Why Can’t GMOs Be Organic?

Dec. 10, 2021

Why science is not an à la carte menu.

Not long ago I blogged about the case of Randy Constant, the grain broker who was convicted of selling a quarter of a billion dollars of corn and soybeans fraudulently labeled as organic. One thing that struck me about the case was how he got tripped up: because the mislabeled grain tested positive as a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Two things stand out here, to me at least: 1) apparently there was, and is, no other test that can distinguish organic from non-organic product; 2) GMO is an automatic deal-breaker for organics.

As far as I’m concerned, (1) is a testament to the, shall we way, ephemeral nature of organics. Especially with processed foods, organics are starting to look like the non-fungible tokens of the food world: something that people pay a lot of money for, because of an story about its origins that no one can really trace or detect.

I’m more interested in (2). Why should GMOs not be eligible for organic status?

The basic premise with organic food is that it’s supposed to be free of artificial pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. There’s no question that these things are toxic if consumed in excess; the issue is whether they’re so toxic that they should be eschewed entirely.

GMOs, on the other hand, are the result of gene editing – a change to a plant’s core genetic makeup. In other words, it’s the same corn or soybean, just with different genes. There has never been any proof that consuming a gene-edited kernel of corn is different, nutritionally or in any other way, from consuming an ordinary one.

The dispute, in other words, is over the burden of proof. GMO critics say that it’s the responsibility of the food industry to prove that GMOs are safe to eat. The industry counters that’s it’s hard if not impossible to prove a negative, and that the lack of evidence of harm should be persuasive.

Economist Steven Cerier, in an article on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, makes what I think is a trenchant point: gene editing has been used for decades in medicine, especially in vaccines, notably the COVID vaccines. Yes, some of the opposition to the COVID vaccines is rooted in fears of “genetic manipulation.” But if you drew a Venn diagram of the people who refuse the vaccine on that specific ground, and of the people who regularly buy organic food, I don’t think the two circles would have much of a common area.

“Science is not an à la carte menu,” Cerier writes. “You cannot say I accept GE [genetic engineering] for medicine because it saves lives but I oppose GE for crops because of some unfounded fears they are dangerous to human health and the environment.”

He’s right. If you accept gene editing in your bloodstream – which you do if you want to maximize your chances of surviving the pandemic – you should be willing to accept it in your stomach.

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