In modern society, 98% of people do not grow their own food which explains why Americans have such wildly incorrect beliefs about agriculture. These misguided assumptions can be traced back to one source: the media. For example, if one were to search “genetically modified” the second result after Wikipedia would be an anti-GMO website. Since most people skip Wikipedia because it is believed to be an unreliable source, the internet would take them directly to a website that would put modern agriculture under a negative light, which is not a fair perspective. Thus, media driven misconceptions about how food is grown lead people to false conclusions which affects the agricultural industry.
Food science has never been more important than it is today. A growing population combined with climate change creates a dilemma for farmers everywhere. With only 2% of the American population consisting of farmers, it is crucial that they have the technology and resources necessary to feed 100% of the population. Therefore, it is imperative that consumers are making informed decisions in grocery stores about which field of agriculture they are supporting and that those decisions support the sustainability of the agricultural industry. The main false conclusions are regarding: organic agriculture and conventional agriculture.
If one was told to think of the image of a farm, what would come to mind? Would it be an organic farm or a conventional farm? How would one be able to tell from the image? Would it be a factory farm or a family farm? Would the farm be sustainable? These questions help to determine what people truly imagine farming to be like. Most of the time, people imagine a field of a variety of fruits and vegetables, a house nearby, the typical red barn with white trim, and a man in overalls in the fields with a basket full of produce. This is not accurate. Modern farming, because of the immense population, is no longer the small, family-run farm that most people imagine. Instead, farmers must mass produce commodity crops that can later be used for processed foods to keep up with the growing population as well as nutritional needs. This creates a great deal of pressure for farmers to get the most out of the land while still keeping it viable for the next growing season. However, in modern society, there is another added pressure for farmers that has just recently come about: the pressure to switch to the increasingly popular organic methods.
The main idea behind organic agriculture is that it is supposed to be better all around for both the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. Contrary to popular belief, organic does not mean natural, healthy, or best just as GMO does not mean unnatural, unhealthy, or bad. The commonly assumed claim behind organic agriculture is that there are no added chemicals. This is false. The USDA says “Organic farmers limit their use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to the few that are approved in organic regulations and do not use sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering”. For the small percent of the population that is aware that organic agriculture still employs pesticides, most would believe that these pesticides were plant based, which is not always the case. In fact, organic farmers can use synthetic pesticides just as conventional farmers do. Another mission of organic agriculture, per the USDA is to “develop soil health by relying on natural materials, such as cover crops, manure and compost”. Upon reading this, it seems like a sustainable approach to recycle materials such as manure. However, many pathogens can be spread through fecal contamination. For example, “Every single news-making food disaster on record has been attributed to non-GM crops, such as the Escherichia coli–infected organic bean sprouts that killed 53 people in Europe in 2011” (Scientific American). For the small percentage of farms that do not use pesticides altogether, getting rid of pesticides doesn’t mean your food is free from harmful things.
Perhaps the most outrageous misconception about organic food is that it was grown locally. The reality is that factory farms are the only practical way to support the massive U.S. population. In fact, “93% of organic sales are made in grocery stores and 7% are made at farmers’ markets” (USDA). For the small percent of organic farms that are local, or at least, sell their products at farmers’ markets, they do not have to be certified if they gross less than $5,000 per year (USDA). This means that consumers must trust the integrity of the man in the overalls at the tomato stand at the local farmers’ market. For people who trust blindly, this is not a concern. This shows a clear gap of logic in that they would trust a stranger over an accredited biologist. Furthermore, farmers’ markets have seen a dramatic increase in the last 19 years from 1,755 markets in 1994 to 8,144 in 2013, a 464% increase. Many might consider local to be within the city. But, “local” is defined to be “the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product” (Time) For those who live near the center of an average sized state, 400 miles would be just outside state limits, and not, in fact, city or even county limits.
Perhaps the most important and most widely misunderstood concept is a genetically modified organism. A genetically modified organism is defined as “an organism, like every other organism, which produces tens of thousands of proteins, but one or two of them are proteins that were chosen specifically by humans” (SciShow). For example, these specific proteins that were altered allow for plants to be resistant to herbicides, grow bigger fruits, or ripen faster. This means that scientists and farmers can join together to grow stronger, bigger, and more nutritious crops to support the population of consumers. Furthermore, this means that farmers can use less fertilizer, can use fewer pesticides, and can increase yields which means a more sustainable food supply while keeping costs low. If seed was altered to be resistant to herbicides, it would require less work to only spray weeds, which means it is more efficient and less stress for farmers. It would also mean that less pesticide is needed which also saves money. Genetic engineering also means that some crops may not require tilling which preserves topsoil and prevents soil erosion, therefore ensuring soil quality for future growing seasons. All this work is intended so that grocers can keep prices low.
A common misconception surrounding genetically modified foods is that they contain less nutritional value. This has been proven false countless times by dozens of sources but Scientific American phrased it best in the quote “98% of food we consume, which is produced by technologically advanced agriculture, is equally nutritious to the less than 2% derived from what is commonly referred to as the ‘organic’ market”. In fact, “Advances in biotechnology may provide consumers with foods that are nutritionally-enriched or longer-lasting, or that contain lower levels of certain naturally occurring toxicants present in some food plants” (USDA). For example, Golden Rice was genetically engineered to help impoverished countries who suffered from blindness due to a Vitamin A deficiency by enriching the rice with Vitamin A. Another bogus theory about GM foods is that people will develop allergies to the modified foods. Unless the individual is already allergic to a specific protein found in a known food, this is not an issue.
The next most falsely believed idea about GM foods is that they are grown using outrageous amounts of pesticides and herbicides. Again, this is erroneous. “According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives” (Scientific American). The purpose behind genetically engineering crops is so that they will not need as much or as strong pesticides or herbicides. Therefore, this assumption is simply illogical.
Although genetic modification seems like a recent practice, it has actually been used since the beginning of human history and agriculture. Of course, the Mesopotamians were not extracting proteins and inserting them into a different organism. Instead, they were manipulating genetics to breed the most desirable traits from a crop. The USDA explains the difference in artificial selection and genetic engineering to be “That selective breeding or mutagenic techniques tend to result in large swaths of genes being swapped or altered. GM technology, in contrast, enables scientists to insert into a plant’s genome a single gene (or a few of them) from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal”. Genetic engineering allows us to speed up this process by skipping the breeding of generations of crops. This means that what would have taken many growing seasons, can be done in a laboratory setting and grown under controlled and safe conditions. For example, corn used to be a single row of about 6 kernels. Today, a typical ear of corn has around 800 kernels. This is especially important for a crop like corn which is used as a main ingredient in food for livestock. So, even if an individual does not eat an actual ear of corn regularly, corn is still found in most processed foods and was fed to the meat that the individual consumes. Perhaps if more people realized how great of a role commodity crops play in the food system, they would be more appreciative of all of the hundreds of years of work that was put into a single ear of corn.
Along with any new invention comes irrational criticism. This is especially true for something as new and as important as food. From a religious perspective, a portion of the population believes that it is not in man’s role to alter the work of God. From another standpoint, many fear that the proteins that have been genetically altered will affect the consumer. Well, “Just because there is no evidence to date that genetic material from an altered crop can make it into the genome of people who eat it does not mean such a transfer will never happen—or that it has not already happened and we have yet to spot it (Scientific American). Although most of the fears of the general population are due to lack of scientific knowledge and a clear understanding of modern agriculture, those who are aware simply fear that few companies will gain all power over the food supply. This would have negative consequences for all involved. As for the economy, the prices could be either very affordable, or very expensive, and Americans would have no other option but to purchase these foods because nutrition is essential to life. For the farmers, this could also be harmful because their only option is to live off their land and therefore, the few corporations could pay them less because there would be no other opportunity for them.
The main deciding factor for consumers is the price of food. For those who have been in a grocery store lately and have noticed the prices of conventional foods versus organic foods, organic costs more across the board. In fact, “According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic foods generally cost at least 25 percent more in Boston and San Francisco wholesale markets, and could even reach double the price” (Everyday Health). If consumers knew the truth about GM foods, it would be safe to assume that most would change their buying habits. After all, consumers get more product for the price when buying GM foods. For example, at Walmart, an inexpensive and popular supermarket, a 1 lb carton of organic strawberries costs $4.64. At the same Walmart, a 2 lb carton of GM strawberries only costs $3.84. Therefore, the shopper would receive twice as much produce for less money. It is not as complex as it seems.
Most shoppers are only aware of buying organic or GM foods in the produce department because there is an entirely different section for organic. However, most of the GM products that Americans consume are in processed foods and not in fresh produce. In fact “90% of commercially grown foods are commodity crops; staples like feed corn and soybeans” (SciShow). Furthermore, only 43% of organic sales were produce (USDA). This means that the other 57% of organic sales was meat, dairy, and processed foods. This proves that people only focus on produce when choosing organically grown foods and not as much when choosing processed foods which is the bulk of the American diet.
One may wonder what it is about Americans that makes it so easy to believe these conclusions that seem so clear now. Well, according to Ranking America, the United States is: the 3rd biggest country, the 3rd most populated country, yet the 14th in education, and the 29th in science education. Yet, the US is 2nd in ignorance. Americans have a better chance of finding factual information on the internet just by looking on the second page of search results instead of the first. Yet, the first page of results appears first because it is more popular. This is the cause of the issue. The first page of results play on the fears of readers and Americans will believe their misinformation. Another possible explanation for American disapproval of GM crops can be explained by “A pathogen avoidance mechanism, preventing the body from consuming or touching harmful substances” (Scientific American). Simply put, Americans tend to creating issues that weren’t originally there. It is profound that the average American, who is not a farmer, intuitively believes that he has more scientific knowledge than the scientists and researchers who conducted the experiment and had their results approved by the Federal Drug Administration as well as the United States Department of Agriculture.
Upon examination of the two most popular websites for GM foods as well as organic foods, it is even clearer why Americans believe what they do. The pro-organic website, organic.org, has a green logo which is typically associated with nature. Draped over the name of the website is a series of circles in a rainbow formation and color pattern. The circular shape most likely was intended to be linked to the earth and the rainbow was meant to be the sign of hope after the storm which one can assume is the movement toward genetically modified foods. However, the pro-GMO website, factsaboutgmos.org, uses different tactics to portray its message. Instead of using any color, the logo is simply black and white. This reflects the purpose of the website, to give the facts from as much of an unbiased position as possible. Also, the three letters of GMO are greatly larger than the words “the facts about” which shows that they are not afraid or ashamed to be in support of this method. Strategies like these which appeal to pathos, logos, and ethos effectively sway the reader to find their information more credible and believable.
The sponsor of each website is perhaps one of the most crucial components of credibility. The organic website is sponsored by an independent company. Readers should keep this in mind to consider the objective behind the website which is to promote sales of organic foods. On the other spectrum, the conventional website is sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. This association consists of all major US grocers. Their objective in creating this site is to boost business for their companies as well but they will not be as inclined to discriminate against organic foods because most grocery stores sell both. Therefore, the pro-GMO website would be more reliable when examining the source of the information.
Simply providing information about each cause is not enough to persuade readers. For example, on the “Education” page of the organic.org website, there is a young girl sitting underneath a tree in the forest. The girl is not wearing any makeup, she is smiling, and she is wearing earth tone colors in her outfit. The purpose behind this is to appeal to the main audience of the website. People who visit the website are probably looking for more information and the website plays along with the stereotypical organic consumer. Similarly, the pro-GMO website uses pictures of a mother and daughter in a grocery store because in most American households, the mother does the shopping. This website also includes a picture of a smiling, well-fed baby to appeal to the viewer’s sense of pathos. However, the pro-GMO website continues the theme of black and white in the text areas to remind the reader of the credibility of the information.
The most important part of each website is the way in which they define organic and conventional agriculture and how different this definition is from that of the USDA website. The organic website defines this farming method as “organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation”. The USDA defines organic as “producers may work with their organic certifier to use an approved pesticide, such as naturally occurring microorganisms, insecticides naturally derived from plants, or one of a few approved synthetic substances”. Clearly, the organic website is incorrect about the use of pesticides, which is the entire argument. By including the words “sewage sludge” without explaining what they are, readers would naturally be turned away just by the connotation. In fact, sewage sludge actually means “Biosolids which are nutrient-rich organic materials produced from wastewater treatment facilities. Biosolids can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth” (EPA). Also, the website claims that organic agriculture is free of “ionizing radiation” which is a comment on the outdated method of genetic modification which is no longer used today for obvious reasons.
However, the pro-GMO website defines this method as “GM technology allows farmers to use fewer chemicals, such as pesticides. It also helps them utilize more environmentally friendly planting techniques that cut down on soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions and water use”. The USDA defines GM methods as “Conventional farming is the use of seeds that have been genetically altered using a variety of traditional breeding methods, excluding biotechnology, and are not certified as organic”. Clearly, the pro-GM website’s definition is much more aligned with that of the USDA than the organic website. This proves that the information found on this site is likely to be more accurate.
The last portion of the website to compare are the claims about the method. For example, the organic website argues that “Organic farming is more labor and management intensive”. This may be true since organic farms must apply more pesticides more often. Their next argument is that “With only 0.5 percent of crop and pasture land in organic, according to USDA that leaves 99.5 percent of farm acres in the U.S. at risk of exposure to noxious agricultural chemicals”. The syntax behind this claim creates fear in the reader which most likely was not present upon first view of the site. Lastly, perhaps the most far-fetched claim is that “Scientists now know what we eaters have known all along: organic food often tastes better. It makes sense that strawberries taste yummier when raised in harmony with nature”. This is simply ridiculous. Strawberries taste like strawberries no matter if one of their ten thousand genes is made to be resistant to RoundUp.
The arguments presented on the conventional agriculture website were much more accurate and safe to believe. For example, the website states that “Many of the most influential regulatory agencies and organizations that study the safety of the food supply…have found genetically modified food ingredients are safe and there are no negative health effects associated with their use”. This has been proven to be true countless of times and is therefore safe to agree with as a reader. Next, the website says “Ingredients grown using GM technology require fewer pesticides, less water and keep production costs down. In fact, GM technology helps reduce the price of crops used for food, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets by as much as 15-30%”. Once again, this is a proven fact. Lastly, the website addresses global hunger in the quote “Safe and effective methods of food production, like crops produced through GM technology, can help us feed the hungry and malnourished in developing nations around the world”. Although this has yet to happen, it is a believable and possible hypothesis. Overall, the pro-GMO website had more factual information that was presented more accurately.
Now that the misconceptions have been cleared, it is important to consider the effects of our accurate beliefs as well as our false beliefs. GM crops are more cost effective for the consumer; however, organic farmers make more money per acre than GM farmers. According to a study by the USDA in 2010, conventional corn income per acre was $139.05 compared to an acre of organic corn which generated an income of $366.27. This was a 263% increase in income for an organic farmer. This dramatic increase explains why most farmers are feeling pressured into switching to organic operations. However, the soil must be free of prohibited substances for 3 years (USDA). Obviously, farmers cannot just let their land sit for three years; so, the transition must be gradual which means that they will be forced to grow crops using both organic and conventional methods and ensure that they are following all regulations surrounding that. Farming is already an underappreciated field and many do not realize that all the power in the agricultural industry lies in the pockets of the 98% of the non-farming population. This new organic trend means that “Organic producers are typically younger and more likely to be beginning farmers than non-organic producers” (USDA).
The next steps from this point forward are to be grateful for the options that we have as Americans since other people do not have any options at all. Also, Americans should fulfill their responsibility for staying updated on agriculture. For example, Congress just passed a bill in July that will require all foods that contain GMO ingredients to be clearly labeled. The purpose of this is to drive people away from GMOs to buy organic which could easily happen because of the false conclusions that Americans have about agriculture. Lastly, if knowing everything about GM crops still doesn’t satisfy one’s fear of them, at least buy produce locally from farmers’ markets and ask questions about where and how the food was grown. Even if the only takeaway from this article is being more aware of one’s own buying habits when it comes to food, the job of agvocacy has been accomplished.
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