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The politics of persuasion play a bigger role in the anti-GMO movement than science. Like so many anti-science movements before them – the anti-gluten fad, the anti-vaccination idiocies, creationism, the HIV and Zika virus conspiracies, chemtrails and on and on. Like them, anti-GMO is built on a combination of ignorance, fear and gullibility. And it’s all codswallop.
First, lets get something clear: almost every single thing you eat today has been modified. Tomatoes, corn, beef, chicken, salmon, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, peas, apples, almonds, peanuts, wheat, potatoes, bananas, milk, cheese, yeast… aside from some wild fish and wild game, everything you eat is the product of selective breeding, hybridization, grafting, careful feeding, vaccinating, fertilizing, antibiotics, hormones, spraying or a combination thereof. And the result is genetic modification. Not necessarily genetic engineering, but the result is the same.
Look at corn. It’s been played with by humans for the past 10,000 years. The ancestral teosinte bears no resemblance to the corn on the cob on your plate. Today’s corn is genetically very different from its ancestor. Archeologists found 4,440-year-old corn in Mexico and the genetic structure revealed how humans modified the plants deliberately and systematically to create better, bigger produce. Genetic modification for millenia.
Of course no one called it that, back then. Today we have genetic engineering and biotechnology and, since most of us really don’t know exactly what they entail, what the research is, what the techniques are, we find them scary. Somehow a farmer hybridizing plants in a field feels safer, more “natural” than a scientist doing it in a laboratory. Nonsense.
More to the point, what you see as “corn” in the supermarket is just one of many thousands of varieties grown in North America. Could you even tell the difference between the basic categories of dent, sweet and pop corn from looking at it in a field? What about flint, flour and pod corn? I couldn’t. But okay, the bag of frozen niblets says it’s “sweet” corn. What does that label actually mean to you, the consumer? As opposed to sour corn? Salty corn? You’ve got your label, now what?
The corn you eat is already genetically modified to be insect resistant, to be more drought-resistant, to be herbicide tolerant. Most of that was done over the past several decades to improve crop yields or to counter pests, predators and disease. You’ve been eating it for years.
What some people often don’t consider is that those modifications are helping reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, irrigation and even fertilizers, which is better for the environment.
That GMO corn is ubiquitous, too, and arises in unexpected places. It’s used, for example, to make the vitamins you likely take every day:
Genetically modified corn is used as starting material to make a vitamin. In that process, it’s fermented/processed. A pure vitamin is produced. A miniscule, yet nutritionally important amount of the vitamin is added to a food during it’s processing (which is why it’s a micronutrient). And somehow, people are concerned that Round-Up or some other contaminant made its way through all of that in sufficient quantities to pose a risk?
Yet for all that usage, no one seems to be growing two heads or gills after eating GMO corn or its byproducts for decades.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in a 2012 press release:
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM [genetically modified] crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
Sure, today scientists can modify some genetic structure in a lab rather than doing it the more laborious way in the field, one generation at a time. And yes, there have been experiments inserting genetic material from one species into another.* But scientists also perform selective breeding in labs, too. They use a wider variety of tools – and more sophisticated tools at that – than farms have. The results aren’t different, just faster. And less costly.
Labelling a food is an empty gesture without defining exactly what we mean by the terms. Do we draw an artificial line that says only foods bred or altered before such-and-such a date need to be labelled? Otherwise pretty much EVERYTHING we eat will be labelled. Yes, even beer and wine. The American FDA weighed in on it:
In November 2015, the FDA issued a ruling that only requires additional labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered sources if there is a material difference — such as a different nutritional profile — between the GMO product and its non-GMO equivalent.
The whole point of trying to force blanket labelling is a political activity to promote the so-called organic food industry through fear.
That’s right: the anti-GMO movement is merely a front for a large and costly battle for shelf space and consumers between big agro corporations. The conspiracy isn’t the hide GMOs: it’s to make you believe they matter. It’s to scare consumers away from one aisle in the supermarket to the next one where the so-called “organic” food is stocked. As Keith Kloor wrote on Slate:
…fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.
In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.
Most people have no idea what current ingredients do or why they are already labelled. Do you know what the salt, sugar or vitamins in your food actually do? Probably not, unless you’ve been educated in those areas. Given the rising rate of obesity in our culture, I doubt even knowing what they do will change anyone’s eating habits.
Labeling whether a product contains ingredients derived from a GMO crop tells you nothing about what is “in” the food. Genetic engineering is a breeding method, not a product. It isn’t an ingredient to scoop into a bowl. For example, sugar from GMO sugar beets is just sucrose, there is nothing “in” it. It is just like sugar from sugar cane.
The point of GMO labelling is solely to increase fear, not protect, inform or educate consumers. It’s political, not nutritional. Label things when there may be a legitimate health risk – for example potential allergies – or there is useful nutritional information, but not simply because someone makes a fuss about it. An uninformed fuss at that.
It reminds me of the silliness of uber-wingnut Vani Hari the self-described Food Babe, whose nonsensical ravings about the threat of “chemicals” in food cater to the anti-science, anti-knowledge crowd.
Playing on the gullibility of this audience, pranksters resurrected a parallel fright against “dihydrogen monoxide” – a chemical found in everything we eat, make, wear and breathe:
Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as Sulfuric Acid, Nitroglycerine and Ethyl Alcohol.
Should it be banned? Should foods containing it be labelled? Should corporations be boycotted and sued? Protests sprang up. Warnings were passed around the internet.
Of course, anyone with a smidgen of chemistry chuckled because it actually caught on and the Food Babe’s brainless followers, as well as the illiterati in other anti-science movements were fooled by the scary warnings. They shared this stuff online.
You, dear reader, know that “dihydrogen monoxide” is actually H2O: water. But the point here is not the prank: it’s that people actually demanded foodstuffs be labelled as containing dihydrogen monoxide. It scared people who didn’t know what the words mean.
Labels alone, it showed, are meaningless without knowledge or context.
Here are some other chemicals: ergocalciferol, lumisterol, calciferol, cholecalciferol, dihydroergocalciferol, and sitocalciferol. You’ll seldom see them labelled as such. Would you eat food laced with any of them? Yet they’re in many foods, both naturally and as additives. They look pretty scary, especially if you’re among the scientifically illiterate (like the Food Babe’s followers) who find multi-syllable words threatening. But you’d probably eat the food if it was simply labelled vitamin D. It’s not always what is being labelled, but how.
Of course, everyone should be wary of new developments (in every aspect of our lives, not simply food) until they have been thoroughly researched and tested. Just eschew the knee-jerk reaction. As Kloor writes, there’s a difference between sensible caution and unfounded fear:
…being uneasy about a powerful, new technology doesn’t make you a wild-eyed paranoid. The precautionary principle is a worthy one to live by. But people should know that GMOs are tightly regulated (some scientists say in an overly burdensome manner).
Our collective concern should be to ensure genetic engineering remains regulated and overseen, that research is through and studies peer-reviewed. We need to be sure the science is done right and that it is proven safe through a regimen of adequate testing. Not to jump on some emotional bandwagon and wave flags demanding pointless gestures and political intimidation about something we don’t understand.
Worrying about the labels is akin to worrying about the colour of your new car while ignoring the mileage and exhaust data. Pay attention to the science, use some critical thinking and relax. GMOs aren’t the Frankenstein monster the wingnuts paint them.
* If you eat, say, tomatoes and fish in the same dish separately, aren’t you eating the genes anyway, regardless of whether they are merged in one or the other? You’ve been eating fish genes all your life and still can’t breathe underwater, and still haven’t grown scales and a tail. Do you think the tomato will? As far as I can tell, even after a lifetime of eating tomatoes, not one human being has started making tomato seeds or ended up with their flesh on a BLT sandwich.
If you pay any attention to genetic or science news, you will also know that we – and most other animals and plants – already contain genetic material from bacteria and viruses, much of it ancient, most of which has no effect on us (that we know of).
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