Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why We Should Not Label GMO Food

Information is always good.  But it has to be based on evidence, established facts, truth and transparency.

Evidence, facts, truth and transparency are not the tools of those that loathe GMO (transgenic plant) technology.

A food label is an amalgam of marketing and facts.  The marketing comes from clever minds that probe public sentiment in an attempt to influence their buying decisions.  They influence the smaller minds among us to desire products that might not be nutritionally sound.  They also provide marketing claims that may not be scientifically vetted.

The label also contains facts.  The panel on nutrition content provides critical information about the number of servings per unit, the calories the sugars, fats, fiber and vitamins.  It provides information about many aspects of a product's nutritional content, along with a list of ingredients.

The marketing and the facts must never mix.  The facts are scientifically derived and provide important health information that can base a life-or-death decision for a diabetic or someone with allergies.

Advocates for transgenic-product labeling say that more information about food is good, and I agree.  I like knowing country of origin or in some cases the variety of fruits and veggies I buy.  But we should not label foods containing transgenic crops.

Here's the problem.  Labeling only works if we have honesty and transparency.  Anti GMO interests know the power of a label in marketing, and want to manipulate consumers with a label based on bogus information. They know how to market fear.  The anti-GMO interests are some of the most adept alarmist fact deniers, their claims are largely scientifically bankrupt, and they lack sophistication necessary to differentiate between something that is dangerous and something that is helpful.  That's a pretty wide chasm!

Couple this to an extensive network of anti-GMO propaganda (like Natural News, Seeds of Deception, GMO Watch and others) that seeks to scare, yet is wrapped in a patina of education.

Add this to the fact that Americans lack sophistication to digest scientific information and you have a perfect storm of influence.  Here are some real results from the 2012 National Science Foundation Report on Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding.  I wish these were not real, but they are.

Americans don't understand science, so they are easily manipulated by those with an agenda,
such as the anti-plan biotechnolgy interests.  The numbers represent the percent of responses that were correct.  Remember, these are true-false, so the numbers are likely inflated from those that guessed and got it right. 

This is just an excerpt from the report.  Here 73% of Americans are confident that the Earth goes around the Sun.  Seems like an okay statistic until we consider that 27% do not.  The next question shows that 53% of Americans do not accept that human being evolved from earlier species.

The next question is the central reason why we can't label transgenic food.  The survey reveals that 47% of Americans say that "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do."

The lack of scientific understanding is laughable.  Worse, it opens the know-nothing consumer to manipulation by anti-transgenic interests.  Whether they hate Monsanto or just scientists, these folks clearly distort the truth and look the other way on factual evidence that does not support their conclusion that frankenfoods are deadly and should be banned.

You can read more about this in one of my previous posts on how they are either liars, they don't know what they are talking about, or both.

Anti-GMO interests can use their platform of fear and disinformation to frighten and malign.  Does it work? Sure does!   Even though there is not a shred of reproducible evidence of harm from independent laboratories on GMO danger, they skillful rhetoric of the anti-scientists works.  Here are the attitudes from another leg of the survey, asked to Americans in 2000 and 2010.

The last two columns show data from 2000 and 2010 in the same NSF survey.  The number represents the percent of people surveyed that agree with the statement.

In this survey, 58% of people think modifying genes in crops is dangerous.  Another 16% don't know.  Only 26% understands that manipulating genes in crops has been the norm since before there were crops, as human domestication of wild weeds, crossing and selection have been the most extensive genetic modifications in history!

Most unfortunately, 58% have succumbed to the disinformation machine and project harm on a technology where none has been established by science.

This is why we can't label.  Such information needs to be factual, and until the information campaigns against GMO technology start working in facts, the conversation must end there.  If labeling succeeds you will see a massive outpouring of disinformation about the danger of GMO food on websites and opinion-based resources.  Consumers (that clearly know nothing) will be swayed by fear and a safe technology will be further sullied in public perception.

I'm all for labeling if the factual part is based on science.  At this point, there is no danger, no harm, and no need for specific labeling.


OTP said...

So you want to save stupid folk from themselves? Very benevolent. It actually shouldn't matter if folks are idiots, many of them. I don't care who's statistics are truthful. If my food contains genetically modified anything, I have the right to know.

Even if my reason were I believe it makes me more visible to alien spacecraft, or likely not to win the lottery. I simply have the right to know if my food is genetically modified. Period.

You can sell it, give it away for free, auction it off, I really don't care. But I have the right to know if my food has been modified (for good or evil). It may even be better, like super food. You know what? I should get to make the choice to eat crappy, organic, unimproved food or the super food. I should simply get to decide. Even if I am an idiot that Monsanto needs to save from myself.

Kevin M. Folta said...


I'm sorry that's what you took from the blog entry. My point is that we lack the sophistication to know what "genetically modified" means.

Everything you eat, everything, has been genetically modified by humans. Unnatural crosses, selection, etc are all artificial ways of mixing genes.

So if we move 40,000 genes it is okay, but if we move one gene people want a label.

This is the problem to a scientist. It makes zero sense.

The only way it makes sense is that those that demand it hate Monsanto.

So the action is demanded for business and political reasons, not scientific ones. That's a dangerous place to be, and I don't think that we want to go that way.

Thanks for your thoughts.

OTP said...

Hi Kevin, so following you're train of thought, if I purchase a head of lettuce, thinking, oddly, that it is simply a head of lettuce, but in fact it's a miracle of science anti bug, anti drout piece of technology, I should not get to chose? Or a salmon. Say I wanted to eat a simple, naturally born fish. But genetically modified fish were all a particular food store sold. I should not know?

You do know that cigarettes were killing folk for decades before labeling was required? That something a bit less deadly, 'Pink Slime' was a food additive for nearly 2 decades before someone said "Hey, what's that stuff?" Was it killing anyone? No Was it tasty? Probably. Should I have the right to not eat slimed meat the minute I know I"m eating it? Hell yeah.

Would a sensible person stop smoking if the label clearly says "Will cause cancer" Most likely. Some won't, and it's their right. Would a sensible person eat meat with Pink Slime after they know it contains it? Many would, it's potentially cheaper. I should have the right to decide.

Is your contention that if no documented harm has been offered, I should not have the right to know if my salmon was born in a test tube or naturally? That the genetic structure of my carrots is not natural? I'm not discussing processed food, tread ye there at one's own risk. I mean a carrot, a fish, a chicken. Harmful or not, good for me or not, superior nutritional content of not. You really, actually believe that I do not deserve to make the determination that I'd prefer to eat a natural born fish or chicken or traditionally grown plant?

There is more to life than the way of the 'scientist'. If not, faith would be a useless commodity. That a kid in a foxhole in some war would be 'illogical' to jump on an enemy grenade to save his buddies. That since it wouldn't actually harm them, It should be fine to feed Jewish folk who choice to be kosher, whatever is nutritious and perfectly fine for everyone else. Right? I mean, their belief is basically non-scientific mumbo-jumbo.

Science informs, but we get to decide what we do, eat and value. And if we chose to be nonsensical, who has the right to negate our wishes? You? Monsanto? FDA?

OTP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin M. Folta said...

Hi OTP. First of all, thank you for a thoughtful post. I do understand what you are thinking and why you feel the way you do.

I think this is where our thinking parts ways.

I see the laboratory and molecule-scale intervention in the breeding process as a way to rapidly speed production of needed products. It also brings them to market with incredible precision and with many fewer question marks.

I think you see the laboratory as a place where some wild guess rolls the dice and then markets whatever crazy concoction oozes out of a test tube. I don't mean to put words in your mouth as much as paraphrase your previous paragraph, so please correct me if I'm out of bounds.

What I'm getting at is that the processes you accept are random, untraceable, and a mixing of unknown genes in unnatural ways that demand human intervention. However, the processes you reject perform addition/subtraction of a gene with incredible precision and traceability.

To me, that just does not compute. I've been studying genes, genomes and plant breeding for 25 years. This is the difference. I don't fear technology.

It is not like the smoking analogy. In smoking, good data were never collected or ignored. Here, these products are tested ad nauseum before and after release. People against the technology do all they can to find problems- and they find them now and then. However, they do not weigh heavily on the risk/benefit side of the equation.

To me, a label only gives power to fear. Fear of something unknown, that if understood, would not be feared.

As a scientist, I try to teach and provide real information. With that, fear subsides- if that information is accepted. The problem is that I'm up against an anti-GMO fear factory that can live off of lies, bending science, and rumor.

I can't do that. I can only counter with evidence, and most lack the sophistication to learn about it, let alone accept it. That just means it is a complex issue, clouded well with a blanket of disinformation.

I get your point about Kosher and it fits my argument perfectly. The anti-GMO movement is a religion. It is a religion based on myth, lies, disinformation and the blaming of a technology because they hate a company.

And why we're on the subject, the Jews also faced labeling because someone thought they were evil and causing economic collapse of the German economy. People wanted them labeled and even destroyed. There was no evidence that substantiated their racist claims, but their minds were made up-- they were going to act and stop the problem that threatened them. That was an atrocity that still makes me cringe.

Not to make light of a genocide. However, the anti-GMO interests have formulated an attack on a technology that is not founded in fact, but rather a belief. It has no scientific credibility.

Again,I'm all for labeling- more information the better. But it has to be fair, across the board, and discuss the true nature of food.

OTP said...

A very reasonable point of view. I've enjoyed out back and forth.

I fully support the right to market and sell much of the food and other products that come from the tech advances and hard work you've outlined. I simply demand the right to purchase food that was not involved in that process.

So instead of labels that say "WARNING - GMO laden Food!"

Perhaps we look at it the other way...

"WARNING - This food contains no benefits of GMO Enhanced Technology"

I'd still buy those, but it sounds nicer and might feel less fear mongerish to its supports. ;`)

Anyway, good luck with your work, enjoy your Spring and fast approaching Summer!

Kevin M. Folta said...

Thanks OTP. I appreciate your level of discussion too. I always learn something from these exchanges.

I was thinking about it this morning. If we put warning labels on everything based on fears rather than science, we'll live in a world of labels that are meaningless, decreasing the impact of legitimate threats. I know that sounds slippery-slopey, but I think it is true- once we open the gates to labeling what we think rather than what we know things will get ugly.

Imagine if kids' vaccination approval forms had to list "Causes autism" on them. Lots of people believe this, no science shows it. Such labels would be a public health disaster!

Thanks again for chiming in. You are invited to do so anytime and if you'd like to post a special guest section featuring your point of view on the labeling issue, I'd be glad to post it.


Becca Blossoms said...

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Kevin M. Folta said...

Becca Blossom is a front for a kooky page about WWIII and government conspiracy. Don't click on the links. There is no list.

Anonymous said...

Whether a food product was made using GMO technology vs. some other technology is a FACT. There are all sorts of regulatory labels stating similar facts. "Organic" = techniques used in production, "no sugar added" = food conten. Other labels do contain information that is evidence-based such as, "A diet low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure". This is a different type of claim, and distinguishing between the two is very important.