ARE PEOPLE WHO PROTEST against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) similar to the people who deny climate change? How about those who reject childhood vaccines?
All three groups seem adamant in their refusal to believe the near-unanimous findings of science.
There’s paradox here: As groups, GMO protesters and climate-change deniers tend to come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and might bristle at the notion that they share anything, much less the denial of scientific evidence.
When Mark Lynas, a researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science, wrote the New York Times opinion piece “How I got converted to G.M.O. Food,” many science followers took note. Lynas previously had not only opposed the use of GMOs but had participated in vandalizing fields of GMO vegetables before being persuaded by the evidence to do an about-face.
After looking more closely at the research, he concluded that “seed genetics can make a contribution…increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite.… We need this technology.” Lynas accuses GE (genetic engineering) activists of “undermining public understanding of science.”
How elitist is it for those who shop at Whole Foods (like me) to oppose new technology that allows tens of thousands of hungry, low-income people to afford low-priced breads and cereals made from genetically modified grains? According to best estimates, the consumer price for grain-based foods has gone down 1% per year for the past 15 years, because of a combination of government subsidies and genetically engineered seeds, which allow farmers to harvest a lot more per acre.
Lynas noted research by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that shows a gap between science and the public on GMOs that is greater than the gap on any other science controversy: “88% of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods while only 37% of the public did—a gap in perceptions of 51 points,” compared with a 37-point difference on climate change and 18 points on childhood vaccines.
As with the childhood vaccine debate, the origin of the GMO scare was a scientific paper later retracted by the journal that published it due to flaws in method. Since then, reports on livestock suffering ulcers, immune system problems and increased rates of infertility and miscarriage have also been mostly discredited.
In a 2013 “meta-analysis” (research that pulls together existing research) of GMO research from the previous 10 years, 1,783 scientific studies found “no significant hazards directly connected to the use of [genetically engineered] crops.” Another meta-analysis, published in 2014, which addressed uncertainties about the impact of genetically modified crops, found, across 147 original studies, that GMO crops reduced pesticide use by 37%, and the average profit gains from GM-adopting farms were 69%.
According to an AAAS statement, “The science is quite clear: Crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion.”
But while the war of words continues, the reality is that today more than 70% of processed grain-based foods in U.S. supermarkets contains GMO foods, among which the top three are corn, soy and cottonseed (used to make vegetable oil, margarine, etc.). By 1995, 67% of cheese produced in the U.S. was made using rennet—to curdle milk to form curds and whey, the raw material of cheese—produced by GMOs. GMO rennet, its safety approved in 1990 by the Federal Drug Administration, was created by inserting the rennet-making gene from a calf’s stomach into a bacterium.
According to the latest U.S. figures, 93% of soybeans (used as lecithin, tocopheral and hydrogenated oils) were GMO varieties, and 88% of cornfields were planted with GMO-modified corn. GMO modifications can double the average yield of corn from 150 to 300 bushels per acre.
After corn, soy and cottonseed, the top genetically modified crops in the U.S. according to most lists are: alfalfa, fed to dairy cows; papaya, grown in Hawaii; and canola and sugar beets, used to make more than half the sugar sold in America.
Most genetically engineered crops grown in the U.S. are “Roundup Ready,” meaning that when the pesticide Roundup is sprayed over thousands of acres, the weeds will die and the food plants will survive. Research to date has allayed concern that over time “superweeds” could increase the amount of pesticides that must be sprayed.
Different questions arise with genetically modified, fast-growing salmon, to be marketed as AquAdvantage Salmon, and dubbed by detractors as “Frankenfish,” which was approved by the FDA in November 2015. In addition, the FDA did not require the fish to be labeled a GMO because there is no “material difference, such as a different nutritional profile.”
This salmon is created by inserting genes from other fish species, Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout. Besides questioning the risk of possible allergens to the new fish genes, protestors have speculated about the risk of gene alteration in native salmon populations, while the producers contend that GMO-salmon farms are located miles from the ocean, and that genetic engineering produces only sterile females.
To questions about whether the new salmon is kosher—because the Torah forbids mixing certain species of plants and animals—the Orthodox Union says yes, because the “new” salmon will have fins and scales. While AquAdvantage salmon appear biologically the same, and in blind taste tests have proved indistinguishable from native salmon, however, almost 10,000 grocery stores are already refusing to sell it. Even when it becomes available, the new salmon is expected to represent a very small fraction of the very large U.S. salmon market.
As if to prove that winning new battles doesn’t guarantee winning ongoing ones, in 2015 the Chipotle restaurant chain announced it would eliminate GMO-foods, in order to make its offerings safer. The same year, the chain was linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness caused by those tried-and-true threats, E.coli, norovirus and salmonella.
— Mary Carpenter
Mary Carpenter is the Well-Being Editor of MyLittleBird. Read more about Mary here.