An organization called U.S. Right to Know lobbies for GMO labeling laws. It ran the failed campaign in California to require labeling–that measure was rejected, as were similar measures in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. USRTK then resurrected itself, funded by money from the Organic Consumers Association, as a front group to target independent scientists with Freedom of Information Act demands, claiming researchers were paid lackeys of Big Ag. The aggressive campaign provoked the ire of the Union of Concerned Scientists and many scientists who viewed the legal assault as harassment, not unlike the right wing assault on climate change scientists who dared report their findings about human-induced global warming.
So what does, or should, a Right to Know mean?
USTRK and other self-proclaimed consumer rights champions wave this right-to-know flag when it comes to genetically engineered foods. The proclamation begins on high, and trickles down to anti-GMO activists wielding figurative torches and pitchforks, demanding the right to know what’s in their food. With visions of syringe-laden GMO tomatoes dancing menacingly in their heads consumers wonder, “why not just label it?” But the labeling call is mired in ideology. Where does this “just label it” demand originate?
It begins with covert profiteers who stand to gain from GMO labeling. Just one example is America’s now disgraced television doctor, Mehmet Oz. In his response to a recent controversy in which a group of doctors suggested that Columbia University reconsider his prestigious appointment at the medical school, Oz renewed his attack on genetically engineered foods. He played a clip from his recent episode on the newly approved non-browning Arctic apples in which he states, “I base this whole show on the fact that you can make smart choices for your health and for your family but you can only make those choices when you’re fully informed, so I stand by my opinion that all GMOs should be labeled so that consumers can decide for themselves.”
Oz painted a David versus Goliath picture, contending that only “Washington” and “companies” oppose GMO labeling. But the real Goliaths are those who, like Dr. Oz, stand to profit handsomely from GMO labeling. Oz and his wife Lisa support anti-genetic engineering campaigns in support of alternative, natural health products, the manufacturers of which are not just incidentally sponsors of his television show.
Oz has emerged as an icon in the campaign to demonize conventional foods and promote organics. Whole Foods’ website proselytizes about its commitment to GMO labeling initiatives. Ben & Jerry’s promotes its “Labelize It!” slogan, imploring Americans to chant along. And organic lobbying group Organic Consumers Association warns the public to protect its so-called “right to know” what’s in our food.
What is a GMO?
Understandably, issues surrounding food incite emotion. Because food is so important to human well-being, it is crucial that the claims made about it be carefully scrutinized. Do we have a right to know if our food is GMO? What does GMO even mean?
The acronym stands for “Genetically Modified Organism.” That’s not a science term. It was created by anti-biotech activists to make genetic engineering sound creepy, and it took hold. Journalists began using it as shorthand. After resisting it for more than a decade, scientists and industry and government agencies who uniformly hate the term caved; it’s now part of the public lexicon. But it is no less misleading.
An organism is loosely defined as any living thing, including plants, animals, and microbes. What about “genetically modified?” Essentially genes are portions of genomes, which are identical copies of all of the genetic material in any organism. In a multicellular organism, there is an identical copy of the genome in every cell of the body. Like a book in English is written in 26 letters of the alphabet, the genome of any organism is written in four nucleotides, denoted as A,T, C, and G. Genes code for proteins, and while many think of proteins as a food group — the filling deliciousness we consume in eggs, beans, and meat – they are far more than just part of a balanced diet. Proteins are the most basic functional components of living things, not only in animal products, but plants too. Proteins serve all functions of life, from structure, immunity, metabolic, enzymatic functions, and more.
Proteins are large molecules composed of amino acid chains. The sequence of amino acids in any protein determines its 3D structure. Like the 3D structure of a mechanical part or tool defines its function, so does the structure of a protein. Varying sequences of the four nucleotides code for different permutations of amino acids, changing the resultant protein. Think of binary code, in which variations of just two “characters” (0s and 1s) encode complex computer functions.
Proteins dictate almost everything a living thing is and does. Your nails are brittle or strong? Proteins. Your boyfriend’s beautiful blue eyes? Lack of certain proteins. Your daughter always wins her track meets? A complex interaction of proteins and environment. Likewise, the characteristics of a plant (tall, short, juicy, pest-resistant, spiky, etc.) depend on the types and expression levels of its proteins, determined by DNA sequence.
Foods considered genetically modified (GM) are engineered using transgenic technologies. Remember, proteins are encoded by only four nucleotide bases present in all life on earth: A, T, C, G. Nothing is altered in a GMO except for the sequence, addition, or deletion of a few of these nucleotides, often just a handful out of a billion or more “characters.” There isn’t anything added that doesn’t exist in nature. And guess what? Good old Mother Nature alters these sequences on her own, achieving change slower than a snail’s pace – AKA evolution. Genetic modification does this in a targeted, efficient manner, moving or enhancing traits that already exist in nature. Benefits range from helping farmers’ crops resist pests or survive drought, to tear-free onions, to increasing vitamin content of staple foods in third world countries.
In the science world, there are no real questions about the safety and benefits of genetically engineered foods. That’s settled science, agreed upon by everyone from Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and including every major science oversight agency in the world, from the World Health Organization to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Yet anti-GMO lobbying groups and others with financial interests in blocking sales of genetically engineered foods continue to inject fear and apprehension into the public psyche.
Food labeling transparency is necessary to protect consumers and help us nourish our bodies with a varied, balanced, and healthy diet, but only when this labeling is relevant. Vitamin, mineral and fiber content, for example, are relevant because certain deficiencies can cause health problems. Fat, sodium, and sugar content are relevant too, as they all should be consumed in moderation. Allergen information is key as well, because as parents of kids with allergies know, anaphylaxis is no joke.
Orwell’s Right to Know
Scientifically speaking, GMO labeling doesn’t make sense. The term “GMO” refers to a set of processes, not a product. It’s not an ingredient, it’s a set of breeding techniques. The idea that there are “genetically modified organisms” is fundamentally misleading. Consider for example oil made from GE canola crops. It contains no DNA; there is no GMO, just oil. Or sugar made from GE sugar beets. No protein or DNA. No lab could detect any difference between this “GMO sugar” and sugar made from non GE methods. So what is there to label? Nothing that could nutritionally or healthwise impact the consumer. A label would not be information, it would be stigmatization.
Anti-GMO activists of course know this. Last year, the Genetic Literacy Project analyzed the organic movement’s ‘right to know’ effort.
The consumer-focused message is beguiling, and it’s pushed by myriad activists linked to such organizations as Right to Know GMO, Label GMOs and Just Label It. It’s powerful and superficially persuasive.
“To be clear the Just Label campaign is not an anti-GMO effort,” said Gary Hirshberg, founder of organic food maker Stonyfield Organic, and former director of Just Label It.
After all, what but a conspiracy of the federal government and global corporations could be against providing helpful information to consumers about what they eat? But in less guarded moments, Hirshberg makes it clear that the labeling movement has nothing at all to do with science, information and discourse—it is exclusively an anti-GMO effort.
“Genetically modified organisms are one of the most dangerous and radical changes to our food supply,” he has said. Hirshberg has become a millionaire many times over selling pricey organic foods promoted with labeled marketing claims like “No Yucky Stuff,” which falsely suggests that more affordable conventional products are somehow unsafe and inferior. “Because GMOs are not labeled in the U.S., they might be causing acute or chronic effects,” Hirshberg has also written.
That’s what Orwell would call The Big Lie.
Which of these are GMOs?
In that vein, here are a few examples of commonly used breeding techniques. Which of the resulting foods should we consider “GMOs?”
Mutagenic wheat: Take several common wheat varieties. Breeders created them with a technique known as radiation mutagenesis or “atomic gardening.” The plants were bombarded with gamma radiation or sometimes soaked in toxic chemicals, scrambling their DNA. Scientists use radiation and chemical mutagenesis techniques to shuffle the mutation cards, hoping for an occasional good hand. Several varieties of wheat, including many high end Italian wheat varieties that make the world’s best tasting pastas, are the lucky cards out of lots of less-than-stellar randomly mutated hands.
Hybrid corn: Next, imagine first cousins or even siblings marrying and reproducing generation upon generation. Keep focused–we’re talking plants, not humans. Now, apply that process to corn. “True breeding” varieties are created this way so that both sets of chromosomes have the same alleles (genetic variation) for a number of traits. This makes their characteristics predictable, just like a Dalmatian mom and a Dalmatian dad will always have Dalmatian puppies. Like purebred dogs, there are benefits, but also health problems that can result from inbreeding, like deafness and urinary stones in Dalmatians or hip displyasia in shepherds. But geneticists figured out that crossing two inbred varieties of plants can fix a lot of the health problems. Voila, hybrid corn. Some call it a tasty dish; I call it slamming two inbred genomes together willy-nilly. With hybridization we lose the kissing cousins health problems, but we also lose the predictability. I have a Pug-Beagle mix and let me tell you, there are unintended consequences when mixing inbred varieties.
Non-browning apple: The Arctic apple, newly approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but yet to hit the market, uses a technique borrowed from nature called RNA interference (RNAi). Scientists “turned off” a handful of genes that produce proteins that cause enzymatic browning of apples when cut, bumped, or bitten. Humans consume RNA molecules in most food we eat, our bodies can’t tell whether they’ve been moved or meddled with.
Virus free papaya: In the mid-80s, the Hawaii papaya industry was in danger of being wiped out by the papaya ringspot virus. Farmers tried several tactics to eliminate the scourge, including moving papaya crops from the island of Oahu to the big island of Hawaii to escape the virus. The tactics all failed. What finally saved the papaya industry was a genetic engineering technique that essentially immunized the new Rainbow Papaya variety against the virus. Scientists inserted a gene from the virus into the papaya genome. That gene produces a protein that protects the papaya from the virus, similar to how the pertussis vaccine protects us from whooping cough. Interestingly enough, there is also a herd immunity effect just like in vaccinated humans, wherein GM papayas protect non-GM papayas from ringspot virus.
The above examples illustrate why the term “genetically engineered” is far preferable to GMO. All the above foods were genetically modified, but only two–the apple and the papaya–would be subject to labeling under currently proposed laws. Yet those are the two examples in which the genetic changes were both minuscule and monitored. What’s wrong with this picture? Regulatory agencies deem the Arctic apple and Rainbow papaya GMOs, while the genome-slammed corn and atomic wheat are considered conventionally-bred, and could be sold as organics. Those bizarre contradictions underscore why categorizing foods as GMO and non-GMO is extremely reductionist if not disingenuous.
So to anyone saying that “GMOs” need to be labeled simply because of a so-called right to know, I ask: Right to know what? If we really want to label food based on breeding techniques, it would make the most sense to label all breeding methods including hybridization, wide-cross hybridization, marker-assisted breeding, chemical and radiation mutagenesis, RNA interference, and upcoming gene editing techniques.
Still, as a person who values good health, enjoys eating, and cherishes her young kids, I’d prefer not labeling breeding techniques, whether the genetic enhancement was done on a molecular level or less precisely. It would be expensive for everyone and confuse the average consumer–which is what the organic industry is counting on.
Unmasking intentions of GMO labeling proponents
Here is the GLP infographic that shows the true intentions of anti-GMO campaigners: activists who say out of one side of their mouth that the “Right to Know” is an innocent campaign to be responsive to the public while at the same time telling their fervid supporters that a mandatory label is a key step towards achieving their ultimate goal: a complete discrediting of GMO foods leading to their eventual ban.
It makes no sense to change our labeling laws for what the science suggests are arbitrary reasons. Insisting they have a so-called “right to know” whether something is genetically modified is patronizing at best, and infantilizing at worst. While it’s clear to me and other science advocates that the “right to know” movement is a ploy to grow the organic and “natural” food industries and eliminate genetically engineered foods, opponents argue that it’s the will of the masses. Dare I say that the masses have been wrong before? When we know better, we do better.
Kavin Senapathy is a contributor at Genetic Literacy Project, Skepchick, Grounded Parents, and other sites. She is a mother of two, science popularizer, and freelance writer in Madison, WI. Contact and follow Kavin on her science advocacy Facebook page and Twitter @ksenapathy