Without much of a coordinated marketing plan, without a whole lot of media fanfare and without much resistance from industry, the demonization of genetically engineered food ingredients appears to be nearly compete.
In fact, “Non-GMO” has acquired all the cachet of “organic” as a marker of (alleged) quality and purity. That is amazing, for two reasons.
First, the organic industry and its mouthpiece organizations, such as the Organic Trade Association, have labored tirelessly for decades to convince consumers that anything not labeled organic is guilty until proven innocent: guilty of being contaminated with a roster of chemicals, pesticides, and God knows what other lethal residues with which evil farmers have tainted the produce and grains they grow and market to us witless dupes.
At least there is some evidence that toxic pesticides, if applied improperly on a farm, could result in the presence of residues on foods that would trigger health problems.
Likewise, it’s understandable that consumer activists can attack Big Meat, because food-safety issues, such as microbial contamination, have been documented to cause illnesses and deaths. Obviously, those outcomes can easily be leveraged to promote anti-industry messaging.
GMOs have no such track record.
Second, opposition to GMOs is unique in that, unlike the Meatless Mondays movement, avoidance of genetically modified food ingredients isn’t being promoted as an eco-positive initiative, the way that cutting back on beef is positioned as a way to save the planet, environmentally speaking.
The reality is that nobody has gotten sick or died from eating the millions of tons of food products made with GM corn and soy. Of all the issues one would reasonably expect to see leveraged on the basis of factual evidence, GMOs ought to be at the top of that short list.
A Nobel Protest Falls Flat
For example: Back in 2016, more than 100 Nobel laureates — the most accomplished scientists on Earth — signed a letter urging Greenpeace, the early leader and eventually chief cheerleader of the “Frankenfoods” movement, to end its opposition to GMOs. Greenpeace had not been heavily involved with agricultural or nutritional issues previously; GMOs were a gift-wrapped cause that landed in their laps, thanks to the public’s ignorance of biotechnology.
Specifically, the Nobel scientists singled out genetically engineered “golden rice,” which could reduce Vitamin A deficiencies that can cause blindness and death among some 250 million children in the developing world subsisting on vitamin-deficient diets.
“We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology,” the scientists stated at the time, “and abandon their campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.
“Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than, those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.”
In the face of such a clear-cut rationale, the question becomes: Why the backlash?
Partly because GMOs are tangled up in the backdrop of corporate control (think Monsanto), which is a red flag for many people and provides anti-GM activists with a ready-made villain to demonize.
But the truth is that “the industry,” broadly defined, did it to themselves. The anti-GMO campaigns would never have gotten the traction they’ve enjoyed if the application of this understandably intimidating new biotechnology hadn’t been deployed almost exclusively to benefit agricultural interests, rather than consumers.
GMOs wouldn’t have become a hot-button issue if the research hadn’t been focused almost exclusively at first on developing “square tomatoes and steel-skinned strawberries” (my words), improvements aimed at benefitting growers and processors, not the people eating those foods.
Golden rice and other consumer-friendly GM projects came along way too late to alter the damage done by the narrative that genetic engineering is the scourge of the modern world. And by “damage,” I mean listening to college instructors who hold PhDs (in subjects other than the life sciences, of course) tell me point blank, “GMOs are terrible. I would never buy foods that contain them!”
As if “GMO” referred to some physical contaminant, like E. coli or antibiotic residues.
As one activist admitted to me in an email exchange, “We don’t need people to understand GMOs; we just need them to understand that they’re bad.”
“GMO-OMG!” is definitely the operative phrase — just not in the sense that activists use it.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in his commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.