Scientific American Stands Against Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods

Scientific American on Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods

Genetically modified foods are among the most heavily tested, scrutinized, evaluated and regulated food items in existence. Applications of GM technology reduce the impact of weeds, harmful insects and pathogens. They contain more nutrients like vitamin A precursors, iron, zinc and vitamins. It might even be possible to make edible vaccines. Despite this, there is a lot of anti-GMO sentiment in the public realm, largely based on fear mongering about biotechnology and a dislike for corporations. However, the anti-GMO claims about science tend to turn out to be erroneous and dangerously misguided and the arguments about economics are at best only tangentially relevant. These two facts have not discourages the anti-GMO movement in the slightest.

The editors of Scientific American recently published an article taking a stand against laws requiring mandatory labeling of GM foods. Five major arguments are presented:

Increase misconceptions about the health effects of GM foods: the editors argue that if mandatory labeling of GM foods or foods that contain GM ingredients is required, then this will contribute to the feeding-frenzy about alleged “Frankenfoods” being harmful to human health. In reality, organizations as diverse as the American Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization conclude that genetically modified foods are just as safe for human consumption as conventionally grown food. These conclusions are based on mountains of toxicological and ecological research.

Limit consumer options: companies tend to avoid labels that risk driving potential consumers away, so they stop using GM ingredients in their products. This means that the consumer would have fewer options available to them.

Increased food cost for the consumer: since GM foods require less water and pesticides than conventional foods, so they tend to be cheaper. If mandatory labeling of GM foods become a legal requirement and companies start to remove GM ingredients, this will make the food available to the consumer more expensive. Some estimates suggest that the yearly food cost for an average family could increase by 400 U.S. dollars

More administrative work for farmers: the fourth argument provided is that mandatory GMO labeling would require more administrative work for farmers and others to ensure that they could stand up to lawsuits challenging the non-GM nature of their products.

Increase stigma against beneficial technology: the fifth and final argument provided by the editors of Scientific American is that mandatory labeling threatens to increase the stigma of technology that has helped Indian farmers increase their yield by almost 25% and profits by 50%. Another classic example is Golden Rice, a variety of rice that contains a precursor to vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency makes half a million children go blind and kills a quarter of a million.

For sure, this is not the final word on GM foods and labels, but it provides a powerful defense of good science and a stance against anti-GMO sentiments. Predictably, this statement by the editors of Scientific American has attracted a number of anti-GMO fearmongers in the comment section.

One commenter made the following claim:

The right to know what we are eating and drinking is a fundamental right that is not diminished by the opinion of some “expert” on what is “good for us.” The same logic that would allow unlabeled GMO manipulation, would also allow adding preservatives to food because — well, they make food last longer, so that’s good for everyone, isn’t it? and if people knew that preservatives were added, they might resist buying those wonderful crackers with a shelf life of years.

Indeed, it is important that consumers have the ability to know what they are buying, eating and drinking. Therefore, product labels should specify the content of the product being sold. However, the analogy between GM foodstuff and a preservative is false. What differs between a product that contains a preservative and a product without that preservative is that the former contains an additional substance, namely, the preservative. However, the difference between a product that contains corn modified by conventional methods and a product that contains corn modified by biotechnological methods is not that one of them contains an additional substance. The difference boils down to the method used to produce those genetic modifications. What should be tested, evaluated and regulated is the end-product, not the method used to produce it. Thus, labels should reflect content, not method used.

The same commenter, in a stunning display of ignorance, also made the following argument:

A normal American diet contains plenty of nutrients. Multiplying the amount of iron in a person’s diet by a factor of four, or the beta-carotene by a factor of 169 is likely an unhealthy thing to do — over and above the issue of doing so without informing the consumer.

The reason scientists are genetically modifying cassava and maize to contain more nutrients like beta-carotene, iron, zinc etc. is not for the benefit of American consumers. They are doing it to prevent hundreds of millions of people in poor countries from suffering deficiency diseases and starving to death. Attempting to make this all about the American consumer is irrational and backwards.

Presumably unaware about the difference between “genetically identical” and “substantially equivalent”, another commenter made the following assertion:

If GMO corn is identical to NON-GMO corn, how can it be detected in the field or lab? How can the biotechnology company know if someone has infringed on their patent so they can sue them? Clearly, they are not identical. They may look the same, but are not the same genetically.

Of course, the claim being made is not that conventionally modified foods are genetically identical to foods modified using recombinant DNA technology. Rather, genetically modified foods are substantially equivalent to foods modified by conventional means. This means that thorough scientific testing has shown that a GM food item is just as safe as the conventional counterpart.

The second commenter continues:

Frankly, I don’t want to eat these novel gene combinations, but beyond that, I am not comfortable with the behavior and ethics of the companies producing them or the environmental risks involved. Stray genes in nature could court disaster. We have no control over nature.

He or she does not want to eat “novel gene combinations”? Such a claim betrays a profound ignorance of basic genetics. Each single time that conventional plant reproduces, thousands of genes are shuffled and recombined to produce novel gene combinations. Using conventional breeding techniques to make safer and more nutritious plants is very imprecise and takes a lot of time. Using biotechnology, the relevant genetic changes can be made faster and much more precise. No need to shuffle and recombine thousands of genes. If “novel gene combinations” makes GM foods scary, then conventional foods should make you tremble with fear.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

22 thoughts on “Scientific American Stands Against Mandatory Labeling of GM Foods

  • August 25, 2013 at 22:16

    I have to disagree with you on this. The science on the safety of GMOs is still unsure. As is the effect that GMOs have on the environment, the increased use of herbicides and pesticides that GMOs may contribute to.

    Also, I think it’s pretty foolish to just trust corporations. Their main interest and purpose is to create profit and increase the wealth of their shareholders. All other concerns are secondary, or lower, including concerns about their own employees, the community, environment, etc. If you really think Monsanto etc. are engaged in some altruistic endeavor to prevent suffering in third world countries, that shows a rather serious lack of understanding of corporate capitalism I think.

    • August 25, 2013 at 23:00

      Did you know that the technology used to produce genetically modified foods are as old as the personal computer? One of the first papers detailing Agrobacterium-mediated transformation of plants was published in 1983 and Commodore 64 was launched in 1982. Do you think that the personal computer is “new and unreliable technology”. That we are “unsure” about the “safety” of the personal computer? Probably not.

      GM crops has actually decreased the use of pesticides. Here is a graph from a National Research Council report I discussed in Unraveling Five Popular Anti-GMO Claims.

      GM crops has also reduced the usage of dangerous herbicides and replaced it with much more safer ones:

      Thus, when you parrot the false claims that GM crops increase the use of insecticides or harmful herbicides, you have let your rational thinking become undermined by anti-science forces.

      The fact that hundreds of published safety studies (many of them independently funded) show that GM foods are safe for human consumption makes your claim that proponents of biotechnology “just trust corporations” or “think Monsanto etc. are engaged in some altruistic endeavor to prevent suffering in third world countries” pretty laughable. Furthermore, GM applications like Golden Rice and PRSV-resistant papaya were not developed by Monsanto.

  • Pingback: Decimating the Flawed Beliefs of Anti-GMO Activists | Debunking Denialism

  • September 16, 2013 at 21:11

    I’m ok with GMO, personally. But I see no reason not to label food produced that way. Not labelling feeds the conspiracy theorist frenzy. Better provenance has a cost, sure, but one outweighed by the benefits.

    • September 16, 2013 at 21:14

      Labeling is for ingredients, not the plant breeding method used to produce said ingredients.

      In addition, this blog post discuss five arguments against labeling. You did not bother to engage a single one of them. Why?

    • September 16, 2013 at 23:24

      I think the point on transparency more important than any of: Increase misconceptions about the health effects of GM foods (not revealing the process feeds the conspiracy theory frenzay), limit consumer options (only if they don’t buy GMO), Increased food cost for the consumer (again, only i fthey don’t buy GMO), more administrative work for farmers (not onerous), or Increase stigma against beneficial technology (if you want increased stigma then don’t tell people).

      Your reasons for not labelling may be noble, but they will be misinterpreted – and backfire. Label, promote the benefits and more on.

    • September 17, 2013 at 00:04

      Empirical data from when Europe started labeling showed that GM labeling increased misconceptions. The reason why labeling limits consumer options is because companies do not want labels that scare customers away. This leads to increased costs because GM ingredients are cheaper. More administrative work is certainly onerous because farmers and manufacturers have to shield themselves against lawsuits if someone were to claim that the product was not GM free.

      At any rate, you are not actually trying to engage the arguments. This is clear from the fact that most of your objections misunderstands the arguments made by Scientific American. Try reading through this post and the post by Scientific American. Try to understand what the actual arguments are. Don’t just read them in an effort to gather ammunition.

  • September 17, 2013 at 06:45

    I’ve read the reports and the post. I can hear the conspiracy theorists now accusing you of willfully hiding the facts. That will not help promote GMO and its benefits.

    • September 17, 2013 at 06:56

      Anti-GMO activists are already accusing scientists of doing that. Any increase has to be weighed against the arguments that Scientific American lists. You are still not engaging the actual arguments.

  • September 17, 2013 at 06:59

    I’m not engaging with with these particular SA arguments because they ignore the value of transparency when presenting science to the community. Anti-GMOers will seek any chink in the armour. Lack of transparency is a gaping chink. Don’t create it.

    • September 17, 2013 at 07:02

      I have addressed all of your arguments, yet you have addressed none of mine or SciAms. Before you decide to post your next comment, please check point No. 7 of the comment guidelines.

  • September 19, 2013 at 20:43

    The two risks that I don’t see addressed is the risk of germline contamination as GMO seeds spread their generic heritage. I don’t mind that people are selling GMO products, I just don’t want them to induce a punctuated equilibrium whereby heirloom products die of from genetic contamination.

    The second issue is human and animal consumption of raw and processed biomass that has added pesticide components/genetics not otherwise found in nature.

    If these risks are legitimate GMO labeling will allow consumers to boycott products that contain them;

    • September 19, 2013 at 21:19

      Those alleged risks have been addressed at length on this blog and in the scientific community.

      The risk of gene spread is not more of an issue with genetically modified crops than conventional crops. If you cross two species using conventional agricultural methods to introduce a resistance gene into your crop, then that resistance gene can just as easily spread as if you had inserted it with biotech tools. Furthermore, most GM crops are based on conventional crops that have been selectively bred for thousands of years to the point where it cannot interbreed with its natural relatives. Finally, many genetic modifications are made in chloroplasts, which are inherited maternally (i.e. is not transmitted by pollen) in angiosperms. Let us, for the sake of argument, ignore all of this and say that your precious heirloom plants have gotten a small percentage of GM pollen. That will not kill it. What happens is that a small percentage of the plants will have the transgene.

      The “pesticide component” you talk about is a toxin called Bt. During the last 70 years, farmers growing conventional crops have sprayed the plants with the bacteria that produce this toxin. So if you have ever had eaten food from conventional crops, you have ingested this Bt toxin. New technology has allowed researchers to insert the gene into the plant instead of spraying it on the leaves. As it happens, this toxin is harmless to humans and only kills a certain specific pest. The reason that it is harmless to humans is that it requires three things to have any toxic effect: an alkaline stomach environment (humans have acidic), a specific protease that cleaves the toxin to its active form (humans lack it) and a specific receptor on the surface of the stomach (humans do not have it). All GM plants licensed to consumers undergo stringent toxicological and ecological testing.

      They study you linked to has been thoroughly debunked: the researchers used a rat strain that spontaneously develops cancer tumors as they grow old (it is used to find cancer treatments) regardless of what it is fed. That is why they do not show a picture of the control in the paper (it has the same tumors as well).

      Wikipedia has a good article on how flawed that study was. Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.

  • September 19, 2013 at 20:59


    You say “the analogy between GM foodstuff and a preservative is false. What differs between a product that contains a preservative and a product without that preservative is that the former contains an additional substance, namely, the preservative. However, the difference between a product that contains corn modified by conventional methods and a product that contains corn modified by biotechnological methods is not that one of them contains an additional substance. ”

    Your statement is false by degrees. If the GMO process only used germline information already present in Corn, your are correct. IMHO, once any additional genetic information from a non corn source is added, I see your statement as false. There is something extra. For example: a gene borrowed from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short.

    Humans may well suffer no ill from Bt, but it isn’t part of what is naturally found in corn. We deserve to know that something has been added, and frankly we also deserve to know what’s been added.

    • September 19, 2013 at 21:22

      Conventional methods also adds genetic information by e. g. crosses, radiation and mutation breeding. This does not matter in terms of labeling, as it is still corn (it does not become a completely different ingredient). There is no additional product added, which is why this differs from e. g. preservatives.

    • September 19, 2013 at 21:27

      Traditional breeding only adds what is already in the germline, although it may have come from a mutation or inter-breeding (horses and donkeys), Etc. It doesn’t add information from outside the germline.

      Adding information from outside the germline is new product, physically and phenotypically. QED, product is added.

    • September 19, 2013 at 21:37

      Traditional breeding methods like radiation or mutation breeding can produce thousands and thousands of new mutations never ever seen before in that plant. Ever single mutation that cause an amino acid change can potentially create an entire new gene that has never been seen in that plant before. This new gene will produce a new gene product that changes the plant, “physically and phenotypically”, in accordance with your definition.

      Bottom line: corn developed by conventional breeding techniques and corn developed by biotech techniques are still the same thing: corn. It is not an extra ingredient like a preservative is.

  • September 19, 2013 at 21:47

    If by radiation, you mean extra radiation beyond the earths’ background radiation is used to force mutations, or any other technology to force mutations, that is GMO IMHO should be be labeled. That might fit your own definition of breeding and it maybe a popular tools for many years but it isn’t traditional.

    There is still a difference between adding code from a secondary genome or forcing random changes vers. traditional breeding. Something is being added. I’m sorry you don’t see the difference

    • September 19, 2013 at 22:13

      Nope, plants exposed to radiation breeding are not classified as GMO. The plant is only called GMO if recombinant DNA technology is used. In other words, regulation is not based on what is altered or the end product, only the method used. Radiation breeding is a very traditional method and has been used for many decades. Many of the grapefruit and pear varieties that I am sure you have eaten yourself have been the result of radiation breeding.

      According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are thousands of licensed plant varieties that have been produced by radiation breeding. You can find many of them here (click “list all varieties”).

      Radiation breeding (common traditional method of producing new conventional crop varieties) makes many imprecise and unknown genetic changes. Using biotechnology, researchers can make single, precise and known genetic changes. In other words, if you accept conventional modifications of plants, then you cannot reject GM modifications since they are more precise, more well-known and fewer.

    • September 19, 2013 at 22:17

      Still GMO in my opinion… Just because the government says so doesn’t make it so.. USDA Organic only has to be 95% Organic.. which isn’t organic. i probably haven’t eaten those varieties or if so in very limited amounts, but i’m not an average eater.

      So we agree, if we can only agree on what is traditional. Being done for a few decades, doesn’t make something traditional btw.

    • September 20, 2013 at 09:02

      First, just because you dislike a traditional method of breeding does not mean you get to stamp it as “GMO”.

      Second, radiation breeding is as old as the green revolution (from which we get almost all of the varieties of plants we eat today), so if you reject radiation breeding as traditional, you will have to conclude that all plant food you eat is non-traditional. This, of course, makes the entire “traditional” gambit fall apart.

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