GMO Labeling: A FoodPolicy.US Sponsored Panel at Georgetown


Image courtesy of Rodale

On Friday, I had the privilege of attending a fascinating debate right in my own backyard: the Georgetown University campus. The debate was organized by FoodPolicy.Us, a multimedia platform designed to foster a broad based dialogue about our food system. The organization’s public events cover a wide range of topics through a variety of structures, including panels, lectures, teach-ins, dinner series, and pop-up restaurant gatherings.

This particular debate was on the subject of GMO Labeling. The moderator, Tim Beach, is a Professor Geography and Geoscience at Georgetown, and the university’s director of the program in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA). He has been awarded more fellowships and honors than can be counted, and it was a pleasure to hear his insightful lines of inquiry. The two panelists were Dr. Cathleen Enright, Executive Vice President of Food and Agriculture at Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotechnology corporation and an leader in genetic food engineering, and Scott Faber, a lawyer who is working as Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group (EWA). Dr. Enright was presenting the argument against mandatory labeling, while Mr. Faber was advocating the pro-labeling position. Both argued their positions exceptionally well, and managed to be civil in spite of the emotionally charged topic.

Though the panel was titled “GMO Labeling: The Changing Political Landscape,” the debate was not about labeling so much as it was the issue of mandatory labeling. Dr. Enright made clear that she supports the right of companies to opt into labeling privately; as you’ve no doubt heard, starting in 2018, Whole Foods will require all products with GMO ingredients that are sold in their stores to be labeled. Dr. Enright made clear that she thinks this is the company’s prerogative, and that she also supports organizations like the non-GMO project. The issue at hand was whether or not all food manufacturers should be required by law to label GMO products–the same issue that was at stake in the defeated Prop 37 bill in California this fall.


As the debate got started, Dr. Enright articulated BIO’s major opposition to mandatory labeling. It is this: in this country, mandatory labeling is typically reserved for foods (or products) that have a proven health risk. We’re told that milk is pasteurized because unpasteurized milk contains more microorganisms than raw milk and is, according to the CDC, 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness than unpasteurized milk. We see labels on Sweet N’ Low because saccharin has been shown, in concert with cyclamate, to cause bladder cancer in laboratory rats (though its safety for humans is the subject of some debate). Trans fats are now being labeled because of their implication in heart disease. When a food is labeled by law, she argued, it is because it poses a known hazard. Since there is no hard evidence that genetically engineered foods pose a health threat–and a lot of peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that they are safe–Dr. Enright’s position is that mandatory labeling of GMO’s will frighten and alienate consumers and possibly interrupt the food chain needlessly.

Mr. Faber countered this argument by saying that health risks are actually not the only grounds for mandatory labeling. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938 holds that products cannot be labeled deceptively; they cannot be labeled as one thing and really be another. Mr. Faber’s argument is that consumers today who purchase “corn” expect it to be the corn they know and recognize from their whole lifetimes; they do not expect it to be corn that produces a protein that kills insects, a foodstuff that has entered our food chain only within the last twenty years. Consumers don’t expect salmon to actually be salmon that grows twice as fast as non-GMO salmon. Genetically modified foods should be labeled, he alleges, because what they really are and what consumers believe them to be are two different things.

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It was a great debate for many reasons: the complex issues at stake, the well argued positions on both sides, the uber-smart student questions at the end, and the fact that the two panelists were able to argue amicably. What fascinated me most was that health risks were largely left out of the debate; indeed, the two scientists and Mr. Faber all conceded that no health risks from GMO foods are known, and that the goal of labeling should not be to alarm consumers about health. As someone who comes from a holistic background and spends my time writing about food and healing, I hear a great deal of the anti-GMO argument, and it is usually from the health perspective (though I’ve naturally heard anti-corporate and environmental arguments, too). It was interesting to witness a debate focused not on whether or not GMOs are really the hidden causes of obesity or autism, but rather, the legal grounds for making consumers aware of them.

Of course, the debate did ultimately delve into health, environment, and the broader virtues (or lack thereof) of GMO crops. Dr. Enright’s principle argument in favor of GMOs is that they have the capacity to resist harsh weather and other conditions that might jeopardize crops. For this reason, they may be what is necessary to feed the world’s ever growing population. Organic and small scale farming, for all of its virtues and appeal, may not be powerful enough to fight off malnutrition and starvation on other continents. Is the anti-GMO position a luxury that only financially secure people in first world countries can afford? Is it privileged?

No direct counter to this position was offered, but Mr. Faber raised another difficult question in response: what about Roundup resistant “superweeds,” which are growing in response to foods that have been engineered to be resistant to roundup? Is there an environmental cost to GMOs that might outweigh their potential benefits?

Beneath all of this, too, was an argument about how genetic engineering fits into the broader scheme of human agriculture. Dr. Enright pointed out that genetic modification is simply the latest step in a process that began with Mendel’s crossing of pea plants; human beings have always created “novel organisms” through the agricultural process, and in fact GMO production is more carefully monitored than other methods, like chemical sprays, have been. Mr. Faber argued that, because GMO foods are relatively recent (they have been a major part of our food supply for twenty years or so), and because so little evidence exists about their longterm impact, they are and should be regarded as new entities, even if food production is essentially timeless.


I tend to buy non-GMO foods, in part because of where I shop (often my farmers market, often Whole Foods, where a lot of stuff is GMO-free), in part because most GMO ingredients end up in heavily processed food, which I don’t eat a lot of, in part because I share many peoples’ visceral discomfort with the idea of genetic engineering, and largely because I have concerns about the corporate monopolies involved in GMO production. It’s not a hard and fast stance; if tofu is the only vegan option at a restaurant, I’ll get tofu, even if it isn’t GMO free. This is all part of the balance I strike as a conscious consumer who is also determined to live flexibly in the real world (fortunately, it’s more than easy to purchase GMO-free tofu and tempeh for my own kitchen!).

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t have questions about corporate monopolies, or GMO food safety. Though health may not have been the focus of the panel, it was on my mind. Sifting through the evidence we have about GMOs is no easy task. The majority of peer-reviewed evidence out there points to the safety of GMOs, but there have also been some studies that call potential hazards into question. (Marion Nestle lead me to this report, which is illuminating; the now famous French study led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, which linked GMOs to tumor development in rats, has been widely critiqued for its complications and incomplete data, and it does not seem to me to be a reliable resource.) On both sides of the debate, it is hard to find impartial research. Many studies supporting the safety of GMO foods have been funded by those who are developing them, which makes consumers understandably hesitant. On the flip side, a lot of the criticisms of GMO foods are from people who are expressly opposed to them, and some are not rooted in hard science or experimental data.

As someone who is considering a career in gastroenterology, I’m curious about the alleged possibility of a connection between GMO foods and intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome results when tight junctions, which help to maintain a barrier in the gut, are disrupted, and unwanted particles or proteins pass into the bloodstream. It is a somewhat new and only partially understood phenomenon (indeed, it is only just now being recognized within the medical community), but it appears to be presenting more frequently. A host of issues could be to blame for it (including any of the many suboptimal foods that are common in the standard American diet), but the fact that the condition has been on the rise since GMOs were introduced into our food supply is a hot topic in GI health circles. We don’t have research to substantiate such a claim, and we may find that leaky gut has nothing to do with GMOs at all. But the question is, until we have more longterm evidence of GMO safety, is the fact that there might be a connection enough to make us steer clear?

But because food policy/production is not my area of expertise, I welcomed this debate as a change to become more conscious and informed. I certainly left the panel with more information, if not more clarity, than I had before. This was the first time I’d given hard thought to questions of access and privilege in the realm of GMO production. What about global hunger, and the fact that GMOs may be the most effective choice in combating it? Then again, if GMO foods are one day proven to be unsafe, will that mean they have been disproportionately supplied to people who have already been made vulnerable by famine? Can GMO technology exist without enabling corporate monopolies of the food chain? How much research and how much time is necessary to establish their safety? If we set a precedent by making GMO labeling mandatory, don’t we have the responsibility to be consistent, and label other potentially harmful entities, too? What about livestock that has been fed tremendous amounts of antibiotics, for instance?

Again, no answers. But important questions to consider.

non-gmoAs I left the debate, I gave some thought to the issue of consumer demand, which was really only touched upon. I think it’s important to point out that there’s a legal precedent for labeling (the 1938 bill that Mr. Faber mentioned). But as a lot of commenters have noted, what about the fact that repeated polling demonstrates that consumers want to know whether or not their food contains GMOs? Doesn’t this carry some weight, too? Surely, consumers’ interests deserve to be balanced with the considerations of food suppliers. They are, after all, the very people whom food manufacturers are selling to.

I know you’re used to strong opinions from me, but this debate actually left me with more questions than answers. I’m eager to hear what you all think! Experience has shown me that you guys know a lot more about food production and agriculture than I do, so I’m eager for your feedback. What do you think about mandatory labeling? The language of Prop 37? GMOs in general–and specifically, how they fit into the demands of a growing population? This is a hot topic, I know, so let’s engage respectfully.

Big thank you to FoodPolicy.US for having me at the panel. And for the Sticky Fingers cookies that I first devoured, then transported back to the library, where hungry post-bacc students were waiting gratefully.

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  1. Good day! This is kind of off topic but I need some help from an established blog.
    Is it tough to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking about
    setting up my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any tips or suggestions? Thank you

  2. Below is an excerpt from Vermont’s GM labeling bill:

    “(b) If a food is required to be labeled under subsection (a) of this section, it
    11 shall be labeled as follows:

    (1) in the case of a raw agricultural commodity, on the package offered
    13 for retail sale, with the clear and conspicuous words, “produced from genetic
    14 engineering” on the front of the package of the commodity or in the case of
    15 any such commodity that is not separately packaged or labeled, on a label
    16 appearing on the retail store shelf or bin in which the commodity is displayed
    17 for sale; or
    18 (2) in the case of any processed food, in clear and conspicuous language
    19 on the front or back of the package of the food, with the words “partially
    20 produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic
    21 engineering.” ”

    Compare that to the known potentially deadly ingredient warnings found on packages for such things as nuts and wheat. They could have stated labeling in accordance with other ingredients, but they did not.

    Clearly this is not about helping people make a decision about the ingredients used but to scarlet letter GMO’s.

  3. “What are you afraid of? You do have nothing to hide?” A taunt oft repeated with the logic that if, indeed, you have nothing to hide, you are obliged to disclose whenever asked, whatever it may be. And so the logic also goes that you would not be hiding what it is if it were indeed harmless to those you are disclosing it to.

    But the logic fails when what is disclosed is indeed harmless to all but the discloser and/or if the act of disclosing brings harm to others. This is probably why the U.S. constitution enshrines the right to remain silent as fundamental. It is usually interpreted that we all have the right not to incriminate ourselves. However, it is falsely assumed that, just because one remains silent on a subject, that means one must be culpable in some fashion.

    “What are you afraid of ? You can tell us.” In the case of GMO’s, it is well known that the those who lobby for labeling are not doing it for any rights to know or choice. Quite the opposite. They want no one to be able to choose GMO’s or know them for themselves. This is not conjecture. Many have said outright that they see labeling as a tool for outright and/or defacto banning. They seek nothing less than a GM free planet. So, even though GMO’s have been proven at least as safe as any other food by hundreds of studies and nearly 20 years of consumption, there is plenty to be afraid of on the part of those pressured to disclose.

    So at the heart of the matter is the possible total destruction of a technology that will literally keep billions from starving. We already have gotten a taste of this when Zambia refused GM food in 2002, at the behest of Greenpeace and millions starved. We have seen the effects of such defacto bans in the blind eyes of millions of VAD children whose sight could’ve been saved a decade ago. Even now, generally GM free Europe cannot feed itself while GM America picks up the slack (indirectly by feeding 100’s of millions that would otherwise be a demand on GM free food stocks).

    The FDA responsibility with food is to make sure dangers and allergens and what the food is, is labeled as such. If you use apples in your product, you have to label that as such. However, you don’t have to label that they’re Rome, or McIntosh, Gala, or that they came from Pennsylvania instead of New York. Likewise, the logic goes, you have to say Corn, but you don’t need to label whether it’s hybrid strain XX or Iowa grown, so long as such corns are similar enough not to introduce new dangers to the consumer. And that is the case for the GMO’s, a proven by the tests they have undergone.

    So if this were a right to know and choice crusade, i would be with you. But, we know it is not and literally billions in the future will suffer for it. That is what i’m afraid of.

  4. Wow, what an amazing post!

    I’m Brett Nadrich, Editor of FoodPolicy.US (the group that organized this panel discussion). First, on behalf of everyone involved with this event, I want to thank Gena for adding her unique and powerful voice to our dialogue. The beauty of a post like this – one that responds to the subject matter rather than just reporting on what happened – is that it builds the conversation by filling in information gaps. Gena is absolutely right that “health risks were largely left out of the debate” … until now. One paragraph on leaky gut syndrome can go a long way to spark new questions for folks working in this sphere, to say nothing of the public, who are the ultimate stakeholders here.

    Let me also say that I’m totally blown away by this substantive, thought-provoking comments thread. Like Gena with her medical expertise, each of you brings a unique set of experiences to the table, which allows you to restructure the foundations of our dialogue. These conversations have the power to change minds and, in the process, improve our world. This has always been the driving force behind FoodPolicy.US, hence our motto: “cultivating dialogue, growing a movement.”

    For more info, please check out our Videos page. We just posted the first event promo, and we’ll follow shortly with more in-depth video coverage. (

    I might also recommend the following piece by HuffPo about the “Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act” that was introduced on Wednesday to both the Senate and the House of Representatives; the article heavily quotes both Scott Faber and a spokeswoman from BIO. (

    Many thanks again to Gena and to all of you for taking the time to work through these pressing issues. I hope you will join us in our mission to realize a healthier, more sustainable food system.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brett! Since I started this site, I’ve been blessed with readers who engage in extraordinary dialogs, create conversation, and incite consciousness. I learn so much from them. Welcome to our community 😉

  5. What a great post and so many fantastic comments from very informed people. I am non expert but I personally avoid GMO foods plus highly refined food that is full of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup and additives.

    I have no idea of the long term effects of GMO produce and feel that it is too early to tell the consequences for this and future generations. Others may feel differently and I respect their opinions. It should come down to choice. As consumers we should know how our food was produced so that we can each make our own informed decisions for ourselves and our families.

  6. this is such a huge topic! i firmly believe that people will continue to get sick from their food and more allergies will pop up from these foods. it’s a horrible and greedy cycle big agra has us in:(

    i wish we took the stance europeans take on their food sourcing!

  7. I am deeply grateful to bloggers like you, Jack Norris, Ginny Messina and others who don’t shy away from the science and debate when it does not support a personal choice. This is an interesting discussion which I will share with others and contemplate myself.


  8. What a great conversation. I’m learning so much, not only from your post, but from the comments as well. I find it so much easier to learn and consider different sides of an argument when people aren’t slinging insults at each other.

    • I absolutely agree – so many places where people voice their opinions becomes a mud-throwing game. I still need to find a good place where people talk openly about childhood vaccines without the mud…

  9. Wow, it’s great to see so many folks thinking (and thoughtfully responding) to this issue!

    Part of the biggest problem imo is the way the biotech industry has fostered secrecy about their products — they continuously try to claim the scientific high ground, while fiercely resisting any and all independent/ unbiased investigation into what they’re selling… which of course is the very antithesis of a science- or reason-based world view.

    I’ve researched this topic pretty extensively over the last few years, and — based on the current nontransparency-infused business model — I’m convinced GMO agriculture is worth boycotting, for many reasons… Too many to sum up here, but for more on why I think that please check out this or this … unless and until consumer pressure brings about legislative/ regulatory reform of this industry, people have the right (at the very least) to fair and accurate labeling of GMO products. For more on that, go here:

    I love to see so interest in this issue rising: public awareness is crucial for shifting towards a more sane and sustainable food system.

    Thanks for covering it! 🙂

    Tanya Sitton

  10. Gena, thanks for bringing this super important topic to your blog. The topic of GMOs is absolutely a controversial one, and I appreciate your balanced stance on the topic. However, there are so many reasons to avoid GMOs. Firstly, and one that didn’t come up in your post or in the comments, is that the companies that bioengineer foods are chemical companies, formally the makers of agent orange and other chemical weapons of war. These companies are built to make a profit, and through genetic manipulation of our food supply, they continue to make billions. These companies (and their subsidiaries) spent millions of dollars squashing the labeling law in California, despite overwhelming support for the legislation. And while the ‘feeding the world’ meme is often touted as reason for continuing GMO work, it has been proven repeatedly (with cotton, corn, and more) that yields actually decrease and chemical input increases with the use of GMO crops. Vandana Shiva has written extensively on this topic, especially in India, where hundreds of thousands of farmers took their own life after becoming bankrupted after failed cotton crops. I feel that we simply cannot trust publicly traded chemical companies with our food supply. We need instead to focus on seed sharing, organic foods, and sustainable methods of farming that are healthful for humans and the planet. For more information, I highly recommend the following post from the Inspired Economist (an economic argument against GMOs) and Tanya Sitton’s work at Eat. Drink Better; she is an incredible author and is passionate about the subject of GMOs and food safety, taking on the GMO spammers and the industry itself in a smart, logical way!

  11. Thanks so much Gena for this very informative post! As a registered dietitian, I am concerned about how the debate seemed to dismiss the potential health hazards of GMOs simply because there is no hard evidence to date that suggests they are harmful.
    It seems that all too often health and nutrition authorities take the stance that engineered foods or artificial foods created in a laboratory are safe until proven otherwise. Unfortunately in the past, this has led to many premature recommendations and policies that have had unintended health consequences.

    I thought it was interesting that one of the speakers used trans fat as an example of mandatory labeling due to their implication in heart disease. It’s important to remember trans fats were once incorporated into many products (margarines etc) with the intention of REDUCING heart disease. When I was a nutrition student in college just 10 years ago, nutrition professionals (PhDs and RDs) were still encouraging patients to consume products containing trans fats as a “healthier” replacement for the saturated fat in their diets. It wasn’t until later that a significant amount of research revealed that trans fats were even more harmful than traditional foods high in saturated fat. This is one example where premature recommendations did more harm than good. There are numerous examples of this in nutrition, such as the harm associated with certain fat soluble vitamins when taken as a pill versus a whole food.

    I am a western trained nutritionist and was taught in school to focus on hard evidence and peer reviewed research. In my experience, many traditional nutrition programs largely frown upon the holistic communities. However, in my ten years of experience in the field of nutrition (some of it directly involved with clinical research), I have been humbled at how often the holistic community turns out to be correct. I am now much more critical and skeptical of published research and its source of funding than I was as a dietetic student.

    I think there is a great need for the traditional health and nutrition communities to be more open minded and less dismissive on a number of issues including the safety concerns of GMOs. There is some evidence that GMOs may be linked to allergies, some cancers and leaky gut as you discussed. The long-term health effects of GMOs are largely unknown and they may include a number of side effects we are not aware of yet. In addition, as you mentioned, much of the research that indicates GMOs are safe were funded by the companies that developed them. Time will certainly tell. I think in the meantime consumers should have the right to know what they are eating and make their own decisions about whether they feel it is safe to consume genetically modified foods.

    • Hi Lauren,

      It’s always nice to hear your input 🙂

      This is a really thoughtful and persuasive comment. In it, you point to a tension that I’ve experienced in the opposite order you have: the tension between holistic and mainstream medicine, research methods, and (to us a loaded word) epistemology. How do we know things? How do we draw conclusions about what’s healthy and what isn’t?

      Having come from a 100% holistic training and background, I’ve probably come to the same middle ground between the two traditions (holistic and allopathic), but I moved from holism to a more mainstream perspective through pre-med education. To be honest, once I started taking science classes, I was a little appalled by some of the theories that are passed around as fact in certain holistic circles; theories, I should be clear, to which I once subscribed myself (all sorts of stuff about “detox,” acidity/alkalinity, food combining, and so on and so forth). I’ve come, therefore, to appreciate a tradition in which allegations are not made until theories have been tested experimentally and methodically, using scientific knowledge. It often seems to me that some of the dubious theories I once believed are based on intuitions about how things ought to work, when in fact, reality does not bear them out. Whereas experimentation and clinical research can give us surprising results, sometimes confounding us and showing us that things are not always as they seem.

      This is not to say that intuition has no place in medicine or nutrition work! Of course it does. And I should make very clear that I consider my holistic education to be absolutely essential to the way I think about health and healing. I am so glad that I have this background, and I honor so much of what I learned. As you point out, holistic medicine is so often right, and it is focused upon the whole person, which I think is the only way medicine should be. But I think there has to be a middle ground between theorizing that is divorced from the nitty gritty of research and testing, or far removed from scientific reality, and the Western tradition’s worst tendency, which is to analyze symptoms microscopically, treat them using abstract data, and fail to think creatively and broadly about the big picture. I hope that I can find that middle ground one day if — universe willing — I get into med school.

      As for GMOs themselves, you make a terrific point about trans fats. It’s true that the life cycle of research is very long, and relatively speaking, we don’t have much (or any) longterm evidence about GMOs and how they work. I hope we find more clarity as time goes by.

      G xo

      • Hi Gena,

        I know I’m late on this but thanks for your reply. It’s interesting that we both experienced the same tension between the two traditions (holistic and allopathic) in the opposite order. Your perspective on health and research and finding the middle ground is thoughtful and refreshing. I will definitely be cheering you on for med school! We need more doctors like you!

        • No, Lauren, thank YOU for weighing in! I take particular comfort and hope in knowing that someone like you is working within the dietetics establishment, emphasizing whole foods and holistic wisdom. Perhaps we’ll be able to collaborate one day.

          I was actually just talking to someone about hormone replacement therapy: an intervention that was originally ruled as harmless by the data. It brought home your point once again.

  12. I think that if you separate out your personal feelings (I’m speaking in abstract here, the universal “your”) about whether you want to eat GMO or not, organic or not, etc. and just look at the labeling issue its really interesting. Thanks for sharing the panel info! Personally, I am very careful about what I buy, and steer clear of most processed items. I am very interested in how my food is processed/treated, as I am cooking for a family with GI issues. After much food type isolation and elimination (and observation!) I have come to a tenuous place where I can keep everyone balanced if I follow certain guidelines. This means knowing about pesticides, additives, etc. So I want to know what my food is, and what was done to it, to the best of my ability to discern.

    I agree that this is not something that everyone cares about, and for those that don’t, the labeling will likely not change their behaviors en masse. Afterall, there are many foods that we know are less than stellar nutritionally, and they sell very well despite labels and cautionary messages. But for those of us that care deeply about what is going on with our food supply, should we not be offered the opportunity to make informed choices?

    Thank you as always for a positive and safe place to learn and discuss!

  13. Great post.
    First time reader here and I like very much what I’ve seen of your blog.

    The argument presented by Dr. Enright about GMOs being necessary to feed the world population makes me uneasy. For one reason, the long term effects of chemically fertilized and GMO plants has been shown in post Green Revolution India to lead to decimated infertile lands (and subsequently low yields) in the states of highly “Green Revolutionized” Punjab and Gujarat. The allure of all weather surviving GMO plants first produced high yields then eventually gave way to depleted water tables and nutrient lacking, barely fertile soil.
    Secondly, the point makes me weary of the intentions of GMO producers. Do the companies behind the GMO products have the health of the worlds population in mind, or profits? Does it matter as long as there is ample food for those who need it? Should solutions to food scarcity on other continents even be coming from US based multinational organizations?

    All food for thought.

    Anyway, thanks for walking us readers through the experience of the panel. It nice to hear that those discussions are taking place.

    • Hi Max,
      I am currently doing a debate on the cons of GMOs when I read your reply. I was hoping you could provide me with the source to infertile lands in India you refer to.

      Thank you!

  14. On a personal level, I have a visceral fascination with genetic engineering. As a teenager, I briefly considered career of a GM researcher, inspired by the idea of making a better world and solving hunger problems, etc. And I am glad to see that other people are doing this work.

    To sum up the positions I currently hold:

    1. I fully share the unease about large corporations, monopolies, and Monsanto. However, here’s a point I did not realize before: given the current costs of ensuring GMO safety, decades of testing, etc., *nobody else can afford to develop GM technologies*. Effectively, a consequence of raising the bar on health and safety puts up a cost barrier that excludes smaller sized competition.

    2. Regarding health, the so-called “natural selection” has changed a great deal in the 20th century. We are worried about GMO, that changes several genes in a controlled fashion.

    Yet we are not worried and are not even talking about labelling products produced through chemical mutagenesis, i.e. exposing plants to radiation or chemical mutagens to increase the rate of mutation, hoping to increase useful traits. Check out the Wikipedia article on “mutation breeding”! None of them are labelled because they are more “natural”, than GMO. We are not researching ongoing natural mutations in existing crops either.

    Basically, we are concerned about a much safer and controlled technology while completely ignoring ones that are, by the same logic, much less safe. Furthermore, we know for sure that many old-fashioned crops are very dangerous and can kill people. Peanuts and other nuts? Potatoes and solanine? But they are all okay. So we are applying totally different rules to GMO plants than to all others – even though GMO mutations are controlled while all other mutations are not. As the result, for me, concern about GMO and health is increasingly looking like a witch-hunt, an emotional panic against technology, than true investigation of health issues.

    • A lot of interesting points here, LN — thanks for weighing in. I totally agree that obsession with GMO crops may obscure our concern about other, more harmful interventions. To me, there is nothing more scary about a GM food than a food that has been undergone mutagenesis (which, forgive my ignorance, most foods have, right?). In the case of BT, wasn’t that once used in spray form — and by some organic farmers, no less?

      Of course, that’s not the same as a debate about labeling. I think Sarah, above, is right in that the bio companies may be overreacting to the public demand for labeling, especially since so much other information makes it onto labels.

    • Indeed. The claims made against GMO’s sound eerily like those leveled against accused witches of yore:

      unexplained diseases
      livestock deaths
      social dominance
      unnatural or against God’s will.
      sterility and stillborns.

      I, too, think it is more than a passing coincidence. Will some future Arthur Miller right about this age in a similiar vein ?

  15. Interesting to hear about! It is an issue we all need to learn and get better insights to. I Think I know too Little for actually making a good comment but I am eager to learn more. It simply feels totally out of this World though to change whatever Mother Nature created for us. Looking forward for more posts regarding this!

    • Katrin, you raise an important argument that’s easy to relate to on an intuitive and emotional level – the thing is, “mother nature”/evolution hasn’t created anything ‘for’ us. Everything is ever changing and evolving and the things that evolve to the next generation are simply the ones that work. There is no purpose and no goal, other than passing on genes, i.e. genetic combinations that manage to multiply themselves successfully. (I suppose a religious person would disagree, but different topic.) New technologies are scary; it’s only human and natural to be wary. I can’t wait to find out how the GMO argument plays out throughout the next decades.

      • Here, here ! It’s a fallacy of anti-gmoers to posit more traditional breeding only involves genes from parent strains. If that were so, corn cops would only be as big as the biggest found thousands of years ago, carrots would still be white. The only thing that matters to a newly mutated gene is that it confers some advantage under the selective conditions at hand, whether natural or manmade.

  16. Very interesting. I’m glad you shared about the debate- these things are always so fascinating to attend. I’m currently in a graduate course called Food Politics at NYU (usually taught by Marion Nestle- but I caught it on an off-semester, darn!). GMO is such a complicated topic. After learning more about the stakeholders, I believe that regardless what one’s personal choice of consumption, we still have the right to at least know what it is we’re consuming. I think the example of England is incredibly relevant in the American labeling debate. They managed to pass labeling nationwide, and didn’t see a significant drop off in sales in GMO foods. But the consumers know what they are buying, if they choose to read the labels. While I personally do not support the mass agriculture practices of GMO foods in this country (and their export around the globe) I think that the labeling issue should be clear for all citizens, whether they support these farming practices or not. Consuming GMO and labeling GMO are different issues, and labeling simply gives us all the right to be informed, and the right to choose for ourselves. I don’t necessarily want to equate this issue with the recent rumblings of legal push to remove cameras from all farming practices in the country; but the basic sentiment of the issues ring true. Whatever a person chooses to consume, they should at least be legally afforded the ability to know what it is and where it came from.

  17. As a law student and avid human rights and environmental advocate, the issue of GMOs is an extremely important one for me, especially when one considers the practices of large corporations such as Monsanto, who go after small farmers whose seeds have been contaminated, accusing them of patent infringement. As you have no doubt heard, a group of organic farmers got their case against Monsanto thrown out of court recently, and the Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in favor of Monsanto in a landmark GMO case, Bowman v. Monsanto. The way courts have been construing seed patent rights makes GMOs an extremely important issue, and the more people are aware of the dangerous social and health effects of GM products, the better! Thank you so much for writing on this issue!

    • In the case of Bowman, and what is lost on many anti-gmoers, i believe, is the fact that Bowman himself is pro GMO! Why else would he seek out and grow GM Soybeans eight years in a row? IMHO, i think SCOTUS ruled wisely. Those Soybeans didn’t march into Bowman’s fields eight years in a row by themselves.

      In the case of those organic farmers, they were suing for what might happen and suing for Monsanto to give up its right to defend its patents. It’s like suing Disney for defending its copyright of Mickey Mouse.

  18. I am personally very wary of GMOs, for some of the reasons you mentioned above. Namely the lack of research on their safety both for humans and the environment. For example, what may happen if GMOs breed with non-GMO crops? (Something I especially wonder with the possibility of GMO salmon being approved for sale).

    Then on the health side, as someone with many food intolerances/sensitivities, one of which is to corn, I often wonder what impact GMOs may have on my health and what role, if any, they may have played in my development of food sensitivities.

    These are all questions that I know I don’t have the answer to but until there is more research done to answer these questions I, as a consumer, want to know what is in my food and if what I am eating has been genetically modified. Hopefully there can be more civil debates like this one between both sides on this issue so unbiased research can be conducted.

    Thank you very much for this post! I feel that too often the discussion of GMOs gets really hostile and angry and even though it is something I am very curious about, that has been a big turn off. I always love your posts and how you foster respectful conversations between people, something I think there needs to be more of throughout the internet.

  19. The health impacts of GMOs are not what concern me; it’s the public policy and social impacts of GMOs that make me really uncomfortable. The labelling thing is interesting to me because, as you point out in the first few paragraphs, even though people tend to associate labelling with safety issues, we label so much more. What about “orange juice from concentrate” for instance? Do we have more reason to label that than GMOs? To be honest, I actually think that the biotech industry has overreacted to the call for GMO labelling. I seriously question how long GMO labelling would impact buying behaviour. If we were heavily influenced by labels, our carts would be full of much healthier fare. I honestly think there would be a lot of buzz at first, but after a while people would forget it was there. You know those Prop 65 labels in Cali that say “this contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm”….well at first that would have been terrifying, but how much impact do you think it has on most people day to day? It is so easy to ignore something after it’s been in your face daily for a while. Ever put a reminder note up for yourself for too long, and then realise you have been looking right past it? Anyway, my point is that I actually think that GMO labelling would only have a temporary impact on consumer behaviour, and that agreeing to labelling would actually have a positive impact on the level of consumer trust. This would be good news to the biotech industry and the food companies that use GMOs, but bad news to the anti-GMO crowd, of course.

    By the way, reading this made me really happy. I have a very nuanced and ever evolving view on GMOs, but that view is really difficult to find, particularly online. Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts. I’d rather hear your thought process than a clear stance.

    • What a wonderful comment, and I agree! As much as I personally care about local, vegan, organic food, what goes on in my kitchen is one thing; how to solve global problems is another, and probably rather more important topic. As a scientist I do want to hear ALL the arguments and I am so open to adapt my opinions based on the state of available data. A big thank you for posting.

  20. I’ve never really had a clear idea about what GMO foods are, but I’d really like to learn more. It seems that more and more we keep hearing about food production practices that are dangerous to the consumer and that taint our food. It’s scary to think about how little we really know about the foods that we’re buying and consuming on a regular basis.

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