A Story about Anti-GMO Activists Should Have a Few More Facts

The headline was so promising: Anti-GMO Grass-Roots Effort Gains Ground in U.S. I hoped it would be about just how strange the alliances in the anti-GMO movement are. We have groups like the Environmental Working Group or the Union of Concerned Scientists along side organic industry boosters, organic food companies and off to one side (but louder and shriller than most) groups that claim dire risks from GMO foods. It’s a topic that deserves more attention.

Instead, I found a piece that repeated — almost without challenge — misleading claims about GMOs as given by anti-GMO activists. Most of these claims are at best half-truths. Let me be up front: I can’t write about everything I think is misleading in this piece. There’s just too much. But, there are a few ideas that are commonly repeated uncritically which are far more interesting than this piece lets on.

This piece is a slightly edited version of a rebuttal I wrote for Keith Kloor’s Collide-a-scape blog. Thanks to Keith for offering me the opportunity to get this to a wider audience. He also helped me tighten this up quite a bit from the original draft. Please have a look at the conversation on Collide-a-scape.

Probably the most common claim of anti-GMO activists is that GMOs are untested and unsafe. Charles Benbrook, an organic proponent (why is a proponent of organic and opponent of GM merely labeled an “agricultural policy expert”?) is quoted: “science just hasn’t been done”. That’s just not true. There are hundreds upon hundreds of studies. Genetically engineered crops are some of the few foods tested before they come on the market and all the data is on the EPA’s website. This testing is not typically the case for non-biotech foods. In the 1950s, the kiwifruit was introduced to the US without testing. We’ve since learned that it’s allergenic. More recently, new celery varieties have resulted in contact rashes in workers due to increased amounts of natural toxicants called psolarens (similarly, new potato varieties sometimes develop excess toxic solanine).

But there’s a kernel of truth behind the claim. David Schubert (who is given as a biologist without noting his association with noted anti-GMO campaigner Jeffrey Smith) is very careful when he says: “no significant safety testing is required by FDA.” That is absolutely true. All safety testing done on GMO crops is voluntary. But even though it’s voluntary every company has complied! The lack of mandatory testing does unnecessarily worry people: what good is the FDA if it can’t even require safety testing for food? This is perhaps why the American Medical Association recommended mandatory safety testing, despite also saying current GMO foods are safe and labeling is unnecessary. Pre-market testing should probably be mandatory, but it’s just not the case that GMOs are untested before going to market.

GMO foods are also subject to repeated studies by scientists after they come on the market for toxicity and other risks. Overwhelmingly, these studies show no problems for human health. You wouldn’t know that from this piece, since it chose to mention problems found by a small minority of researchers, often heavily criticized. The piece wiggles around the topic by noting it’s hard to prove a causal link in humans. The reality is links aren’t even proved in animals.

But what about those “superweeds”? And that toxic Roundup? There’s context missing here too. Roundup is indeed toxic — to most plants and marginally to some animals — but it is one of the safer herbicides we have. While the term “superweeds” is not one scientists use, preferring phrases like “herbicide resistant”, they are a real problem. We have seen an increase in weeds resistant to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). But what this piece is not telling us is this is normal and expected: any herbicide used heavily for years will naturally select for weeds that can survive it. The most important missing context though, can be found in this graphj, which shows cases of herbicide resistant weeds, grouped by site of action.

One herbicide deserves special mention. Atrazine (a member of the triazine family) doesn’t harm corn, so it’s been used for decades to control weeds in corn fields. Unsurprisingly, that class of herbicides has had significant weed resistance for much longer than Roundup. The point here is emphatically not to deny the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds. That is a real problem. But it’s not a problem with genetically engineered crops per se, but with management practices. Roundup Ready crops could have been banned ten years ago and farmers would still have weeds resistant to herbicides. You just wouldn’t hear about them from anti-GMO campaigners.

There’s a real story in the alliance of anti-GMO groups and how, in the United States, they are using the political system, instead of vandalism (as in Europe) to advance their agenda. This story isn’t it; instead, it prefers to repeat myths and exaggerations about GMO foods in a one-sided manner.

There are some good questions about GMO activism springing up in the U.S. For example, why do organic food growers care so much about labeling GMO ingredients when transgenic crops are not allowed in organic products? Why is the anti-GMO campaign only now gaining traction in the United States? What’s behind that? Those would be interesting questions to explore a story.