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Doctor Oz spins fibs about GMOs (again)

Farmers market tomatoes
Farmers market tomatoes

Like the Modern Major General, Dr Oz was “telling a terrible story” about GMO foods. In yesterday’s segment, helpfully titled “No to GMOs: the Global Conspiracy to Keep You from Knowing the Truth about your food.” (Conspiracy theorists always seem to have trouble with capitalization.)

Oz began his segment telling a tale about tomatoes that were bred to keep from freezing by inserting a fish gene. And he pointed out they were indistinguishable from conventional tomatoes. The only trouble with this fish tale is that they don’t exist and never did. There is no breed of tomatoes with fish genes in them. There was once a lab experiment of this type, but it turned out that the gene didn’t keep them from freezing and it was abandoned. There are no GM tomatoes!

Then he confusingly told his audience of trusting moms that GM crops were bred with “pesticides” in them but that the “bugs got smarter” and farmers are now spraying more pesticides than ever. This is both really confused and really wrong.

Some GM crops are herbicide resistant (to Roundup, for example) and the farmer can spray Roundup on the weeds to kill them without hurting the crop. But, the use of any herbicide can lead to herbicide resistant weeds: this is true of any type of farming and has nothing to do with GM crops. Crop and herbicide rotation are the usual solutions.

Some GM crops are insect resistant by producing Bt insecticide directly in the plant. This is harmless to humans but kills most Lepidoptera. There is some resistance to Bt crops developing, but is controlled pretty well by interplanting some non-Bt seeds among your crops.

Oz claims that the amount of “pesticide” went from 1 million to 100 million pounds a year in the last decade or so. Actually, the USDA says:

  • Insecticide use in corn peaked in 1976 at 32 million pounds (M lbs) of active ingredient, dropped to 10.6 M lbs by 2000, and by 2010 had fallen to 1.8 M lbs; that’s nearly an 18-fold decrease.
  • Insecticide use in cotton declined from 43.5 M lbs in 2000 to 7.2 M lbs in 2010; a 6-fold decrease. The 2000 to 2010 time period coincides with the introduction of GM corn and cotton for insect management.
  • Herbicide use in corn and soybeans stood at 243 and 133 M lbs, respectively, in 1982, peak years for both, and by 2010 was at 197 and 110 M lbs, respectively. There has been a rise in herbicide use over the past 10 years or so, as a few very low use rate herbicides, especially in soybeans, have been replaced by somewhat higher use rate products but still not reaching the rates of the past. And this rise is of much more benign herbicides, like Roundup which have very low human toxicity, and break down quickly after use.

So Oz pretty much has all this wrong. Pesticides went down substantially and herbicides went up only slightly, but for herbicides that are pound for pound more benign. And, in fact, when farms spray Roundup, they need not over-till the soil which causes soil runoff and nutrient loss.

Why spend so much time on this point? Because Oz’s whole argument is that GM crops are bad because of all those pesticides, and it just plain isn’t true.

Dr. Oz then trotted out Scott Faber from the Environmental Working Group to tell us that “something made in a lab should not be called natural.” Well if you don’t have facts on your side, you can always try fear, but the scientific consensus is that there is no debate. Thousands of peer reviewed papers have shown that all GM crops are safe. They are the most tested products of all time, with testing to gain approval for each crop taking up to 10 years and $100 million.

Oz and Faber pointed out that General Mills’ Cheerios Post’s Grapenuts are about to be labeled as containing no GM ingredients. Since neither contains any GM corn or soy this is pretty easy. Silly activists like Faber try to call sugar from GM sugar beets a “GM crop,” conveniently ignoring the fact the sugar (sucrose) is exactly the same compound whether extracted from beets or cane, and either way contains no protein which would contain any genes! This same argument applies to the small amount of cornstarch in Cheerios.

The whole trouble with Oz’s presentation is that he has completely ignored all science. There is no evidence of any harm to any animal from GM crops in the peer-reviewed literature and rather than discussing the fact that all science says they are wrong, they work hard to create fear and uncertainty among the non-scientists that make up Oz’s typical audience. And they have no scientists to provide proof to the contrary because there isn’t any!

Finally, they turn to the idea that all foods containing GM ingredients should be “labeled.” What ingredients are dangerous? Which genetic modifications are of concern? They have no idea, because there is no science to support it.

The FDA has taken the position that unless GM crops have some ingredients that make them substantially different from conventional crops, no labeling can be required. And all of GM crops have the same chemical analysis as the non-GM versions.

Oz trotted out the bizarre new canard that manufacturers oppose labeling because they don’t want to cede any valuable package space to this issue, when they can use it for advertising. This is ridiculous on the face of it. Manufacturers oppose labeling crops containing GM ingredients because they are the same in all chemical and nutritional tests. And they know that such a label would immediately be used by crazies like Oz and Faber to demonize their products. And in fact this is exactly what has happened in the UK where GM labeling is required. There are essentially no products available on the market with GM ingredients. Scientific American has the definitive article on why GM labeling is a dumb idea. They should read it.


Below are references showing much of the science behind the safety of GMO crops.

  1. Is it True that GMOs require massive amounts of pesticides?
  2. Bt Sweet Corn can reduce insecticide use
  3. Labels for GMOs are a bad idea
  4. Is labeling really about our right to know?
  5. IS GM Food Safe? Experts from around the world answer.
  6. Massive review reveals consensus on GMO safety
  7. A decade of EU Funded GMO Research
  8. WHO: 20 questions on Genetically Modified Food
  9. About the “industry funded” studies.
  10. Glyphosate (Roundup) a Once in a Lifetime Herbicide
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