 years, but that doesn’t mean we will only need about 30% more land. In reality, we will need closer to double, as incomes increase around the world, people will want to consume more high-quality, high-calorie food, like animal proteins. What we will be looking at is that land mass at least doubling without GMOs, which would be even higher if the planet suddenly became all vegetarian. Think of the strain that will put on the world’s water supply as well. Monsanto’s goal is to decrease the strain of food production on the planet, decrease the size needed to grow our food, and decrease the food waste we currently experience in more-developed countries.

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