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Time to Stop Fighting GMO Labeling?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Why do people react so strongly against the idea of genetic modification? Especially genetic modification that crosses species barriers? In a recent New Yorker, Maria Konnikova returned to an explanation for these gut reactions that has been around at least since the early efforts at genetic engineering in the 1970s: The idea that fear and distrust of GMOs is based on ancient intuitive (but sometimes illogical) distinctions between the natural (good) and the unnatural (bad.)

There is much to be said about how cultures have drawn lines between the natural and unnatural, but that’s a topic for another time. Right now I want to focus on a present-day manifestation of that impulse: the controversies over whether foods with GM ingredients should be labeled to make that clear.

As Konnikova points out, there are data showing that how a food is labeled–organic, for instance–influences people’s readiness to eat it. The halo effect. Or, in the case of food based on GMOs, the reverse halo effect. Which is why there has been so much resistance to labeling.

Familiarity will breed acceptance of GM foods

But Konnikova also points out that familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt. She takes the Enlightenment view that time is on the side of what she calls “increased rationality.”

I’m not convinced that an onward march of rationality is inevitable, desirable as that would be. But I do agree that familiarity will be a powerful dampener of Unreasoning Fear of GMOs. A key there is demography. Children growing up in a world full of GMOs will no longer find them unnatural.

Of course, producers of GM foods don’t want to wait a generation or more for sales to pick up. Understandably. But what if that process could be hastened?  What if the whole familiarity thing could be nudged along a bit?

So I’ve been thinking about ways of making consumers understand and grow more comfortable with the fact that they are already eating lots of GM foods with no ill effects. I’m wondering if it’s counterproductive to keep battling labeling.

I understand perfectly well why food producers have a horror of the GM label. They’re thinking in the short term. The dreaded GM tag will surely mean dips in sales. I suspect that most of those dips will be temporary as it becomes increasingly obvious that mass-produced GM foods are harmless. But it’s easy to see why food producers don’t want to take the risk.

Still, it really makes sense to focus instead on longer-term gains that will follow from familiarity. These are inevitable. They will just take a while to sink in. So maybe food producers should learn to live with labels for the sake of hurrying future consumer acceptance along. Labeling is a way to get rid of the reverse halo effect. I think labeling might even, at least in some cases, confer a halo effect.

A voluntary experiment with labeling a GM food

So what about this: Experiment voluntarily. It might at least be worthwhile to find out how big a risk labeling really is. Take a deep breath. Label a well-loved GM food. Give people time to get used to it, and see what happens.

In my heart of hearts I don’t really expect to persuade the anti-label folks. And yes, I suppose it’s a somewhat facetious suggestion. But not entirely facetious. Not at all.  Why not experiment?

Here’s my plan for selective GMO labeling

Here’s my plan: Start this experiment with an immensely popular snack food whose central ingredient is a GMO. The experimental subject should be a beloved snack that has few other ingredients to complicate the picture. In short, why not start with corn chips?

And don’t be shy. Make a virtue of necessity. We’re turning a lemon into lemonade here. Slap a great big proud label on the chips. Make the label convey something like this message, maybe in red letters: GM [BRAND NAME HERE] CORN CHIPS—MADE WITH DELICIOUS NUTRITIOUS GENETICALLY MODIFIED CORN!!!

Yes, you will say, this is a gift marketing opportunity to any brand of chips not made with GM corn. But this assumes that hopeful boutique chip makers can find non-GM corn to turn into chips, which won’t be easy. And if they can find it, then they must induce consumers to pay more for their chips. Maybe a lot more, because when you can find it, non-GM corn is costly.

People might be put off by the GM label on regular chips initially, but I bet that phase wouldn’t last long. Millions of corn chip devotees are not going to deprive themselves, and they’re not going to want to pay a lot more either. Before long, I foresee, they will sink happily back into their couches with their family-size bags of crunchy, salty, tasty, less expensive GM-labeled corn chips. Yum.

Proudly labeled GM corn chips could even pave the way for other GM foods. Once the GM label is forthright and ubiquitous on an omnipresent product like corn chips, when the GM label is shouting loudly from that vast aisle of chips at the supermarket, other GM foods will gradually win acceptance too.

GM-labeled corn chips could be the opening shot in a campaign to help consumers along toward Konnikova’s optimistic model of increased rationality about GM foods.

Hey, it’s worth a try.

Image: Corn chips by Glane23

This post appeared in a somewhat different form at the Genetic Literacy Project.

Tabitha M. Powledge About the Author: Tabitha M. Powledge is a long-time science and medical journalist whose work has appeared all over the place, including Scientific American. She began writing On Science Blogs for the National Association of Science Writers in 2009. On Science Blogs moved recently to the PLOS Blog Network. Follow on Twitter @tamfecit.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Comments 55 Comments

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  1. 1. mem from somerville 11:01 am 09/2/2013

    I understand your point. And I actually think that if labeling comes, the educational campaign that will come with it from Big Ag will cause heads to asplode as “reduced pesticide” and “reducing wildlife habitat destruction” get floated by Madison Avenue.

    However, I think you are missing what really happens on the ground. When recently one food outfit announced their label, it was just a call for some people to target them with vitriol. It was used to spread more misinformation.

    And then this disclosure will be used in a coordinated fear-and-hate campaign targeted at any company that does this.

    It won’t be just quietly adopted. It will only ignite and prolong the drama.

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  2. 2. mem from somerville 11:36 am 09/2/2013

    I just wanted to bring an example of what I predict would happen. There is currently a paid anti-marketing campaign attacking #GMODairy. I think this is what would transpire if a company did come out and try this experiment.

    A paid marketer would run a twitter campaign, among other strategies:

    This would spread misinformation about competitor products as a way to boost their employer’s brand. Here’s how that recently went:

    Maybe it would go differently. But I’d love to see evidence of it going some other way.

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  3. 3. FoodScienceFan 11:37 am 09/2/2013

    I think you make some good points. I suspect most consumers would in fact buy GM labeled products without hesitation. But that’s not the point. To begin with companies have a right not to be forced to place a potentially prejudicial label their products without due cause. Since GM crops are as safe as any other, and are arguably safer, there is no basis for discriminating against them. People who don’t want to eat them are free to buy organic or GM-free foods if they choose, that’s their choice but why should they force a label on the rest of us who don’t care about GM? It violates the voluntary system used in the US to allow people to express their food preferences.

    Your experiment might well prove that people who eat corn chips could care less about GM or non-GM (I suspect they don’t) but it doesn’t address the real issue here that gives the food industry concern. To make GM-free products you have to pay for a lot of testing (it’s worth mentioning here that behind the scenes one of the biggest advocates of mandatory labeling is John Fagan at Genetic ID–a company that profits from GM testing), segregation, contract buying, paper trails, and other costly procedures. Mandatory labels increase the cost for producers and that will get passed onto consumers. Add to that limited and uncertain supply of GM-free ingredients which will also drive up prices of all products.

    So while I agree that most Americans might at least eventually ignore GM labels they would add cost and complexity for producers and confusion for consumers who don’t understand the label in the first place–it adds no useful information to say a crop is GM, all our crops are GM in one way or another.

    There are far more pressing safety and nutrition issues that merit space on a label than placing a scientifically meaningless but costly statement on a label. It’s not an experiment that we should be doing. And if people would ignore the label in the long run, why bother with it in the first place? Those who do care about GM-free foods can voluntarily purchase them.

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  4. 4. Robert Wager 11:39 am 09/2/2013

    AMA Policy H-480.958 “Genetically Modified
    Crops and Foods” (AMA Policy Database; see
    Appendix) is broad, covering the belief that regulatory oversight of
    bioengineered foods should be
    science-based and involve system
    atic safety assessments, supporting research into environmental
    consequences, and encouraging unbiased information a
    nd education of consumers. With regard to
    labeling, the policy states that “as of December 2009,
    there is no scientific justification for special
    labeling of genetically modified foods, as a clas
    s, and that voluntary labeling is without value
    unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.” AMA 2012

    Until such a “focuses education system” is well underway, the only possible outcome is more fear mongering

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  5. 5. Valentine Dyall 11:41 am 09/2/2013

    Of course – it’s something I have been saying for years. But the seed industry, the food processors and the retailers all seem too frightened – of what exactly?

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  6. 6. JohnSnow5 12:46 pm 09/2/2013

    I understand that the corporate shills always have to present the argument that the people who are opposed to GMO are “scared that it’s unhealthy”. That is simply not the case! (Well, it might be for some ignorant, uneducated people, as in “I don’t want no genes in my food!”) We don’t want GMOs because the environment is such a complex system that we just don’t understand all the interactions. E.g. we don’t understand the complexities and implications of horizontal gene transfer. We have things like the unprecedented extinction of amphibians, CCD and other environmental disasters, the causes of which we still don’t understand. But you want to continue engineering our environment? For this reason, among others (e.g. economics), I am against GMO in the wild. I, as a biologist, am a big fan of using GMO *in enclosed environments*, such as bioreactors. We can do things with GMOs that would use extreme temperatures, extreme pH or other unhealthy processes that are dangerous to humans and/or the environment. I think the technology is great! And I work with it, but it’s just too early to release GMO into the wild.

    But I think it’s telling that your arguments (in the article and the comments) all point to the “injustice” that corporations will have to label their products with a logo that will reduce sales “because people are so ignorant”. So we should not have to declare what’s in the food? Are you people serious? Do you read what you write? You really want to say that you shouldn’t label things because people might decide not to buy them? I thought that was the idea of labels: Allowing people to make informed decisions.

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  7. 7. dbtinc 12:52 pm 09/2/2013

    Short answer – yes. But that will not stop those who don’t understand science or the evidence generated indicating its safety or the positives associated with the use of GMO techniques. We still have morons running around associating vaccination with autism and other diseases. The idiot class will always be with us.

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  8. 8. Danm1701 1:23 pm 09/2/2013

    I find my greatest fear is that GMOs, which can be patented, will result in most of the world’s food supply being controlled by a handful of corporations.

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  9. 9. marcbrazeau 2:50 pm 09/2/2013

    If people really cared, there would be plenty of voluntary labeling of non-GMO food. If the food industry is good at anything, it’s slapping meaningless health claims on boxes of processed foods.

    The old economics distinction between stated preference vs. revealed preference. It’s easy to tell a pollster you care, but if there was real demand the market would respond to it and the boxes at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s would be festooned with Non-GMO labels already.

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  10. 10. marcbrazeau 2:53 pm 09/2/2013

    It’s also rich that the food movement is suing food companies for meaningless “Natural” labels and then calling for the government to enforce a meaningless GMO label.

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  11. 11. RSchmidt 3:04 pm 09/2/2013

    I think GMO labeling is a reasonable request. There are issues beyond human health that are of concern to people against GMO crops such as food security, genetic contamination, and a lack of transparency in testing. When someone demands that people be deliberately kept ignorant to protect their position it certainly calls their position into question. I personally see the issue as highly complex and there is no single position that one can take. Each application of genetic modification has to be evaluated individually based on a number of potential risks. So GMO is not inherently good nor bad. One of the principals in market economies is, Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. But in order for that to work the buyer needs to be informed.

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  12. 12. Acoyauh2 3:11 pm 09/2/2013

    5. JohnSnow5 and 7. Danm1701 touch in my opinion the real risks for GMOs.
    - Mutants and/or mutant genes released into the wild will affect the environment. Since we don’t know to what extent, it IS a real issue.
    - Full dependence on seed producers could, in the long run, give too much control to a few overambitious corporations.
    I’d add a third, combination of the above. Patented genes getting into your crops, even unintentionally, could leave producers open to liability, an issue that could snowball in the future

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  13. 13. lannit 3:49 pm 09/2/2013

    “If people really cared, there would be plenty of voluntary labeling of non-GMO food.”

    It appears some of the those contributing to comments here haven’t been shopping for food in quite a while. Voluntary labeling of food with GMO ingredients has been underway for the last seven years in the U.S. (and I’m not referring to foods with the “USDA Organic” label). The voluntary Non-GMO Verification Project has verified over 10,000 food products as of this summer. Whole Foods has noted that in their stores sales of food items that add the Non-GMO Verified label typically increase sales volume 15-30%. These labels aren’t just in health food stores but also in Walmart, Target, Costco, Stop & Shop and other large food retailers. What’s next? The USDA just approved a “Non-GMO Verified” label for meats and eggs that are provided non-GMO soy and corn feed. Hopefully this label will be extended to cover farmed fish and shrimp as well.

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  14. 14. Doctor B 4:32 pm 09/2/2013

    I would greatly appreciate if the pro-GMO folks would stop insulting my intelligence. I am deeply trained in science, at least as deeply as you, and I am a medical doctor. I am paying attention to the issues and I am not ignorant. I simply disagree with you.

    Many of these arguments, which are repeated in this forum VERY often, strike me as being crafted in the back room of ad agencies. “GMO is safer than other food”, “GMO is no different than cross-breeding”, etc. We we shout it often enough it will be true, eh?

    As for the argument that putting a label on food is onerous and expensive, it is no more so than putting a label on food that shows that it isn’t GMO. As another writer pointed out, safety of the food for human consumption is only one of several worrisome issues. Fogging the air with shouting about how stupid opponents are does not in any way address those concerns. These genes do cross out into other plants in the environment. That is a fact. Monsanto will sue you when their genes end up in your crops, but no one cares when they end up in other plants. And frankly, no one is thinking too hard about those unintended consequences.

    It is called hubris. The Greeks were well aware of it thousands of years ago, but now we feel we understand every possible permutation that could possibly play out. As Freeman Dyson said, “Life is not only more complex than we know, it is more complex than we can know.”

    Please stop insulting me, and everyone else that has thought this through and come to another conclusion than yourself.

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  15. 15. William R Brooks 5:22 pm 09/2/2013

    We need labeling: 1) Contrary to often-repeated claims, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds has brought about SUBSTANTIAL INCREASES in the volume of herbicides applied. According USDA: “herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the US between 1996 and 2011″.
    Already 103 biotypes of weeds, have developed herbicide resistance. Apart from additional spraying, more potent herbicides are being developed. A popular alternative: 2,4-D, the chief component of Agent Orange.
    Read the Red Cross report on the health effects on the Vietnamese people.

    Glyphosate, together with ingredient POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide (glyphosate) itself.
    Glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor, inhibiting progesterone production. Apart from sterility and deformation in fishes and amphibians downstream of the sprayed area, it has been shown to impair soil microbial communities in ways that can increase plant vulnerability to pathogens, while also reducing availability of certain soil minerals and micronutrients. Landscapes dominated by herbicide-resistant crops support fewer insect and bird species. Heavy use of glyphosate can reduce earthworm viability and water use efficiency. Several studies have documented reductions in nitrogen fixation in herbicide-resistant soybean fields sprayed with glyphosate. Transgene flow from herbicide-resistant crops can occur via multiple mechanisms and can persist in weedy relatives.
    In Argentina, some provinces that grow large harvests of GMO soy have found that local rates of birth defect and cancers have ballooned.
    According to EPA reports, Corn Rootworms also appear to be becoming resistant to pesticide Cry3bB1.
    2) The lack of biodiversity in GE crops genepool:
    There are thousands of naturally occurring corn varieties. Different varieties survive the different diseases, weather, etc, that sweep through an area. However, in US the GE companies use just a few. Corn germplasm comes from just 7 founding inbred lines, 1/3rd from one line (B73). One, RYD, makes up 47% of the genepool.
    With less variety this leaves all of US crops much more vulnerable to pathogens.

    3) Belinda Martineau, Ph.D., was the Principal Scientist at Calgene, who helped create the Flavr Savr™ tomato. She is now a skeptic, talks about it’s dangers and is wary of GMO uncertainties.

    I now found myself doubting the science in all Scientific American articles and will cease my subscription, as soon as I can.

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  16. 16. RobLL 5:56 pm 09/2/2013

    “To begin with companies have a right not to be forced to place a potentially prejudicial label their products without due cause”. Incredibly arrogant. My take on all of this is that the big agro-industrial people have regularly behaved badly and in a way to offend a lot of people, and are now reaping the results. And I say this as one who thinks that GMO is perhaps necessary. But label it.

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  17. 17. GeekStatus 6:14 pm 09/2/2013

    Doctor B.

    Lets go through a logical exercise.

    What species do maize and soybean outcross with in the US? What are the problems associated with these outcrosses?

    Please re-read(or more likely just read – as in for the first time) your case study on suing a farmer when genes end up in your crops. You’ll probably find that there was a very deliberate approach to increasing the frequency of a desired trait.

    The problem with GMO is that everyone seems to have an opinion… Even the people that haven’t read more than a headline on the subject in passing.

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  18. 18. ALFlanagan 6:54 pm 09/2/2013

    The big problem here, psychologically, is trust. You can cite all the studies you want, but they will make no impact as long as people believe the large corporations can buy the study results they want to get. As long as the companies behind GMOs behave in a manner that seems to put the company’s welfare ahead of the consumer’s, there will be no reason for the consumer to believe their message. Not labeling GMOs is seen by the average customer as not forthright — what have you got to hide? If GMOs are so great, why don’t you advertise them as a benefit, instead of hiding them?

    Not labeling GMOs is incredibly short-sighted of the producers from a public relations standpoint, regardless of the scientific/ethical situation.

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  19. 19. NativeGrl1959 7:15 pm 09/2/2013

    This is a science magazine? How much did Monsanto pay Scientific American to allow a blogger and a fiction writer to be considered expert enough to contribute scientifically about GMO’s? Listen Ms. Maria Konnikova, your own country “Russia” bans GMO’s because SCIENCE proves they are dangerous. Please don’t speak for Americans. Obviously you think we are stupid or something. But 90% of Americans do not want GMO’s because SCIENCE research has shown that they are harmful on many levels. From stillborn calves because of GMO alfalfa, to terminator seeds, and cancers. You help the GMO corporations NOT people. We will NEVER stop fighting GMOs, ever. GMO’s are NOT sustainable and do not feed people. The companies that steal intellectual property of staple foods have cause Indigenous peoples and their countries, deplorable poverty. This blogger is either a patsy or an nin-com-poop

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  20. 20. vapur 7:21 pm 09/2/2013

    I believe that people who stand to gain the most from GMO’s not being labeled (i.e., capitalists, apologists, apatheists) are those who will assume it has little or no risk, even to deny evidence or allow the creation of evidence to the contrary. There is the possibility that these products can unintendedly produce proteins that trigger allergies. It is doubtful that scientists would doing that on purpose, or that it would even become a problem after a few generations have had a chance to incorporate the RNA fragments from their diet into their genome. Considering how GMO has enabled food to be produced easier and cheaper, they should be branded by the label so that natural foods are more expensive to compensate. At least we would be more likely to see results in the long term from the poor population.

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  21. 21. ksarah20 8:20 pm 09/2/2013

    I have to agree with NativeGrl1959. There is way to much evidence out there to suggest the use of GMO is harmful. However, in my opinion, those people who eat corn chips would be fully aware how that packet lacks any nutritional value whatsoever and I really think putting a sticker to indicate further harm may be caused would make a difference. That being said education is still the one and only key. Businesses need to make money and they need to be socially responsible as well but that’s a whole other topic in and of itself. Whats important is education, and ensuring people know that what is going into their bodies is a whole lot more than just fats and sugars. There is no point putting a sticker on something to indicate GMO presence if people are not even aware of what a GMO is.

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  22. 22. erutledg 8:39 pm 09/2/2013

    I can’t say that I know everything about this issue but I would like nativegirl and others like her to explain to me how they are going to feed seven billion plus people without the aid of modified crops that are tougher and easier to grow. Your average granola hippie farmer who is raising a few things to take to the local farmer’s market to sell to a bunch of middle class vegans with too much expendible income is not putting a dent in this problem.

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  23. 23. vmfenimore 9:00 pm 09/2/2013

    Now that most corn is gmo, corn allergies are on the rise. Specifically gmo corn protein. Who pays for the studies showing gmo’s are safe? The gmo companies. What is happening is that the average person is no longer trusting corporate sponsored studies. Twenty years ago I was in favor of gmo’s. I thought that gmo’s were the way of the future.

    Now I no longer trust big business to make decisions about my health. They are corrupt and financially motivated. You can find 1000′s of articles on the internet of studies citing evidence of the harm done to the digestive systems of animals eating gmo products. The people conducting these studies are generally are NOT financially motivated. Why would I trust the person making the money to tell me what is safe?

    When someone fights against labeling, you have to wonder what they are hiding.

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  24. 24. The Refusers 12:28 am 09/3/2013

    Time to stop fighting GMO labeling? Yes!!!! Thank you for suggesting it. Please tell Monsanto, as they are spending big bucks in my home state of Washington at the moment fighting Prop 522, which is about GMO labeling.

    My band The Refusers has a new hit youtube song and video on this very subject entitled Right To Know.

    Watch it here:

    Thanks again for some common sense.

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  25. 25. GeekStatus 12:53 am 09/3/2013

    Given that it is very difficult to prove that something is not causing anything…

    I think it is up to the detractors to provide evidence of the harmful effects of GMOs.

    So, with that in mind, I would like to extend the offer for the detractors to link any scientific, peer reviewed literature to support their claims.

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  26. 26. David Lloyd-Jones 5:10 am 09/3/2013

    Soi disant “Food Science Fan” makes the very peculiar claim “To begin with companies have a right not to be forced to place a potentially prejudicial label their products without due cause.”

    No. They don’t. This is an example of an infantile tendency among pushy, opinionated web posters to invent things that sound like Constitutional rights, and assert them without rhyme or reason.

    People who make food have a strong obligation to label it accurately. If the accurate labelling seems prejudicial, then the obligation is all the stronger, and the self-interest of the maker in warning users of potential dangers all the greater. Put somewhat differently, the potential for prejudice is a due cause for full and accurate labelling, so “Food Science Fan”‘s claim is simply silly.


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  27. 27. Danm1701 10:31 am 09/3/2013

    To: 12. Acoyauh2. Exactly. Remember Barbara McClintock? She won a Nobel prize for her work with “jumping genes.” And a farmer in Canada whose non-GMO corn was adjacent to a field of GMO corn found his corn “contaminated” (my term) and was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement.

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  28. 28. jaybergen 11:35 am 09/3/2013

    The argument here is based on false (or at least incomplete) premises. It’s not about already eating GM foods will “no ill effects.” The issue isn’t only about personal health. It’s also about the unknown effects on the environment. And it is absolutely about the right to known what we’re eating, because we’re paying for the priviledge to eat it in the first place. The fact that food producers are fighting against labeling speaks volumes to me.

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  29. 29. Your valued customer 1:27 pm 09/3/2013

    Food labeling is normal thing and no problem for respectable companies. Why GMO should be different from additives, sweeteners, caloric count etc?

    I find it bizarre that Scientific American wants to support commercial businesses about food labeling.

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  30. 30. Your valued customer 1:29 pm 09/3/2013

    I agree that biggest issues with GMOs are glyphosphate pollution, getting control of sensitive food market by few corporations etc.

    Why Scientific American ignores these problems?

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  31. 31. rd_macgregor 2:03 pm 09/3/2013

    I’m confused about the information content of potential labels. Would these differentiate between, say, GMO’s created using biolistics vs. Agrobacterium-mediated transformation? Would the GMO definition include only transgenics, or would it include cisgenics? Would it be expanded to include products of induced mutagenesis (where, on average, the genetic changes are greater than those from more targeted gene-splicing)?
    If there is to be labelling, I can’t see the value of one lacking truly useful information. Is concern based on the specific genes being transfered? If so, then label what the gene is and does. If the concern is with the process, itself, then label what that process was (eg, biolistic, mutagenesis, Agrobacterium, etc.).
    If the concern is really with patenting, then maybe labels should say that there are patented genes owned by company “X” in the product (at least until the patent expires).
    A simple “may [or does] contain GMO” really doesn’t convey any useful information.

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  32. 32. JRT 8:03 am 09/4/2013

    David Lloyd-Jones: And just exactly what is accurate labeling? Should the producer put the letters: “GMO” on the product? That is a term coined by the anti-Genetic Engineering groups. And would this apply only to Genetic Engineering (GE) or would it apply to GMOs that had been produced by other means such as the common hexaploid Wheat which contains proteins not found in any natural Wheat?

    To be accurate, the labeling for GE should state the names of the proteins that had been added and that they had been added by Genetic engineering. Simply saying that it contains GMOs conveys almost no useful information to anyone except an anti-GE Luddite.

    Labeling for other GMOs such as Wheat might have to be more complicated if that were included. Or, is this only an anti-GE issue?

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  33. 33. ToNYC 11:15 am 09/4/2013

    “Children growing up in a world full of GMOs will no longer find them unnatural.”
    That’s how religion works, but science has other ideas like relentless challenges to existing dogma, no matter how tasty it appears to a long-time science journalist.
    For one thing beside apparent taste and improved shelf-life, there’s the little matter of thousands of years of evolution developing a human body that is designed to incorporate molecules from the diet that has the ability to determine whether an levro-stereospecific molecule is usable or unusable vs. a dextro-molecule composed of the same atoms. The list of such concerns is easily expanded, the further science can be allowed to uncover. This author bears no such burden of investigation and counsels children to relax with a bowl of corn chips. Yes, children can be counted on to accept assumptions that have no business being questioned, but humans passed into a new era in the 1700s that ignored the divisions of established truth.

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  34. 34. Cathy247 12:39 pm 09/4/2013

    I’m a geneticist, amongst other things, and wonder why anyone would instigate genetic modifications that don’t confer a positive benefit to enhance the hardiness of a crop in response to prevailing environmental conditions?

    Why would a company knowingly risk the health of consumers, let alone the legal repercussions of causing damage to human health and destroying their brand in the marketplace? After all it may cause harm to their friends and relatives, which is counter intuitive.

    I believe that the vast majority of researchers strive to improve things in their areas of expertise and shy away from producing negative consequences. Scientific research, by necessity, includes testing for the safety and efficacy of introducing a change to the status quo, otherwise why would they bother?

    Do the doomsayers object to cross breeding plants to produce different colored flowers or drought resistant crops to combat poorly irrigated pastures? These are examples of planned genetic modifications to address a stated aim, be it cosmetic or productivity motivated.

    I applaud well founded GM changes to improve an organism’s ability to meet a desirable outcome.

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  35. 35. Cathy247 12:57 pm 09/4/2013

    I forgot to mention that labeling the result as GM, including the rationale for instigating the change and the safety testing data conducted prior to introduction should be mandatory. Information on the underpinnings of these products can only serve to demystify the GMO tag and educate consumers which should reduce the hysteria surrounding this topic.

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  36. 36. curiouswavefunction 4:48 pm 09/4/2013

    If GMO detractors want to slap a label on a bottle solely because they think GMOs are “unnatural”, then by that token almost everything we eat is “unnatural”, in that it has been either genetically engineered in one way or another by artificial selection for centuries or is synthetic in origin. Why single out GMOs for labeling then?

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  37. 37. vapur 8:40 pm 09/4/2013

    GeekStatus: “I think it is up to the detractors to provide evidence of the harmful effects of GMOs.”

    Sure, let me sell these hydrochloric acid beads to aid digestion. Let’s leave it up to the detractors to produce evidence it’s harmful.

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  38. 38. Quantumburrito 9:16 pm 09/4/2013

    Paul Dirac used to consume hydrochloric acid to help with his digestion.

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  39. 39. Percival 7:41 am 09/5/2013

    So many points, so little time. First, why not a label that says “Still Made With GMO Corn”? People will realize they’ve been eating it all along, and decide for themselves whether or not they’ve suffered ill effects.

    Second, it hasn’t been mentioned so far, but does anyone seriously believe that Monsanto (et. al.) executives feed themselves and their families exclusively certified organic, non-GMO foods? The usual Luddite assumption is that the “elite” reserve the “best” for themselves while letting the hoi-polloi “eat cake”, but has anyone ever actually *seen* anyone who works for Monsanto shopping at Whole Foods?

    Finally, what I’d really like in the way of GMO food is something I could digest without the help of my symbiotic gut flora. When their populations get out of whack our ability to absorb nutrition from food drops drastically. Mind you they do their part for our immune systems and so on, and I don’t mind harboring them at all, but we’re far too dependent on them. We need foods tailored for *our* digestive systems.

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  40. 40. jonhuie 10:46 am 09/5/2013

    1. Regarding a company putting a positive spin on a GM food, I think you have the beginning of a good idea. Companies certainly put a positive spin on products that contain noxious artificial sweeteners or added vitamins. A company could probably put a spin on the benefits of GM rather than GM itself. For example, “This rice contains 4 times the vitamin A thanks to genetic modification.”

    2. Regarding the lack of requirement for labeling of GM foods, there is no justification for not informing people what they are eating.

    3. Labeling a food as “GMO” is actually insufficient. What I really want to know is how is the food different. If it contains more vitamin A, or iron, or pesticide residue, or is more allergenic, I want to know that.

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  41. 41. jonhuie 11:04 am 09/5/2013

    Percival: There is no “you.” You are a community or organisms. You would be dead in 3 minutes without the symbiotes you share your body with. From the metabolic function of your Mitochondria, to disease fighting and digestion organisms, the larger “you” is the real “you.”

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  42. 42. bouton 11:08 am 09/5/2013

    Well, what more can be said ? Apparently, any person who should dare to ask awkward questions are deemed ignorant.

    If “Gm’s” are that good — why are they spending so much just to avoid a label ???
    Normal marketing dictates you spend a good healthy budget on how great your product is.
    And why is scientific american so pro Gm ? it does seem very much that way.

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  43. 43. rd_macgregor 1:25 pm 09/5/2013

    It is easy to see why most of the US food products industry wants to avoid broad-brush labelling of GM foodstuffs. Just look to Europe and see how many labelled GM foods are on the shelves. This is NOT by consumer choice, since most consumers don’t really care; it is the grocery store chains deciding FOR consumers.
    As far as food sellers in Europe are concerned a GMO label might as well be a skull-and-crossbones.
    The food processing industry and farmers have all seen the advantages that Bt corn and RR soybeans have brought and don’t want to risk those gains.
    If consumers have “right to know”, then labels should include variety names, where grown, what chemicals and fertilizers applied…we’d likely end up with a book (well, booklet) attached to every bag of chips or package of tofu. A simple “contains GMO” label doesn’t contain any information related to the health, safety or environmental status of the product…that’s why FDA doesn’t require such a label.

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  44. 44. taysi 2:17 pm 09/5/2013

    I’ve responded to many of “Scientific’ American’s GMO articles – ALL of which demonstrate an overwhelming bias in favor of Monsanto and other bio-tech companies. They also demonstrate a truly appalling ignorance of basic agriculture (I grew up on a farm) and the experiences ‘in the field’ of thousands of farmers internationally, and the serious science behind the warnings against this gigantic experiment – already proven toxic to OTHER mammals (as well insects and the microbiome of soils). The benefits of diverse, organic traditional farming methods have proven to include far more productivity per acre, and to provide safe foods that are superior nutritionally – including provision of ample Vitamin A. “Scientific American’s” strong bias does not reflect its past reputation for serious inquiry, and is truly shameful…

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  45. 45. bouton 3:58 pm 09/5/2013

    A simple GM label would suffice for me, then at least I do have a choice.
    The FDA know that simple transparency will prove precisely what the consumer wants, their reluctance only mitigates their fear of this truth.

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  46. 46. Percival 5:54 pm 09/5/2013

    jonhuie, I know full well that I contain multitudes. The population of mitochondria and other *organelles* in our bodies do not change in response to antibiotics, diet changes, and the other factors that wreak havoc on the *gut bacteria* I specifically wrote about. The latter mediate our ability to absorb many nutrients including polysaccharides and some proteins, and manufacture essential vitamins among other things. When they get sick we get sick.

    GM foods that bypass them would as I said eliminate our dependence on them. Of course, the law of unintended consequences would probably rear its head, encouraging the growth of some species while depleting others. I have no idea what would ensue, but I think the idea is worth pursuing if for no other purpose so that people with severe food allergies/intolerances and those undergoing extreme antibiotic treatments can be sure they won’t suffer malnutrition as a side effect.

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  47. 47. curiouswavefunction 6:01 pm 09/5/2013

    taysi: “serious science behind the warnings against this gigantic experiment – already proven toxic to OTHER mammals (as well insects and the microbiome of soils).”

    Could you point us to some peer-reviewed publications that demonstrate this toxicity? I am genuinely interested.

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  48. 48. wjohnfaust 2:07 pm 09/6/2013

    I agree with JohnSnow5 and Danm1701. There is absolutely no reason why we consumers should be denied this information. Extraordinary corporate profits (which is what we are talking about) should not even enter the conversation. It simply demonstrates the current political reality that corporations are first class persons while consumers are second class.

    I also find it surprising in something as unimaginably complex as an ecosystem, that we are ready to declare all is safe and resolved. This gives science a bad name and returns us to our reductionist roots. Scientists should have to study complexity, chaos and emergence to develop appropriate caution in this field.

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  49. 49. curiouswavefunction 8:09 pm 09/6/2013

    Consumers are not “denied” the information. They can look it up on the Internet, they can find brochures on it. Labeling and information are different things; the argument is that labeling complicates matters and will cause more confusion than enlightenment.

    And for those worried about labeling, here’s a question: Does anything in your grocery have labels saying if a particular ingredient came from China, or Brazil, or Indonesia? If you can trust ingredients without knowing their country of origin just because they have been vetted by the FDA, who not do the same with GMOs?

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  50. 50. Madcogscientist 9:13 pm 09/6/2013

    “…they are already eating GMO foods with no ill-effects.”

    Come visit me in 80 years and let me know then. Do you really think that 5 years worth of consumption makes for a scientifically sound basis for saying ” no ill effects”? If you we’re to take the life of homo sapiens and condense it down to a year, then GMO foods in our food supply would be equivalent to about 3 seconds…what can we learn from that? Are you willing to say GMO profiting companies are smarter than God or Mother Nature???

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  51. 51. Percival 5:26 am 09/7/2013

    Madcogscientist, try at least twenty years, not five. “GMO profiting companies”, like all other companies, plan to stay in business as long as possible. That won’t happen by them selling products known to be harmful. I’m still waiting for evidence supporting the claims by taysi and others that GMO foods are “proven toxic to OTHER mammals (as well insects and the microbiome of soils)”. And yes, I’m willing to bet they’re smarter than alleged deities. As for “mother nature”, remember that every so called natural food is in fact “proven toxic to OTHER mammals (as well insects and the microbiome of soils)”. They evolved the toxins in them to prevent animals from eating them. That’s why we cook and ferment a lot of foods, to make them safe to eat:

    Say, there’s another good idea; GMO potatoes without solanine and chaconine, soy without phytates and antivitamins, taro without trypsin inhibitors and lectins… Monsanto, are you listening?

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  52. 52. jhmaroneyjr 9:33 am 09/7/2013

    Conventional farming was invented after WWII to raise yields and lower farm costs. It works by externalizing the high costs of soil fertility, previously accomplished by crop rotation, weed control, previously accomplished by mechanical cultivation and labor into the environment. Externalizing costs in the 1940s was just good business. The protocol has worked as designed; farm yields rose four fold and prices fell four fold. We are now drowning in cheap food that can only be sold below the average family farmer’s cost of production.

    Conventional farming is predicated upon over production, low farm prices, farm attrition, rural economic decay and lake pollution. These are not incidental side effects of the protocol to be managed or ignored as Vermont and many other farm states have attempted for fifty years to do; they are the protocol’s central economic precepts and the protocol cannot be applied without inviting them.

    If you are an urban consumer or a lab scientist writing in this blog, and you think this debate is about the food on your plate, take a trip into the country and look at the farming communities where your food comes from. They have been hollowed out by the economics of conventional farming. Main streets are vacant and watersheds from the Chesapeake to Lake Champlain to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico are polluted with farm nutrients running off the land into the rivers and streams. Dairy farms in Vermont numbered 11,200 in 1947; today there are barely 900. US dairy farmers numbered about 4M in the 1940s; today they number about 50,000, a 93% attrition rate.

    The science behind GMOs is probably sound but that is not the issue. Organic farmers, and I am one, do not trust GMO because it is designed to intrude itself into the economics of farming just as conventional farming did two generations ago. The manufacturers of GMOs are not feeding the 9B people; they have a product to sell and selling it universally is their only motivation. GMO corn is appealing to junk food manufacturers because it keeps corn yields high and prices low. Milk manufacturers support GMO corn because a surplus of milk drives farm prices down (US dairy farmers make 12B lbs too much milk for which they are paid $16/cwt or about $4 below cost). Low farm prices represent a massive transfer of wealth into the pockets of those who manufacture the GMO seeds, those who manufacture the herbicides used to control weeds on huge monoculture fields, into the pockets of urban consumers who enjoy cheap food without caring how it is affecting farmers and out of rural economies that cannot make a living farming but have now to depend upon scanty “rural development” handouts from USDA. Thank you but we’d rather be paid a living wage for an honest days work and for growing a nutritious product. We don’t have any use for GMO.

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  53. 53. pcyoung2013 8:50 pm 09/8/2013

    Truth (scientifically) is based on the current understanding and perception of related facts. We should treat GM foods with appropriate caution and remain scientifically objective. We have learned various studies declaring the “truth” regarding fat intake, mega doses of vitamins (specifically beta carotene, vitamin E) are now declared deleterious. The current obesity epidemic the result of a false “truth” regarding the consumption of carbohydrates.
    What we consume and the result health hazards require extensive epidemiological studies combined with long term (over generations) and short term objective studies done by unbiased institutions.
    As examples ; radiological studies and those concerning environmental toxins i.e. Lead has yielded health consequences from far lower concentrations than those garnered from short term studies.
    The impact that fatty acids have on brain development, emotional and mental illness are seriously incomplete; implying reduction of essential fatty acids for reasons they were non nutritional – now seem to have far reaching implications for this and possibly ensuing generations.
    The potential for short and long term consequences of genetically modified foods are at best unknown and any “truth” is also virtually and scientifically unknown. We should at least hold them in view and both increase and maintain a long term objective for determining those consequences. Otherwise we will be acting with gross negligence, grave ignorance and ignorant indifference to those existing existing truths.
    For SA to use the word Truth when discussing a scientific venue is simply irresponsible and demonstrates great bias rather than remaining objective as all true scientists must be.

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  54. 54. pcyoung2013 8:57 pm 09/8/2013

    With reference to labeling GM foods: one question arises. How would we define GM? We have been genetically modifying foods for centuries. Do we then restrict the definition to only those using microscopic techniques? Only those utilizing trans species modifications?
    We know that those costs will only epso facto make the issue null and void as well as the costs for labeling and monitoring for compliance unto the consumer. We need objective studies first. But how would one study this? There are more questions as to how to begin studying the impact of GM foods than meets the eye.
    Do we trade the short term benefits from feeding GM foods for long term knowledge of their effects?

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  55. 55. lorax1280 10:41 am 09/13/2013

    People should be “put off” by GM labeling. This food shouldn’t even be contaminating 90% of our food in the first place. The labeling of these products will raise questions and awareness that has been kept quiet for too long. I agree with NativeGrl1959, Monsanto must have pulled some serious strings to get this published but with ties to the FDA, I guess anything is possible.

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