Points to Consider: Flawed and False Arguments for Mandatory GM Food Labels

GMO Labels

Opponents of agricultural innovation are in the second year of a massive campaign aimed at stampeding state legislatures into imposing mandatory labels on foods derived from crops improved through biotechnology. They cite a litany of justifications, none of which survives critical scrutiny. We take a closer look.

Original Article: Shubert, David, Why we Need GMO Labels, CNN, February 3, 2014

Primary Claims of the Article:

  • The lack of labeling requirements for GM foods is because of money spent in opposition by seed companies.
  • There is no consensus that these foods are safe.
  • Labeling is required to ensure safety and enable consumer choice.
  • Genetic engineering has not created any new varieties with “with increased yields and resistant to flooding and salt” as promised “When GMOs were introduced nearly 20 years ago.”

Salient Facts: Virtually every claim made is abundantly contradicted by data, experience, and the published scientific literature.

Rebuttal:

  • The lack of State labeling requirements for GM foods is because of money spent in opposition by seed companies.
    • Significant amounts of money have been spent by organic interests in support of labeling that would help expand their market share. Most of the money spent in opposition has come not from seed companies, but from the major food companies whose interests are being directly assaulted (see CA funding and  opposition campaign funding)
    • Given the amounts of money spent on both sides, and the conspicuous failures of most state labeling initiatives to date, an impartial observer would be tempted to conclude that proponents have not made a persuasive case for state labels to most voters.
    • Schubert fails to mention that a robust system is already in place at the federal level that protects the integrity and reliability of food labels, mandates the disclosure of all information relevant to health, safety and nutrition, and provides multiple avenues for informed freedom of consumer choice (see USDA Organic Labels and the NON GMO Project).
  • There is no consensus that these foods are safe.
    • This claim is false.  See the evidence of broad consensus documented by Pam Ronald, recent literature surveys, and authoritative bodies around the world, including the European Commission, which found that “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies…”
    • Almost all of the few scientists who do not agree on GM safety come from unrelated disciplines and lack the necessary background to do a proper evaluation. Many are also well known for the biases and unexamined presuppositions they bring to the subject matter, as well as conflicts of interest, often undeclared. The claim that there is no consensus often cites a letter from the “European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental responsibility”, which links to citations most of which cannot be followed. Those that can often lead to reaffirmations of the safety of GMO foods, as this this one (see also this from Michael Shintaku).
  • Labeling is required to ensure safety and enable consumer choice.
    • Existing federal law prohibits any food from being placed on the market that is unsafe.
    • Federal label requirements mandate the inclusion of information related to health, safety, or nutrition, and FDA has found the use of “GM” techniques in seed improvement is irrelevant to safety.
    • Consumers have complete freedom of choice through the USDA organic label, and various voluntary certification schemes (e.g., the NON GMO Project).
    • Mandatory Labeling has not advanced consumer choice in Europe.
    • Major advocates of labeling are on the record that they see labels as a way to get rid of GM food altogether.
  • Genetic engineering has not created any new varieties with “with increased yields and resistant to flooding and salt” as promised “When GMOs were introduced nearly 20 years ago.”
    • The claim that yields have not increased is abundantly falsified in numerous rigorous studies.  For a representative sample see http://isaaa.org/  and http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/publications.php.
    • The claim is ludicrous on its face. Schubert would have us believe that 18 million farmers growing biotech seeds around the world as part of the most rapid adoption of an agricultural innovation in human history are all fools, year after year buying seeds that do not outperform their competitors. This implication of Schubert’s claims fails the laugh test.
    • Seeds resistant to flooding and salt were, in fact, only minor components of the reasons advanced decades ago for pursuing the genetic improvement of seeds. Nevertheless, despite Schubert’s claims, significant progress has been made on both fronts.
    • Nevertheless there is an element of truth to the claim.  The major reason is that people making false claims about safety, like Schubert, have helped build a regulatory over-kill bureaucracy that prices many traits out of the market.
  • “GM crops have fostered an epidemic of herbicide resistant weeds and insects that are no longer killed by the built-in toxins.”
    • Herbicide tolerant weeds existed long before the advent of biotechnology, and new ones have been emerging as long as herbicides have been used (of the herbicide tolerant weeds documented in this figure only the glycines” are related to biotech improved seeds).  In this regard, GM crops are no different from conventional ones.  Biotechnology providing new means of controlling herbicide tolerant weeds is one reason farmers adopted GM crops so rapidly.
    • The emergence of novel herbicide tolerance in weed populations subjected to herbicide selection pressure would be absolutely no surprise, and is to be expected regardless of whether the crop herbicide tolerance results from biotech, conventional breeding, or innate tolerances.  The data show that farmers practicing good agronomic practices standard throughout the industry have not seen unusual herbicide resistance problems emerge. The reported problems have been caused by the failure of some farmers to rotate herbicides, or an increased prevalence of weeds with preexisting tolerances.
    • Bt crops were deployed with management systems intended to delay resistance, given that resistance is inevitable.  The length of the delay has met or exceeded initial predictions.  Regardless, new generations of crops have layers of protection built in that will continue to decrease resistance development when combined with proper management.
  • “The result is a massive increase in herbicide use – an additional 527 million pounds over the past 16 years.”
    • Schubert is pretending herbicides were not used before.  Glyphosate use has gone up, but the use many others has gone down.  In addition, there is more acreage under cultivation, which explains the rest of the increase.
    • Schubert makes an elementary mistake, wrongly conflating the one dimensional “pounds on the ground” with increased environmental impact. Peer reviewed studies demonstrate the spread of HT crop varieties improved through biotechnology has led overall to a 17% reduction in environmental impacts, primarily through allowing an older generation of weed control agents to be superseded by newer herbicides with far more benign environmental impacts. This has also enabled the widespread adoption of no till weed control measures, with numerous widespread environmental and  economic benefits.
  • “The major herbicide, glyphosate, is found inside the GM plants we eat, leading to its detection in people.”
    • And before glyphosate, it was residues of the herbicides used at the time.   Today, we ingest residues from most compounds used in agriculture – not just glyphosate
    • All the residue levels are well below what the EPA, EFSA and other agencies around the world have determined to be a safe level
    • Detection of safe materials, especially at low levels, is of no safety consequence.
    • The safety of glyphosate is abundantly demonstrated in the scientific literature, safety specifications, and the experience of the farmers who use it.
  • “Future GM crops will likely trigger a greater use of more toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D, a component of the Agent Orange defoliant deployed in Vietnam.“
    • 2,4-D use started in 1947, and is still one of the top most-used herbicides today.
    • 2,4-D was never the problematic ingredient in Agent Orange.
    • Schubert’s claim is as logical as saying that we should not use paint because once upon a time it contained lead.
  • “In addition to these problems, there is increasing evidence that GM crops and the chemicals required for their production are harmful to humans.”
    • The lack of citations is conspicuous. There are no credible data supporting such claims.
  • “An Associated Press story in October documented the large increase in cancer and birth defects in commercial farming areas of Argentina since the introduction of GM crops.”
    • Media reports are famously inaccurate. These claims are not accompanied by any peer reviewed studies that establish dose/response relationships or causal relationships between the reported health impacts and agents allegedly “sprayed.” Given the demonstrated reductions in the use of potentially hazardous substances made possible through the adoption of biotech improved seeds, it is clear the alleged correlation with biotechnology products in the absence of persuasive data is specious.
    • It should be noted that glyphosate was neither measured nor mentioned in the original report.
    • Many reports of this sort are due to better medical coverage and reporting made possible by the prosperity brought by improvements to agriculture, rather than to increased incidence.  The ‘increased’ birth defect rate claimed is still below world average.
  • “These data confirm recent animal studies showing that GM corn and the herbicides sprayed on it caused a dramatic increase in cancer in the same strain of rats used in FDA drug safety tests.”
    • The cited paper has been subjected to withering criticism by the global scientific community, and retracted by the publishers. It is noteworthy that Schubert does not cite the original paper, but rather a misleading and inaccurate rehash posted on an activist website.
    • The paper did NOT show any increase in cancer incidence in test vs. control populations; indeed, at least one of the test populations developed tumors at a rate lower than seen in controls.  In other words, the claims made by the authors are contradicted by the very data they report.
    • For the scientific consensus on the Seralini paper see this and  this and  this and  this for an incomplete sample.
  • “Another large study showed an increase in severe stomach inflammation in pigs caused by GM feed containing insecticidal toxins, a condition that would likely lead to cancer in humans.”
  • “…there is no evidence that GM food is safe for human consumption, nor is there any consensus on this topic within the scientific community.”
    • “GM” foods and feeds have been widely available in commercial markets for twenty years. During this time not once example of harm to humans or livestock resulting from consumption of these foods and feeds has been shown. Without exception every claim has failed under examination.
    • This is in marked contrast to the sadly routine reports of food recalls, illness, and death resulting from consumption of pathogen contaminated organic foods.
    • For documentation of the robust worldwide consensus on the safety of biotech crops, foods and feeds, see the evidence documented by Pam Ronald, recent literature surveys, and authoritative bodies around the world, including the European Commission, which found that “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies…”

 

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About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.
  • Bri

    how about the fact that I just want to fucking know what I’m eating.

  • Oldaggie

    It’s already on the label.