The use of Genetically Modified Organisms, better known as GMO, is an area of debate among skeptics. GMO is actually a broad term that has a lot of moving parts. Forced labeling for consumer foods containing GMOs in the United States has been a growing issue. In skeptical circles this is a controversial topic. Recently, at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City, there was a GMO discussion panel involving Dr. Steven Novella, Kevin Folta, and Marty Mesh, representing a fair distribution of experts from both sides of the aisle. The discussion panel debated the idea of labeling GMO products for consumers. The organic lobby suggests it as an answer to the questions about the safety of GMO and wants it to be required. The scientific community claims that such labels are deceptive, unnecessary, and there are already safeguards. The GMO proponents say requiring labels would mislead the public about the content and safety of the product.
I have intended to write this blog post since that panel discussion, but it is such a broad subject. Simplifying the issue has been difficult. Here I will limit GMOs to the following definition: food or food-producing organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques . Conventional and organic use selective breeding to tailor organism genetics.
Currently there is advocacy in the United States to require labeling of GMO food. Some EU member states now require labeling of GMO. Is labeling necessary or desirable? Is it a systematic marketing assault on GMO food?
There are good reasons to want GMO in the food supply.
- Creating plants better resistant to weeds, pests, and other diseases.
- Bigger yields to create more efficient use of land, less uses of herbicides and other pesticides.
- Foods with better texture, flavor, and nutritional value.
- Foods with a longer shelf life for easier shipping.
- GM foods can create an essentially sustainable way to feed the world.
From my own observations, most objections to GMO food fall into two categories: corporate fear-mongering and unsubstantiated “fear of the unknown” arguments. The science shows absolutely no dangers in consuming GMO food. There are environmental issues and monocrop issues, but they are not significantly different from conventional crops, including organic crops and animal-farming. Most of the con arguments (we’ll skip the wacky ones) comes from two broad and possibly accurate points:
- Genetic modification is unpredictable. It may have unknown horrible consequences for the consumer, environment, or stability of the food supply. I call this the Frankenstein Argument.
- GMO are corporate attempts to monopolize food consumers as well as restrict producers through manufactured controls. I call this Argumentum Monsanto.
Like all really good ideological arguments they contain a certain amount of truth. Also like all really good ideological arguments they minimize or avoid facts that do not support their argument. Scientific evaluation of GMO shows no significantly different risk from GMO products than from conventional crops. In many cases the product is chemically identical. Sometimes GMO have been shown to be safer products than conventional foods