The New York Times was wrong about GMOs, but so were the rebuttals.

Writing for The New York Times, journalist Danny Hakim continued the trend of raising doubts about the use of genetically modified crops by farmers. His argument relied on herbicide tolerant crops, and how the United States may not have seen quite the yield increase and pesticide decrease promised by the industry selling those seeds.

A lot has been written on the weaknesses of the piece:

 — Dr. Andrew Kniss, weed science professor at the University of Wyoming, explained how Hakim’s comparison with Europe was based on flawed logic.

 — Dr. Kevin Folta, molecular biologist at the University of Florida, asks why farmers would be using these seeds if they were not profitable.

 — Agricultural economist Dr. Jayson Lusk points out pesticides with lower toxicity are being used with these seeds and that they allow farmers to practice no-till farming.

— Professor C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University reminds us that a meta-analysis showed that GMOs have reduced pesticide use and increased yields globally.

 — Dr. Steven Novella, of Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, jumped in to remind us that genetic engineering is a tool, and not something that can be judged based on just the herbicide tolerant trait.

On Twitter, Hakim attempted to address some of the points in all of these different forums. He is correct that none of the rebuttals addressed his concern over industry claims. He even admits that GMOs can be useful and that his article was intended to specifically address herbicide tolerant GMOs, along with the industry claims about them.

That’s the problem. His article was titled “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops”, not “Doubts About the Promised Bounty Herbicide Tolerant Crops”. His article might exclude disease resistant and non-browning traits, but his title certainly doesn’t.

Genetic engineering is not the only method used to create herbicide tolerant crops. All corn and sorghum is tolerant to the herbicide atrazine, even organic (though it wouldn’t be allowed to be used). Rice, sunflower, wheat, lentils, canola, and corn is produced for BASF to be tolerant to their imazamox based herbicide.

By the definition used by the Non-GMO Project, these crops are not GMOs because they were created through the “traditional” methods of mutagenesis and artificial selection. Even though they have all of the same concerns, like weed resistance, that their GMO counter-parts do, they completely escape scrutiny.

When Chipotle began sourcing sunflowers to replace the GM crops used in their cooking oil, they claimed it was because of concerns over glyphosate toxicity and “super weeds”. Unfortunately the sunflowers they switched to use a more toxic herbicide and potentially contribute even more to the development of “super weeds”. It certainly can’t help that the sunflowers were first developed because a farmer had discovered them as “super weeds” themselves.

According to Bloomberg:

BASF enlists the help of 40 seed companies, including DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. in the U.S. and Switzerland’s Syngenta AG to sell Clearfield crops in markets that reject GMOs.

Since BASF makes the same claims about pesticides and yield for their non-GMO herbicide tolerant crops that Monsanto has made about GMO crops, Hakim and the New York Times should have included them in their investigation.

Every major anti-GMO organization from Greenpeace to GMO Free USA echo Hakim’s herbicide concerns. This is an argument based much more on ideology than one based on science.

These groups have worked hard to keep GMOs regulated based on the process of genetic engineering, yet they use this single trait as an argument against the technology. If herbicide tolerant crops are truly what concerns people, then perhaps we should end process based regulation and use a product based one.

Seeds should be judged not on the method of their breeding, but by the quality of their trait.

Author: Stephan Neidenbach

Stephan Neidenbach is a middle school teacher, husband, and father living in Annapolis, MD. He holds a BS in business administration from Salisbury University and a MS in Instructional Technology from University of Maryland University College. He started and runs the Facebook page We Love GMOs and Vaccines, follow him on twitter @welovegv.