FDA Smackdown on GMO Fear Mongering
December 1, 2015
In my estimation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) incur fear mongering of the highest order, perhaps second only to vaccines, if at all. For reasons that escape me there has been a concerted effort to marginalize or outright stop the use and development of GMOs at all levels of the food supply. The expressed reasons are varied; objections range from conspiracy-laden anti-corporate narratives to Frankenfood fears about unknowns. I have noted a severe ideological bent to these objections, which defy scientific evidence of safety and efficacy. They're narratives based almost exclusively on the nonscientific foundations of chemophobia, naturalistic fallacy, and fear of the unknown.
Over the last few years the fear mongering has grown. With that growth there has been a reasonable-sounding anti-GMO tactic demanded by some advocates, namely forcing labeling of GMO foods.
For a variety of reasons I outlined in my previous post—GMO Labeling: Consumer Protection or Fear Mongering?—requiring the labeling of GMO food is an attempt to foster the false idea that GMO is significantly dangerous product, akin to cigarettes, a product that requires a warning label because of its demonstrable harm. This goal misleads consumers by using a patently wrong false equivalency. Labeling has been strongly supported by the organic food industry, which uses its own self-regulated labels to charge a premium for an essentially undifferentiated product. For these obvious reasons the organic industry has funded and promoted a push to label GMO products, resulting in a recent petition to the FDA for a government-mandated GMO food label. This month the FDA responded with a definitive and comprehensive denial of the petition. The FDA released a PDF copy of its response for free.
The FDA pretty much sums up my position. Specifically, it pointed out:
The petition does not provide evidence sufficient to show that foods derived from genetically engineered [GE] plants, as a class, differ from foods derived from non-GE plant varieties in any meaningful or uniform way, or that as a class, such foods present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.All agriculture poses risks to the population and the environment. Despite decades of scrutiny there is no evidence that GMO has an greater risk than conventional agriculture. The FDA requires labeling if a product poses a direct health risk, if it is misleading, or if it is significantly nutritionally different from similar products. There is no evidence for this in the case of GMOs, though this lack of evidence has been unpersuasive for anti-GMO advocates. Nonetheless, belief doesn't equate to facts.
The proposal sounds logical because some food is labeled organic. Even though the organic food lobby would like you to believe that their food product labeling equates to superior quality, this belief is also unfounded. This can be found in detail in Skeptoid episode 166, episode 19, as well as multiple blog posts on this site.
Organic food is labeled with marketing claims. These are claims that have a specific meaning that they charge a premium price for. Although the label's purveyors want consumers to perceive the label as a promise of wholesome superiority, realistically it's just a sales gimmick. Conventionally grown tomatoes are just as healthful as their organic siblings, just as organic candy bars and chips are the same junk food at a higher price. There are other examples of this consumer labeling, for example a "Made in the USA" label says nothing about the quality or the construction of the product, or any number of other factors consumers might want to take into account. It is label that makes the product desirable to a section of its market, something that attracts a certain population or something they can charge a premium price for. It has little to do with the product itself.
In its response to the petition the FDA has said that mandatory labeling for GMO makes a claim that the product is different in quality, content, or safety. The response goes on to unequivocally and demonstrably explain that there is no evidence to support that position, saying, in part:
The simple fact that a plant is produced by one method over another does not necessarily mean that there will be a difference in the safety or other characteristics of the resulting foods. The determining factor is the final food product and its objective characteristics in comparison to its traditional counterpart, not the process used to produce the plant from which the food was derived.Further, the response notes:
Although foods from GE plants may not have been on the market for the length of time as plants produced through conventional plant breeding techniques that does not mean that all resulting foods are any less safe. To date, we have completed over 155 consultations for GE plant varieties. The numbers of consultations completed, coupled with the rigor of the evaluations demonstrate that foods from GE plants can be as safe as comparable foods produced using conventional plant breeding.The FDA response also gives a complete, detailed refutation of the petition's specifics, which were based on what the anti-GMO community points to as the best evidence against GMO products. It addressed claims that GMOs pose unknown risks, are responsible for harmful environmental effects, and that consumers are demanding labeling.
Rather than offering blanket dismissals, the FDA was clear and precise; they broke down the research and disassembled it scientifically. The response letter specifically relates how the evidence was flawed, limited, and was used to buttress unsupported conclusions. The letter then specifically reviewed the reasons why each part was wrong and how those ineffectual claims apply to the Administration's statutes. It was cathartically enjoyable to read it. Frankly, it gives me a glimmer of hope that at least some sections of the US government assigned to protect us act upon science, not ideology.
I am not saying that genetic modification is without risk or that corporations are only benevolent; rather, I'm saying that these problems exist for all food production equally and it is senseless to single out promising new technologies because we are afraid and don't understand.
For the fear mongers you can still buy organic food and lessen your anxiety. In my estimation the numerical majority of the world endures daily hunger. As long as children are starving it makes no sense to stifle the science that offers the best probability of blunting this growing problem, especially when there is no demonstrable harm.
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