Big G, Big M, Big O … Little Substance

In, How Many Cheers for Cheerios?, Mark Bittman opines that General Mills’ decision to claim that one of their lead products is GMO-free is a big deal, even though most of us don’t know what GMO or organic actually entails:

Well, a major and venerable American brand has gone and announced that it contains no genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.’s). Cheerios is G.M.O.-free! And will soon be labeled “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients.” …

… Taking the G.M.O.’s out of Cheerios is only a little bit harder than taking them out of oatmeal: there are no G.M.O. oats, and Cheerios are, essentially, oats. (Well, hyper-processed oats.) They also contain small amounts of cornstarch and sugar, so its parent company, General Mills, has done little more than source non-G.M.O. cornstarch and cane rather than beet sugar to use in production. (There are G.M.O. beets, and almost all corn and soybeans grown in the United States use G.M.O. seeds, whose products find their way into most processed foods.) This is what they’ve done for years in most of Europe, where products with G.M.O.’s are almost universally labeled as such. …

Should we care? Yes. Much of the controversy over G.M.O.’s is being fought between those with a vested interest in their success and those who are willing to overstate the problems with the technology.

(Yes, he uses apostrophe-s as a plural.)

Bittman’s OpEd article appeared a few days after Amy Harmon’s, A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops. The hero of her article is a council member who must vote yea or nay on a GMO ban in the big island of Hawaii, but who is portrayed as the only one who cares about science rather than politics or emotion.

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones. … the groundswell against genetically modified food has rankled many scientists, who argue that opponents of G.M.O.s have distorted the risks associated with them and underplayed the risks of failing to try to use the technology to improve how food is grown. … And other scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, wrote an opinion article for the journal Science last fall titled “Standing Up for G.M.O.s.”

That, “Some compare … ,” (italics mine) could be right out the Fox News playbook and the suggestion that all GMO doubters are antiscience has resulted in a groundswell of commenters enthusiastically bashing the, “college students, eco-conscious shoppers and talk show celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz and Bill Maher,” mentioned in the article. Because, of course, studies commissioned by huge conglomerates are never wrong.

The first line of defense for GMO supporters is to say that genetic engineering is no different than the breeding of domestic crops and animals that farmers have been doing for thousands of years. The goal may be the same, but splicing in genes seems very different than picking which bull to use for stud.

The second line of defense is often to cite Norman Borlaug and the need to feed a growing planet, but as Bittman’s article notes, GMO seeds may fail a cost benefit analysis. They certainly benefit the seed companies, but without transparency, we just don’t know if they benefit the farmers or the consumers.

Update 20140108:

At Forbes, Henry I Miller, the Robert Wesson fellow at Stanford, presses the ad hominem button in, Bittman of the ‘New York Times': Always Out To Lunch:

More than 40 years ago, Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull conceived the “Peter Principle,” which holds that in an organization in which promotion is based on achievement and merit, the organization’s members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. It is commonly articulated as, “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.”

Enter New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. After 13 years writing columns describing how to hard-boil eggs and prepare such delicacies as spaghetti with fried eggs (I am not making this up), in January 2011 the paper saw fit to elevate him to writing regularly about a “political issue” – namely “the continuing attack on good, sound eating and traditional farming in the United States.”

There’s way too much money at stake for GMOs to go away quietly.

Update 20140109:

Under, G.M.O. Foods and the Trust Issue, the NY Times published several letters responding to Harmon’s article. A professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies wrote:

Your article about genetically modified crops says that there is a “global scientific consensus” that they are safe, and suggests that opponents are driven by emotion, not fact.

As a medical research scientist, I disagree that there is any such consensus, and there is no evidence that any genetically modified product is safe. There is no required safety testing, no epidemiological study relating consumption to health.

Although the industry aggressively tries to discredit all studies showing potential harm, there are many showing toxicity in animals that predict serious medical consequences in humans from long-term exposure. Finally, contrary to industry claims, genetically modified crops have produced no increase in yield, have elevated the use of herbicides tenfold, and have resulted in no social or economic benefit except for the reduction of factory farm labor costs.

The public has every right to distrust what it is told about genetically modified food safety.

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One response to “Big G, Big M, Big O … Little Substance”

  1. cmaukonen says :

    Breakfast cereals…there was an add spoof I saw on a local PBS station many year years ago.

    “Hi..I’m the troll in your cereal bowl. Asking you to try these sugar fortified, sugar coated, sugar enriched little granules of sugar.”

    Like

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