Sunday, August 2, 2015

OCA’s Ronnie Cummins’s Rebuttal to USA Today’s Pro-GMO Op-Ed Typifies Anti-GMO ‘Ignorance and Hysteria’

USA Today invites opposing viewpoints on its editorials. In a May 2015 editorial, GMO food bans pander to ignorance: Our view - USA Today, USA Today wrote:


[D]espite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, most Americans believe that food altered by genetically modified organisms — GMOs — is harmful. Based on the misinformation, companies are beginning to ban food that contains GMOs.


Burrito chain Chipotle is the latest, following General Mills' decision to take GMO ingredients out of plain Cheerios last year. The companies say they're doing the right thing for consumers. What they're really doing is validating ignorance and hysteria.


Science is losing the battle by a shocking margin. A recent Pew survey found that although 88% of scientists say GMO foods are safe, only 37% of Americans do.


Much of this is a result of anti-GMO crusaders' exploitation of mistrust about how foods are genetically modified.


There’s more, and you should read the entire piece.


Ronnie Cummins, the international director of the Organic Consumers Association, responded with Chipotle makes a sound decision: Opposing view. Whereby USA Today cited evidence for the safety of genetically modified foods, Cummins relied on exactly what USA Today said the anti-GMO crusaders rely on; ignorance and hysteria, spiced up with ad hominem. Here are a few excerpts from Cummins rebuttal:


Since when do the mainstream news media, in a country that worships at the altar of
capitalism and the free market, launch a coordinated attack against a company for selling a product consumers want? When that company dares to cross the powerful biotech industry.


How else to explain the unprecedented negative coverage of Chipotle, merely because the successful restaurant chain will eliminate GMO foods?


The biotech industry has a long history of discrediting scientists who challenge the safety of GMOs. That intimidation campaign worked well until consumers connected the dots between GMO foods (and the toxic chemicals used to grow them) and health concerns. Once consumers demanded labels on GMO foods, the biotech industry responded with a multimillion dollar public relations campaign.


Yet despite spending millions to influence the media, and millions more to prevent laws requiring labels on products the industry claims are safe, Monsanto has lost the hearts and minds of consumers. The latest polls show that 93% of Americans support mandatory labeling of GMO foods.


Like all dogmatists, Cummins doesn’t address in what way the biotech industry is engaging in “intimidation.” Anti-GMO activists can attack, attack, attack. But when their victims defend themselves, the activists seek to discredit their victims without even bothering to address the substance of their victims response. People who avoid transparent debate do so for one reason and one reason only: They have no case and they know it.


I left these comments:


Chipotle and others who trumpet “no GMOs” may be employing a marketing ploy. But there is a strong stench of fraud in this type of labeling; the implication that GMOs are unhealthy, or that non-GMO foods are healthier because they are non-GMO. The fact that GMO technology is used in a particular food product tells you nothing about the health, safety, or nutritional value of the food, any more than the use of the term “organic” tells you anything more than that the product is more expensive. In fact, all foods go through the same rigorous testing before being marketed. As the FDA states, “the use or absence of use of bioengineering in the production of a food or ingredient does not, in and of itself, mean that there is a material difference in the food. . . [T]he key factors in reviewing safety concerns should be the characteristics of the food product, rather than the fact that the new methods are used.”


Cummins doesn't mention that non-GMO foods are themselves genetically modified. As the FDA notes: “Most, if not all, cultivated food crops have been genetically modified. Data indicate that consumers do not have a good understanding that essentially all food crops have been genetically modified and that bioengineering technology is only one of a number of technologies used to genetically modify crops.” The anti-GMO movement is fundamentally biased against the modern science and knowledge of genetics, not genetically- bred foods, which it sells plenty of.


Consequently, the FDA warns against the potentially “misleading” nature of labels like “GMO free.” It states: “A statement that a food was not bioengineered or does not contain bioengineered ingredients may be misleading if it implies that the labeled food is superior to foods that are not so labeled. FDA has concluded that the use or absence of use of bioengineering in the production of a food or ingredient does not, in and of itself, mean that there is a material difference in the food. Therefore, a label statement that expresses or implies that a food is superior (e.g., safer or of higher quality) because it is not bioengineered would be misleading.” But misleading the public is exactly the intent of the GMO-labeling movement. The Organic Consumers Association and its ilk is exploiting the public’s ignorance of genetic modification of foods, while at the same time contributing to maintaining that ignorance. The FDA calls it misleading. I call it fraud.


Cummins “opposing view” essentially confirms USA Today’s stand. Cummins’s whole argument amounts to: GMO technology is bad because popular sentiment and a poll showing Americans want labeling says so, backed up by an ad hominem attack on the biotech industry and Monsanto, conspiracy theory, pandering to ignorance, and fear mongering. Cummins provides no evidence against GMO tech. The only thing Cummins proves is that anti-GMO activists have no argument against GMO technology. GMO science is doing for our food what genetic engineering is doing for our healthcare—improving on nature for human benefit.


Cummins responded to USA Today in the hollow fashion typical of anti-GMO activists—without any substance. For example, consider that poll showing 93% of Americans want GMO labeling. Most likely, it’s related to the feeling information is good, not any kind of antipathy to GMOs. Besides, most people, as the FDA notes, are ill-informed about the technology—and much else. As Amanda Maxham observes, a Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State poll also found that 80% of Americans want mandatory labelling of foods containing DNA, the building block of life that virtually every food contains, and which our bodies are made of. Cummins’s citation of his poll is pandering to ignorance. As Maxham observes:


[G]roups that push for mandatory GMO labeling use survey results like these to play on consumers’ ignorance of scientific issues in the guise of reporting wide-spread support of their position [that GMO foods are harmful or inferior].


Cummins provides no evidence that the modern science of genetic engineering of food plants is bad for humans. Cummins’s only attempt at “evidence” is to single out glyphosate as a “probable” carcinogen. He writes:


In March, 17 leading cancer researchers concluded that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, widely used on GMO crops, is a "probable" carcinogen. In 1985, Environmental Protection Agency scientists drew the same conclusion. According to hundreds of scientists worldwide, there is no consensus on the safety of GMO foods.


But a single bad ingredient in one product of GMO technology doesn’t discredit the technology, any more than one defective vaccine discredits the science behind vaccination technology or poison mushrooms invalidate “organic” foods. And even this “proof” falls short, since Cummins doesn’t specify what concentration of glyphosate is present in Roundup. Many chemicals are carcinogenic, but only above certain levels of concentration. The issue is not whether glyphosate is a carcinogen, but whether it’s use in Roundup is at a high enough concentration to harm humans. Context is everything. It can also be said that DNA is a “probable” cause of cancer. Another question: does the glyphosate in Roundup affect the plant it’s used on? Cummins’s unsupported implication is nothing but scare propaganda. It doesn’t even invalidate the product, let alone the science.  “No concensus” is another way of saying “no proof” that GMO technology is in and of itself unsafe.


How would the organic food industry feel if GMO foods were labeled “GMO Improved?” In fact, that would be more accurate and honest labeling than simply labeling food as “contains GMO” or “GMO free”—which, given the smear campaign of fear and ignorance about genetically modified plants, amounts to back-door fraud. As USA Today points out, genetic engineering is merely a more precise way of doing what humans have been doing for tens of centuries—improving food  through genetic alteration based on selective breeding; except with GMO technology, it’s intelligent design—real intelligent design—based on knowledge of genes.


It’s true that GMO technology could result in unintended consequences, including some that are bad. But so does selective breeding. If anything, the advanced knowledge of genetics that is fundamental to GMO tech makes negative side effects less likely, while shortening the time it takes to develop improved plant varieties. Rutgers recently developed a new strawberry variety through traditional breeding techniques, but it took ten years. More importantly, genetic engineering provides precise knowledge of the DNA changes in genetically modified crops, in sharp contrast to the blindness of prior breeding methods. As the Genetic Literacy Project observes:


For thousands of year’s entire plant genomes have been mixed to create new varieties of food crops. Starting in the twentieth century we began using ionizing radiation and chemicals to randomly change the DNA of food crops, a process known as mutagenesis. In all of these “traditional” breeding methods there is little knowledge of what changes have occurred to the DNA of our food crops. However, it is known that the extent of the DNA changes from traditional breeding are far greater than the precise, directed changes that are the result of genetic engineering. GE breeding technology is a refinement of the random uncontrolled DNA modification breeding procedures of the past.   


USA Today gets it right: The GMO debate is basically a battle between science and anti-science. The dirty little secret about the anti-GMO ideologues is this: The anti-GMO movement is not against genetic modification, so long as it is done through primitive methods. The anti-GMO movement is fundamentally biased against the application of human intelligence, knowledge of genetics, and science to the breeding of new plant varieties.


Related Reading:




Amanda Maxham on GMOs—Voices for Reason

Not all science created equal: The genetically engineered crops story—The Genetic Literacy Project

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