We write to offer a dissenting opinion to that in a Forbes op-ed, “GMOs Have Had A Good 2016, But Teachable Moments Lie Ahead.” In contrast to that rosy take, we believe the food industry (in the broad sense) continues to fail to appreciate the nature of the opposition to GMOs, and thus continues to fail adequately to defend itself in the face of serious negative developments, which it also fails to appreciate.
The op-ed said 2016 was a good year because Congress passed a law preempting states from meddling with mandatory food labeling for genetically modified foods; the New York Times “corrected” itself by printing a “pro” article following a “con” article on the subject; the National Academy of Sciences came out with (yet another) favorable report reaffirming safety of genetically modified foods; the press has been generally positive about CRISPR; and President Obama said that policies must “follow the science.”
But looking a little deeper, a different picture emerges. Congress did not need to pass a labeling bill, a redundant move precipitated by anti-GMO lobbyists having pushed through a clearly unconstitutional law in Vermont. The New York Times’ editors disregarded an avalanche of expert criticism and responded by raising the status of the “con” article to an editor’s pick. The National Academy report wrongly stated there is a lack of yield benefits from using GMO seeds, a claim contradicted by the papers it cited. And President Obama’s defense of GMOs was tepid at best, while his administration overall had a poor record when it comes to following the science on GMOs.
And let’s also consider some items the rosy view left out:
- The Non-GMO Project now certifies over 36,000 products.
- The organic food community forbade the use of plants and animals improved through CRISPR (the current organic prohibition of GMOs and supporting propaganda campaign have been key factors leading to current public skepticism about GMO safety).
- The possibility of state label requirements in the United States was laid to rest, but now countries around the world have passed or are considering unfounded labeling laws, thus ensuring that multiple labels will be needed anyway for most exported products.
- Sonoma County, California passed a GMO ban of dubious significance (the major, legal crops in the county are not yet GM); and Boulder County, Colorado ignored expert testimony and the pleas of its own farmers, to embrace an ideological rejection of 20th-century agriculture contradicted by its own internal review and condemned by the local paper.
- The New York State Parent Teacher (NYS PTA) organization abandoned the state’s proud history of leadership and achievement in education to adopt a profoundly misinformed resolution stating that “Until GMO and GE food safety is conclusively supported by good science, NYS PTA proposes acting with caution and keeping these products out of school-provided food and drinks.” The NYS PTA somehow managed to miss that the verdict of science has long been clear on this issue, and regularly reaffirmed, despite persistent denial by some ideologues.
- The Obama administration’s regulatory reform efforts have so far simplified nothing, and instead have proposed more worrisome regulations that would disincentivize innovation and expand scientifically indefensible regulation to gene-edited and CRISPR-derived products.
- Compared to the larger numbers of years past, only two genetically modified food products were “deregulated” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a potato and an apple, suggesting the major players are giving up hope of ever getting new transgenic products approved.
- Major export markets for U.S. genetically modified crops are moving in the wrong direction on this issue, including a new labeling law in Korea (third-largest importer of U.S. corn), a ban on GMOs in school lunches in Taiwan (the fifth-largest market for U.S. corn and sixth-largest for U.S. soybeans) and a new requirement for an (undefined) environmental health risk assessment in the Philippines (the largest market for U.S. soybean meal).
The opposition to GMOs transcends borders. Several weeks ago, the inmates ran the asylum agenda at the Biodiversity Convention/Biosafety Protocol meeting called MOP8 in Cancún, México. Established in 1992 to preserve the world’s biodiversity, the Convention’s self-declared greatest accomplishment has been to establish an international treaty to protect biodiversity from GMOs. Of all the substantial threats to biodiversity, GMOs are simply not on the list, and to the extent their higher yields help reduce the pressure to convert more wild lands to agriculture, they are in fact a clear boon. Nevertheless, anti-science NGOs attempted to force adoption of a dysfunctional environmental risk assessment guide that, despite being 10 years in the making, disregards decades of experience and mountain ranges of data. At the same meeting there were demands to place moratoria on synthetic biology, gene drives and editing techniques that hold high promise to address some of the gravest threats to biodiversity in the world. These counterproductive attempts fell short, this time, but make no mistake: They will be back. And, if GMOs are any precedence, most countries will nevertheless ban these new technologies based on the premise they do not know how to properly regulate them.
The cooler heads that prevailed at MOP8 did not prevail in Washington. On December 27, the EPA closed the year by releasing the recommendations of its scientific advisory panel for the regulation of RNAi. While GMO RNAi is considered to be one of the safest control measures ever developed, the EPA panel ignored everything that is known about plant genomes and toxicology, and came out with a series of cost-prohibitive, non-science-based recommendations guaranteed to prevent most products from ever reaching the marketplace, and thus another promising technology faces an imminent crib death.
As to the op-ed’s teachable moment that “[t]he promise of GMOs is abundant, but without clear facts that connect with people’s values, it can be lost in the din of simplistic, polarizing arguments. It is up to science communicators, health professionals, journalists and educators to cut through the clutter,” (emphasis added) we disagree profoundly.
We believe the primary responsibility for such education lies with the purveyors of genetically modified products. While the technology providers (a.k.a. biotech seed companies) have mounted several efforts, they have been hampered by messengers that are inherently not credible to the consumers that most need to be reached; it doesn’t matter how good the material is if the source is dismissed as unreliable before he/she says a word. Where have the food companies been? It is their brands most directly being attacked following a script laid down years ago for a massive propaganda campaign sustained over many years. Why have they not defended the use of the safest ingredients in history, developed with the most precise, predictable, efficient and safe breeding techniques in history, thereby safeguarding their own future freedom to innovate and to operate? The data are spectacularly one-sided in their favor; all they need to do is tell the story.
Quite frankly, while we will defend the technology all we can, why should we defend an industry that will not speak up for itself, and whose members are tripping over each other to tout their new GMO-free products? Instead, food industry actions continue to complicate and negate the work of communicators, health professionals, journalists and educators.
Last year was not, however, a complete bust. The opposition special interests are more and more being seen with clear eyes, which is the essential first step towards resisting their propaganda. But if 2016 was a good year, let us hope we are spared any more like it.
-Written by Wayne Parrot and Val Giddings in Forbes. See original article link here. Dr. Parrot is a professor at University of Georgia. Dr. Giddings is senior fellow at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.