by Marion Nestle
Jan 8 2014

The endless GMO saga: today’s chapter

A reader writes: “Any chance you might weigh in on the latest GMO piece in the times?”

Sure.  This article, in case you missed it, puts anyone who opposes GMOs in the same camp as climate denialists.

I haven’t commented on it because I wrote a book about the topic in 2003—Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety—in which I said everything I had to say about the topic.  Nothing new has happened since.

In that book, I argued that the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss: corporate control of the food supply.

I drew on the literature of risk communication to explain what kinds of issues most worry the public: those that are technological, unfamiliar, and under someone else’s control.

Why should the public trust GMOs?  They are under corporate control and not labeled.

By pouring money into fighting labeling, the biotech industry looks like it’s got plenty to hide.  

For one possibility about what’s hidden, take a look at Tom Philpott’s take on the need for stronger and increasingly toxic pesticides to overcome the weed resistance to Roundup that is now widespread.

Now that GMO labeling initiatives are making some headway, guess what:

PoliticoPro tells us tells us that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) now wants the industry to do voluntary labeling.  According to a leaked draft for discussion, the Association is working on legislation to send to Congress.  This would:

  • Require FDA to set up a voluntary labeling standard for foods that do not contain GMOs and determine the safety of GMO products.
  • Preclude states from adopting any laws that are not identical to the federal requirements and create a legal framework so that FDA can take a more active role in regulating GMO-labeling claims.
  • Require GMO producers to notify the FDA about all new bioengineered foods four months before they could be marketed.
  • Require FDA to define “natural”
  • Set up a national standard for voluntary GMO labeling 

While you are waiting for all this to happen, take a look at the Wall Street Journal’s perspective on this video: Can you spot the GMOs in your grocery store?

Here’s what JustLabelIt’s Executive Director Scott Faber says:

This ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late to deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food. Two states have already given consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries around world, and 20 more states are poised to pass GE labeling legislation in 2014. Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.

Really, labeling would solve lots of problems, but let’s make it mandatory please.

  • It was interesting to me that the NYT article devoted a very significant amount of space to the disease-resistant transgenic papaya, which was developed by public scientists and for which seeds were distributed to farmers for free. Is corporate control of Roundup Ready corn really a good reason to distrust the Rainbow papaya?

    I understand that the vast majority of GM food is engineered for pest resistance or herbicide resistance, traits which are patented. If corporate control is the real issue, let’s have a conversation about patent law and how corporations are regulated. But it seems to me that if corporate control is the real issue, we should be more supportive of non-corporate transgenic crops like the papaya.

    The thing that puzzles me about the anti-GMO movement is the idea that we should reject all transgenic crops because of concerns about some of them. Why do we need to throw out the GM crops to which those concerns don’t apply? Why not deal with the actual concerns instead of using genetic engineering as a proxy for those concerns?

  • Jack Heinemann

    ” the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss”
    Safety (as in food or environment) is also the framing used in legislation and international agreements that attempt to harmonise trade. In those agreements, only information gathered through a narrow perspective called ‘science’ seems to have a voice. I see ‘safety’ as more than a surrogate, but one of the few ways that government allows the public and civil society to interact with them on the issue on either a formal or informal basis.
    In other words, the discussion has been so safety-oriented because that is the only official language of regulation.
    The labeling initiative is one of those rare times that the public has found a way to get the ear of government to interact with it on its terms. Of course, that way is also available to all and, having defined the battle ground, counter strategies are inevitable (e.g., proposal for voluntary labeling).

  • mem_somerville

    Hmm. This doesn’t completely seem right to me:

    In that book, I argued that the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss: corporate control of the food supply.

    It’s not clear to me why they “aren’t allowed” to discuss the
    corporate control–because that is a thread of the GMO discussion that comes up all the time.

    But on the labels, some of the worst abusers of GMO safety fearmongery (such as GMO wheat will kill your children and OMG rat tumors!) emanate from places where there are labels.

    In fact, I think those folks have harmed this discussion the most because they created such a fog–and the shouty people who believe them can’t see the stuff under the fog. They actually believe that banning GMOs solves all issues with patents, herbicides, monocultures, etc, in addition to the health fictions–because their fear-bathed brains can’t get past the dead kids and rat tumors that they’ve been sold.

    And people in positions with megaphones to the right audience have not disabused them of these misconceptions.

  • Mark.

    Roundup is glyphosate, a wide-spectrum herbicide meant to be used for brush clearing and not on food crops. Danish pigs with damaged offspring due to glyphosate-contaminated soy — which would not exist if GMO Roundup Ready (glyphosate resistant) soy did not — are likely more of an argument against GMO than anything in most GMO organisms themselves nowadays (I depend on insulin and insulin analogs produced by GMO bacteria, after all). When I heard that Monosanto had had Roundup Ready soy created it struck me as idiocy, but I would gladly drink wine from GMO grapes that resist phylloxera and Pierce’s disease with genes from wild grapes (though not eat soy that survives an artificial brush-clearing herbicide; then again I avoid soy anyway, which is full of mild natural toxins).

    Personally I think that people fear GMOs out of ignorance — conventional gene modification methods via chemicals or irradiation are way less precise — and sometimes quite rationally, as when fools use it to allow a herbicide that should end up rotting on dead weeds to be sprayed on food crops where it may not get the chance to rot. I don’t think that people think as far as “corporate control,” just “evil would-be Frankensteins making monsters.”

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  • SameOldSameOld

    Your title pretty much says it all. If the “GMO saga” seems “endless” is that perhaps a symptom of the limitless unfounded paranoia you and your anti-GMO lobby feed upon? Story in point: we once had a dog who was frightened into a panic with every visitor who passed near our front porch…and then she became incontinent. We finally put her out of her misery and voila – no more endless panic! And no more cleaning up silly nasty messes all over the place. Finally we could invite visitors in and live again!

  • FosterBoondoggle

    “labeling would solve lots of problems, but let’s make it mandatory please”

    What’s wrong with a national *voluntary* standard? That way any marketer, like General Mills, can follow the protocol and slap the label on their product? What’s the upside for anyone else in a *mandatory* label not based on even the remotest actual evidence of material difference? (Cheerio’s maker observed that the non-GMO cornstarch and sugar they were switching to are chemically identical to their GMO counterparts, and that this was purely a marketing ploy, though they didn’t use those exact words.) When you start demanding mandatory labels based on differences-without-a-difference, how do you decide where to stop? Mutagen-created crops (like grapefruit)? Marker-assisted breeding? Chromosomal hexaploidy? I’m sure Greenpeace can figure out how to make that last one sound plenty scary if they try…

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  • Leah

    If the FDA required companies to slap labels on their genetically modified products, what would come next? How far is the government willing to go into food safety?

    While those are both very large questions that we cannot make predictions for, I do believe that it’s time for the FDA to at least define “natural” so that consumers can have an accurate idea of what they are purchasing and eating. After the FDA defines this term, that will require companies using genetically modified foods to be truthful about what is in their products.

    As the world’s population grows, this will begin to be a larger and larger issue since companies will want to make cheaper, faster growing products. If the issue’s importance will simply increase, why won’t the FDA take the necessary requirements now to ensure the population’s clarity with which products they are consuming as well as their safety?

  • Helen Weatherall

    Marion why on earth are you so unaware- unresponsive to the reports from hog farmers saying that sows are suffering from increased spontaneous abortion, that hogs in general are suffering from intestinal problems etc due to GMO corn and/or the glyphosate the stuff is laced with due to the heavy applications of the herbicide required to grow Roundup ready corn?