Commentary: A new counter to GMO haters

Commentary: A new counter to GMO hatersSince Vermont passed the nation's first mandatory GMO labeling law in April and Connecticut and Maine followed with passage of similar laws that would take effect if other states climb onboard the anti-GMO bandwagon industry has pushed back with a court challenge to prevent Vermont, or other individual states, from requiring such labeling.

At this point, it is uncertain whether the Vermont's law will survive judicial review, In the meantime, it remains imperative for all of the food production and food processing industry to renew its efforts to educate the public on the science and safety of bioengineering. GMO labeling laws stem from one primary source: the public's distrust and paranoia about the science and applications of bioengineering. Period.

It's not about some "right to know" groundswell. That's the talking point activist groups have developed to convince otherwise unaware consumers that their "rights" are being violated. We know from mountains of research that only about one-third of consumers actively read the labels that already provide an extensive amount of product and nutritional information. Is it really a critical issue requiring legislative action to add more information to food packaging that two-thirds of people ignore?

Of course not. What's driving the GMO labeling push is fear, plain and simple. Anti-GMO activists have promoted the Frankenfoods model so long and so hard that even people who tend to be well-informed on issues of science and technology fall prey to the fear-mongering.

That point was underscored in an editorial from an unexpected source, who offered a couple of compelling arguments in support of genetic engineering that I believe ought to be embraced in some form by industry. The first one involves the bioscience itself, but with a novel approach.

"It is no mystery as to why GMOs invoke a knee-jerk reaction" wrote Beau Kjerulf Greer, Ph.D., an Associate Professor and the director of the exercise science and nutrition program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., in a recent opinion piece for the Hartford Courant. "It frankly sounds scary that corn can be engineered to produce its own pesticide until you know that a regular head of cabbage produces 49 different pesticides of its own."

I did not know that common vegetables were capable of producing such a wealth of endogenous pesticides, and more to the point, I've never heard that argument used as a way to refute GMO's "scariness." In other words, genetic engineering mimics the same biological processes that take place in plants naturally. As Greer phrased it, "Creating a GMO is as simple as taking the gene that codes for one of those naturally occurring compounds and inserting it into a different food."

Here another variation on that same theme that is underutilized.

"Consistency seems amusingly rare among the anti-GMO contingency," he wrote. "A pro-labeling friend who admirably admits to having no scientific knowledge on the subject recently lectured me about the perils of tinkering with Nature all the while eating a muffin made of enriched wheat [flour]. That is wheat that has been stripped of its germ and bran, had synthetic vitamins added to it and even in its ‘natural" state bore little resemblance to its botanical ancestors, due to human-controlled breeding."

How many bakery brands tout "whole wheat" and "all-natural" on the loaves of bread they market? Yet even if the main ingredient is source-controlled, minimally processed whole wheat flour, the crop from which that ingredient was harvested is not at all "natural."

Although the science differs some would say conventional plant cross-breeding is far less efficient the impetus behind both genetic engineering and traditional crop development is the same: higher yields, more disease resistance and added nutritional value.

Fact-free zone

In his article, Greer mentioned GMO Free CT, a GMO-labeling advocacy group that he characterized as having "more conviction than education." They are in fact one of the principal sources of the misinformation that has permeated the GMO labeling debates in New England. In contrast, various scientific and bioengineering organizations have tried to publicize the fact that most reputable scientific and food-safety agencies that have studied the impact of bioengineering could find no evidence of harm to human health and since the consumption of foods made from GE ingredients is now a 20-year-old experiment, there are certainly sufficient data to certify the safety of GMOs.

But industry should keep in mind the constituency most attached to anti-GMO zealotry. It is a subset of consumers who are more educated, more affluent and more aware of the impact of science and technology in other areas affecting modern lifestyles. Yet this segment exhibits an incredible disconnect on the subject of bioengineering, a point Greer forcefully made in his article.

The very same constituency that demands politicians and lawmakers agree with and respond to climate science then brings equal vigor to denying the science supporting the safety of GMOs.

"In almost 20 years of research, there has been zero credible evidence that GMOs cause any detriment to human health," Greer wrote. "There are not even viable hypotheses as to why ingesting GMOs would be harmful. Last year in Italy, not exactly a country known for its fondness of GMOs, a team of biologists reviewed more than 1,700 published papers and concluded there is far greater research consistency on the safety of GMOs than on the ability of human activity to affect climate change."

In other words, there is even less uncertainty about GMO safety than about the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on global climate trends.

Try that one with the anti-GMO crowd. Science is science. Either you accept its validity or effectively deny pretty much all of the technology that underpins modern life.

On one hand, I would argue that the looming pressure of the additional two to three billion people who will be alive in the next generation or two will eventually make arguments against genetic engineering moot. The world will need every and any available technology to produce enough food without catastrophic damage to the land, water and energy resources need to maintain agricultural productivity.

But in the meantime, it would be helpful to put to rest the tired and troubling fear-mongering that undercuts the food production research we will soon desperately require.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.