Jeffrey Smith still putting words in Obama’s mouth

posted in: Science | 3

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about food safety in the national political scene. With the outbreak of salmonella in peanut products (including organic peanut products BTW), and a new president with new heads of the FDA and USDA, there has been a strong call for better food safety oversight. One of the issues being discussed is combining the sometimes bizarrely split food regulatory duties of these two agencies into a single food and agriculture agency.

Some want tighter regulations, others want to tighten down only on large food processing (or growing operations), but many just want to give the underfunded FDA the teeth it needs to do its job. Amid the clamor for food policy changes, the Madison-based Onion announced that the FDA Approves Salmonella – which had me in stitches!

Anyhow, it was only a matter of time before an anti-GE activist latched onto the food safety discussion to try to bring attention to genetically engineered foods. Monday, Jeffrey Smith put up a new column on his Huffington Post blog, asking Will Obama’s Food Safety Team Finally Regulate the Biggest Food Safety Hazard of Our Time?

What, alfalfa sprouts? Oh right, genetic engineering. Keep in mind the fact that there has not been a single confirmed case of anyone getting sick from a genetically engineered food. Even that guy that claimed to be allergic to Starlink corn and put a video of himself eating the corn on the internet went in for a double-blind allergy test that determined that he was not allergic. And in the current food safety discussion, people aren’t having problems with GE foods – they’re having problems with Melamine, Salmonella, and E. coli. And the FDA is giving it their full attention. Smith, however, contends that they are wasting their time.

If President Obama’s new Food Safety Working Group dedicates all their time and credentials to prevent future food recalls, they will have saved thousands of people–but forsaken millions.

That sounds a little hyperbolic, don’t you think? He continues:

When these gene-spliced concoctions, such as GM soy, corn, canola, and cottonseed, came on the scene in 1996, the proportion of Americans suffering from three or more chronic ailments. After just 9 years, that nearly doubled to 13%. GM foods are the prime suspect.

Prime suspects only according to Jeffrey Smith. This is a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc: because the rise in illnesses happened after the introduction of genetically engineered crops – they are assumed (without evidence) to have caused it. From wikipedia:

The form of the post hoc fallacy can be expressed as follows:

  • A occurred, then B occurred.
  • Therefore, A caused B.

When B is undesirable, this pattern is often extended in reverse: Avoiding A will prevent B.

The reverse of this fallacy is that by avoiding the GE crops you can prevent these diseases. Smith continues:

A scientifically sound regulation would translate into an immediate ban of current GM crops, and the implementation of rigorous safety testing requirements before any GMO was put back into the food supply. And certainly mandatory labeling, as promised by President Obama during his campaign, must accompany any GM food approval.

Uh oh, there it is again. Previously, I posted the results of an investigation I conducted in January – that contrary to the claims by Jeffrey Smith, President Obama did not promise to label foods derived through genetic engineering. After doing his research for him, I found that a trail of miscommunication and wishful thinking behind it. Barack Obama has never promised to label GE foods, on any record of him campaigning anywhere. Jeffrey Smith is still putting words into President Obama’s mouth.

The rest of his article is kind of funny. Smith argues that the Obama’s, the Bushes, and even the people who work for Monsanto must know that there’s something wrong with genetic engineering because they… eat organic. Granted, many organic organizations see genetic engineering as a threat to their form of agriculture, (check out Pam Ronald’s writings on how this need not be the case), but just because someone chooses to eat organic foods does not mean that they are actively choosing not to eat GE foods.

The Obama family has wisely opted out of exposing themselves to GM foods by requiring organic–and therefore non-GMO–foods served at the White House. They are even planting an organic garden on the south lawn of the White House, to feature 55 types of vegetables.

The Bush family also had an organic kitchen policy. Laura Bush was “adamant” about it, but kept it all quiet.

That one was full of fallacious fun. Now Smith is trying to put words in the Obamas’ and Bushes’ mouths based upon what food they put in their mouth.

I did not know about this until now, but ten years ago a catering company decided to ban GE crops from its own foods. Ironically, it was a catering company that fed Monsanto workers, among others. Here’s what Smith had to say about it.

Even at Monsanto, many in-the-know employees won’t consume the company’s own GM creations. Back in 1999, the management of the cafeteria at Monsanto’s UK headquarters in High Wycombe, England wrote:

“In response to concern raised by our customers . . . we have decided to remove, as far as possible, genetically modified soy and maize (corn) from all food products served in our restaurant. . . . We have taken the above steps to ensure that you, the customer, can feel confident in the food we serve.”

Ladies and gentlemen, let me share with you a strategy I learned from years of following creationist discussions. When you see a quote that contains ellipses (…), always look up the original quote, because there’s usually something important being left out.

“In response to concern raised by our customers over the use of GMFs [genetically-modified foods], and to comply with government legislation, we have taken the decision to remove, as far as is practicable, GM soya and maize from all food products served in our restaurant”

to comply with government legislation”…  There’s the important part removed from the quote. Notice also how the wording of the quote has also been modified from its original version: “taken the decision” changed to “decided”, and “as far as is practicable” became “as far as possible.” Although these changes did not change the meaning as the above omission did, it is in fact, doctoring quotes, which is not something responsible journalists are supposed to do. The original is available here. Here’s the rest of the notice:

We will continue to work with our suppliers to replace GM soya and maize with non-GM ingredients without impairing quality or performance.

To maintain customer choice we will sell retail products, such as confectionery, that are packaged and labelled by the manufacturer as containing GM soya and maize, where it is appropriate.

We have taken the above steps to ensure that you, the customer, can feel confident in the food we serve.

They didn’t even ban them all! As described by Smith, you get the impression that Monsanto employees refused to eat GE foods, and petitioned their own cafeteria to ban them. In fact, the catering company served many locations, and was responding to the general unease expressed by their customers, as well as new governmental regulations that they needed to comply with. I somehow doubt that many (if any) Monsanto employees complained. It is still kind of funny and ironic that ten years ago the caterers feeding UK Monsanto employees stopped serving foods containing GE crops and put up this notice, but it doesn’t lend support to his conspiratorial notion that the movers and the shakers are in the know and are avoiding GE foods while the rest of us are in the dark.

We have real and present food safety issues, in a complex web involving food growers, processors, vendors, eaters, and the natural environment which has a significant number of variables. We need more effective involvement of our food safety experts to safeguard our food supply and encourage healthy, safe food. The fact is that genetically engineered crops are not even part of the current discussion of food safety, because they are not causing the problems. Hijacking what few resources there are to investigate empty food safety issues to serve the interests of one, “is foresaking thousands.”

Note: For the past week and a half, I attempted to get in contact with Jeffrey Smith and his communication representative, NJ Jaeger, to ask if Smith understood that Obama never promised to label GE foods once in office. My phone calls to the Institute of Responsible Technology and emails were not returned. I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath over Smith continuing this inaccurate and dishonest claim. So now it is two instances where Smith must – for the sake of journalistic integrity – retract his statements.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.