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GMO Labeling: Consumer Protection or Fear Mongering?

by Stephen Propatier

June 19, 2014

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Donate The use of Genetically Modified Organisms, better known as GMO, is an area of debate among skeptics. GMO is actually a broad term that has a lot of moving parts. Forced labeling for consumer foods containing GMOs in the United States has been a growing issue. In skeptical circles this is a controversial topic. Recently, at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City, there was a GMO discussion panel involving Dr. Steven Novella, Kevin Folta, and Marty Mesh, representing a fair distribution of experts from both sides of the aisle. The discussion panel debated the idea of labeling GMO products for consumers. The organic lobby suggests it as an answer to the questions about the safety of GMO and wants it to be required. The scientific community claims that such labels are deceptive, unnecessary, and there are already safeguards. The GMO proponents say requiring labels would mislead the public about the content and safety of the product.

I have intended to write this blog post since that panel discussion, but it is such a broad subject. Simplifying the issue has been difficult. Here I will limit GMOs to the following definition: food or food-producing organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques . Conventional and organic use selective breeding to tailor organism genetics.

Currently there is advocacy in the United States to require labeling of GMO food. Some EU member states now require labeling of GMO. Is labeling necessary or desirable? Is it a systematic marketing assault on GMO food?

There are good reasons to want GMO in the food supply.
  1. Creating plants better resistant to weeds, pests, and other diseases.

  2. Bigger yields to create more efficient use of land, less uses of herbicides and other pesticides.

  3. Foods with better texture, flavor, and nutritional value.

  4. Foods with a longer shelf life for easier shipping.

  5. GM foods can create an essentially sustainable way to feed the world.

From my own observations, most objections to GMO food fall into two categories: corporate fear-mongering and unsubstantiated "fear of the unknown" arguments. The science shows absolutely no dangers in consuming GMO food. There are environmental issues and monocrop issues, but they are not significantly different from conventional crops, including organic crops and animal-farming. Most of the con arguments (we'll skip the wacky ones) comes from two broad and possibly accurate points:
  1. Genetic modification is unpredictable. It may have unknown horrible consequences for the consumer, environment, or stability of the food supply. I call this the Frankenstein Argument.

  2. GMO are corporate attempts to monopolize food consumers as well as restrict producers through manufactured controls. I call this Argumentum Monsanto.

Like all really good ideological arguments they contain a certain amount of truth. Also like all really good ideological arguments they minimize or avoid facts that do not support their argument. Scientific evaluation of GMO shows no significantly different risk from GMO products than from conventional crops. In many cases the product is chemically identical. Sometimes GMO have been shown to be safer products than conventional foods. The Genetic Literacy Program reports:
Every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has reviewed the research about GMOs and openly declared crop biotechnology and the foods currently available for sale to be safe. GM crops are as safe—and in the case of nutritionally enhanced varieties, such as Golden Rice, healthier—than conventional and organic crops. The consensus over the health and safety is as strong as the consensus that we are undergoing human induced climate change, vaccines are beneficial and not harmful and evolution is a fact.
There are risks posed by all crops, animals, and farming methods. GMO do not seem to pose a greater and/or significantly different risk than conventional crops. There is a very strong anti-corporate theme to complaints about GMOs. There are claims of environmental damage, hidden negative research, or strong-arming of farmers. These claims are either unsubstantiated or misrepresented. Fear is the problem for GMO. There is much fear and little understanding. Fear is easily generated due to the vast gap between simplistic scientific knowledge and comprehensive science understanding. Fear is the real GMO problem—fear of the unknown, fear of corporate power, fear of scientific exuberance. Our little primate brains have keyed in for thousands of evolutionary years on fears of the unknown. Fear of the unknown produces compelling and thought-provoking narratives, all on the theme, "It could happen." That is not the same as scientific evidence, nor is it proof of corporate conspiracy.

Forced labeling seems like an easy solution. If you talk to the organic food community they will say that forcing GMO food to be labeled as such is the best option. Their argument is that all information is good for the consumer; labeling is all about informing the public. Everyone will know when they are consuming regular, organic, or GMO food. The slogan is often "Let the market decide." Superficially this sounds like a solution—certainly one that the lay public will get behind. Is forced labeling really a solution? The corporations who spent money on developing GMOs oppose labeling, of course. So does the scientific community. Why? What could be wrong with the public having more knowledge?

Arguments against labeling assert that this is a simplistic and, frankly, a biased way to present information to people. It is also unnecessary, based on the best scientific information we have. They argue that it will present the public with the wrong idea, namely that GMO food is somehow dangerous, like cigarettes. Due to overall public perception of the naturalistic fallacy, and years of organic marketing, people will think of a GMO label as warning label.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques, genetic modification is less unpredictable. Conventional breeding swaps giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another. Genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not. It can be reasonably stated that GMO are closely monitored and do not pose any significant risk to the general population. The organic community, of course, disagrees.

Obviously, organic marketing is based upon the idea that organic foods are better because they are "natural." Natural is a meaningless term in science that has no true parameter. Labeling would be redundant for GMO since organic already means that the product is not genetically modified. If you are buying organic foods you are already avoiding GMO. So why force them to have a redundant label? In short it is ideological fear-mongering. It is my opinion that labeling proponents fall into two broad categories: those that are ideologically based and those that are financially motivated. They want GMO labeling because they either ideologically object to GMO or they also have a strong financial interest in organic marketing. There is no real credible science purporting a benefit of organic products over conventional food products. There is no credible evidence that GMO products pose a significant risk compared to conventional or organic farming methods.

I suspect that this label is not expected to educate the public, rather it is meant to scare them. In my cynical opinion, organic food lobbyists believe that most people(skeptoid readers excepted of course) lack the time or scientific knowledge to dissect the facts. The success of organic marketing to date tells me they are probably correct. Consumers will buy organic foods because they believe it is safer. Organic foods lobbyists will never say that directly, but it is an obvious incentive for them to push forced GMO labeling. The public will think GMO needs to be labeled, that people need to know what is genetically modified because GMO are dangerous. Such an assumption, cultivated in the public by anti-GMO lobbyists, is simply not true. All farming has some risks, but the close scrutiny of GMO makes them safer, not more dangerous.

Organic food marketing relies on the false premise that natural is good. Not true: many things in nature will kill you. The premise that organic is natural and therefore safer, that it is better and more nutritious for you, doesn't hold up to scrutiny. It is not safer, more nutritious, or better for you in any way we can detect. Organic food marketing relies on a poor understanding of nutrition, chemistry, and biology to make consumers pay a premium. "Natural" is not better/safer/more nutritious. For example, humans are natural. Therefore we are good, right? Looking at humanity worldwide, there is sufficient evidence to say that we are not invariably good. The truth is that if GMO need a label, then organic food needs a warning label. Organic food has more unknown risks than GM food. There is less testing and more uncertainty with organic farming methods than exist for GMO crops. Organic labeling allows farmers to use pesticides as long as those pesticides are "natural." Organic farming has defined the vague term "natural" as safer than "chemical." From a scientific standpoint this is pointless and misleading semantics without any useful basis in the material conditions of food production and consumption.

It should be noted, however, that we don't know for certain whether organic farming is more harmful or less harmful than conventional methods. This is because we do not look at organic pesticides the same way that we look at conventional pesticides. We don't know how long organic pesticides persist in the environment, or the full extent of their effects. Organic farming is not regulated or evaluated like GMO. It is a marketing tag that requires certain conditions to be allowed to use the label. There is no regulatory body checking to see if organic farming methods are actually safer or better than conventional. Certainly there is no burden for proof of safety, like GMO is required to produce. Organic operates on the assumed theory that organic is natural, natural is safe, therefore organic is always safer. GMO labeling is the reverse of that marketing, using the same undefined parameters. GMO is artificial, artificial is automatically dangerous, therefore we need to worried about GMO and label it. The naturalistic fallacy in reverse.

When you look at lists of pesticides allowed in organic agriculture, you find warnings such as, "Use with caution. The toxicological effects of [organic pesticide X] are largely unknown," or "Its persistence in the soil is unknown." Again, researchers haven't bothered to study the effects of organic pesticides because it is assumed that "natural" chemicals are automatically safe.

It seems to me that objections concerning safety, unpredictability, and environmental effect ought to apply to organic farming methods. Promoters of organic foods have failed to prove the safety of their products with independent research—a claim that the organic lobby frequently and baselessly aims at GMO farming. Organically produced food and livestock may have unknown and detrimental effects on surrounding crops and ecosystems, and they may pose unforeseen risks to consumers.

This is a slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the only real difference between GMOs and conventional or organic produce safety is people's perception.

GMO opponents do bring up concerning issues related to corporate methods. Some issues like intimidating farmers, impoverishing third world farmers, and threatening legal action are unsubstantiated when looked at closely. Monoculture, patented organisms and price fixing are not unique to GMO. Conventional and organic farming also patent their organisms. Legal action and corporate misconduct is just as possible in conventional and organic farming. There is an irony to such rabid anti-corporate fear-mongering surrounding GMO. As biologist Kevin Folta pointed out at the NECSS panel, that anti-GMO sentiment is a factor that keeps this technology in the hands of big corporations. Only large corporations have the resources to get GMOs to market. GMO protesters may be one of the reasons why only big corporations produce GMO. Small labs and universities face legal battles and protests that make them unwilling or unable to handle these problems. Even when corporate profiteering is removed from the equation, like in the case of golden rice, there is still vigorous opposition. Bottom line related to corporate misconduct and GMO. Labeling will do nothing to decrease big corporation's dominance of the product. Labeling will have no impact on the availability of GMO for poor farmers. It will do nothing to limit corporate profiteering.

Forcing labeling on GMOs amounts to an unnecessary warning label on food. Providing a marketing advantage to other food producers, or significantly perpetuating the false perception that GMO is harmful and mysterious. If consumers are worried about GMOs, stick with organic. It already has a label that requires the product to be GMO free. Continually impeding the benefits and progress of GMO in order to sustain a anti-corporate stance or natural fallacy ideology is something the starving people of the world cannot afford.



  3. Genetic Literacy Project

by Stephen Propatier

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