In a recent New York Times column, Mark Bittman compared consumers to lab animals subjected to an experiment. “Stop Making Us Guinea Pigs,” the headline of his piece lamented. The experiment? Genetically modified organisms lurking in the nation’s food, filling our families’ bellies, and maybe doing something to us, or maybe not. Bittman’s solution? Labeling all foods containing GMOs, presumably so consumers can avoid them.
This is bullshit. I endorse informative, relevant food labeling to protect consumers and help us nourish our bodies with a varied, balanced, and healthy diet. The words “informative” and “relevant” are key here. Whether or not a product may contain peanut residue? That’s relevant, because a severe allergic reaction is a real and tangible consequence. Kids are hospitalized all the time because of allergic reactions. Amounts of fiber, sugar, vitamins, minerals, and fats? Also relevant information.
But whether a product contains GMOs? Not informative or relevant in the least. The term “GMO” refers to how a food ingredient was bred, not its content. Knowing whether or not a food is GMO is akin to knowing whether or not a person was conceived via in-vitro fertilization. Indeed, genetic modification is not an ingredient, it’s a breeding technique, and there’s no reason for consumers to know if their food was made using this method.
The scientific consensus on GMOs shows that they are as safe as their conventional and organic counterparts. Indeed, there have been thousands of studies showing their safety, many of which haven’t been industry-funded. Every major scientific oversight organization in the world, including the World Health Organization and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that GMOs on the market are safe to consume.
So why do so many companies and organizations propagate GMO fearmongering and argue that consumers have a “right to know” what foods are GMO? The Organic Valley cooperative, Whole Foods Market, Inc., Ben & Jerry’s, Kashi, Pacific Foods, Food Babe, LLC, Dr. Oz, Only Organic, and GMO Free USA are just a few of many companies, organizations, and individuals who oppose GMOs and lobby for GMO labeling. Framed as a consumer rights issue, their stance seems benevolent. But it’s not, and here’s why.
“Right to Know” Is a Subterfuge
I can understand consumer fear. The acronym “GMO” tends to conjure images of Frankenfoods and worse. Fear of the unknown is only natural. Add a pervasive public distrust of scientists and the thinking that corporate entities puppeteer the biotech industry, and fear is almost inevitable.
But this fear comes from misinformation. Genetic engineering isn’t a palpable object you can hold in your hand. It is a process, not a product. Humans have genetically improved food for millennia. The majority of what we eat comes from organisms man has improved via genetics except for wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, and most fish and shellfish. Humanity tinkered with genetics well before the advent of genetics as a field of study. The ancestors of bananas, broccoli, carrots, and all other food as we know it would be unrecognizable and unpalatable by a modern American (see below).
Though they didn’t know it, our ancestors imposed man-made change on the genomes of their food simply by selecting the best varieties to propagate (good luck foraging if you want to avoid genetically enhanced food).
There are plenty of organisms that have been further genetically modified in relatively recent history, but aren’t considered GMOs. Why not? Simply because breeders created them via pre-molecular techniques. Transgenic “GMO” varieties are made with precision manipulations of their DNA sequences, while so-called non-GMO foods like those pictured were modified into their modern counterparts with old-school methodology (and not just selective breeding). Think of a granite sculpture created with a hammer and chisel over several weeks, versus one created with a programmed laser much more quickly. Both are composed of the same material. The composition of granite doesn’t change based on how it was shaped.
Atomic Fruit, Delicious!
What are some ways in which so-called non-GMOs have been genetically modified? Take seedless watermelons. The summer staple was created by crossing a parent with four sets of chromosomes (which carry an organism’s genetic information) with a parent with two sets.
All humans, for example, have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. That even number is necessary in the process known as meiosis, which creates eggs in females and sperm in males, collectively called gametes.
The watermelon parent with four sets doesn’t occur naturally. A two-set seedling is treated with a chemical mutagen called colchicine, which doubles the number of chromosomes in the plant. The triploid offspring of the diploid and tetraploid watermelons try to create their gametes, but fail miserably at meiosis because of the odd number of chromosomes. Poor sterile watermelons with three sets of chromosomes cannot complete meiosis, rendering them unable to produce seeds. And these watermelons are allowed in organic farming.
Also consider Asian Nijisseiki Pears and the Rio Star grapefruit. These fruits are modified using radiation, which has been deployed to develop several commonly-available conventional and organic foods (non-GMO my cute ass). Breeders created this type of pear and grapefruit with a technique known as radiation mutagenesis or “atomic gardening.” The plants are bombarded with gamma radiation, scrambling their DNA. Scientists use radiation and chemical mutagenesis techniques to roll the mutation dice repeatedly, hoping for beneficial results. Rio Stars, Asian pears, and lots of other foods are the lucky sevens out of lots of duds and deformities.
Genetically Engineered Foods = Scientifically Good
In contrast, foods considered to be GMOs are genetically improved in a more precise manner than sterile melons or atomic grapefruits. Scientists choose a desirable trait and decide whether genetic engineering is the best way to achieve it. If the answer is yes, they alter a minuscule fraction of the genome to achieve the preferred trait. And there isn’t just one technique by which this is achieved.
Take the recently U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved Simplot “Innate” potato, yet to hit the market. Using a technique borrowed from nature called RNA interference, scientists “turned off” genes that produce proteins that cause black spotting from bruising, enabling a larger usable yield, and making potato farming more profitable and less wasteful. The technique also reduces levels of asparagine, decreasing the formation of acrylamide, a chemical compound that results when potatoes and other foods are cooked at high temperatures. Humans consume RNA molecules in most food we eat, our bodies can’t tell whether they’ve been moved or meddled with.
Other genetically engineered ingredients we regularly consume include sugar from genetically engineered sugar beets, and oil from genetically engineered soybeans. Our bodies treat these foods the same as any others.
This is why I prefer to use the term “genetically engineered” rather than GMO. Be honest, would most Americans know which of the plants I described are considered “GMOs” and which aren’t?
GMO Labeling is Beside the Point
If we really want to label food based on breeding techniques, the only logical tactic would be to label ALL breeding techniques, including those that created our friends the sterile watermelons, atomic grapefruits, and others like hybridization, marker-assisted breeding, and more so-called “non-GMO” techniques.
It would get pretty confusing pretty quickly—not to mention costly. And yet, advocates for our “health” are rallying for it to be done: “The burning question for us all then becomes how—and how quickly—can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws,” said Ronnie Cummins, the director of the Organic Consumers Association, a lobbying group funded by the “natural food” and organic industries.
Parents are already berated for choosing conventional produce over the more costly organic. The tacit message is that those neglecting to buy organic are lazy or parsimonious, or don’t care about their children’s health. This is classism. But worst of all? It makes no sense to change our labeling laws to treat a variety of techniques as homogenous. It makes as little sense as labeling chicken breasts, pork chops, and steaks as just “MEAT.”
It’s clear to me that the GMO labeling movement is a ploy to grow the organic industry and eliminate genetically engineered foods. When an ideology is shrouded in a cloak of righteousness, it’s up to the people to be informed. And you should know that genetically engineered food is not something to fear or denigrate.
Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, a freelance writer, and a science popularizer. Her passion is debunking unscientific media misinformation, often known as “woo.”
Her regular column about unscientific gaffes in the media can be found under hashtag #KavinCantEven. She works for a genomics company in Wisconsin that doesn’t develop GE foods, so don’t call her a shill. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo of genetically engineered plants via AP