Bad science, good politics? Why the GMO labeling lobby is winning the PR war...

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

The pro-GMO labeling lobby may be peddling “bad science”, claims Mark  Lynas. “But it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food?”
The pro-GMO labeling lobby may be peddling “bad science”, claims Mark Lynas. “But it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food?”

Related tags Gm crops Food industry Agriculture Genetically modified food

Despite recent renewed efforts, the food industry does not appear to be winning hearts and minds when it comes to persuading the public of the merits of GM crops, or why mandatory labeling of ingredients derived from them would be a bad idea.

Indeed, as Mark Lynas, a vocal critic-turned advocate of GM crops recently noted,​ the PR strategy of fighting labeling (which he summarizes as ‘experts’ have decided you don’t need to know) has spectacularly backfired as it just plays into the hands of those arguing the industry has something to hide.  

The pro-labeling lobby may be peddling “bad science​”, claimed Lynas. “But it is good politics​. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food?”  

Mark Lynas: It may be bad science, but it is good politics

And while I am not persuaded that GMO labels offer any meaningful consumer benefit (more on this later) and may well be interpreted by some as a health warning, I have also sometimes wondered whether large food companies should throw in the towel, voluntarily 'just label it' and see what - if anything - happens at the checkout.

Much would depend on the wording, but the likely scenario is that people who care deeply about this will continue buying organic/non-GMO; the bulk of consumers will keep calm and carry on as before; and some shoppers may be alarmed by the labels and buy more organic/non-GMO products - if they can afford it.

In reality of course, mandatory GMO labels probably won’t appear on foods any time soon, as any state-level GMO labeling initiatives will likely face legal challenges that will take months if not years to resolve.

But in the meantime, if food manufacturers start to lose the argument at the checkout and in the court of public opinion, they will feel compelled to respond, whether they are forced to label GE foods or not, and we could conceivably even see a gradual shift away from GM crops in the US, something which would have seemed unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

The food industry has had 20 years to explain GM to the public

Mark Lynas: "People are getting increasingly scared of GMOs precisely because the industry is fighting a rearguard battle not to tell people which foodstuffs contain them. This has to be the worst PR strategy ever."

Now cynics might argue that it serves the food industry right that it finds itself in this position.

After all, food marketers have been pandering to ‘consumer concerns’ about everything from aspartame to lean finely textured beef (aka ‘pink slime’) for years, regardless of the science, so they can hardly be surprised that shoppers aren’t listening the one time they do​ decide to wheel out the men in white coats.

Meanwhile, as Dr Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus of Food Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pointed out last week​: "The food industry has had 20 years to explain GM to the public.

“Its intransigence and avoidance of the issue has been a big contributor to the ability of a few well-financed and highly skilled information terrorists to trash the image of GM foods.”

If food industry loses GM debate, it won’t be a victory for consumers

But if the food industry doesn’t win the GMO debate and the tide turns against agricultural biotechnology, it won’t be a victory for consumers.

And I’m not saying this because, as one reader recently alleged, I am “in the pocket of Monsanto​”. (If only this were true, I’m sure it has very deep pockets). Meanwhile, FoodNavigator-USA has reported extensively on both sides of this debate, and welcomes comments from all parties on the site.

I’m saying this because having listened to arguments from both sides, I am simply not persuaded that the global food supply would be safer or more sustainable without​ genetically engineered crops (as a recent report from GMO Inside alleged​), just as I don’t believe biotech crops are a panacea that will solve global hunger.

Don’t throw out the GM baby with the bathwater

Now this doesn’t mean that everything is hunky dory when it comes to GM crops, of course.

As one of the founding fathers of agricultural biotechnology, Dr Robert Beachy, pointed out in a recent interview,​ there are indisputable economic and environmental benefits to growing GM crops (lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced pesticide use, better yields) - if there were no real benefits, farmers wouldn't keep growing them.

However, the issue of weeds developing resistance to the herbicide glyphosate is a problem, albeit one Monsanto is working hard to address given that it is clearly in its commercial interests to do so.

Dr Robert Beachy: "I got into biotech in the early 1980s because I wanted to reduce the use of chemical pesticides in food production. I wanted to see if we could develop disease resistance by using genetics rather than agrichemicals. It's more sustainable and in the long run it will leave us with a cleaner environment."

But let's not forget that exactly the same problems arise in conventional agriculture, stressed Dr Beachy. “Farmers need to be responsible, rotate crops and agrichemicals. You also have to recognize that agriculture per se is a complex biological system and there are no magic bullets that have unending benefits.”

As plant geneticist Dr Wayne Parrott recently observed​, “Ever since there has been agriculture, farmers have had an arms race with weeds.”  

As for crops genetically engineered to contain their own insecticidal proteins because they contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), said Dr Beachy: “One problem has been that farmers didn’t always follow instructions to build refuges around the crops, so we now have insects that can overcome at least one of the proteins.”

But once again, that doesn’t mean we should throw out the GM baby with the bathwater, he added.

“With hindsight, we should have introduced crops with two or three proteins with different modes of action from the start, which is what is happening now, but in part the regulatory system was to blame. The refuges were recommended but weren’t enforced​."

What purpose would labeling really serve?

As for GMO labels, if they could be worded in such a way that they don’t look like a health warning, I‘m coming around to the idea that this might be the only way the food industry can address transparency concerns, even if there is no material/meaningful difference between labeled and unlabeled products.

That said, I can’t really see the value for shoppers if four out of five products suddenly come with a ‘may contains’ label. (Consumers that want to be sure foods are non-GMO or organic can already look for such labels on pack.)

Meanwhile, as specialists in the field have argued very eloquently, what matters from a safety perspective, surely, is not the technology per se, but whether the food crops it generates have unique characteristics and attributes that may present risks, such as create new allergens, for example.

And there is no inherent reason why a crop that has been produced via GM technology would automatically present greater risks than a crop produced using techniques routinely employed in ‘conventional’ (non-GM) plant breeding, from radiation and chemical mutagenesis to induce mutations in plant DNA, to ‘wide cross’ hybridization.

Henry Miller: "If I-522 were to pass, state officials would need to spend years and millions of taxpayer dollars defending the indefensible in the federal courts."

Moreover, as Henry I. Miller, Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution pointed out in a recent article in Forbes (click here​), the term ‘genetically engineered’ itself is misleading, as none of the plants we eat today have occurred ‘naturally’, they have all been extensively genetically modified. 

GE foods are not in any way a meaningful category 

And this makes deciding whether and how to label ‘GE foods’ very challenging, he added: “GE foods are not in any way a meaningful category, which makes any choice of what to include wholly arbitrary.”

For a start, many foods produced using GE ingredients/processing aids are exempted from GMO labeling initiatives such as I-522 (cheeses made with a GE clotting agent, beer fermented with GE yeasts, food sold in restaurants, meat and milk from animals fed GE feed).

Meanwhile, products such as caramel color from GE corn, or oil from GE soybeans, which contain no detectable DNA from the original plants, and so are technically GM-free (and chemically identical to their non-GMO counterparts) - would require a mandatory GE label, which doesn’t make much sense. 

We have a right to know what’s in our food - even where it isn’t actually in our food, it seems.

(Although to be fair, this is also how things work in the EU, where for example, glucose syrup has to be labeled as GM if it is from a GM crop, regardless of the presence of any GM material in the final product; while cheese produced with GM enzymes does not have to be labeled.)

Whether such inconsistencies render labeling less valuable is a matter of opinion, but in Miller's view they merely reinforce his belief that lawyers, not consumers, are the only group that really stands to benefit from initiatives such as I-522.

“I-522 is a trial lawyer’s dream”, ​says Miller. “It specifies that the court may award (at the expense of manufacturers) attorneys’ fees not only for prosecuting the case, but for the entire investigation.”

Click here​ to hear from the Yes to I-522 campaign.

Click here​ to hear from the No to I-522 campaign.

FoodNavigator-USA welcomes comments on the issues raised in this article (but encourages everyone to remain civil as we won't publish libelous or abusive comments).

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GE confusion

Posted by George Raven,

Conventionally bred plants do not and never will contain the genes from other species - that is the difference between GMOs. Also, the difference is that conventionally bred plants do not contain glypgosate in their genes. Two years on from the publication of this article (I write in September 2015) and it is clear how in retrospect a lot of the points made which portray GMOs as safe are unfounded and obscure the fact that glyohosate is a carcinogen (recently classed as 'probable' carcinogen by the WHO). Also the criticism of labelling based on the 'cost more expensive' argument has been completely disprooven, and the article made no mention of the fact that the USDA etc gives the go ahead for these GE crops based on industry commissioned studies - none of which are long term and they also choose to ignore non industry funded studies that suggest there are health problems with GMOs. The USDA even evase the issue by basicallysaying it is not in their remit to evaluate the key issues surrounding GMO technology in relation to human health and environment concerns. The US (and UK and EU commission) are in bed with the biotech industry because of ££££\$$$$ and that is the ultimate underlying fact/root of the GMO phenomenon and this article does not get to the bone of the issue. Unfortunately many of the points raised in the article are still being used today to advocate GMOs in food due to bad industry funded pseudoscience

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Posted by Seriously,

To be honest I was pro GMO labeling until today. I was on a call with the GMO labeling team from intiative 522 in Washington and they talked about what went wrong in the vote and there plans for the future. Then someone asked them about the science on safety. They said they didn't have any, that it was about choice.
That's the biggest load of garbage I've ever heard. If it truly is safe, than labeling it doesn't offer any choice, you might as well require companies to label whether it was made with a John Deer tractor or not. If it's not about safety then there's no point.

Someone below mentioned the seeds and owning the right to grow the food. You either buy your seeds or harvest your own, that will never change. Home Depot isn't going to require me to turn in the seeds from my tomato plant and the government isn't going to make you cut down the apple tree in your backyard. find a new conspiracy.

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wake up my friend

Posted by Roberta,

labels are slapped all over the place with scientific claims that are completely bogus, and those seem to get by with little pushback from the FTC and the FDA. All Natural? Can any scientist worth his own spit back that claim?
I love hearing the industry war cry that GE opponents are part of some sort of "well funded" organic agenda, or even undemocratic conspiracy. GE opponents are simply real Americans interested in agricultural integrity, food sovereignty and public health.....and maybe an environmental future? . Most of these "ACTIVIST organizations" are close to broke because they are comprised of main street Americans tired of being bamboozled by industry lies. . I suggest that you take a look at your Biotech friends who can dole out 47 million in anti campaigning to squash prop 37 or GMA's dishing out of 17 million for beat 522 in Washington. Gee wiz, nice guys.......they must really care. You must be one of us Umaricans who believe the rest of the world is wrong. Shame on you. Enjoy your fruit loops from your biotech office cubicle. These processed food pushers change labels every other day anyway.

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