Northcoast Co-op’s GMO policy is already stained by superstition – will it fall to foolish food fashion and commit its business to a scientifically indefensible, legally laughable and ultimately unenforceable crop ban?
Everyone in Arcata seems to have an opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also known as genetically engineered (GE) food or biotech. If there was ever consensus on anything in Arcata, it’s that GMOs are evil, rotten, mean and nasty, and that their proponents are shills for the dreaded Monsanto Corp. On a good day.
No problem, non-solution
The crop ban is an ineffectual solution for a nonexistent problem. It’s a symbolic gesture at best. A farmer can enter into any private contractual agreement he or she may wish to with a biotech supplier, with no requirement to tell anyone. County ag officials have said they have no authority or resources to enforce any ban.
And anyway, the Supremacy Clause invalidates this ordinance before it’s even enacted. Under that long-established principle, federal law trumps all local law. We learned this the hard way with local cannabis ordinances. Anything deemed legal or illegal under federal law can’t be overridden by local legislation, period. If challenged, the GMO crop ban will be thrown out of court.
Still, props to GMOFH for stimulating discussion about agricultural sustainability, and to Co-op for thinking about what it’s doing. Hopefully, Co-op will base any decision it makes on science and evidence, and not unfounded folklore and emotion.
Popular concern with genetically modified food is perfectly understandable. Technology doesn’t always work as expected, and unintended consequences can be catastrophic.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a molecularly-rearranged form of water called “Ice Nine” is a solid at room temperature. Any water it comes in contact with “freezes” solid as well. Of course it gets loose, congealing the oceans and destroying life on Earth.
Now that we can meddle with the basic fabric of life itself, what thoughtful person wouldn’t consider whether our lab conjurings might also infect and mangle the biosphere with Frankenfood like Ice Nine did with water?
Fortunately, the answers are found in basic, well-established science. And that science delivers conclusions far different than the peculiar mix of fact, fiction and lots of emotion which tends to dominate social networks and online fora.
Co-op’s Board of Directors is set to announce a decision regarding support for the biotech crop ban at its meeting of Thursday, Feb. 27. The store’s administration has urged the board to adopt a defensible policy.
Unfortunately, Co-op’s current GMO policy already seems confused about biotech. It uses the term “high risk” nine times in reference to GMO food, suggesting that biotech poses some peril as yet unidentified by science. Less charged language would be a good first step in crafting a rational GMO policy.
Associating biotech food, which has been widely available for decades with no ill effects to consumers, with “high risk,” is no more supportable than branding the other groceries, including organic food and herbal preparations that the store sells, as risky.
Recent food recall notices we've received at the newspaper include Woodstock Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels, linked to a multi-state Hepatitis A outbreak last July. Then in October, Kirkland rotisserie chicken was recalled because of salmonella contamination. In November, four cases of E. coli were reported in Humboldt, their source never determined. There has never been any comparable disease-based recall of GMO food.
Further, you may have heard about the recent analysis of herbal products which purport to offer so many health benefits. It turns out that many, if not most of these unregulated, untested substances are impure, with lots of unlabeled fillers, and vary wildly in concentration of the alleged ingredients.
Stated the study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, “Most (59 percent) of the products tested contained DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels. Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48 percent) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30 of 44 of the products tested and only two of 12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers. Some of the contaminants we found pose serious health risks to consumers.”
As noted by leading skeptic Dr. Steven Novella, “St. John’s Wort product contained senna, which can cause diarrhea if used regularly. Some products contained wheat, and so look gluten-free on the label but aren’t.”
Hey, gluten-free fans – where’s the hue and cry about this?
The point is, Co-op doesn’t call organic food, chicken or herbs “high risk” as it does with GMOs, which have never been linked to any comparable maladies.
It’s downright bizarre that a retail business would describe a broad range of its own merchandise as risky to consumers when there is no known need to do so. That doesn’t seem fair or helpful to shoppers in making informed choices.
There’s another problem with Co-op’s policy, and that is the myth of naturalism. That’s the assumption that things which are “natural” – a term of art at best – are intrinsically superior. Asbestos is natural. So are cleft palates, volcanoes and falling and breaking your hip.
So are polio and smallpox. Those natural phenomena have been all but eliminated, and not by word-of-mouth pseudo-science, protest signs, Facebook memes, rituals, chanting or misguided laws, but by science and technology.
Perhaps you enjoy the popular Facebook page, I Fucking Love Science. But do you only love science when it shows you stunning photos of the cosmos, or reports that another disease has been expunged? Science is never more lovable than when it shakes up our mythologies and challenges our mistaken assumptions – the sort of thing that biotech discussion is plagued with.
Further, science isn’t a set of fixed beliefs, but a self-renewing process for ascertaining what is. And best of all, it doesn’t care what we want to be true or think should be true.
So many GMO truisms simply aren’t.
A recent letter to the editor in these pages asserted that “contamination by GMO crops on adjoining lands is now of widespread proportions and putting many small organic farmers out of business.”
On the Humboldt Skeptics Facebook page, a biotech doubter – an educated, well-informed person – claimed that it’s “a common practice” for Monsanto to sue farmers whose crops have been contaminated by their biotech pollen.
Did you know that that has never happened, ever? Not once. Fact: Monsanto has never sued a farmer for pollen drift.
We’ve tried to find any farmers who were driven out of business in this manner, especially local. There aren’t any.
Other fictional claims about GMOs/biotech include mass suicides of farmers in India, links to autism, bee colony collapse and increased exposure to pesticides.
No one would want to rush into biotech or any other technology without caution, especially not based on glossy promises by interested corporations. But there are rational, reality-based reasons that every major global science and health organization have given their stamps of approval to genetically engineered crops. The yields can be higher, the crops hardier and the resulting food more nutritious.
We’ve been genetically modifying food for centuries via hybridization – a “natural” process – for centuries. Virtually everything we eat is the result of thousands of years of cross-breeding and modification. Do the genes somehow “know” or care that their components have been altered via traditional or more direct and efficient modern processes? Obviously not.
We’ve been told that biotech was not the way food is “intended” to be made. Exactly what conscious agency actually holds this intention?
You know what’s really risky? Non-biotech mutation breeding. ''We have a right to know what is in our food – what are they hiding?” This is a very strong, emotionally-charged argument that should be fairly applied to other breeding methods.
Plant breeding mixes large sets of genes of unknown function, while genetic engineering generally introduces only one to a few well-characterized genes at a time. Crop breeders are increasingly using radiation and gene-altering chemicals to mutate seeds, creating new plant varieties with better yields – all without regulation and studies, and on the organic shelf.
GMOs on the market are more studied and regulated than any other food. The U.S. National Academies of Science warned in 1989 and again in 2004 that regulating genetically modified crops while giving a pass to products of mutation breeding isn’t scientifically justified. Mutagenesis deletes and rearranges hundreds or thousands of genes randomly spawning mutations that sometimes are beneficial or hazardous to the organism. These can be labeled and certified organic, and no one is worried.
But why not? “The randomness makes mutagenesis less precise than genetically engineered crops,” the National Academy of Science said in a 2004 report. ‘’It’s the breeding technique most likely to cause unintended genetic changes, some of which could harm human health,” the NAS said.
Mutation breeding is absolutely the least predictable. Any GMO on the market today is safer than anything that hasn’t gone through that safety regulatory step.
No breeding method is inherently bad, and the breeding method type does not attest to the safety of any particular produce.
Opposing biotechnology is the same as opposing typewriters for producing a bad book and demanding we go back to writing them by hand. Labeling all breeding methods that pose more risk than GMOs would be rational if that informed us of the safety, but it doesn’t.
The arbitrary inconsistency of the anti-biotech side is matched by its reliance on easily identifiable logical fallacies.
Appeals to popularity are frequent. “Do you think two million people marched against GMOs for nothing?” asked one activist. “And what about all the countries that have banned GMOs?” As though food risk is linked to the size of a protest march or the decisions of politicians.
If it rains and just 10 people march, or just one country banned GMOs, would that make them less dangerous? What if it’s a sunny day and 10 million people march, then 100 countries ban them – will that make them more dangerous?
Millions upon millions of people ardently oppose same-sex marriage. Many countries have banned it. As should be clear by now, they’re all wrong and on the wrong side of history.
Obviously, the ephemeral popularity or panic about an issue doesn’t necessarily relate to its actual menace.
As is commonly observed, arguing with GMO opponents is sometimes like colloquy with those who deny climate change. Evidence is all but powerless against fixed, faith- or politics-based beliefs. Satellite photos of receding glaciers don’t do any good, nor do the impossible-to-find Monsanto prosecutions against organic farmers.
(Climate change deniers like to talk about irrelevancies like Al Gore’s Learjet. What if Al had never had a jet, or never been born – would the global temperature be any different?)
Another logically fallacious argument is the newly-named argumentum ad Monsantium, in which any criticism of the anti-GMO movement means one must be a corporate shill. Or that Monsanto is behind all biotech. But it’s not even the biggest biotech company.
Confronted with these facts, GMOpponents relocate the goalposts behind some other outrageous assertion. You can’t argue against religion with mere facts, and GMOphobia sometimes seems like the closest thing we have to a secular religion.
As we know from the climate change denialists, it’s never a good idea to commingle politics and science – science winds up distorted and denied because it doesn’t fit into a political narrative. In this case, that crops up as the Appeal to Consequences logical fallacy: corporations suck, so the food technology they market is unacceptable.
You might not trust corporations, and you won’t find blind allegiance to any corporation among biotech supporters. Everyone uses lots of corporate-generated products and technologies, from cars to computers to medicine. Distrust of corporations doesn’t mean a useful technology shouldn’t be taken advantage of, and that includes biotech.
The anti-GMO movement has its own seamy, exploitative side. While much, if not most of the anti-GMO movement is composed of well-intentioned individuals who hold the kind of sustainable values we can all embrace, those people have also been identified as a market for some of the more cynical purveyors of fear and anti-science.
One shiny, sleazy GMOphobic website is loaded with pandering naturalistic mythology, and even offers $197 “Empowerment Packages.” Send them a couple of Benjamins and get back a ton of fluffed-up scare-info about biotech. These folks are no different from snake oil salespersons throughout history, and use the same old tactics of fear and misdirection. Think Professor Harold Hill or Dr. Marvel, whipping up a false problem and then selling dubious solutions.
Once GMOphobia plays out, the noxious noisemakers will go back to frightening the credulous with anti-scientific superstition about things like fluoride, vaccines and SmartMeters (remember that grave menace?).
The science of it
You don’t need to send any smiling, new age media quacks your cash in order to understand biotech and do a risk assessment. Spend that money at the Farmers’ Market instead. If you aren’t a scientist, you could listen to the conclusions of scientists from around the world. They’re much more credible than the snake oilers, fearmongers and even Facebook Science Academy.
There are mountains of research spanning decades which exonerate biotech. That is why it has been found benign by the World Health Organization, the European Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association. Those endorsements aren’t an argument from popularity, they’re an argument from studying the hell out of something and drawing a logical, evidence-based and defensible conclusion.
In September of last year, an editorial titled “Standing Up for GMOs,” signed by some of the most distinguished scientists in the world, appeared in Science magazine (Science vol. 341, p. 1320), one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.
They discussed the importance of a genetically modified form of Golden Rice that produces a compound that is critical for the production of Vitamin A. About 500,000 children who eat rice that is not genetically modified each year are blinded because such rice does not allow their bodies to generate vitamin A that is a component of a light-absorbing compound in our eyes. Half of those children die within a year.
It has taken the scientists who developed Golden Rice decades to obtain permission to distribute the seeds, and they still cannot do so, so children continue to die – from simple Vitamin A deficiency, so easily fixable.
Recently, a group of anti-GMO vandals destroyed a field trial of Golden Rice in the Philippines. Does the Co-op and Arcata want to support the deaths of so many children who have no other choice and in the process support those who take the law into their own hands? Anti-GMO ideology is an intolerant religion that harms many, many people.
In the long run, biotech may or may not not be the magic bullet claimed by some proponents, and it certainly isn’t the menace asserted by its critics. It’s simply another timely technological advance, like hybridization or crop rotation, which can be used to benefit agriculture.
Quoth Scientific American magazine: “We have been tinkering with our food’s DNA since the dawn of agriculture. By selectively breeding plants and animals with the most desirable traits, our predecessors transformed organisms’ genomes, turning a scraggly grass into plump-kerneled corn, for example. For the past 20 years Americans have been eating plants in which scientists have used modern tools to insert a gene here or tweak a gene there, helping the crops tolerate drought and resist herbicides. Around 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients.”
Maybe Co-op’s Board of Directors has uncovered some game-changing information that counters the findings of the global scientific, medical and humanitarian communities. In that case, it can credibly endorse the symbolic crop ban and count on its employees to defend and explain it.
Without the evidence, though, an endorsement of a superstition-based ordinance is not the best position for a business in a university town – whose economy is largely based on a fact-finding, knowledge-imparting enterprise – to be in.
Co-op has an opportunity to demonstrate genuine leadership, stand up to a folklore-based food fad, ally itself with reality and science and not jump on the anti-GMO fearwagon. It comes down to being honest with patrons.
This piece was written by Kevin L. Hoover, with additions by geneticist Rollin Richmond and science fan/skeptic Chad White. For more reality checks on matters controversial, plus good-natured humor and celebration of science, visit the Humboldt Skeptics Facebook page.