Oct 27 2014

7 Propaganda Talking Points Against GMOs

After reading about genetically modified organisms for years, it seem pretty clear to me that the anti-GMO activist position is not an objective science-based position. Rather it has all the features of a political/marketing campaign. The campaign has talking points that are all spin and propaganda. Like a slick car commercial, it is selling a vibe, a worldview and a certain self-image.

Also like many political and commercial campaigns it is based on fear. Fear is a great motivator and politicians know the value of making the voters afraid of what will happen if their opponent is elected. Advertising agencies understand that you can sell a product by making it a solution to an imaginary fear. “Better safe than sorry” sells a lot of widgets.

The anti-GMO community seems closely tied to the organic food industry, which essentially sells the naturalistic fallacy on the back of irrational fears about everything artificial, whether or not there is any science behind those fears. Both, in turn, are tied to the alternative medicine community, which overlaps considerably in its fetish with all things natural, its demonizing of anything technological, and its apparent disdain for science (see Whole Foods as a good example of this overlap).

Unfortunately, marketing and political campaigns can be very effective. They are not magical – you can’t, necessarily, make people believe or buy anything, but they can be very persuasive, especially if they key into an existing fear, desire, or emotion.

The organic food lobby has successfully created a “healthy halo” glow around the idea of “organic.” Just the label “organic” will affect consumers’ perceptions. By now you have probably seen this prank by Dutch TV show hosts who pawn off McDonald’s fast food as if it were organic at a food convention. The reactions (well, the one’s they chose to show) say it all.

At the same time the anti-GMO lobby has successfully created a negative halo around GMO. Many people don’t really have a solid scientific understanding of what GMOs are, or the scientific evidence surrounding their safety or environmental effects. They just know that they are bad. Again we have a video to demonstrate. (I understand this is not scientific and is done for entertainment value, but it’s a fun demonstration.)

My personal unscientific survey of acquaintances (generally smart and well-educated) who are anti-GMO is that their positions are almost universally based on misinformation. When the incorrect and misleading facts are stripped away, they also pretty universally retreat to a position of, “Well, I just don’t like corporations patenting seeds,” which is really just an ideological position.

By the way, my experience with global warming deniers is almost identical. When the misinformation and bad science is stripped away, they almost always retreat to, “Well, I just don’t like the government controlling industry and our lives to that degree.”

However, that misinformation seems to have played a key role in forming, maintaining, or at least hardening their position. It is important, therefore, to correct the misinformation. This, of course, won’t change everyone’s mind, but it won’t change no one’s mind either (sorry for the double negative).

Here is the latest list of misinformed talking points against GMOs that has crossed my path, from Care2. It’s as good a list as any. (I will reprint only part of each point here, you can go to the original article to read the whole thing.) This website also confirms the aforementioned overlap between anti-GMO sentiments, organic advocacy, and promotion of alternative medicine.

1) Health risk – According to the Academy of Environmental Medicine, animal studies link GMOs to organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging and infertility.

The cherry-picked link is to a highly biased article by the AAEM, which in turn cherry picks biased sources, like the Union of Concerned Scientists. The article emphasizes any point they can portray as negative, without putting the information into real context. For example, they state multiple times that the location of gene insertion in GM techniques is “random” and that the effects are unpredictable. They don’t mention, however, that techniques are used to select only those plants that received a working copy of the gene without apparent other effects, and that the result is back crossed with the parent cultivar to create a stable new cultivar with the desired working gene.

The Care2 article does not cite or reference (nor does the AAEM article) the many leading scientific organizations around the world that have reviewed the evidence and concluded that GM technology is safe, including the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science, the AMA, and World Health Organization, among others.

Here is a fairly comprehensive list of safety studies showing existing GMO crops to be safe. I wrote about the recently published feeding trial which looked at 19 years of data with billions of animals showing absolutely no health effect from using GM feed.

The scientific consensus for the safety of GMO is overwhelming. This has not seemed to have any effect on the use of health scares as a talking point for anti-GMO marketing.

2) Contamination of other crops – Like other plants, GMOs cross pollinate. When the wind blows, their seeds can travel. Farmers trying to grow crops organically or with non-GMO seeds report that their fields are being contaminated through the natural cross pollination that occurs when GMO seeds go airborne.

Like many of the points brought up against GMOs, the issue of contamination is not unique to GMOs themselves, and is not as problematic as presented. Any crop that is wind pollinated will spread its pollen to nearby fields. Any cultivar will contaminate all other cultivars. In order to plant enough fields to grow enough food to feed the world, this is going to happen.

Why is this more of an issue spreading GMO to non-GMO and not the other way around? It is self-fulfilling – GMOs are a problem because they can spread to non-GMO and we don’t want that because GMOs are a problem.

Organic farmers claim that GMO contaminated crops can cost them their organic label, which allows them access to certain markets and to charge a premium. But again, if they are going to create what is essentially a boutique market so that they can charge a premium based largely on false claims and pseudoscience, that does not necessarily give them the right to inhibit the farms that are feeding the world. This is their problem to solve.

Further there are practical solutions to minimize contamination. You can plant wind barriers, barrier crops, and plant cultivars that pollinate at different times than any nearby GMO fields, for example.

Finally, not all GMO crops are wind pollinated. Cotton, for example, is bee pollinated and can self-pollinate. Bees can still carry pollen between fields, but there are strategies for dealing with this also. Some plants, like rice, are almost exclusively self-pollinating.

3) Increased pesticide use – Most GMO crops are engineered so that they are not susceptible to particular herbicides. For example, many GMO crops are resistant to Roundup, an herbicide produced by Monsanto. Ironically, as a result, farmers appear to be using more Roundup to control their weeds than previously.

This is one of those “true but incomplete and misleading” facts. First, the term “pesticide” can be confusing. It is used to refer to both insecticides and herbicides (so weeds count as “pests”).

The evidence is clear that the introduction of GMOs with inherent insect resistance (such as Bt varieties) has reduced insecticide use and has been overall helpful to native non-pest insect species.

At the same time, herbicide resistant GMOs have increased the use of the herbicide to which they are resistant. The article author finds this ironic, but it is actually exactly what we would expect. The whole idea is to plant glyphosate resistant crops, then spray the field with glyphosate to kill the weeds and leave the crop unharmed. This strategy displaces the more labor intensive and harmful to the soil practice of tilling. It also displaces the use of other herbicides which are more toxic than glyphosate, which is actually one of the least toxic herbicides.

Anti-GMO activists gloss over this complexity by lumping insecticides and herbicides under the confusing label of pesticides.

4) Unpredictable side effects – We’ve all seen science fiction movies that feature monsters created when lab experiments go wrong. What happens if our GM foods turn into “Franken-Foods”? Some scientists worry that the process of creating genetically-modified plants could lead to new allergens, carcinogens, nutritional deficiencies, and toxins that we’re unprepared to confront.

This is the fear strategy in full force, sometimes presented as the “precautionary principle” (although it is an abuse of this principle). So far no GM crop has produced an allergen, new toxin, carcinogen, or had any negative effects on nutrition. Further, new GM crops have to be tested to make sure they do not contain any protein sequences that are known to be allergens or toxins or that share features with allergens (such as being resistant to digestion).

GM crops are also tested for nutritional equivalence, and feeding studies are used to show they are safe.

Further, there is really no more reason to fear the results of GM technology than the results of hybridization or mutation farming. In fact, there are known cases of hybrid crops unexpectedly containing a toxin, such as the case of the poison potato. So in this regard, GM crops have a better track record than traditional breeding.

5) Impacts on the environment – GMOs are causing an explosion of “superweeds,” weeds that have evolved resistance to glyphosate, a chemical used on GM crops. As a result, even more powerful insecticides must be applied to control weeds, which ultimately contaminates groundwater and kills many animals and plants that are not targeted by these toxic chemicals but are nevertheless susceptible to them.

The term “superweed” is misleading. There is nothing “super” about the weeds. They are just resistant to glyphosate. This is only a problem if you want to use glyphosate as an herbicide.

The real issue here is the overall issues of resistance, to both insecticides and herbicides. There is a legitimate point to be made in that over-reliance on any one strategy will more quickly produce resistance to whatever you are using to control herbs or pests. The term “integrated pest management” is used to refer to combining many strategies in order to minimize resistance to any one.

So again, this is not an issue unique to GMOs, but more has to do with how GMO and other pest management strategies are used. I agree that encouraging the use of a single GMO strategy for pest management is short sighted, but GMOs can also be a very useful component of an overall pest control strategy.

Notice, by the way, that the author confused insecticide and herbicide in the paragraph above. Also keep in mind that non-GMO crops require pesticides to be viable, and will also have issues with resistance.

6) Impacts on birds, bees, and butterflies – Research is ongoing into the impacts that GMOs could be having on birds, butterflies, bees, frogs, and micro-organisms that live in soil and our lakes, rivers and streams.

Yes, research is ongoing, as it should be. So far it seems that the bee colony collapse disorder is not to blame on GMOs. The Monarch butterfly issue is more complex, and the effect of herbicides on milkweeds which the butterflies depend on is likely part of the picture.

The real issue here is the fact that we are displacing natural environments for fields of crops so that we can feed the world. This is going to have an effect of the environment and native species. This is a farming effect, not a GMO effect. In fact, to the extent that GMO varieties allow us to grow more food on less land, this will have the greatest benefit to the environment as land use is the biggest issue.

Also there are strategies to help minimize the negative effect of massive farming, such as incorporating refuges where native plants like milkweed are allowed to grow.

7) Corporate control of seeds and agriculture – Ideally, farmers could get seeds from a variety of sources or save their own seeds for the next planting cycle. Today, one company controls about 95 percent of GM seeds. As cross-pollination increases, more and more natural crops may be unable to produce their own seeds, putting farmers – and us consumers, too – at the mercy of an agribusiness that is more focused on profit that people or the planet.

This is a complex issue and it’s hard to do it justice here. I was unable to confirm the 95% figure (I could only find ideological sources, but will keep digging), but even if we assume that it is true, there are still other seed companies out there and some GM crops are open source, like golden rice.

Let me just correct the obvious misconceptions. First, cross pollination will not render crops unable to create their own seeds. This is a baseless fear.

Although not mentioned specifically, the terminator seed issue (a plant that cannot produce its own seeds) is often raised in this context. Monsanto, however, never marketed a terminator seed and promises never to do so.

Also, most farmers do not reuse their own seeds because it is more convenient to just buy seeds each year. You also cannot reuse hybrid seeds because the hybrid traits do not breed true. You have to buy them every year. Most crops are hybrids, and have been for decades. So it is simply not true that without GMO most farmers would be replanting their own seeds.

Conclusion

The Care2 article is not a balanced or meaningful exploration of the complex issues surround GMO crops. Rather, it is a hit piece against GMO full of misinformation and propaganda. These are, however, the standard talking points against GMO. They are simply not based on a fair and accurate reading of the science.

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