Labeling GMO’s: Why?
A few months a go I wrote an illustrated post explaining what a genetically modified plant is. I described conventional plant breeding, the molecular biological techniques used to alter the genome of a plant, and talked about the genes that scientists have been using to improve the nutritional value of staple grains or reduce the use of pesticide sprays. It was a very neutral post, in which I tried to ignore the polarized opinion on human consumption of GMOs (genetically modified organism) or the vilification of large companies invested in this technology.
But, as we all know, presenting information for information’s sake isn’t necessarily engaging or persuasive. A couple of people told me that post had made them rethink the perceived dangers of eating GMOs, but that they still just “felt wrong” about the idea. Others are convinced that buying organic means they are eating the “best, most natural” food. And then there is the mantra of “I have the right to know what I put in my body”. With the proposition 37 vote in California immanent (which would decide whether foods containing GMOs would have to be labeled as such) I wanted to know why there is such fear surrounding these foods. After all, in most cases GM crops have been shown to be safe for human consumption, and those instances in which a danger has been suggested, serious conflicts of interest have been uncovered.
I therefore decided to use the power of the internet and the magical abilities of SurveyMonkey to test a couple of my hypotheses on the matter. First, I wanted to find out if there is a correlation between education level and acceptance of GMO foods. Secondly, how do political motivations, such as an ethical concern with the agricultural giant Monsanto, impact how people view food? And finally, is it just a gut instinct that makes people uncomfortable when it comes to eating GMOs, or are people actually researching the issue and making an informed decision?
I should make a couple of things clear right now: I am not a statistician and this is my first such attempt at data collection. However, I am well trained in data analysis and the scientific method. With this in mind, I can tell you that there was a bias in my data in that 89 of the 192 respondents hold a graduate degree. This is likely due to how I publicized the survey (on Twitter and Facebook) and reflects my audience. Nonetheless, I observed some interesting trends. Education level does appear to be important, with the more educated tending not to be concerned with eating GMOs. Unfortunately, however, instead of asking a questions that would accurately assess whether the respondents knew how GMOs are made, I simply asked whether people knew. Novice mistake, as apparently 90% of people replying to the survey were familiar with these methods. Perhaps this is the case, but having thought about how I phrased the question I do not think those data are necessarily reliable.
One of the favorite battle cries of the pro-labeling lobby is that the majority of people want to see GMO labels. My data would suggest otherwise, with an approximate 50:50 split between the pro- and anti-labellers. I even removed the responses of those with graduate degrees, in case those data had introduced a bias, and this trend was maintained.
Interestingly, people who identified as selective in their dietary requirements, tended to express concern about eating GMOs, with those preferring to, or who exclusively, buy organic products showing the strongest objection:
After posting the survey to Twitter, a couple of people expressed surprise that I had singled out Monsanto in one of the questions. I did this because Monsanto is often used as a proxy for GMOs, and there are a number of rather egregious skeletons in Monsanto’s past that could color consumer opinion. In my survey, 23 out of 192 people responded that they support labeling of GMOs precisely because it would allow them to boycott Monsanto products. That’s around 12%. 61 out of the 192, or 32%, however indicated that labeling of foods as containing GMOs would be terrible, either because it represents a waste of money or because it would have a negative impact on research into ways to improve food production for the exponentially increasing human population.
So, who’s right?
Unfortunately, probably no one and everyone. Personally, I have no problem eating GMOs. I know what they are, I know how they are made, and I am comfortable with the testing that suggests they are safe to eat. I also appreciate the need for us as a species to figure out more sustainable ways to produce food, and conventional agricultural practices just won’t cut it as the planet fills with hungry people. It’s already not keeping up. I know these things based on fact, research, and my own ability to digest scientific information.
To the people who argue that GMOs are “not natural”, I would say what is? The domesticated crops that we eat are a far cry from their wild ancestors. Conventional breeding methods and intensive agriculture have made the food we eat what it is now. Take bananas, for example. Wild bananas are full of seeds and not particularly appealing to our delicate palate.But through human intervention a hybrid plant was generated that produced the soft, fleshy, fruit we enjoy. That hybrid is sterile, meaning the only reason we have bananas is because humans figured out how to propagate the plant without seeds. Where do you draw the line at what is “natural”?
To the people who argue that more safety testing is needed, I would say in what way? Is it really feasible to wait the decades it would take to truly test the effects of GMO consumption on human beings? And why are you so convinced that non-GMO crops have no negative effects on our diets? I would argue that they do. In the US today we are dealing with an obesity epidemic, likely as a result of our dependence on processed foods, and type 2 diabetes costs the US government over $150 billion a year. Where do you draw the line at what is “safe”?
To the people who want the right to know what’s in their food, I would say do you think you do now? While
Monsanto may not have squeaky clean policies, neither do some of the large companies controlling organic and “natural” brands. A recent article in the New York Times highlights how labeling has been co-opted, and is often meaningless. Labeling, while giving the impression of transparency, is generally exploited to get people to buy something. In a word, it is often just spin. Where do you draw the line between labels you trust and labels you don’t?
But will labeling foods as containing GMOs actually have a negative impact, regardless of how useful or useless it may be? My data, though a small sample, would suggest not, with only 7 of the 192 respondents saying they would completely boycott such products. However, this then completes a circular argument and would suggest that labeling is indeed a waste of time and money.
While I of course respect an individual’s right to choose what they eat, I do wonder if the GMO labeling question is a step too far. There are no definitive data showing these foods are dangerous, and yet the issue is polarizing. The similarities between this issue and the anti-vaccination movement (where de-bunked studies are touted as fact and a personal “right to choose” or “gut feeling” takes priority over what has been shown to be true) are striking, which makes me wonder if once again we are seeing a public reaction to “science”. Why is this? Where does this fear and skepticism come from? And, most importantly, what can we do to change this? Because as a population, as a species, we cannot afford to ignore the technological advances being made to increase the capacity of our planet.
Featured image source: http://www.salute-the-sun.com/2012/08/genetically-modified.html