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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 abroad 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 theNortheast Conference on Science and Skepticismin New York City, there was a GMO discussion panel involving Dr. Steven Novella, Kevin Folta, and Marty Mesh, representing afair distribution of experts fromboth sides of the aisle. Thediscussion panel debatedthe 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 communityclaims that such labels are deceptive, unnecessary, and there are already safeguards. The GMO proponents sayrequiring labels wouldmislead 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 issuehas been difficult. HereI will limit GMOsto the following definition: food or food-producing organisms that have been altered usinggenetic engineering techniques. Conventional and organic use selective breeding to tailor organism genetics.

Currently there is advocacyinthe United States to requirelabeling of GMO food. Some EU member statesnow 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-mongeringandunsubstantiated "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 differentfrom conventional crops,including organic crops and animal-farming. Most of the con arguments (we'll skip the wacky ones) comes from twobroad 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 restrictproducers throughmanufactured controls. I call this Argumentum Monsanto.

Like all really good ideological arguments they contain a certain amount oftruth. Also like all really good ideological arguments they minimize or avoid facts that do not support their argument. Scientific evaluation of GMO shows nosignificantly differentrisk 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 byall 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 areeither unsubstantiated or misrepresented. Fear is the problem for GMO. There is much fear and little understanding. Fear is easily generated due tothe vast gap betweensimplistic 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 unknownproducescompelling and thought-provokingnarratives, 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; labelingis 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 labelingreally a solution? The corporations who spent money on developing GMOs oppose labeling, of course. So does the scientific community.Why? What could be wrongwith the public having more knowledge?

Arguments against labeling assertthat 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 labelas 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 breedingswaps 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 arebetter 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 labelingproponents fall into two broad categories: those that areideologically based and those that arefinancially 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 knowledgeto dissect the facts. The success of organic marketing to date tells me they are probably correct. Consumerswill buy organic foods becausetheybelieveit issafer. Organic foods lobbyistswill never say that directly, but it is anobvious incentive for them to push forced GMO labeling. The public will thinkGMO 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 marketingrelies on the false premise thatnatural 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 isnot safer, more nutritious, or better for you in any way we can detect. Organic food marketing relies on apoor understanding of nutrition, chemistry, and biology to make consumerspay 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 risksthan GM food. There is less testing and more uncertainty with organic farming methods than exist for GMO crops. Organic labeling allows farmersto 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 farmingis 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 evaluatedlike GMO. It is a marketing tag that requires certain conditions to be allowed to use the label. There is no regulatory body checkingto 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 concerningsafety, unpredictability, and environmental effect ought to apply to organic farming methods.Promoters of organic foodshave failed to prove the safety of their products with independent research"aclaim 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 concerningissues related to corporate methods. Some issues like intimidatingfarmers, 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 tosuch rabid anti-corporate fear-mongering surrounding GMO. As biologist Kevin Folta pointed out at the NECSS panel, thatanti-GMO sentiment is a factor thatkeeps this technology in the hands of big corporations. Only large corporations have the resources to getGMOs to market. GMO protesters maybeone of the reasons why only big corporations produce GMO. Small labs and universities face legal battles and protests that make themunwilling 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. Providinga 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 requiresthe product to beGMO free. Continually impeding thebenefits and progress of GMO in order to sustain aanti-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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