GMO Food Strikes Back (2016 Aug)

by Barry A. Liebling

For thousands of years humans have been making and consuming genetically modified food. The time-tested, traditional way is to cross breed both plants and animals multiple times over many years to obtain a domestic organism that is suitable for eating. Observe the myriad varieties of farmed fruits and vegetables and realize that all of them are the result of deliberate manipulation of their genetic structure.

Beginning in the 1990s biological scientists began the production of genetically modified organisms (GMO) using a more direct, more precise, and more efficient method. Instead of laboriously cross breeding plants over decades (with many errors and long wait times) to obtain an improved fruit or vegetable, they focused on the underlying mechanisms. Using laboratory instruments they developed techniques for adding specific genes to plants. Their intention was to create domestic flora with improved attributes. For example, Bt corn that requires less insecticide during cultivation, saves farmers money, and ultimately makes it more affordable to those who buy corn. GMO soybeans are designed to be resistant to certain herbicides and may be more nutritious than non-GMO varieties. It is estimated that the majority of corn and soybeans grown in the United State are GMO, and most food on store shelves contains at least some GMO components.

Note that while the genetics of plants are modified by both the traditional breeding methods and the modern biotech laboratory procedures, the term “GMO” usually refers to the newer high tech approach.

Suppose you don’t want to eat GMO food that owes its existence to a laboratory, what can you do? It is very easy to steer clear from the GMO world. There is an entire industry of “organic, natural” food companies you can patronize. Many products are advertised and labeled “GMO free,” and “back to nature” Rousseau-inspired enthusiasts can restrict their eating to these comestibles.

But for many proponents of organic food having options is not enough. They want to trick people into believing that modern GMO food is tainted. And their tactic is to slander the companies that produce it. Anti-GMO zealots have for years used the expression “Franken Food” (Think of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.) in an attempt to portray GMO as monstrous and threatening. Several states, notably Vermont, have passed legislation that requires food with GMO components to be prominently labeled. Most recently federal legislation has been proposed that would require all GMO food to have a disclosure on its package that warns consumers before they buy.

Of course, in a free society the only laws regarding package labels on food would relate to fraud. Whatever is on the label must be true and use language that a reasonable person will understand.

What are the strongest arguments for requiring GMO food labeling? There are many political factions that are hostile to biotech production methods, but one of the most prominent is Just Label It – a consortium of well-known, successful organic food companies including Stony Field Farm, Clif Bar, Honest Tea, and Organic Valley.

Examine their site and see what their best case for mandatory labeling is.

The first thing to look for are explicit claims that GMO food is dangerous. There are none. You can be sure that if there were any reliable reports that consuming GMO food was harmful Just Label It would have blasted it front and center. In fact, it turns out that there have been numerous studies by experts employed by organizations which are not generally sympathetic to agribusiness (including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the World Health Organization) that have examined the safety issue and concluded that GMO food is no more dangerous than non-GMO food. Of course, relying entirely on the opinions of “experts” is not the definitive test for what is true. But there is a humorous irony if the same people who say that human-caused global warming (renamed “climate change” when the predicted warming did not occur) must not be doubted, because a coterie of scientists are in agreement, reject their own principle when the subject turns to GMO food.

Note also that when food is unsafe it is often easy to detect. Every year people become ill because they are sensitive to peanuts. A small proportion of the population is allergic to gluten and should avoid it. People who have these characteristics deliberately buy food that says “no nuts” or “gluten free.” They are not clamoring for laws to have all foods with peanuts or gluten to be labeled as such.

And consider labeling that is not related to safety. People who buy kosher products look for a kosher label, but they do not demand that all non-kosher food inform potential customers in writing. Similarly, strict vegetarians have not sought legislation that all food that does not meet their standards have the phrase “non-vegetarian” stamped on it.

So while Just Label It wants consumers to be alarmed, it is not explicitly using safety as the reason to require GMO food labels. Then what is their rationale? An inspection of their site reveals that their main argument is the classic fallacy argumentum ad populum (the mistaken notion that if many people, especially the right people, believe something it must be true). Just Label It references statistics from a survey that found most consumers would prefer GMO food to be labeled (but only after they are asked). Also on the site are references to moms on Mother’s Day insinuating that they can only know what food has GMO components if labeling is mandatory. And, most telling of all, the site references a list of “over 400 companies” – mostly in the organic food business that supports laws requiring GMO disclosure in packaging.

Just Label It is forthcoming about who opposes labeling legislation. They name and blame “some of America’s biggest and most profitable chemical companies (that) teamed up with a handful of large food companies.” The insinuation is that these large firms are inappropriately concerned with profits and are not interested in the welfare of their customers. But if the members of Just Label It seriously think seeking profits is problematic they should look in the mirror. The cabal of “organic and natural” food concerns have business models that count on customers rejecting “regular food” and paying more for products made the “old fashioned way.” It they can alarm more consumers that modern GMO comestibles are bad, the “natural food” gang can charge even more for its products. This is reminiscent of the slogan about glass houses and stones.

Note well that while foods with GMO components should not be required to have biotech disclosures on the package, it might be in the interests of manufacturing firms to boast. Imagine a label that says something like, “proudly made with the latest genetic technology, proven safe, produced with fewer resources, more nutritious, and more affordable.” GMO food could strike back.

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