The war against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been long and varied. Activists have denied the overwhelming bulk of scientific research demonstrating the safety of GMOs, pushing their own junk research and pseudo-scientific claims. For a long time, the media bought the activists’ claims hook, line, and sinker, repeating their claims uncritically to the masses. Years of work by anti-GMO protesters has proven successful–while the vast majority of scientists claim that GMOs are safe to consume, only 37% of Americans agree. That disturbing gap between scientific consensus and popular opinion is the result of a campaign of misinformation about what GMOs are and an unwittingly complicit media.
There is hope, however, that the facts about GMOs will prevail. Slowly, the media has started to come around on GMOs. News outlets have begun reporting on the actual research that’s been done and have found, to their surprise, that it doesn’t back up the activists’ narrative. Even that bastion of liberal opinion, Slate, published an epic piece debunking activist claims and the shady reasoning behind GMO labeling. While popular opinion may be lagging, there’s hope that as the media covers the facts, the public’s understanding of GMOs will come in line with scientists’.
Anti-GMO activists have not stood still as the long friendly media turns its back on them. With their narrative discredited and crumbling, the activists have taken a new tact. In the last few years, the anti-GMO message has changed its tune. No longer do they emphasize the perils of GMO consumption, a claim that few respected media outlets take seriously these days, but instead they claim that GMO labels are necessary because people have a right to know what’s in their food.
At face value, this claim seems fairly valid. Many people, attempting to live healthier lives, want to know what’s in their food and evaluate its merits on its contents. There is nothing wrong with wanting to understand what exactly we are putting in our bodies.
The problem is that GMO labels don’t actually tell us anything useful about what’s in our food. There is a scientific consensus that GMOs are completely safe, and anti-GMO activists are having a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to their junk studies. Instead, they’ve come up with more roundabout reasons for GMO labeling. In my interactions with people who support GMO labeling, their opposition to GMOs takes three forms: corporate control of agriculture, sustainable agricultural practices, and pesticide use.
The problem is that these labels really doesn’t tell the consumer anything about these three issues. GMOs can be used by large corporate entities or local farmers. Many have raised concerns about how Monsanto and other GMO invested companies have patents on their GMO seeds, and how that increases their control over American farmers. But the truth is, most seeds, organic or GMO, are patented. For those who are truly concerned about patents, there are some fascinating projects that are tackling that issue, such as The Open Source Seed Initiative. GMO labels, however, tells us nothing about who produced the product, big corporations or local farmers, or what patents protect the seeds.
GMO labels also tell the consumer nothing about whether the product was grown in a sustainable way. There is no way to tell from a GMO label what sustainability practices were used in growing that product. If consumers care about sustainability, then they can support a voluntary label that actually looks into the agricultural practices used in production.
Many anti-GMO activists are shocked to learn that pesticides are not used exclusively on GMOs. Pesticides are used on GMOs and “organic” foods alike. Some GMOs, in fact, are designed in ways to require less pesticides. The type and amount of pesticides varies by crop, and it’s irresponsible of anti-GMO activists to lump them all together. Whether they like it or not, pesticides are a vital part of our agricultural system, GMO or otherwise. GMO labels wouldn’t contain information on what pesticides were used, if any, and could lead uninformed consumers to believe that the “organic” products have never had contact with pesticides, when they often do.
Fortunately, not everyone is buying the anti-GMO activists’ claims this time around. Perhaps embarrassed at being swindled for so long, the media is giving their claims increased scrutiny this time around. While many still accept the anti-GMO community’s narrative at face value, there is a larger pushback this time around, and major news outlets have rejected their claims outright.
For a great example of this strange turn of events in how the media covers GMO labeling, take a look at these two editorials from the Portland Press Herald–one from 2013, and one from just a few months ago. In summary, the first editorial claims that the science behind GMOs remains uncertain (it isn’t) and GMO labels are a necessary “tool for shoppers” who want to know what’s in their food. Compare that to the 2015 editorial, which noted that research shows that GMOs are safe for consumption and “GMO labels don’t tell consumers much of anything.” That’s quite a change of heart over two years.