Maybe Paleo Shouldn’t Let GMO Crops Upset Them?

Almost without exception, everyone that I know from the Paleo community loathes GMO food. The story goes something like this. Small farmers produce the organic heirloom stuff we buy at the farmers markets. We dive into nutrition and then read Omnivores Dilemma and watch Food Inc. We learn that organic farming is good and GMO farming is evil.

What if we were wrong about GMO food? What is the purpose of GMOs? It is to get higher crop yields per acre using fewer chemical pesticides. If they didn’t do that, they never would have been adopted.

But what about the nutritional quality? My response is who cares? The crops that are most being genetically modified are foods on the no-no list. According to the article The Most Common GMO Foods by Jill Corleone (UPDATE 2022: article offline), the 3 most common GMO foods are:

  1. Soybean
  2. Corn
  3. Canola Oil


What do I care if canola oil is GMO? 

Paleo people are told to avoid grains, legumes, and industrial seed oil. The fact soy, corn, and canola oil are GMO shouldn’t affect us. We don’t eat them. It isn’t our battle. I read one statistic that said without GMOs, conventional farmers would need an additional 9% more land to farm to get the same yield.

Where are they going to get that 9% from? Other farmland where GMO is currently not being used? Is it possible that a campaign that successfully demonizes GMO foods actually results in the expansion of industrial farming?

In the absence of GMOs, I just don’t see conventional farmers embracing the Joel Salatin organic farming model. I think they will acquire more acreage, deforest and use chemicals. And the land they deforest might be land currently being used by one of the cool small organic farmers we chat with every week at our local Farmers Market. Conventional farmers have deeper pockets.

Maybe I am dead wrong on this. I’m throwing up this idea for others to bat around. What if GMOs got even better and were able to use even less acreage to grow foods we already are avoiding? Might that be a win? Although we don’t consume those GMO crops, we do share the same water table and I’d prefer it had less chemical pesticide runoff.

I didn’t want to get into the ethics of patenting seeds and the litigious nature of the companies that do. I think that is a separate topic.

Love to hear your thoughts.


Add yours

  1. I think it’s a dangerous dead end – or rather a bottomless pit. Pests will adapt quickly. And then we’ll have chemicals and pesticides on GMO food. And don’t be fooled in thinking it’ll stop at grain. Veggies, fruits and meat are following. Already happening, we just don’t know!
    I think it’s much wiser to first utilizing the millions of tons of grain that goes wasted every year due to market speculations and politics. Who needs (and receives) all that grain anyway? The Chinese and the Third World. The Chinese do GMO since many years. The Third World….?

  2. If the legal and ethical step arounds were resolved and appropriate labeling was given and GMO was required to have more prevention of cross pollination then I don’t see any objection. I think a lot of the concern is cross pollination and unethical behavior. I do eat the foods on the paleo “bad” list and I would just like accurate labeling and better protections for non-GMO farmers.

  3. “What is the purpose of GMO? It is to get higher crop yields per acre using less chemical pesticides.”

    I actually thought the opposite was true, at least in some cases. Monsanto’s GMO soy was engineered to withstand ultra high doses of Roundup.

  4. @Roland – Interesting point. A GMO arms race with pests might lead to a return to chemicals.

    @Kate – I have mixed opinions on the labeling, since labels imply a food is unsafe. But I fully agree about protection for non-GMO farmers.

  5. @Bill – It still would have to be a cost benefit to the farmer, so the yield would have to go up to compensate for any increase in pesticides. Otherwise it would be a loss.

  6. It might have to be a cost benefit for the farmer, for some, or it might just have to be that the marketers are slick enough to get enough of the market doing it that everyone else figures they must need to do it to keep up. As part of my local agricultural community I can tell you that the latter possibility is entirely realistic; some of these folks are smart as hell, others not so much.

    There are a lot of data points bandied about indicating that GMO usage either increases yields or has failed to deliver on promises, and which of these data points are based on actual research vs. made up on the spot, and which of the research is industry-biased vs. less so, can be quite a knot to untangle.

    In my view, the currently most widespread GMO technology, biocide-tolerant crops, is worth opposing because it does increase pesticide/herbicide usage and concurrent environmental damage and food contamination. If a paleo dieter is eating grain-fed meat, they are susceptible to these issues as components of products like roundup do find their way into meat via feed. Glyphosate, the active ingredient, has been found in everything from groundwater supplies to human breastmilk. It’s relatively harmless to human cells in culture but impacts on gut flora are not well studied.

    Biocide-resistant crops also serve to enable poor farming practices. Without the ability to use such high herbicide levels, farmers have to be certain to manage their soil in such a way as to ensure healthy, robust plants that can deal with some weed composition and pest predation. Being able to expect a spray to magically disappear all your problems encourages corner-cutting. Healthy soil is a very dynamic and complex system from which nutritious food can be coaxed by a skillful cultivator. Biocide-resistant crops are among the cutting edge of tools that enable us now to beat soil systems to near-death and forcibly mine their nutrients (and of course, when some of those become deficient, to then replace them with fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. Mine, process, rebury, mine again. Call it corn.). Land treated in this way becomes fragile, impoverished in the biological resources that once made the basis of a resilient ecosystem.

    GMO technology on the horizon, however, seems far more promising: rather than “enabling bad” the way biocide-resistant crops do, many efforts seek to “add good” to crops. Improved nutrient profiles, greater resilience to adverse factors, internal pesticide production (and consequently zero pesticide runoff), interesting new flavors. Assuming that rabid anti-GMO activists don’t manage to kill them on the drawing board.

    A final thought regarding yields: Why are maximum yields the value we pursue? The world’s agriculture already produces enough food to feed the whole world and a half over again. Clearly our present issues of nutritional deficiencies around the world and the poor economic viability of being a farmer will not be solved by simply pushing those yields ever higher. Chasing yields is a hamster wheel that has gotten us nowhere in at least a few decades. The initial green revolution went some ways to reducing hunger in the third world but we are now well past the point where we need to be thinking outside the idea of increasing yields.

  7. @Erik – You clearly know way more about this topic than me. I’ve read some strong anti-GMO stuff from some smart people and then I’ve read some pro-GMO content over at GMO Pundit.

    Whether we should be chasing a yields is an ethical question. The fact is we are. The world population is still increasing. Tomorrow’s yields will feed tomorrow’s population.

    My concern – which is not based in agricultural science, but economics – is that if there is a successful backlash against GMO, farmers might return to lower yield non-GMO farming. I think that will lead to more deforesting plus higher prices. And although I think the USA will be fine, I don’t know how that will play out in the lowest developed countries. Human populations tend to resort to war before starvation.

    If the nutritional content is lower on foods that I don’t consume, but keep poor populations alive, then I’m OK with that.

  8. Summer Y. Joyner

    Jun 17, 2013 — 1:08 am

    Yet organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy. For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals, like making food plants flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds. If the goal is protect the environment, why not incorporate the newest technologies which help us do so?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.