There has been a major push to get foods containing genetically modified ingredients labeled. Some brands have voluntarily done so, but most have not taken that step. Several countries around the world require GMO labeling, including China, Brazil, Japan and many others. While the US and Canada have debated going in this direction, there has been no binding action- yet. A poll conducted by The New York Times found that a whopping 93% of people want mandatory labeling for GMOs.
Some advocacy groups demand labeling because they claim GMOs are unsafe, and we as consumers should know what’s in our food. Even many supporters of GMOs agree that it would be best to just get on with it and label it already; the campaign against it is doing more harm than good, and people will buy food containing GM ingredients if they believe it is safe. While I can see the merits of such arguments, I believe it would be a colossal error to label food containing GM ingredients. Labeling food containing GMOs will ensure consumers avoid them- it’s a matter of simple psychology.
People Fear What They Don’t Understand
A survey conducted in January by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA. For those who don’t remember high school science class, DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is our blueprint- it’s what makes us what we are. Almost every life form on the planet contains DNA. So, yes, all food contains DNA. But, if you didn’t know what DNA was, and someone asked you if you’d want to know if it was in your food, you probably would say yes. Why not? What if it’s harmful? It certainly sounds scary if you don’t know what it is.
Another example of the the general public’s ability to be fooled on scientific wording is the dihydrogen monoxide hoax. It all started back in 1983, in an April Fool’s edition of a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan. Apparently, dihydrogen monoxide had been found in the city’s water pipes, and it was “fatal if inhaled”. There have been several hoaxes since, each one stating dire warnings of the dangers of the substance. For instance, dihydrogen monoxide “may cause severe burns” and “has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients” and “everyone who consumes it dies”. What is dihydrogen monoxide? Well, its chemical name is H2O, but it is better known as water.
The truth is, if you frame it right, you can make anything sound terrifying. Take A&W’s new marketing campaign. They advertise their beef as “better beef” because it is produced without hormones or steroids. They ignore the fact that you would ingest more hormones from their fries than you would from conventionally produced beef. But, for the uneducated, why not eat beef produced without those components? It clearly sounds safer.
If you put a label on something as “product x free” or “contains product x” you immediately label product x as something ominous- especially if a quick Google search comes back with dozens of websites claiming how dangerous product x is. I suspect that if we label our foods with many of our breeding methods, we will create fear. Genetic modification is only one way of breeding advancements in our crops. One such breeding method is mutagenesis, which involves using mutagens such as UV radiation or mutagenic chemicals to cause random or site-directed changes to an organim’s DNA. A food product developed under this method can be labeled GMO free. I don’t want to demonize mutagenesis; it is an effective way to develop desirable traits in our crops. But let’s be realistic here; why is genetic modification somehow more dangerous than any other method?
GMOs already have an undeservedly bad reputation, especially considering how safe they are. If the government makes GMO labeling mandatory, the odds are very slim that their reputation will improve.
Are GMOs Actually Safe?
The simple answer is a resounding yes. I’ve heard the claim more than a few times that research on GMOs is scant, and Monsanto is funding a ton of propaganda. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, there are thousands of studies on GMOs. A literature review completed in 2012 delved into 1,783 studies on GMOs over a period of ten years (2002-2012). The authors couldn’t find one credible study proving GMOs are dangerous in any way whatsoever. In their words,
“We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops (source).”
Another literature review, dubbed the “trillion meal study”, reviewed 29 years of livestock consumption of GM foods. The result? Not one negative health effect. Surely, in nearly 30 years, one animal somewhere must have become sick if GMOs were actually dangerous (read more here). The only studies that have shown dangers to GMOs have been shown to be biased and fatally flawed (an example is the Seralini rat study– it was redacted from its publishing journal).
Do We Really Need GMOs?
If you go to the World Population Clock, you’ll find a number somewhere above 7.3 billion, with over 72 million more added so far in 2015. Our population growth may be starting to slow down, but the reality is that there will likely be 8 billion people on this planet by 2024- a staggering number. How do we feed them all? We will need every tool available to us, genetic modification included. Moreover, it gives us the ability to reduce pesticide use, fortify our foods with essential nutrients (e.g. Golden rice) and grow more food on less land. Let’s try and leave the rainforests where they are. And, more importantly, let’s not let any more children die from Vitamin A deficiencies.
Everyone has heard of GMOs, but few have taken the time to understand what they are. You always fear what you don’t understand; it’s basic human nature. A greater public benefit would come from education on GMOs; what they are, how they’re made, and why we need them. Let’s stop giving people a reason to be afraid of them. Let’s take the unknown out of it. Consumers want to know what’s in their food: instead of giving them an acronym few actually can decifer, let’s explain to them why GMOs are in their food, and why it’s a good thing. If consumers knew the truth about GMOs, there would be no need for labels.
Gemma, A. et. al. 2013. Plurality of opinion, scientific discourse and pseudoscience: an in depth analysis of the Se´ralini et al. study claiming that Roundup Ready corn or the herbicide Roundup cause cancer in rats. Transgenic Research.