Fact – GMOs are safe; Fiction – GMO food labels are a good idea

As a parent, how do you handle the fears of a child that believes there’s a monster under his or her bed? There are a number of ways to handle that situation, but one of them is not to say that there may or may not be a monster and we’re simply not sure. So, since we’re not sure, let’s just name the monster George and you can decide if he’s real or not. Good night, dear.. sleep tight.

“Since we don’t know for sure, why not just require a GMO label on everything and let the people decide.”

There’s something seductively simple and compelling about the statement.  It sounds innocuous enough but it’s actually a perilous position to take.

Setting aside the false premise of not knowing whether GMOs are safe (they are), the peril of that statement is that it’s a slippery slope that sets a dangerous precedence for requiring other labels for which there is no scientific basis.

For example, what if I want to know if the tomatoes in a can of tomato sauce were picked by a farm worker from Mexico versus a worker from Guatemala.  Ridiculous you say? To that I would say I’ve heard what Donald Trump has been saying about Mexico[1] and that we really don’t know for sure that Mexican-picked tomatoes are safe. You say there’s no basis to be afraid. However, I disagree. I believe in my gut that there is a difference, so why not just label the can so I and others can decide for myself.

Is that an analogy pushed too far? Maybe, but the science is unambiguously clear that GMOs are just as safe as any other food so why send the message that they aren’t safe, or we are not certain of their safety, by labeling them.

It’s beyond me to summarize the 2000 plus studies showing GMOs are safe. What I will note is that prestigious, non-industry-affiliated organizations have made clear statements regarding the safety of GMOs. For example, a 2012 statement by the AAS stated:

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 crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.

It is the long-standing policy of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that special labeling of a food is required if the absence of the information provided poses a special health or environmental risk. The FDA does not require labeling of a food based on the specific genetic modification procedure used in the development of its input crops. Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.[2]

You either believe in science or you do not and you make decisions ground in fact or you do not. Scientists tell me that vaccines are safe, the planet is warming due to anthropogenic causes, the earth is older than 10,000 years old, evolution is real, and GMO-based food are safe. Requiring a GMO label implies a risk that is not there and initiates a cascade of consequences.

What are the consequences of requiring labels?

  • Food production would plummet leading to more hunger and higher process
  • Nutrition in poorer countries would be compromised, e.g. golden rice
  • The government would be validating that it is legitimate for people to make decisions based on not on the science, but on what they emotionally believe to be true.
  • Organic growers would see increased sales of their higher priced products

What is a GMO?

Arguably, many foods we consume have been genetically modified. Does a Butterball turkey look anything like a wild turkey? The issue may be that people understand and have a level of comfort with selective breeding to select for desirable genetic traits. I think what the issue is with GMOs for some people is that the genetic tweaking is not the result of mating, it’s a laboratory process.[3] People can visualize a horse and donkey mating to create a mule more easily than they can understand the process of inserting a gene into a corn seed in a laboratory.

Why do people believe GMOs are not safe?

If the science is so overwhelmingly unambiguous that GMOs are safe, then why are some people still afraid of them? The answer is that fear is not about the actual safety, it’s about the perceived risk of GMOs. Paul Slovic has written extensively about the concept of Risk as Feelings. He argues persuasively that people base their perception of risk on a number of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that are more dependent on perceptions and emotion and not fact. A short overview of Slovics’s concepts were discussed in a previous posting, Decisions based on Perceived Risk can be hazardous to your health. [4]

GMOs clearly hit on many of the factors identified by Slovis causing an elevated perception of risk. However, it’s hard to lower risk perception based on feelings with facts. Just think of how the general population fears child abduction by a stranger when such an occurrence is an exceedingly rare event.

Perception versus reality

Risk is a cold, hard number than can be calculated and for GMOs and the demonstrated risk is vanishingly small. However, it’s the perception of risk that causes the polarized discussion of labeling GMOs.[5] At one pole are people that feel there is a high risk while at the other pole are people that look at the facts and conclude there is no risk. The government should choose the side of facts and dismiss the idea of labeling GMOs for the emotion-based argument that it is. People are entitled to their emotions, but the government must adhere to the facts.

No dear, there is no monster under the bed. I’ve looked, there’s no need to worry. Good night, sleep tight..

Further reading

Fears, Not Facts, Support G.M.O.-Free Food, NY Times

The Danger Of GMOs: Is It All In Your Mind?, NPR

Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea, Scientific American

Why Liberal Americans Are Turning Against GMO Labeling, Forbes

Genetically modified crops could help improve the lives of millions, Washington Post Editorial Board

Science, not fear, should guide food labeling laws, Boston Globe Editorial Board

Mandatory GMO food label not backed by science, Genetic Literacy Project

Costs of labeling genetically modified food products in N.Y. State, Cornell (PDF)

Why labeling of GMOs is actually bad for people and the environment, Berkeley Blog
Say ‘no’ to GMO labeling: USA Today Column

Why Mandatory Labeling for GMOs is a Very Bad Idea, Dave Hitt Blog

Myths and Realities of GMU Labeling Initiatives, Indiana Law Review

Science that is hard to swallow

How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food, NY Times

GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides, PBS

References

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/

[2] http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/AAAS_GM_statement.pdf

[3] https://cropwatch.unl.edu/biotechnology/makinggmo

[4] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/11/15/decisions-based-on-perceived-risk-can-be-hazardous-to-your-health/

[5] https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/how-we-perceive-risk-gmos

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