Is the GMO Debate Advancing to a Higher Level?

By Keith Kloor | May 21, 2014 10:46 am

I’m just catching up with several deeply reported articles on GMOs that are worth your attention. Molly Ball, a staff writer at The Atlantic, recently published a long piece that explores the swirling politics and emotions driving the GMO labeling campaign in the United States. She concludes:

The fight to label GM foods may not have science on its side, but in the political arena, it is quickly gaining ground.

Another nicely textured piece–this one by science writer Brooke Borel–has just appeared in Modern Farmer. She suggests that passions may be giving way to a more nuanced debate. Perhaps, but I think that’s going to be a lot harder now that the GMO labeling movement is gaining momentum. As I have previously said, at its core that campaign is less about a “right to know” (which is a clever pretext) and driven more by health fears of genetically modified foods that have no scientific basis. And that fear train, I recently argued, has left the station.

Still, if influential thought leaders and scientists who are in disagreement on GMOs can engage in a civil debate, as recently was the case in Berkley, then maybe a meaningful shift in tone and substance is underway.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, GMOs, science
  • Scott Belyea

    Two well-done pieces … thanks for the links. Both somewhat dispiriting, but that’s not unexpected.

  • Jeff Clothier

    It is essential that both sides of this issue continue to discuss in good faith, by which I mean at the very least to be clear, open and honest about their motivations. I cite the supposed “right to know what’s in my food” “GMO labelling” argument as misleading if not completely disingenuous.

    Those who are truly concerned have no trouble locating foods they can have confidence in with regard to avoiding products with ingredients from transgenic plants. So-called “organic” producers, growers of heirloom produce, etc., can and do actively market to the “no-GMO” crowd.

    The partisans of “labelling” have a deeper agenda and motivations which should be fully disclosed.

    • Calamity

      It is greatly heartening to hear the Heartland Group change their story from ” GMO’s are safe, to “If it isn’t safe then at least we shouldn’t have to pay for labeling”. Next will be, “Well there’s no conclusive proof that GMO’s kill”. Then They don’t kill that many” to ” We’re sorry but we’re broke and can’t pay for damage we caused.”. By then the money will be well hidden and the next assault on mankind will begin. It’s exactly what tobacco did.

      • Jeff Clothier

        Yes, you are a perfect example of what I mean by not discussing the issue in good faith.

      • Michael Phillips

        How many children have died in the last ten years from organic sprouts and other organic food poisoning? Has there even been a single death or even illness conclusively linked to a GE crop? How could recombinant technology categorically create toxic proteins from innocuous ones? Isn’t that what your logic suggets?

    • phoenixkevin

      Why should consumers buy more expensive Organic food when it would be simpler for everyone to label food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s?

      Some ‘partisans of labeling’ just want labels.

      • Jeff Clothier

        We’ve been through this. I see no further need to engage you except to reiterate that the types of labelling activists want, the sorts that are making their way into proposed legislation, make no objective sense, as anyone who bothers to learn anything at all about the technology understands. If the food producers *themselves* were allowed to label their ingredients accurately without prescribed language, I may have no issue.

        Keep in mind that, to date, very few consumer products are, in and of themselves, genetically modified. Ingredients – such as corn syrup or soybean oil – may derive from plants with transgenic traits, and those generally do not express themselves in the grain or fruit at all or create any novel substances which would in any way differentiate the product from “standard.” That is not the same thing as “contains GMOs.”

        • phoenixkevin

          I’m a labeling activist as you well know so don’t paint all of us with the same brush.

          I agree that some activists on both sides have motives beyond what they are saying. It does not mean that they are in the majority.

          • Michael Phillips

            The majority has nothing to do with it. Organic-friendly corporations benefit from government enforced labeling and this is both anti-competitive and anti-scientific. A harmless protein does not become toxic because a gene encoding it was cloned in a lab.

          • phoenixkevin

            Russia, China, all of the EU, Austraila, NZ and many more countries require foods that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s be labeled.

            Nothing wrong with labels.

  • Micha

    “Rational” is a relative term. Although Pro-GMO scientist/activists may believe that those fighting for mandatory GMO Labels are ‘irrational’ per the current state of biological science, the Pro-Label folks are certainly rational per political strategy and tactic. It’s time for the Pro-GMO side to stop believing that people “should be” a certain way, but rather understand that they are the way they are. People won’t accept genetically engineered food unless they feel they have a choice. For the sake of a responsible future for biotechnology, give them that choice through the simple device of Labeling. Show deference to the people – it does wonders.

    • Viva La Evolucion

      I believe the junk-food manufactures and agribusiness are fighting a loosing battle in regards to the GMO labeling issue. The very fact that they are opposed to labeling is empowering the anti-GMO movement to grow stronger and enabling them to rally support. I believe the best thing for the pro-GMO movement would be to embrace/accept labeling and move on.

      • phoenixkevin

        I agree. Keith (the author of the above article) has said as much in another article on this web site.

        • Viva La Evolucion

          Yes, I believe there are numerous polls showing over 90% of people would like GMOs labeled. With those types of numbers it is only a matter of time until it becomes a reality. Resistance is futile.

          • Benjamin Edge

            90% of people polled say that they want GMOs labeled only when prompted. The number that list GM as a food concern without being prompted is much lower.

      • Jeff Clothier

        They might, if the language of those labels was not being mandated by people who generally have not the first freaking clue how the technology actually works and substitute bumper-sticker sloganeering for reason.

        • Viva La Evolucion

          It is my understanding that the label would simply state if it has GMO ingredients or it doesn’t. I don’t believe there are any plans for a skull and cross bones or anything like that. Please let me know what specific “slogan” on purposed GMO labels you are referring to.

          • Jeff Clothier

            That wording is going to be 100 percent inaccurate in most cases. A “Genetically Modified Organism Ingredient” – to break out the acronym, states ,does it not, that there is an ingredient in the product that is, in and of itself, a genetically modified organism. What? Space bugs? Mutant germs of some sort?

            If there are, damn, that SHOULD be labelled. But do you know what you get when you press corn oil from Bt corn? Corn oil. Plain and simple. Chemically no different from corn oil derived from non GMO crops.

            Assuming a simple chemical analysis at the point of manufacture reveals no novel substances – toxins, allergens, etc. – that wouldn’t be in non-GMO product, what’s the point other than to “scarlet letter” the technology?

          • Viva La Evolucion

            The point is that over 90% of people want foods containing GM ingredients labeled as such. So, pardon my previous acronyms, but would you be alright if a label said something like “made with oil from genetically modified soybeans” instead of my previous wording?. Also, it is my understanding that mass spectrometer analysis can tell between non-genetically modified soybeans and genetically modified ones. Also, I believe the GM Roundup Ready Soybeans have more roundup residue on them than conventional non-GMO soybeans or organic soybeans, so I believe that makes them a little bit chemically different, but I agree that there would most likely not be a chemical difference in Bt corn vs non-gmo corn, unless it is Bt Roundup ready corn, which would have Roundup Residue on it.

            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17200978

            http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613019201

          • Jeff Clothier

            I prefer that actual chemical components be labelled, no matter the source, otherwise the label is reinforcing inaccurate public perception about biology and genetics, namely thst somehow eating something confers whatever genetic traits or tendencies it had to the eater. It’s a bizarre notion..

            If one eats bacon one does not fear growing cloven hooves and a snout. Setting aside the fact that cooking denatures what ever DNA remains in the processed meat, people apparently get that there is no danger from ingesting “pig genes.”

            But somehow if a trait is introduced into a plant other than by accident of nature, the rubes freak out, thinking something bad is going to happen to them. Nope, sometimes the customer is just dead f-ing wrong.

            And you pulled that 90 percent stat right out of your sphincter.

          • Michael Phillips

            Yes, excellent points, Jeff. Why is it acceptable to the public to modify hundreds or thousands of genes at once by unpreditable crosses and mutagenesis, but introducing a single gene with well known properties in a highly controlled fashion is the subject of controversy that induces outright lunacy and panic?

            The answer is education (IMHO). We need to educate the general public on basic biology much more effectively. That will make biotech less scary and put the actual risks of conventional breeding in context.

          • Jeff Clothier

            Agreed, absolutely. Like young-Earth creationists, these folks have been fed a lot of bad information, well-packaged. Unfortunately, it takes a little skull-sweat to get a grasp on genetics, and I do think producers need to do a better job of educating the public. Mandated labels, however, would only reinforce and validate a skewed perspective held by a noisy few.

          • Viva La Evolucion

            Conventional breeding by means of exposing plants to radiation is also quite effective new traits. I believe that is how herbicide tolerant wheat was created aka Clearfield Wheat. Nevertheless, I’m not a big fan of creating plants that are resistant to herbicides with intention of spraying entire crop with herbicide.

          • Viva La Evolucion

            I am opposed to the creation of herbicide tolerant crops, be them genetically modified or traditionally bred, as that continues the overuse of herbicide problem. Nevertheless, I am strongly in favor of genetic modification of plants for things like resistance to disease and pest. I am also in favor of genetically modifying humans for increased intelligence, better eyesight, run faster, stronger, live longer, etc.

          • Jeff Clothier

            If it is herbicide or insecticide you’re worried about, a “GMO” label won’t help you. What you want is a “May contain Roundup or Bt toxin,” label, if the foodstuff does, indeed, actually contain either of those chemical components at all.

          • Viva La Evolucion

            I personally don’t care if GM food is labeled or not, because one can already easily find find non-gmo food if that is what one wants. My point is that over 90% of Americans do want GMO labeling. No, I did not pull that number out of my sphincter. do google search for “GMO labeling poll” and take your pick. With those kind of numbers resistance is futile :-) Also, resistance to GMO labeling by junk food manufacturers and agribusiness is only making the GMO-hater movement grow stronger, and gives them fuel to rally support. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/us-polls-on-ge-food-labeling

          • Viva La Evolucion

            Considering that the EPA just raised the level of glyphosate residue allowed in food, I lean toward thinking that foodsuffs do indeed commonly contain Roundup or other formulation of glyphosate. In regards to labeling, I am curious if there have been any proposals to label which specific GMO trait the corn or other crop has on the packaged food label. So, for instance, made with Roundup Ready Corn, or made with Bt Corn, or made with Roundup Ready Bt, 2,4-D Corn.

          • Michael Phillips

            Mass spec differences…a little knowledge can be dangerous. The metabolite level differences between GM soy and non-GM soy is nothing compared to the difference between soy and garbanzos, soy vs. bananas, soy vs. wheat flour, etc. You are perpetuating the misconception that there is one, perfect, natural state for food and your body will explode if any of this perfect natural balance is disturbed. I am running mass spec analysis at this very moment comparing different genetic plant lines, hoping to find differences in specific metabolites. That in no way would imply any sort of risk, so please stop abusing science to scare monger with this kind of logic.

          • Viva La Evolucion

            You must have me mistaken for someone else. I am in favor of genetically modifying plants for resistance to pests like fungus/insects/virus, and things that result in less pesticide usage. I also love the idea of genetically modifying plants for drought tolerance, and to produce bigger, tastier, faster growing, more nutritious food. I am just not a big fan of creating plants that are resistant to herbicides, be them genetically modified or traditionally bred, as that does nothing to stop increasing overuse of herbicide problem. Also, I was not implying that gm food is unhealthy, I was simply correcting your previous statement saying that gm food was “chemically no different” than non-GM food.

      • RobertWager

        OK. How would you label a loaf of bread?

        • Viva La Evolucion

          Well, if the bread contains GMO soybean oil then I believe it should simply list “GMO soybean oil” in the ingredients, instead of simply putting vegetable oil. Maybe something like this: http://blog.seedalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/gm20label-300×199.jpg

          • Benjamin Edge

            Except that most food manufacturers use whatever vegetable oil is cheapest. So it would have to say “may contain vegetable oil from genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola, or cotton” followed by a “may contain HFCS, or sugar from genetically modified corn or beets.” Eventually the whole package is taken up with an ingredient list that still doesn’t tell you anything about the nature of the GMOs. What a STUPID waste of effort!

            Note: And on top of that, the oil and sugar contain no DNA or protein, so the fact that it comes from GM plants is irrelevant.

          • Michael Phillips

            And in turn, it perpetuates a mistrust on the part of the public, which means politicians can exploit GMO paranoia for votes, endangering funding of public research projects aimed at actually helping people in marginalized, subsistence situations. By empowering GMO paranoia in the developed world, we actually imperil good science intended to solve problems in the underdeveloped world. Problems well-fed Natural Foods shoppers will never experience. All because GMO activists don’t understand linoleic acid is the same no matter what the source.

      • Michael Phillips

        Or can push for more education on the issue, which will eliminate the desire for GMO labeling once it is obvious this tells the public nothing and is in fact deeply misleading. I favor education over humoring the ignorant.

    • Loren Eaton

      Micha, given that the corporate and activist proponents of labeling have already shown their true motivation (and it is NOT informing people, Jon Entine can help you here), I would agree with you that they are perfectly rational (read conniving). And people already have a choice, they can go organic or GMO free…just read the labels. Given that there is no legal reason to require labeling of GMO’s (other than the yuck factor), those who want GM-free should foot the bill for the raised cost from those who will market the products that they want. The ONLY reason to require labeling of the GM products is for the activists to mobilize their minions.

      • Calamity

        People that want cancer free products should foot the bill to have anything that doesn’t cause cancer labeled. Brilliant logic. They poison us and we have to pay to be told what they didn’t poison.

        • Michael Phillips

          Except that it’s not poison. Unless you think DNA is poisonous?

        • Loren Eaton

          So GMO products “contain” cancer? Citation please. By your logic, ALL organic grains grown without fungicides need to be labeled “May contain fungal toxins that cause birth defects and liver cancer.” Wanna go there??

      • phoenixkevin

        The pro-labeling ’cause’ has all sorts of people with all sorts of motives, after all its a huge portion of the population.

        You also point out that if people ‘just read the labels’ they can avoid GMO foods. How is that possible when there are no labels on food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s?

        • Jeff Clothier

          If “no-GMO” is considered a value-add for a significant share of the packaged and processed food market, be assured those producers that do not use GM derived ingredients will step up and *voluntarily* label their product as such to attract that market segment. One wonders just how large that market segment must really be if those producers do not find it particularly advantageous to attract them.

          • phoenixkevin

            Mandatory labels is the right way to do this, say most Americans.

          • Jeff Clothier

            So now you speak for “most Americans.” Quite an ego you got there.

          • phoenixkevin

            I’m quoting the polls: The overwhelming majority of Americans want required labels required on food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s

          • Michael Phillips

            So if the majority of Americans want Santa Claus to come early this year, do we humor their ignorance or gently break it to them that he’s not real?

          • phoenixkevin

            Why is it your job to tell kids that Santa is a perception? Doesn’t that role belong to parents (or older siblings)?

            Santa is a good metaphor for many things, but I do not see the relevance when it comes to labeling food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s.

          • Michael Phillips

            I was speaking of adults.

            Santa is a great metaphor for the anti-GMO movement. Adults believing there is evidence of GMO harm is like adults believing in santa. You are suggesting we should enforce labels just to placate them and humor their ignorance. I am saying it is better to let them know santa isn’t real, ie. educate them on the reality of agriculture and our long history of genetically modifying plants for our benefit, a practice dating back thousands of years.

          • phoenixkevin

            Actually I firmly believe that education is important and it’s not being done. Labels won’t hurt GMO’s in the long run, they will help them.

          • RobertWager

            No Kevin you are parroting the anti-GMO rhetoric. With every non-push poll (look that up if it is not clear to you what that is) When asked what if anything would you like to see added to food labels less than 7% of the respondents say GE content. But the real question should be; With zero evidence of harm from any food containing ingredients derived from GE crops, are you willing to pay ~10% more for you food to pay for the costs of GE specific food labeling?

          • phoenixkevin

            I’ve asked you before for citations on the ‘push-polls’ of which you speak, yet you have failed to provide them. Since you provide hundreds of links (mostly unsolicited) on other topics, I am going to assume you don’t have links to the polls you are quoting.

            Food labels do not point out harm, as you well know. Harmful food can not be sold (at least in the US, and I assume its true in your home of Canada as well).

            Labels will cost only a fraction of a cent per package. Food packages are changed all the time, the costs are minimal.

          • Viva La Evolucion

            Actually, labeling GMOs will not cause any significant price increase in food. In case you haven’t noticed food manufacturer change their packing and/or labels all the time. You are parroting, the junk food companies fabricated talking point. I agree that GMO food is safe, but no need to lie about labeling increasing food cost by 10%.

          • Michael Phillips

            Say most Americans who have been lied to and manipulated to think GMOs are scary. We should not condone an ignorance of basic biology. Saying something contains ‘GMO’ says nothing at all. Promoter? Enzyme activity? Copy number? Expression level? These are the relevant data. A label that says a product has been genetically modified is literally like saying it contains DNA. What role could such a label possibly play except to provoke unwarranted fears and provide an unearned leg-up to organic-friendly corporations? Why do you want to favor one group of corporations over another at the expense of accurate science?

          • phoenixkevin

            All ingredients (including ingredients produced from GMO’s) should be listed. Listing ingrediants is about informing the consumer, its not about food safety.

          • Michael Phillips

            I doubt your sincerity. If you do think that, nearly every other person who opposes GMOs wants to use labeling as a weapon to punish corporations they just don’t like, to hell with what science tells us. I have a bit of experience in plant metabolomics, and I assure you that considering typical plant tissues contain somewhere on the order of 1,000-10,000+ metabolites, the notion of labeling all ingredients is simply naive and ignorant. Consumers don’t want to be informed, not when it requires learning chemistry. They just want to know what they’re eating is safe. That is why labeling is irresponsible: it sends a false message.

          • phoenixkevin

            You seem convinced that labels are a bad thing. If you recall, industry has always hated labels of any sort – they protested against ingredients, they protested against nutritional information they protested against revised nutritional information. In short, industry protests too much for no purpose.

          • Michael Phillips

            Industry protests too much for no purpose? A little self-awareness here please.

    • Michael Phillips

      Are you suggesting we endorse outright lies to placate a public ignorant of basic biology? Should we also push Christian prayers in school as deference to the people?

    • Benjamin Edge

      They have a choice. That is another thing that makes labeling so disingenuous. People can avoid GM food products by buying organic or non-GMO verified. So their goal is really either to ban GM outright, or to force manufacturers to increase their costs so the labeling crowd can buy non-organic (but GM-free) without having to pay the (they think) cost premium for organic, since they don’t believe it will cost more.

  • ruhrohvington

    I don’t see why the “right to know” is considered a pretext. The safety of GMOs for health and ecology isn’t verified, so consumers should be able to make their own choices. If GMOs are perfectly safe, then what’s wrong with labeling? If 80% of all food in the US already contains GMOs, then why should food companies worry about the cost of separating out GMOs from the rest of the food supply—if it’s safe, it should be business as usual, except for the miniscule cost of adding more info on package labeling. The truly conniving parties are the transnational food companies and agribusinesses–most people don’t want GMOs and if they knew that there were GMOs in their food, the ag and food corporations would have to shift gears. That’s consumer empowerment–not some disingenuous promotion of a minority agenda.

    • GregH

      I’m sorry but that’s just not true. There is quite a bit of verification on the safety of genetically engineered crops. These crops undergo rigorous testing and evaluation, more than is necessary in my opinion, prior to being released for commercial cultivation. The ‘right to know’ thing is a pretext because when you can’t win on the science, you can still win on the weasel words. “Right’ to know, as if something bad is being hidden, and you are being deprived in some way for corporate gain, how nefarious.

      Of course, that’s complete nonsense. Consumers are more than able to make their own choices. There aren’t that many crops that are genetically engineered to remember: corn, soy, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beet, summer squash, and papaya. Learn a few details, check the ingredients, and you’ve got this. This is what gets me about this labeling thing. It’s like saying you need a Haram label on a ham to know if it is not Halal. If you take a few minutes check the ingredients, you can make a pretty reasonable guess as to what is and is not GE. You could also just buy organic, or things labeled non-GMO. It would be so much easier if these people trying to force labeling simply
      started trying to inform people, though that they are not says to me
      that information is not their end goal. No information is being hidden from you, you just choose not to look for it.

      As for consumers not wanting it, I don’t know, maybe if Greenpeace et al had chosen to spend the past decade blatantly lying about grafting or hybridization , people would be fearful of them too. That’s all totally unlabeled of course, which makes me wonder, if this is just about information, where is the movement to know which pears were grafted on quince, or which oranges were grafted on Poncirus, or which tomatoes have genes bred in from Solanum pimpinellifolium, or any of the other myriad of factoids most people do not know about crop improvement and production? And that’s the thing, what we are seeing is people being unjustly scared of a thing, then that fear’s existence being used to justify itself. It’s a circular argument. And the whole thing is deceptive. I could demand that organic potatoes be forced to carry a label that warns that they are genetically programmed to produce a toxic substance, and that would be 100% true, but that is also deceptive to irrationally single out organic potatoes and not inform the consumer of the whole story, that all potatoes can produce the substance I refer to (solanine). You want to force labeling of something while failing to inform of context of every other aspect of crop improvement, saying nothing about the modifications themselves, ignoring the benefits and proven safety, knowing that years of outright fear mongering are in play, all while self education is a simple task, and then you call this consumer empowerment? I call it a lie of omission.

    • Michael Phillips

      It is quite disingenous of activists to spend so much time and energy demonizing the GMO label with lies and then ask “If they are so proud of their technology, why not label it?” Well, because consumers have been lied to and led to believe that ‘GMO’ equals something harmful, so it is not hard to understand why companies do not want to bear the Scarlet Letter.

      Plant scientists are against labels because it only misinforms the public and perpetuates the false notion that crops genetically modified by other techniques (hybridization, inbreeding, mutagenesis) are somehow natural whereas GE crops are not and therefore suspect. It makes it harder to apply this technology towards solving important human problems, and some of us have dedicated our lives to this so we are naturally frustrated when we hear lies about our own discipline.

      The safety or danger of a trait is determined by that trait, not by the technique used to introduce it. Labeling would convince the general public otherwise. Labeling is really just a guerilla marketing tactic by organic producers and activist groups who want to compete more effectively with large seed companies, and they are manipulating your emotions and lying to you to do it. All crops, even GE crops, can and should be grown organically when possible. When you hear the green movement make a distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘GMO’ as if those were two mutually exclusive possibilities, you know the science has been thrown out the window. Please don’t fall for it.

      Thank you,
      Michael Phillips
      Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics

    • Benjamin Edge

      The ‘right to know’ is a pretext because that is not the ultimate goal of those pushing labeling efforts. Labeling is just a means to an end of banning GM technology in food. But it is not even that, because you don’t see the same objection to cheese made with GM rennet. The goal of the movement is more broadly to damage conventional agriculture.

  • Calamity

    My question is, “If we are talking about something that is questionable; and this is one thing that is definitely that, and it is potentially devastating to the environment,, could be toxic, is banned by almost every nation in the world that did their own research and is consumed by BILLIONS, why would anyone defend it?

    • mem_somerville

      “Is the GMO Debate Advancing to a Higher Level?”

      Apparently everyone hasn’t got the memo yet.

    • Michael Phillips

      You are repeating debunked claims. Are you interested in a fact based discourse or do you just want to get your way?

    • Benjamin Edge

      Evidently hasn’t seen any of the research in the past 20+ years that answers those concerns.

  • Jeff Clothier

    I’m sorry but there is something ironic and sadly funny in the idea that certain Americans are terrified their Hamburger Helper might have “GMOs” in it.

    • phoenixkevin

      I think its reasonable that people have fears about their food, after all it’s important to them.

      Sweeping fears under the rug, does not help resolve those fears.

      • Jeff Clothier

        From a nutritional standpoint, they’ve got way more dire problems. Forgive me if I am less than sympathetic. I don’t eat most processed foods, but GM is not even one of the reasons why.

        First world problems…

        • phoenixkevin

          I agree that most processed food is unhealthy.

          It wasn’t that long ago that snack food makers were arguing against labels for snack food. Then they argued about portion size, and just about anything else. We have the labels now, and consumers can now make a choice.

          • Jeff Clothier

            I don’t recall these “arguments.” I certainly don’t recall noisy minorities unable to exert influence the right way making a huge political deal over things they are mistaken about.

          • phoenixkevin

            What kind of minorities are you referring to? That is something that should be clarified as that word has many meanings, most of them negative.

          • Jeff Clothier

            You’re being obtuse – Minority as in a relatively small amount of people. If the majority of Americans were REALLY clamoring for “non-GMO” food, food producers would be falling all over themselves to provide it, and they would apply big, friendly labels “NOW 100 percent GMO-FREE! ”

            Groceries are a low-margin sector. Producers and retailers fall all over themselves for competetive advantage. If the “labellers” Really represented any significant portion of the buying public, you wouldn’t have any resistance at all.

          • phoenixkevin

            I agree that packaged food is a very low margin sector that in aggregate it is worth billions every year.

            Just recently I’ve seen more and more GMO-Free labels. Perhaps your wish is coming true.

            Of course this does not address the concerns of the majority of consumers who have the perception that GMO foods are harmful. What it does is let those opposed to GMO’s grab the narrative.

          • Jeff Clothier

            I disagree. What it does is resist irrationality and an unnecessary and inapproriate application of propaganda and political force.

          • phoenixkevin

            Sometimes when you sell a product your customers have a perception that something is wrong with the product. As a busienss that wants to make money, you work with your customers to resolve their concerns. Happy customers often brings in insane profits.

          • Jeff Clothier

            But the people clamoring for these bogus labels are not the customers of the major players in the ag biotech field.

          • phoenixkevin

            Some farmers grow crops that are not used as food. For the rest, they are growing a product that goes into the food chain and is eventually eaten by a consumer.

            You ask a good question: “why allow your sworn enemies to frame the debate?” From my point of view, the anti-gmo crowd has control of the debate.

            I think that labels will raise awareness of GMO foods in a good way, but only if the industry starts talking in plain language.

          • Jeff Clothier

            Two questions: Can you define “plain language,” please, with a relevent example, and, what of my argumentation has failed to qualify as such, again, with examples?

          • phoenixkevin

            In the US, the average literacy rate is 7th or 8th grade. Plain language is something a 7th or 8th grader would understand. Most ‘so called’ ‘general circulation news’ is written at this level. You can also see examples of it in consumer contracts – where terms are defined/explained and examples are given.

            It was a general statement, not a specific criticism of your comments.

            Not so much on this story, but in The Atlantic article/comment section where we ‘met’, much of the conversation (from both sides) was targeted towards college literacy level. Certainly when one points to an abstract of a scientific study, the language is at a college or beyond literacy. Scientists often write in a language that is based on extensive knowledge of quantitative skills.

            I read an article on climate change that addresses plain language. I can’t find the article. But here is a substitute.

            … so many of us are still wedded to the myths that either 1) “the science speaks for itself” (it does, but only to other scientists), or 2) saying things clearly and concisely in plain English makes us sound dumb (what could be dumber than being indecipherable?).

            http://www.climatebites.org/2011/10/20/its-not-what-you-say-its-what-people-hear/

            (It’s an example, I’m not wedded to the source/website)

          • Jeff Clothier

            I’m painfully aware of these facts. But the lack of education and ambition doesn’t seem to stop people from having strong opinions, or from bringing the torches and pitchforks and calling it democracy. I see no reason to dumb down to some least common denominator. Ignorance is to be combated, not catered to.

          • phoenixkevin

            You should always speak in the ‘language’ of your audience, says Toastmasters.

            Don’t dumb down your message, make it understandable to the audience.

          • RobertWager

            Once again Kevin, GE is a breeding technology not an ingredient. We label food in NA based on the food content, not on how the food crops were created in the first place.

          • phoenixkevin

            All of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world require labels on food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s. , except for the US and Canada.

          • Jeff Clothier

            If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too? Jeez, you’re exhibiting tweener logic here.

          • phoenixkevin

            If the reason was sound, yes.

            In this case the regulatory bodies (I’ll call them that although they go by different names) of 64 of some of the largest and richest and most technologically advanced countries looked at the evidence and decided that labeling food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s is a good thing.

            The US and Canada will soon see the way.

          • Jeff Clothier

            Odd you give those governments’ regulatory agencies so much credit for altruism when you clearly don’t trust your own.

            BTW: Why would you trust food labels mandated by the same regulatory agencies your side claims has not been diligent enough in “testing GMOs?”

            Slapping a label on something is no guarantee of the actual contents. If a simpleton-worded “Contains GMOs” label is mandated on prepackaged foods, and a certain item fails to carry it, are your folks gonna feel confident everything’s hunky-dory? I know you’re gonna give sone Pollyanna response like “It’s better than nothing,” but keep sentiment out of it a second and think. I know you’re capable.

          • phoenixkevin

            In the US the beauty of labels is that companies are kept honest by lawyers and class action law suits. The system is kept ‘honest’.

            Yes mistakes are made by all parties, and generally, they are quickly corrected.

          • Jeff Clothier

            Or the 64 will. Protectionism is no longer an economically viable strategy for the EU or Commonwealth countries.One of the reasons the Euro may failis that the combined GDP of those countries, particularly from basic market sectors such as food production, agriculture, mining, etc., can no longer sustain their debt load.

          • phoenixkevin

            While I agree that the EU is dysfunctional, I see labels in the US before the EU fails. Unless we have WWIII.

          • Benjamin Edge

            How many of those countries actually produce their own GM seed varieties? Since most of their own scientists say GM crops are safe, did you ever stop to think there is a reason why they require labeling, besides “concerns about their safety”? Can you not agree that at least part of their reasoning is to gain a marketing advantage by reducing imports from the US? I still say the main reason is fear to upset their green political parties, because of the same type of actions behind the labeling movement in the US.

          • phoenixkevin

            Every political act has a dozen motives and is often wrapped in the countries flag.

            I also agree that labeling food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s is a good idea.

          • Jeff Clothier

            Which should tell you something, as we are far and away larger ag producers than any one EU nation, and year-to-year, than all of them combined. Perhaps it is those countries who need to wise up, not we.

          • phoenixkevin

            Jeff, some of the countries other than the US and Canada that produce the most grains also require labels on food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s

            China, India, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine – just to name a few.

          • Michael Phillips

            Jeff is right. Those bitter public debates never took place. A lot of good science shows how high refined sugar content is bad. Adult onset diabetes, for instance, has been linked to high sugar diets. Why trust this science but then kick the same people in the teeth when they report no harms from GE crops?

          • Matthew Slyfield

            The snack food labels contain real information with real value. The proposed GMO labels contain no useful information.

          • phoenixkevin

            I disagree. Listing ingredients, including those ingredients produced from GMO’s is information that is helpful to a majority of consumers, or as you put it, useful information.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            Perhaps, but that isn’t how any of the proposals actually before the regulators work.

          • Jeff Clothier

            Listing ingredients is a good idea. “GMOs” are not an ingredient.

          • phoenixkevin

            As I have said repeatedly: labels should be required on food that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s

      • Michael Phillips

        Generating fears from false information as a marketing tactic to assist certain corporations stick it to Monsanto is also not helpful.

        • phoenixkevin

          I argue that generating fears is a horrible marketing tactic. I wonder why those in favor of GMO’s are also using fear to fight labels?

          • Michael Phillips

            Fear is a great tactic for organic producers, Greenpeace, Jeffery Smith, Vandana Siva, Mike Adams, Saayer Ji, and other dishonest crooks who make their money through deception. They sell a lot of books, supplements, DVDs, organic produce, detox kits, etc. by making ‘GMO’ sound scary and linking them to cancer and worse without a shred of evidence.

            Those who favor science also use fear to fight labels? How?

          • phoenixkevin

            Fear is a short-term tactic that is best used for fund-raising and/or for political/election type fights. Both sides use fear, including the anti-labeling crowd. Often fear results in polarizing people, turning the cause into a wedge issue where there is no middle ground. (Gays, Guns, Ganja and Abortion are the traditional ones in the US.)

            One of the favored tactics of those that are for GMO’s is to call all of their opponents names. Name calling has never had much success in winning people over to ones side.

          • Michael Phillips

            How do people on the science side use fear to fight labels?

            Show where name calling is the favored tactics of scientists please.

          • phoenixkevin

            Most scientists don’t go on comment boards like this one.

          • Jeff Clothier

            True, they have serious work to do

          • Michael Phillips

            Lots of plant scientists do. I am not the only one concerned about public image of my discipline. Now, for the third time: how do scientists use fear to fight labels? Show me where scientists favor name calling. If you can’t, please retract your statements.

          • phoenixkevin

            You are being confrontational. I specifically tried to defer your accusations that scientists use fear and name calling.

            Since you are the one alleging that scientists use fear and and that scientists favor name calling, you should provide examples.

            I caution you that it will be difficult to prove. It’s hard to identify a person who is a scientist from a comment, just like its hard to identify a food product in a retail store that contains ingredients produced from GMO’s without labels.

            I stand by my comments. “[T]hose” [people] do use fear as a method of argument and “[b]oth sides” name call.

          • Michael Phillips

            I’m saying scientists don’t use fear mongering and don’t prefer name calling. You said they do. I asked you to substantiate your claims or retract them.

          • phoenixkevin

            Perhaps your definition of scientist is political, rather than based on a field of study or a profession? Which brings up the importance of the discussion on why plain language is important.

          • Michael Phillips

            Those who favor GMOs then if you prefer (including nearly all scientists)…do you still allege they use fear in the same way as your camp (the anti-science camp)? If so, can you substantiate it? Same goes for name calling. Have you seen Saayer Ji posting here? I don’t see the rational side using that kind of language generally.

          • Michael Phillips

            Could you provide examples of scientists or GMO supporters using fear mongering the way your side does? After all, that is what you claimed.

          • Michael Phillips

            Remember saying this above Kevin? “I wonder why those in favor of GMO’s are also using fear to fight labels?”

          • phoenixkevin

            Yes I said that.

            Clearly it doesn’t make your point.

  • RobertWager

    Kevin, nice to see you back again. you forgot to answer this question in our previous debates. please explain these statements by the organizations financing the GE labeling push:

    “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.

    Ronnie Cummins Organic Consumers Association
    https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/08/02-0

    “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this”
    Dr. Joseph Mercola
    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/02/29/new-vermont-gmo-labeling-policy-officially-introduced.aspx

    “We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled we can organize people not to buy it.” Andrew Kimbell-Center for Food Safety http://www.activistcash.com/person/1562-andrew-kimbrell/

  • David Ropeik

    How scary is it that Michael Pollan says many on UC Berkeley campus didn’t even want to let someone with another view speak…’worried for their student’s education.” That statement captures so vividly how the GMO issue is not an issue of facts and evidence, but an issue of feelings and values. Pollan’s colleagues don’t want to let students hear facts that conflict with their own, at a university…a place of learning…not indoctrination. I can’t imagine a clearer demonstration of the motivated reasoning that besets so many controversial issues, scientific and otherwise. It’s not about the facts. It’s about how we FEEL about them.

  • Ray Del Colle

    “Several impartial reviews found the East Anglia scientists did nothing wrong.” http://clmtr.lt/c/HGV0dX0cMJ

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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