GMO Myths – Understand the Truth About GMO Plants

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Robert Pavlis

GMOs are very controversial for two reasons. Firstly, there is a lot of misinformation out there and secondly GMOs are not well understood by the general public. Rather than discuss the topic in detail I have decided to focus on some of the common myths. I will present a number of GMO myths and if the reader is interested in more detail they can look at the references.

If you have formed an opinion on GMOs based what you have read on popular web sites and in newspapers, you have probably reached the wrong conclusion. The anti-GMO movement is strong and based almost entirely on emotion and fear. Science does not back up most of their claims.

GMO Myths - Understand the Truth About GMO Plants
GMO Myths – Understand the Truth About GMO Plants, source Antoine.Couturier

What is a GMO?

It always amazes me that people form opinions and have strong views on topics without ever taking the time to understand the basic facts. I’ll bet that less than 1% of people, with an opinion about GMO either for or against, actually know what a GMO is. For quite some time I was one of the 99% that thought they knew what a GMO was – I was wrong.

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. In its simplest terms any organism that has had its DNA changed is a GMO. Based on this definition all of the fruits and vegetables you eat are GMOs. We seldom eat native fruits and vegetables that have not been bred to make the food better.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

The above definition is not very helpful so people redefining the term. A plant GMO was redefined as a process that a) takes place in a lab, and b) has DNA from a different type of organism (ie not a plant) placed into the DNA of plants. For example, some fish genes were moved into Christmas trees, which then glowed. These are a GMO plant.

This last definition seems to be the one that is used by most people.

What is the Real Definition of GMO?

What about a lab procedure that adds DNA from one plant into another plant – other types of organisms are not involved? Is that a GMO? Some might say yes since it was done in the lab. But what if plant species A is pollinated by plant species B and the offspring have new DNA genes? Is there really any difference just because it was done in a lab? Not really.

There is a French wheat called Renan which was produced by breeders who bathed wheat and two other species of plants in a carcinogen, colchicine, which affects the way chromosomes connect to each other. They then exposed them to X-rays to further alter the DNA. This produced a very disease resistant wheat containing DNA from all three species and it was clearly produced in the lab. It has been grown in Europe for years but it is not a GMO according to the EU because it did not use the gene transfer technology called transgenesis, that has been used for modern day gene manipulation. So being done in a lab is not an important part of the definition.

Consider the sweet potato. When scientists studied the DNA of the sweet potato they found that it contained DNA from a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This DNA has been there for thousands of years. Agrobacterium uses a method of transferring its DNA into other species that is very similar to the method used to make GMOs. The sweet potato is a natural GMO, produced by nature. It has DNA from both plants and bacteria. Should the sweet potato be called a GMO?

All natural GMO produced by nature - it is good for you!
All natural GMO produced by nature – it is good for you!

Monsanto developed Roundup resistant seed by transferring DNA from Agrobacteria into plants. Sounds very similar to how nature made the sweet potato?

The last couple of examples show why the previous definition of GMO are not correct. A GMO may or may not have been made in the lab – nature can make GMOs all on her own. A GMO may or may not have DNA from a different type of organism.

It is very difficult to find a suitable definition for GMO. In some ways GMO is a lab procedure, transgenesis, and when this technique is used the resulting organism is a GMO organism. But we now have new and improved procedures like gene silencing, mutagenesis and CRISPR. Should plants produced by these new procedures also be called GMO? Right now they are not GMOs and they are not controlled by GMO laws and regulations. For a more in-depth discussion about the definition of GMO have a look at ‘s article on Grist.

I find it both amusing and concerning that people have such strong views about something that is not well defined!

Gardeners Can Not Buy GMO Seed

I see comments about this all the time. Gardeners are concerned that they will get GMO seed when they buy a package of seed. This completely unfounded fear has caused most seed companies to stamp their websites and catalogues in big letters; ‘NO GMO’.

The whole thing is stupid. The only way to buy GMO seed is to sign a contract with the supplier of the seed. They won’t do that for a $3 package of seed.

Besides, only a few types of seed are available as GMO. The common things like tomatoes, carrots and beans are not available as GMO seed even to farmers. I think tomato GMO seed has now been developed but it is not on the market yet. When it is, it won’t be sold in small packages to gardeners.

UPDATE 2024: Gardeners in the USA now have access to two GMO seeds. One is the “firefly petunia” which emits a continuous green glow thanks to genes from a mushroom. The other is the tomato ‘Purple’.

Our Food is Not Natural

One of the misconceptions is that all of our food was produced by natural pollination, or by a human moving pollen from one plant to another, which mimics the “natural way”. This is seen as much better than “lab manipulation.

The reality is that many of today’s cultivars were and are still produced by exposing seed to harmful X-rays (Radiation Mutation Breeding) and carcinogens. These techniques scramble the DNA and produce new kinds of plants. “The Mutant Variety Database, which collects information on plant varieties created through radiation breeding and other similar ‘mutation breeding’ techniques, logs over 3,000 improved varieties, including grapefruit, rice, wheat and barley. In Vietnam, around half the soya beans planted are mutant varieties.” Rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum are just some of the mutant foods we eat today.

The cultivars produced this way are not GMOs, but is there really any difference? If you understand the technologies you would be much more concerned about mutation breeding than GMO.

Since these are not GMO seed they can be sold almost anywhere in the world including Europe. I suspect that some of these seeds are sold to gardeners in small seed packages.

Organic Gardeners ARE Allowed to Use Genetically Modified Seed

Organic farmers are not allowed to use GMO seed, but they can certainly use genetically modified seed as well as seed produced by mutagenesis.

At the moment they are also allowed to use seed produced by the other newer gene modification procedures. This may change in time.

Organic gardeners growing sweet potatoes are growing a GMO and that is quite acceptable.

GMO Food is Safe to Eat

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that GMO food is unsafe to eat. There has been some research done showing GMO food causes tumors in rats, but that research has been completely debunked. The author, Gilles-Eric Séralini, was forced to withdraw the work due to poor experiment design and a refusal to release data. But the anti-GMO movement still presents it as fact. It’s not.

Consider this for a moment. The procedure used to make a GMO, transgenesis, moves a couple of very specific genes from one organism to another. The process is very controlled, the scientists know exactly which genes are being moved and the DNA in the resulting organism is well tested.

Compare that to natural plant breeding where you mix and shake thousands of genes and have no idea what is in the new organism. This is considered to be perfectly safe to eat. In mutagenesis the radiation scrambles the DNA and we have no idea what it has done to the genes. In fact the damage is so great that most treated seeds don’t even develop properly – their DNA is so damaged that they can’t grow. We consider this food to be perfectly safe to eat.

GMO food is well tested. Natural genetics and mutagenesis undergoes almost no testing.

I have no problem with people being against genetically modified food, but the reason for this fear should not be based on food safety. GMO food is perfectly safe.

Naturally Produced Plants May Not be Safe to Eat

Most people think that natural breeding and selection produces completely safe foods. Farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years – how can this cause a problem?

Naturally bred potatoes, called Lenape, had to be taken off the market because they contained toxic levels of alpha-solanine and alpha-chaconine, which are human plasma cholinesterase inhibitors. These are not sprayed pesticides. Alpha-solanine and alpha-chaconine are natural pesticides produced by all varieties of potatoes – they are in every French fry you eat, even the organic ones. Selective breeding just increased the amounts to toxic levels.

RC Beier,  in a recent study reported that “A new celery cultivar (a result of plant breeding to produce a more pest-resistant variety) was responsible for significant incidences of phytophotodermatitis (inflammatory eruption resulting from contact with light-sensitizing botanical substances) of grocery employees.” Natural breeding produced a variety of celery that caused blistering and rashes on skin.

Natural breeding is not any safer than genetic engineering. Each method can produce food that is toxic to us. Each plant produced should be properly tested. But new cultivars produced by natural breeding get no testing at all – until you eat it.

GMOs are All About Roundup

A phrase such as, ‘I am against GMOs because I don’t want Roundup to be used” is very common. People associate GMO and Roundup, but that is mostly a false association and shows a lack of understanding about GMO.

It is true that Monsanto developed Roundup and they developed some of the first GMOs. It is also true that Monsanto developed GMO corn and soybean that is ‘Roundup Ready’. This means that growing plants can be sprayed with Roundup and it won’t kill the crop plants.

However, most GMO plants have nothing to do with Roundup. Most GMO plants are not Roundup Ready and most are not produced by Monsanto.

The majority of GMO plants have been developed to reduce the effects of pests and disease.

Non-GMO Herbicide Ready Seeds

Selling Roundup Ready seeds is big business. Why? Because it adds a lot of profit for both the farmer and the seed company. Europe banned GMO seed and therefore farmers in Europe can not buy such seed.

Not a problem. Companies soon developed herbicide resistant seeds using mutagenesis. These work just as well as GMO seed, they are developed in a lab, they have not been as closely tested as the GMO seed, but they are not banned in countries who have banned GMO seed. Even organic farmers can use them.

As an example, Clearfield is a variety of canola that is herbicide resistant but it is not a GMO.

The point here is that Roundup and GMO really have nothing to do with each other. They are different topics and risks and fears associated with them should be discussed separately.

GMOs Increase Herbicide Use

Andrew Kniss looked at the relative toxicity of herbicide use in the US from 1990 to 2015. He found that herbicide use increased on genetically engineered gylphosate resistant corn, cotton, rice, and wheat. But the increase on non genetically engineered rice and wheat increased at a faster pace.

The use of GMOs is actually reducing the rate at which herbicide are used.

More importantly, GMOs are also reducing the toxicity of the herbicides used. Farmers using GMO seed are able to use Roundup instead of the more toxic herbicides they used to use.

Many reports look at the weight of pesticide used and try to do comparisons, but this is mostly a silly, pointless exercise because they ignore the toxicity of the product being used. Consider this simple example. Assume only two pesticides are used. Pesticide A is 100 times more toxic than pesticide B. If I report that total pesticide use has gone up in terms of weight – what does that tell you? Not much. If the total weight has gone up, but the amount of A is down, the situation is much better for the environment.

From a herbicide point of view, GMOs are reducing the environmental impact of herbicide use.

Insect Resistant GMOs Reduce Insecticide Use

As stated above most GMOs have nothing to do with Roundup. Most have been developed to create plants that produce more natural insecticides. Plants produce hundreds of natural pesticides to keep pests from eating them. By genetically altering the DNA, plants can be created that produce more insecticide than normal. If they produce more insecticide, farmers need to spray less often.

This is precisely what Monsanto has done. They developed a soybean called Intacta which requires far less spraying. Jack Kaskey reports that “Soybean growers in northern Brazil who normally make six to 10 insecticide applications a season require only one or two sprays with Intacta crops. “.

The reduction in insecticide use has been so dramatic that “DuPont said it won’t restart a Texas factory that makes Lannate insecticide partly because insect resistant crops ( ie GM crops) have eroded sales”.

If you are anti-GMO, you are also for increased pesticide use!

What about Super Weeds?

Spraying a lot of Roundup does produce super weeds which are weeds that have become resistant to Roundup.

Many people think that the reason for such weeds is that the GMO Roundup Ready crops are cross pollinating with weeds, which in turn produce GMO weed offspring. That is not very likely with most crops since the crops and weeds are too genetically different to breed. There is a slight chance this might happen with oilseed rape and sugar beet.

Super weeds are produced the old fashion way. A genetic mutation occurs in a single plant that makes it Roundup resistant. It then survives a spraying event and passes on its genes to future offspring. This type of natural selection has been documented well before the introduction of GMOs.

An increased use of GMOs has resulted in increased Roundup use, and this could lead to more super weeds.

But this is a problem with the use of Roundup, not with the GMO technology itself. Remember that most GMOs have nothing to do with Roundup.

Conclusions about GMO

The GMO technology and the food produced from it is perfectly safe to eat. In fact, it is much safer than traditional breeding of plants and it is safer than other technologies like mutagenesis, although neither of these alternatives are high risk.

Some 89% of scientists agree that GMO food is safe and 57% of Americans say GMO food is NOT safe. This drastic disconnect is both interesting and troubling. The difference may be due to the fact that people do not trust science. It might be due to the fact that the anti-GMO movement has done a tremendous brain washing job. It is probably a bit of both.

Each GMO plant should be evaluated on its own merits. It is foolish to clump them all into one bucket and call them all bad. The new Golden Rice is a GMO that will prevent thousands of children in poor countries from going blind. There is no science to show it has any harmful effects and the seed will be given to farmers free of charge. There is no large company to blame for getting rich. But people sitting in countries with lots of food on the table are trying to block its use. I find that despicable.

This link is a good discussion as to why Golden Rice is still not be used by most countries.

GMO is here to stay. If it is not this technology it will be another one, but genetic manipulation is not going away. We might as well learn to understand it and start making intelligent decisions about it.

Ignore the fear mongers!

Comments

GMO is such a controversial topic that I will not post peoples opinions. If you have facts to present, or references to add to the discussion I will be more than happy to include them in the comment section below.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

40 thoughts on “GMO Myths – Understand the Truth About GMO Plants”

  1. I can’t say I blame you for wanting to avoid the GMO “discussion” altogether. I’ve tried to learn over the past several years what exactly people are afraid of that is contained within GMO’s. I don’t think the general public themselves can know exactly what to be wary of because those warning us of their dangers don’t seem to know either. As a matter of fact I have asked countless persons, publishers, “experts”, so on, writing about the “Fraken-food” for the name(s) & or/chemical formula(s) of any & all the “bad for our health” elements in GMO’s. Often I was replied to, if at all, as if I were brazen or contrarian for asking. “Things” do typically have names & chemicals usually do have formulas I can assure you of this. As I suspect it is of little to surprise to you the bad thing in GMO’s doesn’t appear to have either a name or chemical formula!! Although the name “Monsanto” often appears several times with a negative connotation I could not find that on the periodical chart or any other chart for that matter. It appears to be a default position or boogeyman agreement for outrage enthusiasts that are environmentally inclined. I think one could reasonable conclude that these alleged dangers are not only A myth but they do not even actually exist to debate otherwise.
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  2. Great article. Gives me much food for thought. I can see the benefit of not having to spray as much insecticide as a result of genetically altered plants. Question is does the plant produced insecticide harm beneficial insects any more or less than the spray? A study I read indicates the worldwide insect population is in dramatic decline and is thought to be having a very detrimental effect on pollination and dependent species such as birds. If the plants could be altered to ward off the insects without killing them this might be another good reason for genetically modified plants.

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    • If the plant is producing the insecticide, the only insects that are harmed are ones that eat the plant. That does not mean no other insect or animal is harmed, but it is less harmful than spraying.

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  3. Thanks for this helpful article. Several years ago I founded a program for scientists to give seminars to the public about hot topic issues such as this one, and GMOs always generated lively discussion.

    One thing I think is critical to emphasize is that genetic modification of plants (and I’m talking about engineering to insert specific genes from one species to another, not breeding or irradiation) is a *technology*, not a product. In other words, it’s a method of doing something. Whether or not you agree with what this company or that scientist used it for, the problem is not with the method itself. I would argue that some uses of this technology certainly do have ethical or environmental consequences which are worthy of criticism. For example, Monsanto certainly does deserve scorn for suing farmers for having “Round Up ready” genes in their crops if the genes got there from pollen that blew across from another farmer’s fields.
    But other products created using genetic engineering of plants can be used to solve problems (as you point out, limiting pesticide spraying by having the plant produce it in its tissues, or adding critical vitamins to rice).
    We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    At the end of the day, genetic engineering is just a tool used to get genes from one organism into another. Whether the tool was used for good is a case-by-case discussion. But the method itself should not be vilified just because individual GMO product/s may cause problems.

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  4. I would like to ask a simple question. What if you consider sustainability and all the tears for such, if seed saving and passing on heritage is vital to a community, then how do gmo’s play in that regard?

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    • Is “seed saving and passing on heritage is vital to a community” important? Why?

      None of the food we grow today is like the food we grew 200 years ago, and people do not want to go back eating such food. The wild tomato is tough, small and tastes bad. Why is it important to save such seed?

      There is some value in saving old seed, and the fact that we have GMO seed does not mean we have to stop saving this old seed. We just have another new variety to save – something humans have been doing for hundreds of years.

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      • Andrew may have been referring to the practice of farmers saving their own seed, which companies like Monsanto will not allow them to do if they buy specific strains of GMO seed. There’s no technical problem with saving the seed, but the seller can use the patent to claim legal ownership over any seed produced from its products.

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  5. I was finding your posts interesting. But this one takes the cake. In effect, since the scientists who are funded by Monsanto or who have career interest in the agricultural field (of which Monsanto is the lion and ‘the future’) have not found GMOs bad for us, we therefore know it is not bad. Anyone who says otherwise needs to read the ‘science.’

    I think I’ll stick with the Environmental Working Group.

    People all over seem to freak out about how much food we need to produce for our population. Well, Mexico used to have a thriving agriculture. What happened? People used to be able to get nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. What happened? And half our food gets thrown out/goes bad before it even reaches us a few states over. Yeah, clearly the problem is that we aren’t growing enough food. And our only hope is GMO food that has spider genes in it!

    http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/gmo-foods-cause-gut-damage/

    http://naturallysavvy.com/live/eating-gmo-foods-changes-gut-bacteria

    http://www.naturalnews.com/032800_GMOs_intestinal_bacteria.html

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    • One of the quickest ways to tell if someone has not absorbed the truth about GMO is that they pull the Monsanto card. Most GMOs are not developed by or owned by Monsanto – check your facts.

      Most of the scientists which have no issue with GMOs have nothing to do with genetics, agriculture or any plant related science.

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      • Actually Monsanto is a giant company that owns majority of the seed companies that exist today. Further, many companies have found that GMO seed have been ‘accidentally’ shipped to them under the label of NO GMO.

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      • Well I hope you all get your wishes of glowing food or whatever unnatural thing you want your food to do. As it stands GMOs are about money, the company creating majority of the GMO crops does not actually care about the sales of seeds. To them that is just the icing. The actual cake, their main money maker is their herbicide. So the modifications they are making is not to make tastier apples or different colours of rice but to make plants that better withstand the hash herbicide. Of course this is only one side of the coin because a mega corporation isn’t about to tell you how they’re making money off you being a chump.

        Until scientists, that have not been hired by the company that stands to make profit from their positive discoveries, come to the same conclusion the same amount of times the corporate scientists did there cannot be any scientific discussion.

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        • How then do you explain the fact that most of the companies selling GMO seed do NOT sell herbicides?

          Or the fact that most GMO seed is NOT herbicide resistant?

          You have not taken the time to understand the industry.

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  6. GMO is the way the business industry has found to create a proprietary niche with patents over essential humanity needs: the seeds.

    Like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fongicides are not necessary (they become necessary only in dead soils promoted by the mainstream intensive industrial agricultural movement), GMOs are not necessary.

    It is the most unscientific claim to say that GMOs will help to feed the humanity like the GMO industry have claimed.

    The human centric desire to control nature is vain, because human beings are part of nature and do not in any way control the way nature works.

    So the genetics technoscience desire to control evolution is just a mad dream.

    Scientists only approximate some processes they can theorize and observe, but most of biological interactions are unknown to them and even not described and understood, both at the molecular, submolecular and macromolecular levels.

    In interacting with biological processes, scientists create side-effects. Just in looking and observing a system, that system is modified, so in wanting to directly interact with it, at the DNA level, the possible side-effects are just not controlable and therefore very hazardous and potentially unsafe.

    Eating GMOs, it is like drinking a compost tea brewed at home. It may or may not makes one sick, but when one knows what one is doing, one would probably avoid drinking or eating it.

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      • The problem with most of studies about GMOs is that they are written by people who have biases towards the technology and who are making carrier into that field. One of the biases is that GMOs are needed in agriculture for example. As there is a lot of money involved with big corporations creating an economical market, there is a tendency to condition scientists into that direction for social and economical reasons, but not scientific ones.

        GMOs are a technology and a commercial application (when not confined) and not real science: applied technology is not science. Science is about understanding biology, the natural processes, with the minimum of interaction from the part of the scientist, and nature is understood best when the scientist is not (so to speak), that is when it does not interfere with what it observes. The real scientific approach towards GMOs is not to express what one wants into a particular organism via a genetic modification, but to understand what one is doing as well as all the consequences of that modification within the natural biological processes. So there is clearly a lack of understanding and a lack of science into that field which is very expensive, and not necessary in agriculture.

        Another element to notice is that GMOs are mainly produced by imitating the way pathogens and virus are functioning. Scientists use pathogens processes in order to inoculate the cells with new DNA materials. All this is very different from the natural mutations that may occur in biological evolution as spontaneous mutations and not pathogenic-induced mutations.

        So, no, a GMO plant is not equivalent in substance with a non-GMO plant, as well as a chemically fed plant is not equivalent in substance with a plant that is fed through organical means via a compost and a soil that is rich of life like in natural environments that one may reproduce in agriculture.

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        • Re: “a GMO plant is not equivalent in substance with a non-GMO plant” – true – they are different or they would not be a GMO. But then each cultivar of a plant is also different, and each individual of a naturally pollinated seed produces plants that are different – so what. As far as our bodies are concerned they see no difference.

          “GMOs are a technology and a commercial application (when not confined) and not real science: applied technology is not science.” – of course it is real science.

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  7. Thanks for a clear well written article about GMO and, as an agronomist, I agree with most of the points made. The issue is one of ethics. We all understand that the big corporations have a limitless greed for profit, which overrides their social conscience any time the two conflict. The same sadly is also true of some scientists. All us laymen can do is judge the quality of the science and the ethics of the scientist and hope we get it right. Nature is brutal, and knows not the meaning of kindness, tolerance and care. It is those qualities that should make our species great as custodians, but, alas, we are not up to it. We are just being natural!

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    • Ethics: I would think people who provide disease resistant food to billions of people in third world countries to be more ethical than people who push for small scale methods in order to market to well off “Whole Foods” customers.

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      • I’m sure that it is rather “disease induced” foods, until proof of the contrary. But there is not any nutrition research with randomized control groups of people eating GMO’s versus one’s eating organic foods. Though such study has been made for conventional versus organic, and overall health was better in the groups eating organic than in the groups eating conventional food.

        Moreover GMO’s crops are mainly used for feeding livestocks, animals, and not human beings. And meat consumption has already proved to be nefast for health, being carcinogenic and inducing other diseases besides cancer, like diabetes, scleroses, heart diseases and even degenerative brain disorders. All being improved by ditching meat products from one’s diet.

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        • Actually testing has shown no health benefits from eating organic. GMO food is routinely used for human consumption and eating meat causes none of the problems you mention if eaten in reasonable amounts.

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