Jan 29 2018

Shameless Organic Fearmongering

I and others have long pointed out that anti-GMO fearmongering was largely created by the organic food lobby as a way of smearing their competitors. The strategy is simple – scare people way from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and offer organic products as a non-GMO alternative. This is nothing new in advertising, create a fear and then offer your product as a safe haven.

A recent video posted by Stonyfield Organic makes the connection between anti-GMO fearmongering and buying organic explicit, as the screen capture shows.

There are many problems with this short video, not the least of which is that they use young girls to parrot their anti-science. Clearly not aiming for subtlety, the first girl declares that GMOs are “monstrous.” To apparently explain what she means, the second girl says that, “They take a gene from a fish and put it into a tomato.”

No, “they” don’t.

The “fishmato” has been a persistent myth of the anti-GMO lobby. It is both untrue, and unscientific even if it were true. The myth comes from the fact that in the 90’s there were experiments on putting a fish gene into a tomato in order to make it frost tolerant. The tomato was never marketed. In fact, at present there are no GMO tomatoes on the market.

But even if it were – so what? This is a perfect representation of the “frankenfood” strategy of the anti-GMO lobby. Fish and tomatoes, just like people and bananas, already share about 60% of our genes. There is nothing that makes a fish gene a fish gene, other than the fact that it is in a fish. They won’t make tomatoes have scales or taste fishy.

The reason the fishmato myth will not die, however, is because it is a useful way to manipulate people by triggering a vague sense of disgust.

This also represents the false dichotomy at the core of organic anti-GMO propaganda. In their narrative, food is divided into two clear groups. The first group is natural and wholesome. The second group – GMOs – are unnatural and scary. This division is a fiction.

In reality almost all food consumed by humans has been significantly modified using a range of methods. There is no clear dividing line between “GMO” and not “GMO”. If you want clear distinctions, you will have to delve deeper into specific methods.

Some equate GMOs with transgenic modification – inserting a gene from a distant species. However, that is just one form of genetic modification, and as I pointed out there is nothing inherently risky or unnatural about it. It even happens all the time in nature through horizontal gene transfer.

But there are a host of other methods, including forced hybridiation, mutation farming using radiation or chemicals that mutate seeds, and biotechnology that does not involve a transgene, such as using genes from related species, or just removing, silencing, or altering an existing gene.

In the organic anti-GMO narrative, however, there is a bright line in which mutation farming using radiation is natural and wholesome, and silencing a gene makes food “monstrous.”

An interesting wrinkle to the story of the Stonyfield video is that there was a significant backlash against the video in the comments. This is a good sign, showing that exposing the lies of the anti-GMO lobby is getting some traction.

Stonyfield responded by doubling down on their intellectual dishonesty – they deleted many of the critical comments claiming they were from “trolls.” Yet some of those deleted comments were from scientists with a publicly verifiable identity.

Dismissing (and deleting) critical comments as trolls is the equivalent of reflexively yelling, “Fake news” at any facts or opinions you don’t like.

They then tripled-down on their dubious behavior by claiming that they used an (undisclosed) database of fake names to locate the troll comments. Right.

In their open letter defending all this, Stonyfield digs themselves even deeper into anti-GMO propaganda. They explicitly equate GMOs with use of herbicides because that is what the current majoriy of GMO crops are for (herbicide tolerance). But this is irrelevant to the GMO debate, because GMOs (an arbitrary category) are essentially the result of a range of technologies, and cannot be equated to one specific application, even if it is currently the most common.

Further, they conveniently buy into anti-glyphosate fearmongering. Glyphosate is actually a relatively safe herbicide, with no credible link to cancer. This strategy also brings up the fact that organic farming can and often does use pesticides, as long as they are deemed “natural”, and many of them are far more toxic than glyphosate.

They then have the gall to call for labeling as if they are pro-transparency and people have the right to be informed, all the while misinforming the public about GMOs and organic farming.

They further link to anti-GMO propaganda sites as if they are credible or independent scientific sources. Meanwhile, actual scientific organizations have all come down on the side of the safety of GMOs.

This one little video is a microcosm of all the problems with using a false narrative and fearmongering in order to market pseudoscience, and how to exploit social media to forward that narrative and dismiss your critics.

At least Stonyfield was incompetent enough in their execution to make this strategy obvious. Hopefully in the end this will further expose the lies of the anti-GMO organic lobby.

37 responses so far

37 thoughts on “Shameless Organic Fearmongering”

  1. Willy says:

    At this moment, someone has posted a link to think article on the Stonyfield site. All of the few comments remaining are pretty harsh on Stonyfield.

  2. Willy says:

    Er, “…a link to THIS article…”

  3. Kabbor says:

    Personally I find ANY manipulation of food by humans to be disgusting, so I only eat what I find in the forest. Its my all natural way to lose weight and live life the way humans were intended to live: short, brutal, and above all, hungry.

    On a slightly saner note, I think it would be nice if there were some independent credibility stat that shows up next to everything online. Might be a good browser plugin to craft for those out there with programming chops.

  4. BBBlue says:

    Interesting that organic folks are not only dealing with competition from “conventional”products but also from the Non-GMO Project. Non-GMO Project can be considered as an organic-light alternative with similar benefits in the marketplace, but not nearly the same cost of production, especially in cases where there are no GMO alternatives to begin with. http://bit.ly/2DZ5fMk As that competition continues, I expect organic interests to keep pounding their Organic=Non-GMO and So Much More! message in new and even more shameless ways. http://bit.ly/2DUDnsL

  5. Suraky says:

    People blocked by Stonyfield can join the Facebook group Banned by Stonyfield … Share your stories and your screenshots.

    … I was banned for bringing up the fact that chemical and radiation mutagenesis alters thousands of genes randomly, without testing, and is organic approved.

  6. Willy says:

    The “open letter” link is not currently working. It doesn’t work from the Forbes article link either. Perhaps Stonyfield has removed it?

    Regardless, I’d say the blow back from their ad surprised them a lot. It certainly covered their faces with egg. GOOD! It is a lousy, dishonest ad. Fishmato indeed.

  7. BillyJoe7 says:

    Surprisingly, the company has still not been taken down the video. The reaction has almost all been negative. There are presumably 309 comments, but, for some reason, only 40 are able to be viewed. All but 1 are negative reviews, and not just mildly negative either, with many saying they will boycott the company’s products from now on.

    Like others, I’m surprised at the scientific literacy of nearly all those responding to the video, only because real science is usually swamped by pseudoscience in these sorts of discussions, because real science is hard and most people cannot be bothered with the effort required. Hopefully this is some sort of turning point. We certainly need a more scientifically literate public.

    I hope they do not remove the video. It’s been a good foil against which the public is being educated as to the truth behind GMO and Organic. As for boycotting the company? I’m a bit conflicted. The solution would be for the company to apologise for all the misrepresentations in their video as well as using young girls as vehicles to disseminate their falsehoods.

  8. BillyJoe7 says:

    ….correction, a young boy appears towards the end – at least they cannot be accused of reverse sexism 😉

  9. Willy says:

    BJ7–try “previous comments” towards the top of the page with their video. It doesn’t get ’em all, but you can see more. I can’t understand either why they keep the video up given the crap they’re taking, but they do still appear to have removed their “open letter”. I’d say their management is the equivalent of the Trump WH–total chaos and sheer stupidity. Maybe too many “organic” foods?

  10. BillyJoe7 says:

    Willy,

    Thanks, but I’ve probably read enough comments to get the jist.
    Here is a copy of the “open letter” from Stonyfield:

    http://www.thefarmersdaughterusa.com/2018/01/stonyfield-organic-gets-taken-task-anti-gmo-propaganda-video.html

    Dear Friends,
    You’ve probably seen that we stirred up quite a bit of conversation in the last few days around the topic of GMOs, with some suggesting that our community’s valid concerns about GMOs are “anti-science” and ill-informed.

    Admittedly, it’s hard to “weed” out who is just a troll and who is genuine on social media, but we do acknowledge that some of the comments are from concerned people with reasonable and well-intended questions. We’re glad that these individuals are also vested in our food system and adding to the important conversation about how our foods are processed. If no one cared, that would really be upsetting to us.

    And so, to these folks we would like to respond and be very clear about our position on GMOs:1. We do not believe that eating GMOs has been proven harmful to your health.
    2. The majority of GMO crops used by farmers today require the use of toxic herbicides. The use of glyphosate, which has been categorized as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization, has increased nearly 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996. (source: https://www.ewg.org/…/study-monsanto-s-glyphosate-most-heav…).
    3. We believe consumers have the right to choose whether or not to support the above practices, and that the only way this can happen is if food companies that use GMO ingredients or that feed their cows GMO feed declare this on their packaging.
    4. Since USDA Organic regulations forbid the use of GMOs, we will continue to rigorously avoid their use and we are proud to offer consumers this choice in the dairy aisle.

    We have arrived at this position through due diligence, and we appreciate the importance of a constructive fact-based scientific debate. For those truly committed to advancing the health of our families and our planet, we welcome the conversation and appreciate your taking the time to reach out.

    -The Folks at Stonyfield Farm

  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    Answers to those questions:

    “1. We do not believe that eating GMOs has been proven harmful to your health”

    Good. But this is not exactly what the video implies.

    “2. The majority of GMO crops used by farmers today require the use of toxic herbicides. The use of glyphosate, which has been categorized as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization, has increased nearly 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996”

    Of course, the use of glyphosate has gone up. That is the point – genetically modify the plant to be glyphosate resistant and then use the glyphosate to kill the weeds. But, it replaces much more toxic herbicides so that overall the toxicity has been reduced.
    The WHO (IARC) report had been largely discredited because it left out an important large study which demonstrated the safety of glyphostate. They were aware of the study and it’s conclusion, but they left it out because it hadn’t been published yet. It is also at odds with every other report on GMO safety. Also the IARC purports to categorise the potential for carcinogenicity (hazard) not that it actually causes cancer (risk), but, in their report they seem to have equated hazard with risk. Finally, the study was largely superfluous because the safely of glyphoste has already been demonstrated repeatedly with large scale studies. In other words, what’s the point of publicising the opinion that glyphoste could potentially cause cancer when we know that it doesn’t.

    “3. We believe consumers have the right to choose whether or not to support the above practices, and that the only way this can happen is if food companies that use GMO ingredients or that feed their cows GMO feed declare this on their packaging”

    Firstly, there is no need to label products as containing GMO when GMOs are known to be safe. Secondly, it is not true that the only way for consumers to avoid GMOs is to label foods as containing GMOs. There are already labels to indicate foods that are “organic” and “do not contain GMOs”. So the consumer who has been persuaded by the anti-GMO, pro-Organic propaganda can choose “organic” or “GMO free” if they wish.

    “4. Since USDA Organic regulations forbid the use of GMOs, we will continue to rigorously avoid their use and we are proud to offer consumers this choice in the dairy aisle”

    This is not an argument against GMOs. The fact that the USDA Organic regulations forbid the use of GMOs does not mean that GMOs are unsafe.

    ————-

    From here:

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/kavinsenapathy/2018/01/25/stonyfield-calls-critics-trolls-with-fake-names-after-backlash-against-ad-featuring-young-girls/#1c2ed2a53038

    “Gary Hirshberg, co-founder, Chief Organic Optimist, and chairman of Stonyfield’s advisory board, is also the chairman of the Just Label It board of directors, an organization that petitions for mandatory GMO labeling”

    So, I guess there’s not going to be any retraction.
    Perhaps they’re hoping it will all go away.

  12. Willy says:

    BJ7–I had already seen the letter before it was deleted–or “whatever”. It “disappeared” sometime around mid-day US time.

  13. SleepyJean says:

    I enjoy eating yogurt. I eat Stoneyfield products when I can get a sale price from the local grocery store chains. Their whole milk products have a good amount of cholesterol. Their flavored products have plenty of salt and sugar. They taste rich and creamy. But if high cholesterol and triglycerides are a problem for you, organic products like these probably won’t lower your measured totals in a blood test.

    As for using kids in videos, Stoneyfield organic farms make product lines for babies and kids. So children are learning to watch what they eat by watching the company videos. Maybe they will grow up healthier. Science starts earlier in schools along with consumer education.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    SleepyJean,

    I think maybe you missed the point of the post. It’s not about the health benefits or otherwise of yoghurt. It’s about that company getting young children to recite lies about GMOs in their advertisements. And children watching that company’s videos are not learning anything. They’re being misinformed. Also, if “science starts earlier in schools along with consumer education”, then the educational system has failed these particular young children also.

  15. sarah_theviper says:

    Slightly off topic, but I don’t get why people think organic cleaners are so much better. In my experience they are terrible to breath in. Simple green is bad as is the optional organic cleaner we have where I now work. I once had a patient who demanded I clean her room only with organic cleaning products. I just used water, she didn’t seem like someone you wanted to get into it with. She was pissed off they saved her as she had a DNR. She also explained to me that she could perform a trachyotomy on herself (sorry I have no idea how to spell that)

  16. 107197 says:

    Sorry – late to the party.

    The argument of “possible carcinogen” is interesting when you see what else is on the list. I couldn’t find one directly from WHO; it looks like they reference the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). You can find various lists on their website, but our ol’ friend Wikipedia has a concise list of those substances listed in Group 2A, “Probable carcinogens”:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_IARC_Group_2A_carcinogens

    It includes, in addition to glyphosate: cisplatin, malathion (which, by the way, is cited as “the most commonly used organophosphate insecticide”), emissions from high temperature frying, and – I love this one – red meat.

    Some nice, crispy bacon in that non-GMO yogurt?

  17. SleepyJean says:

    @BillyJoe7 In the land Down Under, Vegemite was advertised for “infant welfare”? Are you concerned whether this is GMO or non-GMO?

  18. I prefer my produce copper pesticide free. Must avoid organic to be on the safe side.

  19. BillyJoe7 says:

    SleepyJean,

    I don’t care if Vegemite in the land Down Under is GMO, non-GMO, or Organic, but I do care if it is advertised for infant welfare if there is no evidence for that claim.
    But, to return the favour, maybe I could ask you an irrelevant question as well: Do you like:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XfR9iY5y94s

    (BTW, I live in the land Down Under, and I love that song, but I hate vegemite sandwiches).

  20. SleepyJean says:

    @BillyJoe7 I like the song, but I have never eaten a foot long Vegemite sandwich like in the video. I read that the product has been listed as a GMO non-contamination free product.

  21. bachfiend says:

    SleepyJean,

    If Vegemite is GMO free, I’m pleased. It’s another reason for not buying it. I loathe the stuff. I much prefer Marmite, which isn’t as thick and easier to spread, so it’s easier to avoid adding too much to bread. It’s also a little sweeter. I was forced to eat Vegemite for a few months when Marmite was off the market owing to, I think, the Christchurch earthquake.

  22. BillyJoe7 says:

    SleepyJean,

    Not sure about contaminants, unless it’s because it’s made from left-over brewer’s yeast extract. I guess that could make it a contaminant. But it is GMO free, not that it friggin’ well matters.
    BTW, did you get your username from this Monkees song:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl_XQVKe6So

  23. BillyJoe7 says:

    Excellent view of the total lunar eclipse here this evening. Not a cloud in the sky and the Moon is well above the horizon. It went total just a few minutes ago. The “blood red” at totality is impressive. We watched if from 10:45 till midnight, but we probably won’t stay up for another hour to see the end of the eclipse.

    (We also get a reasonable view of The Milky Way form our suburban fringe :))

  24. Willy says:

    Regarding Marmite and the NZ earthquake: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10793070

    I’m lucky enough to be in Christchurch–and a lot more of Kiwiland–for the next three weeks.

  25. mumadadd says:

    I always assumed that Marmite and Vegemite were the same thing under different names. Anyway, I recommend anyone who likes marmite try Bovril. It’s very similar but made of beef, so richer and deeper flavour.

  26. bachfiend says:

    Willy,

    I last visited Christchurch before the earthquake. I don’t know whether I could return.

    I’m an atheist who enjoys visiting cathedrals. The Christchurch one was one that was destroyed in an earthquake, like the one in Lisbon in 1755 in the Great Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami (God seems to have something against his believers).

    My favourite city in England is Salisbury, and I managed to spend an entire day in its cathedral (and never got to Stonehenge). It’s much better than Westminster Abbey. In May I’m looking forward to visiting Cologne Cathedral.

    Mumadadd,

    Obviously, Vegemite and Marmite are different products. As a vegetarian I’d never consider Bovril.

  27. mumadadd says:

    We dont have vegemite where I live (UK). I learned if its existence via Neighbours in my teens. Not to get all defensive about it or anything.

  28. mumadadd says:

    I watched an episode of ‘Dragons’ Den’ the other day on which the pitch was “raw” dog food. They actually said that their product was closer to what dogs eat in the wild. They brought on some dog as part of their pitch. It definitely wasn’t a wolf, coyote or fox. I feel pretty confident in asserting that it was a domestic breed

  29. mumadadd says:

    Accidental post…

    Anyway, it was definitely a domestic breed. And pretty much all domestic dogs, by definition, are… domestic breeds. None of then ever existed in the wild, and the one they brought on certainly didn’t.

    But they were still able to hawk a ‘raw’ dog food to a bunch of savvy business people and actually secure the investment they were seeking.

  30. mumadadd says:

    Forgot to say: above is example of power of health halo.

  31. bachfiend says:

    Mumadadd,

    ‘We don’t have Vegemite where I live (UK). I learned of its existence via ‘Neighbours’ in my teens.’

    You’re lucky you don’t. I’ve never seen ‘Neighbours.’ The closest I’ve ever come is the spoof of it in ‘Red Dwarf.’

  32. BillyJoe7 says:

    Likewise. I’ve never watched a single episode of ‘Neighbours’.

    However I was surprised to learn recently that Graig McLachlan used to be on ‘Neighbours’ as boyfriend of Kylie Minogue. More recently he has been the main character in the TV series, “The Doctor Blake Mysteries” which I do watch, though I preferred the “Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries” which was cancelled; and the main character in the stage play “The Rocky Horror Show”.

    (Both the stage play and the TV series were recently cancelled when Graig McLachlan got caught up in the MeToo social media phenomenon. The producers of the TV series organised an independent investigation and found no impropriety on his part. However, I haven’t heard about any developments in the police investigation into alleged impropieties in the stage play – three women have reported incidents from the 2014 edition of the show to the police)

  33. mumadadd says:

    I’m not proud that I know this, but Craig McLachlan played Kylie’s brother, not boyfriend — that was Jason Donovan.

    Last bit of food trivia: years ago the runner up for best UK doner kebab was a business called Jason Doner-van. Don’t know if you have doner vans in Aus but they are a staple in the UK. The name gave me a great laugh.

  34. MosBen says:

    On Stonybrook’s Facebook post with the video someone pointed out the fishmato myth, and their response was that they didn’t provide any script to the kids and that kid must have just heard about it somewhere. First, there’s about a zero percent chance that some random kid has heard of the fishmato. They either gave the kids a script or these are the children of Stonybrook employees who have been fed anti-GMO talking points. Either way, I pointed out to them that as a company owned and run by adults it was ridiculous to hide blame the statement on a child. Nobody forced them to include it in their advertising.

  35. MaryM says:

    The “fishmato” obviously is bogus, but this lie has had real consequences. Joe Schwarcz reported that once at a talk he gave, someone in the audience said:

    “If genetically modified foods were properly labeled, I could still eat tomatoes,” was the angry remark. I was puzzled by this, but the gentleman went on to clarify. “I have a fish allergy,” he said, “and I have no way of knowing which tomatoes have been modified with fish genes, so I just don’t eat any tomato products.”

    So this guy was avoiding a healthy food because he had been lied to by Stonyfield and their ilk. And for those of us with real fool allergies–like my personal allergy to peanuts–GMO could be a freakin’ lifesaver.

    This is not harmless marketing. Lies have consequences. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/controversial-science-environment-food-health-news/there-are-no-fish-genes-tomatoes

  36. BillyJoe7 says:

    mumadadd,

    Apparently we have doner vans, but I’ve never seen one or, if I have, I didn’t recognise it as such.
    And thanks for that vitally important note on Craig McLachlan – you never know when that might come in handy 😀

  37. Willy says:

    A properly done doner kebab is a thing of joy!

Leave a Reply