The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling

The September issue of Scientific American is all about food. I’m a subscriber, but unfortunately my issue hasn’t arrived, yet. With article titles like Processed Food: A 2-Million-Year History, Return of the Natives: How Wild Bees Will Save Our Agricultural System, The Truth about Genetically Modified Food, Science Reveals Why Calorie Counts Are All Wrong, and Invasive Species Menu of a World-Class Chef (about eating bugs), needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading my hard copy.

It is a significant development in the world of GMO awareness and journalism, that the Sci-Am editors have written “Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea – Mandatory labels for genetically modified foods are a bad idea”, telling us that 20-some states now have the issue on ballots. Below, I’ve chosen some excerpts.

Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health [see “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food”]. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not. (The GMO-fearing can seek out “100 Percent Organic” products, indicating that a food contains no genetically modified ingredients, among other requirements.) … Americans who oppose genetically modified foods would celebrate a similar exclusion. Everyone else would pay a price. Because conventional crops often require morewater and pesticides than GMOs do, the former are usually more expensive. Consequently, we would all have to pay a premium on non-GMO foods—and for a questionable return. … Antagonism toward GMO foods also strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits to people in developing countries and promises far more.

Buying GMO free food is easy enough to do already without requiring the industry to label it GMO-Free. Just buy organically labeled food, buy from your favorite local organic farmer, or grow your own.

This Sci-Am article is one more nail in the coffin of those who are anti-GMO activists. In one of the Sci-Am articles, plant molecular biologist Robert Goldberg expresses despair at the fact that the arguments against GM haven’t changed in forty years.

GM activists are anti-science. They are anti- the rest of us. They are the anti-, anti-, anti- crowd in general. Often, they do not understand what they oppose. Genetic modification is the issue that separates the food production illusory idealists from those of us grounded in the real world of economics and science and most important of all, from the actual producer’s level.

One can support the science of GM and still want to see biodiversity, bee health, and farm methods which preserve our soil and keep our water clean.Those are separate issues. Those issues often rely upon policy choices or special interests, but please don’t blame GM science for that.

Some of the formerly religious on this issue are turning around, are starting to get it. We all know the Mark Lynas story, still less than a year old. I was quite surprised to see the prominent environmental site, Grist, recently hire Nathanael Johnson to ease the Grist readers into opening their minds about the debate, and he’s doing a nice job. But disappointingly, just this week I saw NYTs food writer, Mark Bittman, embrace the ongoing anti-, anti- of Tom Phillpot who writes anti- for Mother Jones. Not to be left behind by Grist, Philpott says that he’ll make an exception for using GMOs for oranges (only), following the widely read NYTs piece, “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” related to citrus greening, a disease wiping out our U.S. orange crops. And, Michael Pollan continues to reinforce the anti-science thinking of these two influential writers (Philpott and Bittman) via Twitter.

Well, guess what? Citrus greening isn’t the only disease or pest threatening crops that feed humans. New threats surface constantly and they are quietly dealt with by our scientists, too often unappreciated and taken for granted by the vast majority of us.

Let’s face it. Most of us are spoiled rotten when it comes to getting food, as compared to any other age in human history. Most of us are no longer hands on when it comes to growing food. We just drive to the store, make our selection from the infinite choices we find there, come home and prepare it, or eat what others prepare for us. And we like it that way. Yet, somehow we feel entitled to go after the real-world producers who do the sweaty work and take on the countless risks involved that are required to actually grow our food.

Oppose this technology and there is blood on your hands. Science without GM lacks the potential to feed as many people, and feed them as nutritiously. We need to look no further than the very unfortunate Philippines story from two weeks ago, when activists destroyed the GM rice trials of Golden Rice, a rice modified to produce Vitamin A to prevent blindness and death of children in vulnerable populations.

GM technology is advancing rapidly and can help solve food growing challenges such as weather resilience, improved nutrition, yields, pest and disease resilience.

Good environmentalists should support genetic modification. And why should the rest of us pay higher food prices because activists oppose this important science and want GM labeling?

ALSO SEE: Biotech Crop Adoption Around the World and a Statement about GM Activism, and Synthetic Biology – What Does it Mean for Agriculture?

22 thoughts on “The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling

  1. Brian

    People are constantly being misled and fooled into eating things that are not healthy for them. From spreading out five different types of sugar with varying names to renaming wood as “cellulose” and feedig it to people, you cannot trust the free market to put consumers interests over their profit. That I what the government is supposed to be for. It’s funny that science is disputable “or just one point of view” when it comes to climate change but when big businesses bottom lines are at stake we are supposed to just take their word for it that it’s safe and not be able to even know what we are eating. Your article repeatedly asks why people shoul have to “pay more” because some of us want to know what we are eating, but one could argue that as a society we are ALL PAYING MORE because very few people realize and are eduated about what they are eating to begin with. Just look at the obesity, heart disease and other healthcare epedimics we face as a nation.Your article sounds like it was written by the agribusiness lobbly itself, and your desire to suppress information is disgusting. Go eat a happy meal and wash it down with an insulin shot.

    1. Brian

      Sorry, it’s hard to tell on a mobile which story I was reading. My comments were directed at the editors of the publication advocating AGAINST labeling, not the author of this article. I read it and obviously got pretty fired up. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Adam

        You still appear to be confused, since the article itself is also against labeling of GMO products. A little reading comprehension goes a long way. You appear to think that their is a parallel between climate change and GMO’s, you are half right, in that those who are anti-GMO are just as anti-intellectual as those who deny climate change. In both cases the vast majority of scientists support the pro-science side (ie pro-GMO and the existence of anthropogenic Climate change), this is because our opinions are based on a critical analysis of the available data, rather than knee jerk reactions based on personal prejudices. This is done, GMO is safe as a science, GMO foods are safe and GMO should not be singled out for special treatment in labeling laws just because people have no idea what they are talking about.

        1. Brian

          No, there IS a parallel between the morons who deny climate change, and the morons who would deny people the basic information about what they are eating, both issues that can have a powerful effect on the human race. People should not be kept in the dark because “it will cost more”. Seat belts cost more too, should we get rid of those? Who’s science are you saying is good anyway? Monsanto’s? I hear you saying that GMO’s are safe, but shouldn’t we err on the side of caution instead of businesses and profits when people’s health is at stake. They use to say smoking was actually good for you, then at least not harmful. How did that turn out. I love the idea and the potential behind GMO’s but I’m not convinced its safe yet. That’s because our government has a history of allowing corporations to poison us and work against our interest so long as the campaign donations continue. So fine, sell your potentially poisonous products to the public – it’s legal. But allow me the information I need so I can make my own choice for me and my family.

        2. Concerned and curious

          Here and there I see statements that GMOs are safe, but I cannot find any independent long-term studies to verify this claim. Can you point to any? The editors at Scientific American didn’t either, and it seems to me if they knew of any they would have done so.

          Simply asserting that GM is safe is unscientific at best, and could potentially be dangerous. As far as I know there have only been a few independent studies which lasted longer than 90 days, and the results of some of those were reportedly very disturbing. These studies need to be replicated, and that is apparently being done in France. But where are the other independent studies? If this technology is so safe it should be fairly simple to verify, and do so using independent labs, not places like South Dakota State University, which has received a lot of money from Monsanto.

        3. Shawn

          It’s telling that in countries where students score the highest in science and mathematics, they demand the labeling of GM foods.

          In the USA the line between genetic modification as a procedure and corporate intentions is being blurred by many pro-GM supporters who fail to consider all the facts.

          In the end, anyone who believe a corporation is going to revolutionize agriculture and feed the world is about as anti-intellectual as they come.

  2. cascadian12

    I’m disappointed to see you support GMOs. At first, I thought you were being facetious, exaggerating the supposedly anti-, anti-, anti- mindset of those opposed to GMOs, but you’re serious! If the arguments against GMOs haven’t changed, neither have the arguments for! The problem may not be so much with GMO’s themselves, but with the farming practices they enable. For example, Roundup-ready corn enables the spraying of more Roundup, not less. This has resulted in the pests of GMOs becoming immune to Round-up through overuse. This has also resulted in the reduction of milkweed, upon which Monarch butterflies depend (other farm policies, such as elimination of conservation funding, also has an impact). As a result of this and logging in their habitat in Mexico, Monarch butterfly populations – one of the miracles of nature – have been reduced by 50 percent in the past few years.

    I haven’t been as concerned about the potential health issues as others, but I know that when something has a “biological” advantage, it can create havoc with the rest of the ecosystem. For example, genetically modified salmon, the type that’s supposed to grow 3X larger and faster than they do normally, could change the composition of fish in their habitat. These mutations could also affect the overall health of these fish, just as gigantism affects humans and other animals. If GMOs are here to stay, I draw the line at introducing foreign genes into animals. As for the rest, I choose organic.

    Moreover, GMOs cannot be compared to plant breeding. Plant breeding is done within a species or closely related species, not outside of the genetic family.

    As to the cost of food, the authors of the editorial point out that food is more expensive in Europe, but it has always been more expensive, since far before the introduction of GMOs. Europeans don’t like their food messed with, and to my knowledge, they have exceptional food choices at a cost designed to ensure that farmers can make a living and continue to produce artisanal products (disclosure: I lived in France for 8 years). Food should cost more to enable better practices. The only reason food is cheap in the U.S. is because it’s heavily subsidized financially, by the environment, by animal abuse, and by public health.

    As to feeding the masses, the real problem, of course, is over-population and the destruction of farmland. Population will have to be stabilized sooner or later, so we might as well choose sooner. We can’t continue to manipulate food to feed a growing population. In addition, we only eat a small fraction of all potential food sources that already exist on the planet. Why not cultivate more of the hundreds of existing breeds of potatoes, or quinoa, or other food sources nature has produced? The answer, of course, is that large corporations cannot make money on diversity.

    Corporations like Monsanto, the chemical company, want to patent life-forms so they can require everyone to buy their seeds. Most farmers in this country now have no choice but to buy GMOs seeds from Monsanto. This kind of corporate domination is dangerous. We will need diversity in the years ahead, not more monocultures. In India, farmers have committed suicide in droves because they cannot afford to buy the seed and the Roundup. Please google “anti-science” commentator Vandana Shiva (Ph.D.) for details.

    Finally, GMO crops contaminate non-GMO crops, jeopardizing the food choices of the rest of us. Small diverse organic farms are the future; not oil-dependent mega-farms:

    Organic practices build soil, conserve water, support biodiversity, and provide a livelihood for more people. They also prevent “dead zones,” which are beginning to appear along the world’s coasts, not just in the Gulf of Mexico. I certainly hope to see a counter argument in Scientific American, or the value of their publication will be greatly diminished in my eyes.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      C: If the arguments against GMOs haven’t changed, neither have the arguments for!

      KM: A lot of testing has been done in those 40 years, cascadian12.

      C: The problem may not be so much with GMO’s themselves, but with the farming practices they enable.

      KM: Bingo. This is exactly the point that I try to get across every time I have written to embrace the science of GM. Bad policy is at fault, not the GM science. The reason butterflies and song birds have disappeared is that their habit is gone. We farm every square inch, we are no longer supporting the CRP land acres, and we have no wildlife corridors. Neither do I oppose organic farms. I think they’re great. At our house we happen to choose to grow our own organic food and we support local organic growers, however we don’t hesitate to eat off the regular grocery store shelves if its a food we want. Corporatism, too, is a policy issue. And, beyond the subject of over-population is the subject of land use choices that we make, and today a big problem is biofuels, another gift to agribusiness.

      Yes, there are many problems, and I try to address them on separate days here.

  3. Gaythia

    It is simply wrong for those who claim to be champions of science communication to the public to come out opposed to any start at attempts for full disclosure of food origin information. I agree that GMO/not GMO is not a particularly significant bit of information. So don’t attempt to line up science on this battle line, as if it is. The energy of the Scientific American editors ought to be directed at creating the sorts of accessible databases that would provide public access to this information. This is the way in which intelligent discussions can be fostered with the public regarding linkages with the science of nutrition and health, sustainable agricultural practices, humane labor practices, and impacts on larger issues such as water availability and climate change. And open and full disclosure is the way in which public support can be created for science and scientific research.

    It seems to me that the last election cycle ought to have been a heads up that the current one would expand on GMO labeling efforts. IMHO, the appropriate response of the science community would have been to devise legislative alternative measures that would support the desire of citizens to know more about the origins of their food, including food genetics, without furthering the artificial GMO/not GMO divide.

    As it is, in 20 states we will be forced to framing that I think is really detrimental to creating an atmosphere of public understanding and support of science. Those of us interested in science communication are not on the same side as Big Ag corporations which refuse to tell us what might be contained in the “inert ingredients” on a pesticide label, or Big Food and its involvement in lobbying drama regarding such things as sugar and high fructose corn syrup and autolyzed yeast extract and other ways of not saying MSG.

    People have a sincere desire to have food that is safe and nutritional and that is produced in a humane and sustainable fashion. If we want to reduce the conflation of these issues with GMO technology we should embrace disclosure and fight for further expansion of information.

    Denying information does not build trust. Freedom of information is a vital component of democracy. Science and liberty are linked.

  4. lisafrequency

    I see a lot of written material stating that “organic” is too expensive well if organic products were subsidised with taxpayer dollars like gmo crops are maybe it would be as inexpensive as gmos. Instead many organic farms get raided, shut down and the farmers put in prison. It is a wonder they can produce organic at all.
    Some people see eating organic as being less expensive in the long run because they are pretty sure that pesticide is not good for life in general. The money you spend on your good health will save you from having to spend on your poor health.

  5. patrick

    GMO’s, the fracking of the food world.

    Meanwhile lets plant every acre on the planet to produce ethanol. Talk about having our priorities messed up. The government, not corporations, is paying to destroy the environment. What a wonderful world! We won’t even talk about the sugar industry destroying the Everglades with runoff–another government creation.

  6. K. McDonald Post author

    Here is an interesting response I received via email:

    I’m an Italian farmer, I grow corn, soy beans and wheat and I am one of so many victims of the ‘anti-‘ legion. The so called environmentalists, believing they have the right to make decisions for us all. As a farmer, as an enterpreneur, I expect to be able to choose what to grow: I cannot.

    I have been thinking about this a lot: so many people, so much money in campaigns against GMOs, why? Who benefits from this war? I have come to the conclusion that those who grow rich with this insane opposition are mainly the producers of herbicides and pesticides: German chemical firms are very strong in Europe.

    Thanks again. There are many of us who will never let it go, in Europe, in Italy too.

  7. eric

    I think you’ve gone a bit overboard here K. Opposing this technology means blood on ones hands? Really? I think you’ve got a bit too emotional in your support of GMO’s, almost like a religious fervor.

    There is no credible argument you can make to oppose labeling. People have a right to know what they are eating, period. If you want to make an argument about food prices, then you can start with Big Ag lobbies in Congress and Wall Street commodities futures speculators. Next you can look at poor farming practices and Wall Street land speculators (I know you’ve highlighted these two particular issues).

    Not everyone trusts the industrial food industry, and, frankly, for good reason. Just take a historical look at all the products that Monsanto has put out telling us its safe, only to be discovered they are truly awful. If companies promoting GMOs can make a credible argument to consumers then nothing will change. The fact is, however, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the long term safety of such dramatic changes to the genetic makeup of our food. Changes that we will not be able to reverse. And that concern is growing as its studied more, not diminished. So spare us the holier than thou scolding, its really uncalled for.

  8. Zen Honeycutt

    People who are FOR GMO labeling and against GMOs are not anti science. Your broad categorization discredits you, not us. We are anti-our-kids-slowly-dying-from-allergies-which-cause-inflammation-and-stomach-cancer.
    We are anti-miscarriages-birth defects-and-our-babies-dying. We have see the rashes go away when our kids stop eating GMOs. We have seen our friends after years of trying, a month or two after they switch and eat all organic. We have seen our kids autism, auto immune disorders and life threatening allergies GET BETTER when they get OFF GMOs.
    Your FEAR about labeling is leaving many Moms all across america still uniformed and unable to choose and take care of their kids in a way that works. Your FEAR about labeling is ANTI American. Your fear about choice and organic food will lead us to having 1 out of 2 of our kids with autism by the year 2025 if things keep progressing the way they have been and are today. Google that. Look up the increase in autism. Look at the Samsel and Seneff paper and “Our Compromised Generation” book. Look at how glyphosate, which GMOs are doused with, causes toxins to get into the brain, weakens our immune system and halts liver/toxin detoxification. In addition to GMOs causing mutations in cells and organ damage! How do you think our economy is going to function with half of its population compromised with autism?
    This is a crisis. You are responsible for spreading fear about choice and letting our food be the way God /nature made it, whole and complete the way it is. I have faith in the people that they will create food organically. Organic outperforms GMO, has better crop yields, withstands drought better, and is more profitable for farmers. We Moms Across America are PRO organic, the way mother nature intended.

  9. Matt P.


    You are always a thoughtful provider of a wide variety of information related to the ag world and I generally appreciate what you do here. However, it is disappointing to see you paint with such broad strokes those that would oppose our rush to transgenic technology.

    I am always baffled by scientists who have yet to embrace and embed an evolutionary time scale into their thinking. The fact that a technology has been in use for 20 years without “toxic” events is hardly proof that there is complete safety in the technology. There has been virtually no testing of this technology from a multi-generational perspective and it is being assumed by some of our top most “intellectual” minds that the absence of acute toxic effects from this technology is the only thing we need to worry about.

    The fact is that the few studies that have examined longer term impacts from current transgenic crops present some worrying results and are certainly cause for pause.

    While there is a fair amount of hysteria coming from both camps on this subject, not all who would exercise caution about adoption of this technology are ideologues. Casting blood on the hands of dissenters is a pathetic and desperate straw man that does nothing to further the conversation. I hope to see more nuanced coverage of this issue in the future.

  10. BL

    I find it hilarious that a few angry farmers have allowed this argument to reach this level. Let it be known that this “anti-gmo” movement only exists because the farmers that got screwed by mosento early on put their money together to pay a PR firm to birth this movement. Now, I can’t say I blame them since the practices of this type of company are pretty shady. But, this breakthrough technology now as to suffer because being anti-gmo is now as cool as saying that you’re vegan; only this way, you don’t have to give up as much!

    Let me be clear here folks; there is NOTHING safe on this earth. You cover your head, run, and pray that something doesn’t kill you before your “time” is up. Whether we like it or not, we are all at the mercy of these companies that make potentially toxic products to “benefit” us. When was the last time you heard of an ER patient turning down a drug because there wasn’t 20 years of scientific data available proving the drug’s safety? That’s right, that doesn’t happen because of blind trust. Why can’t we apply the same blind trust to food technology? Do you not take a risk every time you pop an aspirin, drink apple juice (arsenic could just as well be in the organic stuff too!) , or lay your laptop on your lap?

    Let’s also remember that the USA and Canada are still agricultural powerhouses because of gmo corn and soybeans. Without it, the economy of the great Midwest would have collapsed years ago and the price of corn and soya would be 10 times what it is now (one could argue that bio-ethanol is to blame for the current prices but I’ll save that for another day). And as much as I hate to admit it, the wet milling processing of corn has created many useful by-byproducts of corn (notoriously, high fructose corn syrup) but also has created an economy to go along with it. For an agricultural economy that would have otherwise vanished (first saved by subsidies), we can all agree, from recent economic events, that our economy is very fragile and that we owe more to the people working in this industry (big corporations, I know. Blah, blah, blah. People still have to work right?) than: “Sorry, we aren’t going to let you utilize this technology because we haven’t been able to find anything harmful with it yet. But, we might. You never know!”. Let’s find a solution before doing something stupid shall we?

    The benefit of utilizing gmo technology far outweighs the risk involved. We, as a society, need to responsibly adopt this type of technology and keep researching to find the answers regardless of what side of the argument it pleases.

    You know, I take a risk much greater than eating gmos every morning: I drive to work. Anyone that tells me that they are taking a much greater risk eating GMOs over a lifetime needs to start walking everywhere because at the end of the day, we stop, uncover our heads and thank our lucky stars that we are still alive. But we all have to die someday…

    1. eric

      You simply do not know that the benefit outweighs the cost. You want to believe that, but you do not know that. I agree we need to responsibly adopt new technologies, the problem is that these are very large companies charged with making profit, not being responsible. The government lets the companies do their own safety test (which are very short term). That’s called a conflict of interest, and its certainly not due diligence. Most of those companies forbid independent testing. Many of the independent experiments that have been conducted have pointed to very alarming results.

      Sure, there’s risk in everything we do. Does that mean we should just trust some of the most predatory companies in the world to look after our well being? You also forget that much of this work is being done by chemical companies with long histories of knowingly lying about the safety of their products. I don’t think the integrity of our food supply is something to be so flippant about. It definitely requires us to make an informed opinion on the matter, and right now the information does not suggest GMOs are without harm.

  11. Cheryl

    I have been disappointed a few times recently from SA, but this piece (backed up by the editors) genuinely is offensive to all. This “science publication” has lost all credibility.

  12. Manuela Simental

    GMOs are very interesting actually because there is relatively nothing researchers have found out about GMOs that can harm humans. They are just being enhanced but never injected with chemicals. Eventually, people will start to realize its potential to feed the world.

  13. K. McDonald Post author

    It is curious, that on 8/30, I noticed this post has been dropped from the Google News index. All of my other posts are there, and this was about the most popular of all, so the question is why?

  14. Joseph

    The Myths of Safe GMOs. There is just too much corporate PR marketing arrogantly purporting to be “science”. I thought the AAAS was for the Advancement of Science, not shilling for transgenic patent holders such as Monsanto, Dow and DuPont. But there still is a place you can get independent science data and facts on GMOs in the UK. Here is the website:
    (yes that is .org and for a good reason) Just down load, for free, the well documented journal titled “GMO Myths and Truth” all based on solid verifiable scientific evidence. Not the science results the GMO lobbyists want you to know, they would rather have gullible consumers “believing” and “trusting” their product sellers. Would you trust a fox to look after the chicken coop? Or likewise, would you trust a Round Up Ready herbicide salesman to tell you how safe GMO food is?
    Pro-GMO marketeers default to deception or what amounts to lying by omission by denying citizens the right to know what is really in food products by spending hundreds of million of dollars on deceptive advertising when a democratic initiatives comes up for a public vote on merely the labeling of GMOs. GMO’s premiss of “safety” hides behind the industry promoted belief of “substantially equivalent” to sidestep independent scientific long term safety testing and labeling. If GMO corporations were honest and proud about their GMO products (and not just their profits) they would not be obstructing GMO labeling. Enough said, just label GMO or keep them off our store shelves.
    It’s not just about diet, it’s about democracy. It’s not just about having access to choice in food, it’s about having the freedom to be informed honestly what ingredients, including GMO ingredients, are in our foods. We and our children deserve as much.


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