The stupidity of knee-jerk anti-GMO

I caught the end of this depressing GMO story on NPR last week.  Apparently, the marketplace– led by anti-GMO luddites– has decided that sugar from sugar beets is less worthy because sugar beets are modified to by Glysophate tolerant:

About half of all sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the other half comes from sugar cane. Now, for the first time, sugar traders are treating these as two different commodities, with two different prices.

It’s all because about eight years ago, nearly all the farmers who grow sugar beets in the United States decided to start growing genetically modified versions of their crop. The GMO beets, which can tolerate the weedkiller glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, made it easier for them to get rid of weeds…

Just in the past two years, though, that’s changed. Many food companies have decided to label their products as non-GMO. And because practically all sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified, those food products are now using sugar derived from sugar cane grown in Florida, Louisiana or outside the U.S. There isn’t any genetically modified sugar cane…

Maybe this would be rational if consumers were averse to sugar plants sprayed with herbicides, but that’s not it all.  It’s simply an irrational fear of things labeled GMO.  And, of course, the non-GMO sugar actually causes more use of herbicide:

Planting genetically modified sugar beets allows them to kill their weeds with fewer chemicals. Beyer says he sprays Roundup just a few times during the growing season, plus one application of another chemical to kill off any Roundup-resistant weeds.

He says that planting non-GMO beets would mean going back to what they used to do, spraying their crop every 10 days or so with a “witches brew” of five or six different weedkillers.

“The chemicals we used to put on the beets in [those] days were so much harsher for the guy applying them and for the environment,” he says. “To me, it’s insane to think that a non-GMO beet is going to be better for the environment, the world, or the consumer.” [emphasis mine]

Ugh.  And, as for GMO food somehow being “unnatural,” you know what’s “unnatural”?  Pretty much everything we eat.  It is a product of centuries of genetic modification through a process known as artificial selection.  Sure, GMO allows for far more dramatic impact on the genome, but traditional plant breeding changes things plenty. To wit, I love this Vox post on how much some of our favorite foods have changed, e.g.,


evolution of corn

Meanwhile, there was recently a big National Academy of Sciences review about GMO, you’ll be shocked to learn they concluded, as Brad Plumer puts it: “The best evidence suggests current GM crops are just as safe to eat as regular crops.”

Now go back to eating your GMO-free, sugar-cane sweetened cereal.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to The stupidity of knee-jerk anti-GMO

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Call me a Grinch but it would be better for us all if we ate less sugar of whatever type.
    Call me a cynic but I can’t help but think the crops that require less frequent spraying must save the producer a lot of money on labor costs and insecticides.
    Let the producers compete – they should just lower their prices and compete and should stop meddling as they do in state politics. Florida, I’m talking to you.

  2. ohwilleke says:

    Bread wheat, due to ancient hybridization by Neolithic genetic engineers is a true monster. It is hexaploid, which means it has three double helix sets of DNA.

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