WASHINGTON, July 8, 2015 – Proponents of mandatory labeling of food products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) rolled out a trio of academics Wednesday in a bid to raise public awareness of the public health and environmental costs of herbicides used in the production of genetically engineered crops.

The panelists at a Washington breakfast sponsored by the Just Label It campaign included Charles Benbrook with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University; Alex Lu, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Harvard University; and David Mortenson, professor of weed and applied plant ecology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Their main target was U.S. agriculture’s increasing use of glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and a chemical that has been classified as “probably carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization.

Benbrook asserted that glyphosate now accounts for about two-thirds of the active ingredients farmers use on their crops and that its use exploded following the introduction of genetically-engineered glyphosate resistant crops – mostly corn and soybeans -- letting farmers kill weeds without killing the crops. That’s up from about 10 percent in the mid-1980s.

“At some point, the cost to farmers and the environment is going to become intolerable,” Benbrook said.

Lu argued that the Environmental Protection Agency, in allowing continued use of the product, is ignoring evidence from Europe and elsewhere of glyphosate’s harmful health effects. And Mortenson noted that there are alternatives farmers can use to get off what he called the “pesticide treadmill,” including cover cropping, rotational tillage and increased use of crop rotation, without facing reduced yields.

CropLife America, which represents agricultural chemical companies, disagrees. According to the group, up to 40 percent of the world’s potential crop production is lost each year because of the effects of weeds, pests and diseases, and these losses would double if existing pesticide uses were abandoned.

The Environmental Working Group, which organized today’s briefing, said that contrary to the GMO seed industry’s promise that the production of GMO crops would result in a decreased use of pesticides, the exact opposite has occurred over the past two decades. Use of glyphosate has increased 16-fold since the 1990s, primarily due to its use on GMO crops, it said. In 2012, growers sprayed 280 million pounds of glyphosate on their crops, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, or almost a pound for every U.S. citizen. A study published by the Taylor & Francis Group found differently. It said the adoption of insect-resistant (Bt) corn and cotton has reduced the acreage treated with insecticides and the quantities of the chemicals applied to crops. Between 1996 and 2011, according to the study, Bt corn reduced insecticide use in corn production by 45 percent worldwide.

Additionally, a meta-analysis published by PLOS one in November 2014 found that on average, adoption of GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. Yield gains and pesticide reductions were larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains were higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

EPA has approved the use of Enlist Duo, a Dow Agrosciences’ herbicide containing glyphosate and another pesticide called 2-4-D – which IARC says is “possibly carcinogenic” – in 15 states.

(Notably, IARC also classifies components in common items such as coffee, cell phones and aloe vera as “possibly carcinogenic.")

EWG claimed that the agency approved the product without evidence of how the two ingredients will act together.

However, the EPA and Health Canada recently completed extensive reviews of Enlist.

“No basis was found in these reviews for concluding that the combination of these products poses concerns. Also, in its October 2014 evaluation, the U.S. EPA stated in that ‘The mixture (glyphosate and 2,4-D choline) does not show a greater toxicity compared to either parent compound alone,'” explained Joe Vertin, Dow AgroSciences Global Leader for Enlist.

Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said the widespread use of glyphosate is one of the reasons the public overwhelmingly favors mandatory labeling of GMO foods. And he pointed out that legislation that would preempt state efforts to require such labeling is making its way through Congress and the House may take action on the measure as early as this month. 

In response to the briefing, the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food – which includes the American Farm Bureau Federation and most major commodity groups -- released the following statement:

“The scientific evidence regarding the safety of GMOs is overwhelming and undeniable.  Thousands of studies, as well as nearly every leading health and safety organization in the world – from the World Health Organizations to the American Medical Association – have all affirmed the safety of the foods produced through genetic engineering.  Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed these products and deemed them safe for the environment.  Even Scott Faber, executive director of the Just Label It campaign, testified during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health in December 2014 that he believes GMO foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts. 

“Opponents of GMOs are misleading the public into believing America’s food supply is unsafe and farmers are to blame. They seem to overlook or ignore the inconvenient truth that pesticides and herbicides are used in the production of  conventional crops as well, which means that their demand for mandatory labeling of GMOs would provide consumers with no actionable information whatsoever regarding when, where or if a farmer used these agricultural tools during the growing season.  It is also important to remember that, should evidence arise that draws into question the safety of a product, the USDA, FDA and EPA already have the statutory authority to regulate that product as appropriate. 

“The Just Label It campaign is flailing around with a series of attacks and claims that show their GMO-labeling agenda simply has no scientific footing on which to stand.”

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The Just Label It campaign says on its website that it now includes more than 700 organizations, including food and farming organizations, businesses, the healthcare community and the faith-based community. Business sponsors include Ben & Jerry’s, Stonyfield Organic, Boulder Brands, and National Co-op Growers.

(Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this report.)

This story was updated on 7/10/2015.


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