Fear and Loathing Haunt GMOs

It's difficult to balance the lack of negative scientific evidence against consumers' right to know what's in their food.

By Rory Gillespie, Contributing Editor

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Last November in California, Proposition 37, which called for labeling foods containing GMO ingredients, was defeated by a 52-48 percent margin. In the state of Washington, a similar bill, Legislative Initiative 522, will be on the ballot this fall. Several other states have local organizations working on label laws and a small handful even have legislative bill numbers assigned, but no other state has a proposal earmarked for a vote, although Oregon and Vermont are close.

Opponents say GMOs may carry health risks, and they also are pounding the labeling efforts as a freedom issue, rallying that consumers have a "right to know" what they are consuming. GMO opponents say they lost on the California ballot, despite celebrity videos endorsing their cause, because they were outspent by agribusiness concerns.

But a glance at the website of what is perhaps the main anti-GMO organization, GMO Inside, yields few fearful facts about GMOs. "Why should we be concerned about GMOs?" the website asks. There are just four bullet points:

  • Human Health Risks – The organization connects GMOs and the chemicals they are sprayed with to food allergies, irritable bowels, organ damage, even cancer.
  • Environmental Risks -- With GMO crops engineered to tolerate more herbicides, "the weeds that these herbicides used to kill are coming back bigger and stronger, creating herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds.' "
  • Unfair Pressure to Farmers in Developing Countries.
  • The Risk to Organic Farmers – because of contamination from nearby GMO crops.

GMO Inside is led by Green America and is a coalition of businesses, organizations and individuals that support a GMO-free food system. "Large agribusiness and chemical companies oppose our right to know when foods have GMO," says Elizabeth O'Connell, campaigns director for Green America. "These are the same companies that put GMOs out on the market without adequate testing – turning us all into lab rats in a giant science experiment."

Lots of emotion, certainly, but just four bullet points.

Perhaps the biggest issue, the one most convincing to mothers and other concerned shoppers, is that this is very complex science; there are just too many unknowns.
The food community says this just doesn't hold true.

Bruce Chassy, a professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, says after thousands of research studies and worldwide planting, "genetically modified foods pose no special risks to consumers or the environment" and are overregulated. Farmers have witnessed the advantages of GM crops firsthand through increases in their yields and profit, and decreases in their labor, energy consumption, pesticide use and greenhouse gas emissions, Chassy says.

He points out that people calling for a more natural world haven't keep up with their history. He says changes to our lifestyle began about 10,000 years ago, when humans moved to an agricultural society. Since then, man has changed his environment to make his life better.

"Over the millennia, agriculturalists domesticated crops and animals to suit the needs of improved production, resistance to diseases and pests and to serve human preferences," Chassy says. "In the process of domestication of crop plants, desirable traits were selected from the numerous random genetic modifications that occur in each crop generation. This domestication led to improved crops from a human perspective. Most of today's crops never existed in the wild and can, in fact, no longer survive without human intervention and care.

Our crops descended from ancestors that are not recognizably similar to the plants we grow today."

Advances in science always have and always will be scary to some. People also often feel that governments and corporations are taking too big of a role in their lives.

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