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Own it, don't hide it: The pro-GMO backlash

Agribusiness gears up to spend millions fighting GMO labeling in Washington. Here's a better battle plan: Don't block disclosure, tout it.

Non-GMO sweet corn

Non-GMO sweet corn Seth Anderson/Flickr

Big Food and Big Chem should take a lesson from Richard Nixon and Al Capone: It’s not the crime that’ll get you, it’s the cover-up. Last year Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico and their brethren spent $45.6 million — more than five times what proponents spent — to defeat California’s Intitiative 37, which would have required that genetically engineered foods be labeled. They’ll dig deep again to oppose Washington’s largely similar I-522, which last month qualified for the November ballot. The Northwest Food Processors Association declared its opposition even before I-522’s petition signatures were certified.

The opponents will roll out the same claims that, loudly amplified, worked in California: Disclosing that foods contain GMOs will drive up prices. It will spawn costly new regulations and bureaucracy. The industry will emphasize the supposedly baleful effects of labeling on small and midsize local businesses while keeping the big backers in the background. Doubtless, they'll trot out some weathered family farmer who will decry GMO disclosure as the worst thing since locust plagues and the Dust Bowl.

All this and more in defense of the public's right not to know what’s in their food. You’ve got to wonder: What are these people thinking?

I should stipulate that I’m agnostic on the GMO question (so lay on from both sides, friends). I suspect genetically modified foods will prove largely harmless to human health, with the possible exception of rare allergic reactions. A few trillion GMO-tainted meals already eaten without conspicuous incident constitute a pretty large, if informal, study sample.

Ecological health, bio- and crop diversity and long-term food security are other matters. There the effects of genetic manipulation may be more complex and, sometimes, deleterious. But GMOs are just the latest — and hardly the greatest — in a long line of ecosystem-scale abuses (i.e., agricultural practices) that we’ve undertaken in order to feed billions of our species. Any impacts must be weighed against the enormous benefits of increasing crop yield and forestalling conversions of rainforest and other habitats to croplands — if those promises are true.

How much can genetic modification actually do to achieve them, and how sustainably? Despite the industry’s hype and its critics’ dismissals, no one seems to have a good handle on that question. It begs for more measured, open research and debate.

Instead we get hysterical alarms about fish tomatoes and the creepy “terminator seeds” that never actually reached the market from one side, and secretive bunkering on the other. Why does gene-swapping provoke so much more fear than climate change, ocean acidification, habitat and biodiversity loss, exotic species invasions, water depletion and contamination, and the inexorable momentum of population growth? For all the passion they incite, GMOs are way down on the list of actual eco-threats. Would that all the energy that goes into combating them could be mobilized on behalf of a carbon tax.

Sure, “Frankenfood” is a much more visceral horror than any number of degrees of temperature rise or parts per million of carbon dioxide. But any environmentalist who invokes the scientific consensus on climate change to beat back denialists should at least consider the question posed by GMO basher-turned-booster Mark Lynas: What about the scientific consensus in favor of agricultural biotech? Sorry, but Vandana Shiva does not trump the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Still, what’s wrong with a little disclosure? I'll probably vote for I-522, badly written as it is, in the full expectation that it will have only a marginal effect on consumer behavior and agribusiness profits. The food industry has trotted out the same dire predictions and big lobbying bucks against almost every previous food-labeling initiative — most notably the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which mandated the back-of-the-package lists of fat, salt, sugar, etc. that we now take for granted. Did those destroy the market for highly profitable unhealthy foods? Just try finding moderately salty chips at a typical supermarket. You may find one or two varieties amidst dozens of artery-pounding oversalted brands — almost all of them made by subsidiaries of Pepsico, the No. 3 funder of the campaign against California’s I-37.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Feb 22, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

I really like this article because it presents a good thought process which I can use.

Posted Fri, Feb 22, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

If the author doesn't understand why food policy stimulates more public response than for other more significant eco-issues, will I benefit from reading the remainder of the article?

Posted Fri, Feb 22, 11:16 a.m. Inappropriate

We've consumed a few trillion meals with GMO tainted food without any ill effects? How will we ever know if there are no ill effects? GMOs have not been adequately or independently tested. We are the largest unknowing guinea pig experiment in existence.

It's been about the 16 years since GMOs were introduced into our food. What will we see in this second generation of guinea pigs? The birthrate among teens is already down, blamed on the economy and better access to contraceptives. But how do we know that? We don't because GMOs aren't labeled or adequately tested there is no way to find out.

Cancer rates are up - could GMOs (or glyphosate aka Round-Up) be a cause? Again, we don't know because it hasn't been adequately or independently studied.

seakat

Posted Fri, Feb 22, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

That's an interesting approach. A lot of businesses and industries get themselves into trouble by not knowing how to engage the public. Trotting out the old shibboleths about regulation and how many jobs they create doesn't really do it. Hollywood was able to preempt a government rating system by establishing their own, but for whatever reason many industries seem to prefer government regulation over self-regulation.

Perhaps another possibility is the local angle: since Washington is a hotbed of the biotech industry, our economy will be disproportionately hit by the anti-GMO campaign.

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting article but I think I'd rather choose when and whether to be a guinea pig for Big Ag.

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 5:15 p.m. Inappropriate

A refreshing analysis. I hope the food industry takes your advice.

kieth

Posted Wed, Feb 27, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

"Any impacts must be weighed against the enormous benefits of increasing crop yield and forestalling conversions of rainforest and other habitats to croplands — if those promises are true."

They are not:

"And in a new paper (PDF) funded by the US Department of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin researchers have essentially negated the "more food" argument as well. The researchers looked at data from UW test plots that compared crop yields from various varieties of hybrid corn, some genetically modified and some not, between 1990 and 2010. While some GM varieties delivered small yield gains, others did not. Several even showed lower yields than non-GM counterparts. With the exception of one commonly used trait—a Bt type designed to kill the European corn borer—the authors conclude, "we were surprised not to find strongly positive transgenic yield effects." Both the glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) and the Bt trait for corn rootworm caused yields to drop.

"Then there's the question of so-called "stacked-trait" crops—that is, say, corn engineered to contain multiple added genes—for example, Monsanto's "Smart Stax" product, which contains both herbicide-tolerant and pesticide-expressing genes. The authors detected what they call "gene interaction" in these crops—genes inserted into them interact with each other in ways that affect yield, often negatively."
http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/02/do-gmo-crops-have-lower-yields

Original article in Nature posted here:
https://www.motherjones.com/files/maize_prod_nat-biotech_2013.pdf-herbicide-resistant-weeds-undermine-performance-of-major-ge-crops-new-wsu-study-shows/

GMO crops are also leading to increased pesticide use:
Pesticide Use Rises as Herbicide-resistant Weeds Undermine Performance of Major GE Crops, New WSU Study Shows
http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/10/how-gmos-ramped-us-pesticide-use

Steve E.

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