Facts and Fiction

Facts and Fiction about GMO Labeling
MA Right to Know GMOs, Updated 10/14/15

Updated with some great points from Environmental Working Group “Busting GMO Labeling Myths”.

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Chemical manufacturers, Big Agriculture and junk food companies spent more than $70 million dollars spreading misinformation to narrowly defeat GMO food labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington [1]. They are now using the same old arguments as they campaign to defeat state GMO labeling laws in 30 states, including in Massachusetts. The following is a list of talking points employed by transparency opponents in Massachusetts, accompanied by our analysis and rebuttals.

Fiction: If people want to avoid GMOs, they can “just buy organic” or look for voluntary non-GMO labels.

Fact: First off, not everyone has access to organic food or to information about which foods are genetically engineered, so saying “just buy organic” is an incredibly elitist argument and reinforces a two-tiered, unjust food system. Furthermore, a majority of consumers erroneously (but understandably) believe that “natural” on a package means it doesn’t contain biotech ingredients. Voluntary labeling on some products indicating an absence of an ingredient is not the same as a mandatory disclosure of what an item DOES contain. Any person should be able to pick up a product and know whether or not it contains ingredients derived from GMOs.

Fiction: GMO labeling advocates are “anti-science.”

Fact: The science is clear: The widespread adoption of GMO corn and soybeans has led to increased use of glyphosate, a weed killer linked to cancer by the world’s cancer experts. What’s more, voluntary GMO safety reviews are based on industry-funded science, not independent science.

Fiction: GMO labeling supporters are elitists.

Fact: Poll after poll has found that nine out of ten Americans support mandatory GMO labeling — regardless of age, race, income or even party affiliation. What IS elitist is saying that people should “just buy organic” if they want to avoid GMOs.

Fiction: GMO labeling can only be handled at the Federal Level

Truth: This is a common industry response when they are trying to avoid meaningful legislation. Like most reforms, we won’t get a federal law passed until it has passed in a number of states first. The states are setting the standard for a strong and meaningful GMO labeling law. Additionally, the current federal government is now paralyzed by partisan gridlock, and with 30 new GMO crops in the pipeline [2], we can’t afford to wait.

Fiction: GMO labeling will create a patchwork quilt of state laws.

Fact: State GMO labeling laws all require the same factual disclosure. THERE IS NO PATCHWORK. Besides, states have long held the right to require disclosures and have used their authority to require everything from “sell-by” dates to grading requirements for butter, cheese, maple syrup and citrus.

Fiction: There is widespread consensus on GMO safety

Fact: Worldwide, nearly 300 scientists and doctors, including the developer of the first commercialized GM crop, have signed on to a recent statement citing serious safety concerns with GMOs, stating that “claims that scientific and governmental bodies endorse GMO safety are exaggerated or inaccurate [3].” The U.S. federal government has never performed or required any safety testing of GMO foods [4]. The industry funds its own research to prove GMOs are safe while aggressively discrediting any independent research challenging that belief. GMO foods have been linked to digestive disorders, infertility, immune problems and cancer, and these studies warrant further research [5].

Fiction: People have been eating GMOs for nearly 20 years with no ill effect

Fact: There is absolutely no data to back this up. GMO consumption might be causing acute or chronic effects, but without labeling and tracking, scientists and public health officials are unable to recognize linkages between GMO food intake and the many unexplained health problems facing Americans today.  Further, we’ve been eating GMOs for less than a generation. Animal feeding studies have shown infertility problems manifest after several generations of eating GMOs [6].

Fiction: The World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences and other respected health organizations all conclude that GMOs are safe. 

Fact: When people say this what they fail to mention is that these same groups have called for mandatory pre-market safety testing of genetically engineered foods, a standard the U.S. fails to meet [7]. A National Academy of Sciences report states that products of genetic engineering technology “carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health [8].” Numerous public health and medical groups support the labeling of GMO foods, including the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists [9].

And in March of 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the most commonly-used GMO-related herbicide as a “probable human carcinogen.

Fiction: Labeling genetically engineered foods will increase food costs.

Fact: Experience and research tells us GMO labeling will not raise food prices. The Washington Post gave the food industry three Pinocchios for making the claim. Food companies change their labels all the time to make new claims, and farmers and food companies already separate GMO and non-GMO foods.

The recent Cornell study, which concludes that GMO labeling will dramatically increase food costs, was funded by the Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members consist of the major global biotechnology companies. We don’t need to look at hypothetical projections based on faulty assumptions (thoroughly debunked by Consumers Union [10] ): dozens of other countries have already instituted GMO labeling without increasing food costs.

UPDATE (3/4/16): A recent cost study from the Corn Refiners Association highly touted by transparency opponents places the cost of GMO labeling at $1050 per family. This assumes that the manufacturers, rather than label, will reformulate their ingredients in order to eliminate GMOs. This is obviously not what the law requires. According to the same industry-funded study, the actual cost of labeling to  manufacturers translates to $7.30/person, which is still more than 3 times the cost determined from the Consumers Union study [10]–which is simply the median cost  from all the labeling studies (mostly industry-funded ones) that they looked at.

 

 

Fiction: GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to regular foods and so GMO labeling provides no useful information, or: “People don’t need to know.”

Fact: Consumers overwhelmingly disagree. A New York Times poll found that more than 90% of Americans want GMO labeling. GMOs are unique enough to warrant a patent, and recent studies also show substantial differences in protein structure and the accumulation of herbicides in GMO crops, as compared to their non-GMO counterparts [12].

Fiction: State -level GMO labeling is unconstitutional/unenforceable/etc…

Fact: This is the canned industry response for any legislation it doesn’t like. When it comes to state-level GMO labeling, legal experts have already poked plenty of holes in that argument. According to the Vermont Law School and independent lawyers with Emord & Associates [13], states have full authority to require food labeling for reasons of public health and promotion of informed choice.

 Fiction: We need GMOs to feed the world.

Fact: Studies have shown that GMO crops do not lead to greater crop yields. In fact, just the opposite is true. A 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found GMO crops fail to produce higher yields. And a recently released, peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability found that conventional plant breeding, not genetic engineering, is responsible for yield increases in major U.S. crops.

A recent United Nations report titled “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late,” which included contributions from more than 60 experts from around the world, sounds the alarm about the urgent need to return to a more sustainable, natural, organic system. The report determined that it will be small-scale local agriculture that feeds the growing population, not GMOs and monocultures.

Fiction: The creation of GMO seeds is comparable to the cross-breeding that our ancestors did to create hardier versions of heritage crops.

Fact: Cross breeding is the product of guided natural reproduction, while GMOs are created in a laboratory using high-tech and sophisticated techniques. One of these techniques involves gene-splicing which is used to cross a virus or a bacteria with a plant. These untested, unnatural creations are the antithesis to what our ancestors did, and what responsible farmers do: cross-pollinate different varieties of the same plant to help naturally bring forth desirable characteristics.

For a detailed account of the differences between traditional breeding and genetic engineering, please read this article written by MA Right to Know GMOs co-founder, and graduate of the Biotechnology program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Martin Dagoberto.

Fiction: GMO crops reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides.

Fact: GE crops have dramatically increased the use of herbicides and pesticides. According to a new study by Food and Water Watch, the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012” with the overall pesticide use rising by 26 percent from 2001 to 2010.

The report follows another such study by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook that found that overall pesticide use increased by 404 million pounds, or about 7%, from 1996 and 2011. The use of GE crops are now driving up the volume of toxic herbicides needed each year by about 25 percent.

Fiction: Refined ingredients may not contain genetic material, in which case a GMO label would be meaningless.

Fact: Even when a product is free of proteins or DNA (contamination is always possible), it can still contain GMO-related pesticides. But even if the product is identical in composition, the label is still relevent, as it provides a material fact that is important to consumers who want to avoid supporting GMO agriculture, whatever their reason.

For more in-depth reading, we highly recommend “GMO Myths and Truths” from earthopensource.org:

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References:

[1] “Food, biotech groups banding together to influence GMO labeling efforts.” RT, 2/6/2014

[2] “Americans Eat Their Weight In Genetically Engineered Food.” Environmental Working Group, Oct 14, 2012.

[3] “297 scientists and experts agree GMOs not proven safe.” European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, Press release, Dec. 10, 2013.

[4] “Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, April 7, 2013.

[5] Antoniou, Michael, Claire Robinson and John Fagan.  ”GMO Myths and Truths : An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of         genetically modified crops.” London: Earth Open Source, 2012.                 earthopensource.org.

[6] Smith, Jeffry. “Genetically Modified Soy Linked to Sterility, Infant Mortality in Hamsters.” Huffington Post, April 20, 2010.

[7] “Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, April 7, 2013.

[8] National Research Council. Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2004.

[9] List of international organizations in support of GMO labeling

[10] Industry funded GMO-labeling study relies on faulty assumptions for cost estimates. Consumers Union, June 23, 2014.

[12] Bøhn, T., et al. Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: Glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans. Food Chemistry, 153:207-215. June 15, 2014. 

[13] Emord & Associates. Memo: Vermont Bill H.112 (2013); Act Relating to the Labeling of Food Produced With Genetic Engineering. January 22, 2014.

 

 

 

 

Other Lies and Dirty Tricks

13 Lies GMO Labeling Opponents are Recycling in Washington State (several points from above are adapted from this article)

This article and this article also both contain useful reviews of many more tricks employed by opposition to California’s Right to Know GMO labeling initiative, including:

Lying in the official California voter guide, Distribution of a Fake Democratic Voter guide, Misuse of a federal seal and quoting the Food and Drug AdministrationMisrepresenting academic affiliation to Stanford University,Fabricating a newspaper endorsement, Posing as Fake Cops and Phony Democrats to Trick Voters, Spreading lies about “Arbitrary Exemptions for Special Interests” and “Shakedown lawsuits