Sep 25 2018

Fighting Back Against GMO Pseudoscience

The organic food lobby has been successfully demonizing safe and effective biotechnology for the last two decades. Part of their strategy is to create a false dichotomy between GMO (genetically modified organisms) and non-GMO. In reality there is a continuum of methods used to alter the genetics of crops that we have been using for centuries. There are real differences among these various techniques, but they do not divide cleanly into two categories (more on this below).

The Non-GMO Project is part of this strategy. You have probably seen the labels, with the appealing butterfly reassuring consumers about the wholesomeness of products. Even when there are no GMO options for a food type, you can get the label. This scam makes money for the Non-GMO Project and is good for marketing. The goal is to eradicate any technology this non-expert and private group decides is GMO.

Now, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is hitting back. They are a non-profit science think tank whose purpose is to provide non-partisan science information to inform policy. They have submitted a petition to the FDA:

The Non-GMO Project food label deliberately deceives and misleads consumers in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. ITIF petitions FDA to prohibit such labels. The “Non-GMO” Project butterfly logo and label on consumer foods and goods misleads and deceives consumers through false and misleading claims about foods, food ingredients and their characteristics related to health and safety, thus constituting misbranding under the law. ITIF therefore requests, in a Citizen’s Petition submitted to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, that FDA issue a regulation to prohibit the use of the term “Non-GMO” on consumer foods and goods, and to require distributors of foods and goods to revise their labeling to omit any “Non-GMO” term, symbol, or claims.

This is essentially correct – one could argue that the purpose of the Non-GMO label is to confuse and misinform consumers, in order to extract more money out of them for equivalent or even inferior products.

GMO vs Non-GMO

Humans have transformed our food in various ways. Almost nothing you eat (except a few things like wild game, raspberries, some mushrooms, etc.) look anything like their evolved ancestors. The simplest technique for altering plants is artificial selection – saving seeds from plants with the most favorable characteristics. This is a powerful technique, but takes a lot of time. It is also limited by serendipity – you have to wait for favorable mutations to occur by chance.

In the last century the technique of hybridization became popular. This involves pollinating one cultivar (specific variety of a species, like a “breed” of plant), with a related one. The goals here is to mix the traits of different plants and, again, hope for a lucky combination. Developers looking to create a new cultivar by this method may plant thousands of hybrids to find the one they want. There is also the technique called forced hybridization, pushing the limits of how related the two species need to be.

You can use this technique to create a stable cultivar, or you can find two cultivars that hybrid together to make a cultivar with desirable traits. These first generation hybrids, however, need to be created each time. You cannot replant these seeds because the hybrid traits will not reliable breed true – you will lose many recessive traits, for example. The vast majority of seeds planted in the 20th century in the West were hybrids.

But again, this technology is slow and limited. Breeders looking to speed up the process turned to mutation farming, which uses either chemical or radiation to speed up the mutation rate. Then again they plant hundreds or thousands of mutants, hoping to find a “hopeful monster.”

All of these techniques are considered “organic” and “non-GMO.”

Then there are a variety of new techniques that alter genes in a more precise way. You can alter a specific gene, or silence a gene that is already present in a cultivar. Or you can insert a new gene, and that gene can come from any species, regardless of phylogenetic distance. The term cisgenic is used for inserting genes from related species (ones that could hybridize) and transgenic from more distantly relates species (ones that cannot hybridize). But it should be noted that genes from distant species (even different kingdoms) can find there way into plants or animals through horizontal gene transfer. Further, genes are just genes, they are not different because they come from different groups.

All of these techniques are considered GMO. So, using radioactivity to mutate a plant is non-GMO, and using a precise technique to silence a gene already present in a plant is GMO.

This is arbitrary nonsense. There is also no inherent objective difference among these techniques in terms of safety, either for health or the environment. Even traditional breeding techniques can accidentally create cultivars that are toxic or allergenic, while the most aggressive transgenic modification can create perfectly safe cultivars. The bottom line is that the technique used says nothing about the risk, healthfulness, or environmental impact of any cultivar – only the resulting properties of the cultivar and how it is used matter.

What the non-GMO project is doing is creating this false dichotomy, that they determine, and then declaring everything on one side to be wholesome, and everything on the other side to be scary and something to be avoided and eradicated. This is pure pseudoscience, and marketing through fearmongering and deception.

The ITIF’s petition is therefore spot on. The FDA and USDA control food labeling, which should not misinform, confuse, or deceive consumers. Logic and science are on ITIF’s side. I don’t see how the FDA can come to any other conclusion. The only question is one of political will.

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