On Wednesday, Slate published a long, in-depth feature article on GMO labeling by William Saletan called Unhealthy Fixation. It has been the talk of the week in the social media discussion about genetically engineered crops and the arguments and tactics of the organizations and individuals who oppose their use. The subtitle of the article says it all: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.” If you have not yet had a chance to read this article, you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing – twice. Saletan frames the issue around the perennial political topic of GMO labeling, but the important focus is on how many groups that campaign against genetically engineered crops, such as Greenpeace, have been consistent only in their opposition to the technology. Their arguments however have been duplicitous and inconsistent with
In the debate surrounding GMOs, a statement that is often made is that many countries have banned transgenic crops, which suggests that they are not safe. Here’s an example from the Non-GMO Project’s website: “Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.” All countries have laws and regulations surrounding biotech crops, including the United States, which is why you can’t develop a transgenic crop and have it sold in stores the following season. Very few countries have an outright ban, where GMOs can neither be grown nor imported. According to GMOAnswers.com, only Kenya falls in this category, but I also found that Peru has a 10-year ban on the use and import of GMO seeds.
Over the past few months, there have been several big stories on the labeling of GMOs: Chipotle, a chain of restaurants popular in the United States declared that they were going to eliminate GMOs from their menu. A perhaps more interesting story is that the USDA stated that they would start providing a verification program for companies whose products are non-GMO. In writing and researching GMO labeling bills proposed in different states and nations as well as looking into companies that have decided to take the non-GMO plunge, the one factor that stands out more than any other is what each of these entities choose to define as “GMO”. I use the word “choose”, because that’s what it boils down to. There’s no single definition on what is or is not a GMO, so companies and legislators get to decide how to define it. From a molecular biology perspective, a transgenic animal or
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” –Shakespeare Does the name of a scientific technique and its results matter? There are many names for genetic engineering and genetically engineered organisms, and many definitions for those names. Scientists and government agencies in the US generally use genetic engineering and biotechnology. Activists who dislike the technology call its results GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
When discussing transgenic crops, I regularly get asked to provide a paper that “proves” that GMOs are safe. Whether you want proof that biotech crops, organic bananas, or conventional peaches are safe, I cannot provide you with such a paper. Safety is a relative term and is generally defined as the absence of risk or harm. As such, asking for proof of safety is, in essence, asking someone for proof of the absence of risk. The risk of what ever is being evaluated is measured in relation to other options, not against a theoretic idea of “perfectly safe”. Relative risk is scientifically determined by examining the evidence at hand: experiments are performed to determine the impact of a substance on health, environment, etc and the data from these experiments are assessed to determine if the substance causes harm. Scientifically, nothing is truly 100% safe. To explain why, we’re going to