Oblivious To Science | May 12, 2014 Issue - Vol. 92 Issue 19 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 92 Issue 19 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: May 12, 2014

Oblivious To Science

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: GMOs, GMO foods, Labeling GMO foods, Committee on Agricultural Science & Technology

People opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as food or in food products are the left-leaning cousins of right-leaning deniers of global climate change. They’re not quite as angry as climate-change deniers and don’t tend to demonize those who disagree with them, but opponents of GMOs are just as immune to facts and science.

A recent paper from the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology (CAST) examines the potential impacts of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food in the U.S. Opponents of GMOs in food are passionate about labeling such food as a “right to know” issue, and 25 states have considered laws mandating such labels.

An interesting point made early in the CAST paper concerns just what to call the foods in question. The authors point out that genetically engineered foods go by a variety of names, including genetically modified (GM) and GMO. However, they write, “Given that traditional breeding techniques also result in genetic modifications,” the terms GM and GMO are not specific for foods produced through the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. The paper’s authors use the more precise term “genetically engineered” or GE.

The CAST paper starts with the premise that GE foods are safe because hundreds of independent studies have shown that this is the case. The fact is that almost everyone in the U.S. has eaten GE food in the past decade. The paper points out that in 2013, 93% of the soybeans and 85% of the corn grown in the U.S. was genetically engineered to be tolerant to herbicides.

In fact, many genetically engineered crops have been approved in the U.S., although not all of them are being grown commercially. In addition to soybeans and corn, the paper notes, GE alfalfa, canola, chicory, cotton, flax, melon, papaya, plum, potato, rice, squash, sugar beet, tomato, and wheat have been approved. The paper points out that it “has been estimated that 70% of the processed food items in the supermarket contain at least one ingredient derived from a GE crop.”

Proponents of labeling GE foods make a number of arguments, but their most fundamental one boils down to the argument that people have a right to know what is in the food they eat, and they cite mandated caloric and nutritional content labels on packaged foods as examples. The CAST paper has an interesting and subtle take on this argument. “The right to know what is in food is different from the right to know how it was produced,” the paper’s authors write. “Furthermore, this uniquely singles out GE technology—not other production methods and processes—for right to know.”

At the heart of the matter is the contention that GE foods are just plain different from other food. Opponents often use the term “Frankenfood” to draw an analogy to the Frankenstein monster. The CAST paper notes that “advocates of mandatory labeling have argued that GE foods are by definition altered in composition by virtue of the presence of genetic material introduced through rDNA methods.” The science, however, just doesn’t support that contention.

Essentially all foods have been genetically modified by human intervention, the paper notes, and to date, “no material differences in composition or safety of commercialized GE crops have been identified that would justify a label on the basis of the GE nature of the product. Although this conclusion will not satisfy those who consider the insertion or manipulation of genes in the laboratory a material difference per se, the science of food safety does not support mandatory process-based labeling of GE food.”

The CAST paper goes on at some length on a variety of other matters related to mandatory labeling, including the Commerce and Supremacy Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and free speech and economic issues and concludes that labeling is an all-around bad idea. None of these arguments are likely to matter to the advocates of labeling, however, who, like their climate-change brethren, are pretty much immune to rational thinking.

Thanks for reading.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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Doug Williams (May 13, 2014 3:02 PM)
Dear Mr. Baum:
I usually enjoy and support your views but in this case you have jumped too hastily on the food safety strawman that CAST has chosen. True, there is no appreciable scientific evidence for concern about the nutritional safety of GE foods. But that's too easy to dismiss. "Frankenfood" arguments stem from political strategies rather than fact. Yet, many scientifically-minded people support GE labeling for reasons that pertain to environment and agricultural sustainability. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been articulate and authoritative on scientific evidence for these concerns (see http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/). Hence, many rational thinkers are interested in knowing how their food is made, which is one of the reasons that the label for organic foods has been so carefully defended. As ACS members, we should encourage the public to learn and know more about the technologies that we depend upon. Labeling should be a useful tool for informed consumer decisions. We need to support this awareness with a more well rounded consideration of the issues.
Rudy Baum (May 19, 2014 11:39 AM)
Thank you for your thoughtful response to my editorial. I looked at the Union of Concerned Scientists' site, and I agree that it is well presented; there are issues with genetically engineered organisms as food, but I don't think they make a convincing case that food safety is one of them. And I agree that rational thinkers are interested in how their food is produced. I count myself as among them. However, I also firmly believe that the movement to label GE food is a Trojan horse. In the name of "right to know," labeling proponents desire to make GE food unpalatable to many consumers. I don't think that's a valid position.
Bob Buntrock (May 20, 2014 10:05 PM)
Knowing how foodstuffs are grown is one thing, how foods are "made" is another. Granted growing methods are usually different between organic and more commercial methods. The resulting processing is pretty much the same for both classes. What is in GE foods is no different than the equivalent organic foods. As Baum points out, some pesticides are used on organic crops so both could have pesticide residues.
Bob Buntrock (May 20, 2014 10:13 PM)
As for the agricultural sustainability issue, and article in the May 16 Wall Street Journal is titled, "Organic farming is not sustainable; more labor with lower yields is a luxury that only the rich can afford".
MIKE MCHENRY (May 15, 2014 12:42 PM)
What has not come out in this debate is the fact that genetically modified food via synthetic means has been with us a long time. In 1927 X-Rays were used to irradiate seeds. The seeds were planted and watched for desirable traits. It was so successful that the inventor won the noble prize. The use of X-Rays to genetically modify food goes on to this day. So those oppose to specifically GMO's prefer randomly modified GMO's. I would also like to bring to the editors attention that this journal and others have failed to take up the lack of science in the "organic" food movement. This is where much of the opposition to GMO comes from. ACS would be doing a public service by highlighting the lack of scientific evidence to support a nutritional benefit to "organic" farming versus conventional farming. This is also true on the question the matter of sustainability. Organic foods have a significant cost premium vs conventional grown food.
Bob Buntrock (May 20, 2014 10:10 PM)
Rudy, excellent editorial and reply. I intend on using these materials in discussions I have with friends and contacts.
Robert M. Davidson, MD, PhD, FAIS (June 2, 2014 11:22 AM)
While the final word on the safety of G-E food may not be in yet, we might look at the experience in Argentina, to see what can be learned from their experience. I'd have to say that it's far being shown safe. In the meantime, shouldn't the Precautionary Principle apply? Why not opt for a level playing field? Label all food intended for human consumption. IMO, potentially toxic synergy between the G-E food, metal ions, adjuvants, excipients, additives, and pesticides must be studied. Metallomic studies are showing altered biodistributions and pharmacokinetics of certain essential minerals. Such alterations may have neurodevelopmental sequelae.

Anna Weber (June 16, 2014 11:04 PM)
I have been mulling over this piece since I initially read it, the day this issue became available in my inbox. While I will table the GE labeling argument for another day, what I cannot stand behind is the way in which skepticism is treated in the scientific community. I have long been frustrated by scientists who dismiss the minority thinkers as being not rational, "nutters", left/right leaning, crazies, etc. I am often frustrated by the people who dismiss what the minority has to say, because we can't "rationalize", yet I often find that the majority thinkers are failing to rationalize the points of the other side, in a way just as egregious. Since when did science become a discipline where only the majority ruled? To dismiss so flippantly those who do not follow your beliefs is to deny the fundamental mechanism of science: skepticism. Without healthy debate, science goes nowhere.
D. Zink (July 14, 2014 11:17 AM)
Authors who use emotionally inflammatory context tend to discredit any validity in their message. (It sounds more like politics than reason.)
Robert Michael Davidson MD PhD FAIS (January 25, 2015 9:13 AM)
According to Professor Sheldon Krimsky, GMOs were NEVER Proven Safe. Until such time as they are proven safe, they ought to be labeled as genetically-modified. If the FDA was ever a "real" consumer advocate, they would mandate a Black Box Warning: "This GM food was NEVER proven safe". There are serious problems with a paradigm in which regulation of the human food supply is governed by an "anything goes" free market mentality. What's good for BIG PHOOD ($$$ and control) is not necessarily good for the real stakeholders (the consumers). Don't we all have "a horse in this race"?

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