The June 27 episode of Real Time With Bill Maher features a rowdy discussion of the pros and cons of labeling on genetically modified foods. Like pink slime, mainstream interest in the GMO labeling issue appears to be growing by leaps and bounds. If this trend continues, Monsanto may have a hard time putting the GMO public-awareness genie back in the bottle!
As you watch the discussion, listen closely to the arguments against GMO labeling — sorry, I meant to say argument. As in, singular noun. The one argument offered by the anti-labeling fellow, in my opinion, isn’t the one dearest to Monsanto’s dark little corporate heart (i.e. profitability of GM seeds and related pesticides). But it’s every bit as weak!
I love seeing food revolution issues on mainstream media, and I love how the only argument the anti-labeling guy could come up with was “We shouldn’t require GMO labels because they haven’t been proven to cause harm.”
This is like the “eating meat is natural” thing that people say to vegetarians: a total bunk argument, that won’t stand up to even the mildest scrutiny, but people throw it down on the table with a flourish as if to say, “Ta-da! Argument over!”
Um, no. There’s some foolishness on that table, just begging for critical consideration!
There are at least three problems with the argument GMO food labels shouldn’t be required because ‘they haven’t been proven to be harmful.’
Consumer Choice: My Body, My Rules
First of all, we label all kinds of things that ‘haven’t been proven to be harmful’: I’m allowed to know whether products contain milk, eggs, MSG, red dye #3, high fructose corn syrup, mono- and di-glycerides, torula yeast, and many other ingredients that I might choose to avoid for reasons that make sense to me — whether or not the manufacturers of these foods agree with me. Indeed, I’m sure they don’t! But that’s no reason not to label them. GMOs have done nothing to earn an exception to the rule we apply to other food products. It should be my right, not that of food manufacturers, to decide what substances I will consume or avoid.
The FDA has a long history of requiring manufacturers to accurately label foods ‘that have not been proven to be harmful,’ so that shoppers can make informed choices about what to eat or not to eat — for whatever reasons make sense to them.
Consider some highlights from FDA history:
1906 The original Food and Drugs Act is passed. It prohibits interstate commerce in mis-branded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs…
1924 The Supreme Court rules that the Food and Drugs Act condemns every statement, design, or device on a product’s label that may mislead or deceive, even if technically true…
1938 A revised and expanded Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938 is passed. Highlights include: safe tolerances to be set for unavoidable poisonous substances, standards of identity, quality, and fill-of-container to be set for foods, and authorization of factory inspections…
1958Food Additives Amendment enacted, requiring manufacturers of new food additives to establish safety. Going forward, manufacturers were required to declare all additives in a product…
1962 President Kennedy proclaims the Consumer Bill of Rights. Included are the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard…
1965 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, including food.
Given this set of guidelines supposedly in place for US food, our ongoing lack of GM labeling is a tribute to the biotechnology industry’s resourcefulness and determination to avoid it.
People have the right to choose what to buy, what to eat, and what to feed their families. It doesn’t matter whether GMO producers agree with consumers’ decisions or not. For whatever reasons, many people simply don’t want to buy genetically modified food — and shouldn’t be forced through deceptive labeling to do so, solely for the benefit of the biotechnology industry.
GMO Safety Research: Inconclusive, Biased, Inadequate
The second (more troublesome) problem with the argument that ‘GMO foods haven’t been proven to be harmful’ involves the persistent ferocity with which the biotechnology industry has prevented scientific exploration within that very field of inquiry.
The biotechnology industry itself is in charge of all safety research for GM foods and farming techniques, and has fought tooth and nail to prevent non-industry researchers from studying potential health risks related to transgenic food crops. In some cases industry has actively attempted to keep consumers from hearing about GM problems, by trying to bribe public officials or suppress media reports when harmful effects of genetically engineered food products were identified.
Biotechnology proponents like to frame GM labeling advocates as ‘anti-science‘– but industry’s deliberate experiment manipulation and data suppression is the very antithesis of good science, making any kind of meaningful GMO health risk assessment impossible.
In one 2010 report on health concerns surrounding Roundup-Ready soybeans and glyphosates, authors also point out that:
Contrary to claims by the GM industry and its supporters, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never approved any GM food as safe. Instead, it de-regulated GM foods in the early1990s, ruling that they are “substantially equivalent” to non-GM foods and do not need any special safety tesing. The ruling was widely recognized as a political decision with no basis in science.
Standard toxicity testing considers several types of physiological response, including acute, subchronic, chronic, reproductive, and developmental toxicities. The procedures and study durations vary, depending on which type of potential toxic effects researchers are evaluating. Acute toxicity can be assessed in two weeks, in rodent subjects; subchronic toxicity in 90 days. This is where industry research seems to call it a day, reach for its coat, and start patting pockets in search of the car keys.
Chronic, reproductive, and developmental toxicity studies take as long as two years to study in rodents, and can involve multiple generations; these studies are notably lacking, in current (industry-conducted) safety research on GM foods. Considering the prevalence of GMOs in our food supply at present, many consumers find this emphasis on only acute and subchronic toxicity irresponsible and disturbing.
According to a 2011 analysis of Monsanto’s data from 19 GM food studies– which is what we have to settle for, since independent researchers are prevented from conducting independent testing or reporting un-GMO-flattering conclusions– results raised what should have been further research questions:
Several convergent data appear to indicate liver and kidney problems as end points of GMO diet effects in the above-mentioned experiments. This was confirmed by our meta-analysis of all the in vivo studies published, which revealed that the kidneys were particularly affected, concentrating 43.5% of all disrupted parameters in males, whereas the liver was more specifically disrupted in females (30.8% of all disrupted parameters)…
The 90-day-long tests are insufficient to evaluate chronic toxicity, and the signs highlighted in the kidneys and livers could be the onset of chronic diseases. However, no minimal length for the tests is yet obligatory for any of the GMOs cultivated on a large scale, and this is socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection.
The limitations of existing toxicity studies, in concert with the ongoing lack of unbiased peer-reviewed research, raise the specter of potential GM food toxicity that hasn’t been found yet because it hasn’t been sought.
American health has changed dramatically in some ways over the last 30 years — since widespread introduction of GMO foods into the American diet, though no one knows if that’s coincidental or not — diabetes, food allergies, obesity, some cancers, autism, and some other health problems have experienced sharp spikes in incidence since GMOs flooded the US food market.
Is that caused by GMO foods? (shrug) No one knows. No one can check. Without labels, it’s impossible to know how much GMO foods people are eating — which makes it impossible to spot correlations between eating them and any health problem — which makes it impossible to design research studies even beginning to assess cause and effect relationships between these things.
The biotechnology industry wants to say their products are safe, while fighting fiercely to prevent any labeling that would make it possible to actually know whether that’s true or not! If there are truly no problems associated with high rates of GMO food consumption, Monsanto should absolutely love labels; because that’s the path to actually being able to scientifically ask that question, and to answer it.
If I don’t think those questions have been adequately answered, I should have the right to avoid GMO products until an increased body of skeptical and transparent independent research changes my mind. That should be my decision; no one else’s. Mandatory labels would make it possible to study potential problems using actual objective scientific inquiry, while enabling consumers to avoid GMO foods unless and until they’re convinced otherwise by thorough (sound, unbiased, independent) research.
Environmental and Social Impacts of GMO Agriculture
Imagine — just for a moment — that in an alternate Universe Monsanto is a kinder, gentler company, deeply committed to thorough and unbiased health and safety research on all new GMO food products (I know: mindbending exercise, right?!)… Even in this alternate ideal world, where health and safety research concerns are completely nonexistent, there would still be excellent reasons to label GMO foods! So, again, the proposed argument against GMO labeling is bunk.
Transgenic crops have the potential to impact complex ecosystems in ways that laboratory models cannot predict. Once a new gene or gene combination is released, there is no way to call it back to the lab if problems emerge.
Incidents of known unintended environmental impact — after approval and release into the ecosystem — include: GM crops transferring herbicide resistance to wild relatives; contamination of cultivated non-GM crops with trangenic material; decreased numbers of wild bees in glyphosate-resistant fields; by-products from GM maize entering waterways and affecting stream insects… The list of potential environmental problems from genetic manipulation of food crops is nearly infinite, and largely unpredictable.
Resistance to certain herbicides such as glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) tends to transfer to ‘pest’ plants, resulting in the need for ever-escalating chemical warfare against herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds.’
Reliance on GM seeds creates social justice issues that other methods of farming do not. GMO crops can be devastating to small farming communities, by fostering dependence on seed suppliers. GMO agriculture in traditional communities can also be devastating in terms of biodiversity loss, impact on pollinators, and the facilitation of herbicide resistant weeds.
Many consumers would choose to avoid GMO foods for environmental or other ethics-driven reasons, given a fair choice. The argument that (since scientifically rigorous investigation has been stifled at every turn) GMO foods have not been ‘proven’ to cause health risks doesn’t negate all the other reasons people might want to avoid them. Consumers should have the right to make that choice.
So, Yeah: Tell It Like It Is, Bill!
There are many good reasons to require labels on GMO foods, and (unless you own stock in Monsanto or Dow, or they pay your salary) no good reason not to do so.
There is no question that American consumers want to know if they’re eating GMOs. Depending on which poll you read, 93% to 96% of Americans want the right to know whether they’re eating genetically modified food.
People shouldn’t be tricked into eating something they wouldn’t voluntarily eat — for whatever reason! — if it were labeled. With growing awareness of the issue, the US just might be on the verge of catching up with the nearly 50 countries that already ban or require labels on GMO foods. Bill Maher has officially earned a (prestigious and widely coveted!) EatDrinkBetter tip of the hat, for helping out with that public awareness. Good work, sir!
With ever-increasing consumer awareness and support, mandatory GMO labeling in the US may be just around the bend. Support the GMO labeling initiative in California — and join GMO Free USA! — if you think it’s about d*** time.
Image credit: Creative Commons photo by david_shankbone.
15 thoughts on “GMOs in Mainstream Media: Bill Maher on Labeling”
Monsanto’s attempt to keep us in the dark about what’s in our food seems to be on the verge of unraveling. Facts are stubborn things, and all the whitewash bought with corporate money can go only so far. We’re all in the debt of EDB, Tanya Sitton, and Bill Maher. I’m circulating this article among all my friends and conversation-partners and strongly encourage others to do the same.
I agree with an assessment I came across on ‘Natural News,’ that this issue will be won or lost on the internet. That’s why all the GMO posts on EDB have a zillion comments: industry ‘media specialists’ who never comment on, say, vegan bread recipes or herb gardening tips or anything else here come out of the woodwork to rave about how awesome GMO foods are, whenever anyone writes about the labeling issues… because public awareness is killin’ em. :)
Thanks for reading, and for sharing, and for valueing this issue! It’s a biggie, and I think we’re close to real progress!
I can understand some people not caring, some people just don’t, but I can’t understand why someone would be pro-GMO unless they personally profited from it. As a society we are almost wholly against scientists making sure we have a green-eyed boy who’ll be taller than we are when he grows up, but mess around with our food sources all you want? No thanks. Not till I see some independent test results.
Crazy radical! Er, I mean, ignorant naive person! Um, no: ANTI-SCIENCE PERSON!!! (heehee, irony is fun)…
4%: that’s the percentage of the population opposing GMO labeling (http://justlabelit.org/one-million-strong-record-breaking-comments-delivered-to-fda-to-label-ge-foods/). This issue throws a big current events question into sharp relief: is the US actually still a representative democracy? or have we embraced corporate oligarchy to the point that what citizens want from their government is completely irrelevant to lawmaking?
GMO labeling is the canary in the democracy mine shaft. Monsanto vetoed voters in CT and VT; are multinational megacorporations in charge of our laws now? does it even matter what California voters want?
Time will tell; I think it’s a pivotal point, regarding whether the US is a reason-and-law-based representative democracy or a corporate-greed driven oligarchy. One situation surely seems more appealing than the other.
Thanks for your thoughts!
P.S. I’m very excited to see some public figures taking interest in this issue!
You didn’t mention that there have been dozens of completely independent, long-term feeding studies with GMO crops conducted by labs around the world that have confirmed the safety of the commercial GMO crops.
There are many additional reasons not to label. The first is that it isn’t as easy as most people think to track major commodity grain crops because to keep things separate requires all sorts of inefficiencies to do with harvest equipment, of-farm storages, grain elevator handling and transportation. The grain supply is much like a river – it combines supply from myriad sources.
It is also very easy for someone who believes they want to avoid GMO foods to do so. There are only a hand full of fruits or vegetables which are or every will be GMO for economic reasons. It is really just about ingredients in processed food. Organic already goes to the expense of keeping grain crops separate so those who choose to be skeptical about the science can simply buy from that supply. There is no justification to force everyone else to pay higher costs for creating a new parallel stream.
As for existing FDA labeling, the original bill was called the Food Labeling and Education act. Unfortunately, the education part was never funded so the value of the labeling varies a great deal depending on the educational level of the consumer. Without a public education effort about GMO crops, the same thing would happen.
Thanks for your thoughts, Steve. Please share any science links here — I’m sure (given the history of secrecy and data suppression by the companies involved) you understand a certain amount of consumer skepticism. Of course all independent studies should be reviewed on their merits; but please note that ‘GMO crops’ cover quite a swath… you can’t scientifically assert that ‘GMO crops are safe’ based on testing one particular data set — ie, if the studies you refer to involve, say, Roundup Ready soybeans, results wouldn’t be applicable to Bt corn (or any other GM product).
It’s a free market system; GMO products should be subject to the same pressures as every other manufactured food. If that’s more expensive for producers, that’s just part of doing business in a capitalist society. In the same vein, saying, ‘it’d be too expensive to market our products if we had to provide accurate labeling’ seems pretty weak to me. Whether it’s ‘easy’ or not doesn’t move me. If they’d been labeled in the first place, rather than sneaked into our food supply without public awareness, it wouldn’t be an issue.
It ISN’T actually all that easy to avoid GMO ingredients without accurate labeling… I assume you only say that because you’ve never tried to do so. Like so much GMO hype: saying so doesn’t make it true.
There was no “sneaking.” You are just too young to have been aware of it. I recently posted about a meeting I attended back in 1988 where all the GMO safety issues were quite publicly discussed.
Also, the real resistance to labeling came from the FDA itself and from the food manufacturers. This was not some company conspiracy. Back in the early 90s when this was the discussion it involved lots of small companies and Universities as well.
As for those independent studies, they really cover all the basis in terms of the specific events, the crops, and many different animal species.
Finally, if there is mandatory labeling and it manages to generate enough fear to create a bigger-than-organic non-GMO market, the precedent of Organic suggests that these grains will be sourced from China and other such places. Its just simple economics:
The fact that most US consumers didn’t know they were eating 70%+ GMO foods until recently, plus the repeated and overt attempts by certain companies to restrict access to testing and unflattering data about its products DOES denote sneaky behavior.
Also, I’m 41. Just fyi. But thanks for your assumption! I credit my organic vegan diet — I often ‘pass’ for much younger than is really the case. You’re sweet to say so.
I’ll look at the links you posted, and will review each study on its merits. Animal models have their place, especially if studies are conducted (a) over long enough periods to assess more than simple acute toxicity; and (b) by independent non-industry-controlled researchers (which criteria I will look closely to confirm). If there are no problems at all with any of these studies — which I will review with an open but skeptical mind, and encourage EDB readers to do the same — GMO labeling is still the only reasonable way forward. The central point stands: without tracking how much GMO food actual humans are actually consuming, there’s no way to know (now or ever) if problems emerge regarding GMOs and human health. As I’m sure you know, animal models don’t always parallel human physiology.
I notice no rebuttal for environmental or socioeconomic reasons that consumers might choose to avoid GMO foods, if given a fair choice in the marketplace.
The FDA is not funding the pushback against GMO labeling. If you track the fake ‘grass roots organizations’ and front groups campaigning hard against the CA labeling initiative, you don’t find the FDA. (Hint: multinational megabillionaire corporate person with a history of acting like an a**hole, name starts with ‘m’ and rhymes with ‘nonplant-o’)
If consumers want non-GMO (note: that’s not necessarily organic, you seem to be deliberately mixing GMO and conventional into one group, which is misleading), it will be more profitable for growers to produce non-GMO crops; so they will. That’s how a free market capitalist economy works. China? really? that’s your argument?
Have you heard of pink slime? I’ll check, but as far as I know we’re not suddenly importing pink-slime-free beef products from China. The market supplies what demand supports. You’re right — it IS just simple economics.
If there is a lack of rebuttal it just means I don’t have the time or inclination to write a tome.
Think about this. Your “my food my way” thing sounds like a spoiled child. This would mean a bunch of urban and suburban folks in California get to tell thousands of independent farmers how they want them to farm even though those consumers know virtually nothing about the challenges faced by the growers. The reason that farmers have adopted GMO crops so overwhelmingly where ever politics has not trumped science is that they make the farmer’s business better. Reduced risks, easier management of many different fields, higher incomes – it all depends on the crop and trait. These people take enormous economic risks and work very hard within the constraints of nature to feed us. To see consumers act as though farmer’s opinions mean nothing is something sad to watch.
As for the China thing. Doing “identity preservation” of something like an Organic or non-GMO crop take time and money. The premium that the farmer is paid does not always overcome the increased risk and normally lower productivity. In the case of organic dry ingredients, there has been a shift to Chinese suppliers – you can read about this on Mother Jones or Slate or any number of sources. For the non-gmo there is the risk that you could try to keep it separate, but unlike Organic where they have actually test for anything, there will be very sensitive kits out there that people could use to reject whole lots for what the industry calls “adventitious presence.” That has happened to lots of growers who tried to tap the non-GMO soybean market. It is easier for the organic food manufacturers to take the cheaper, imported option (although I for one studiously avoid foods imported from China because of the extensive environmental pollution and the well documented tendency for players to cheat as with the melamine in milk, and for a completely inadequate system to check for mycotoxins).
Also, there has been a fundamental shift underway in the global grain markets. We have seen unprecedented price spikes which really hurt the world’s poor that often depend on grain imports. We don’t feel it much because we spend very little of our income on food. They might spend 50-75% of theirs.
American grain production is a very important contributor to the global supply. Watch – this year’s drought in the midwest will probably show up in the FAO food price index within a month or two. I’m convinced that climate change is upon us and so it will be harder and harder for farmers to keep up with demand. Europe could be a lot less of a competitor with the world’s poor for grain – mostly GMO grain they feed their animals – but they won’t listen to their own scientists about biotech safety. We certainly don’t need to contribute less to overall supply because some consumers didn’t happen to read or hear any of the information which has been abundantly available for 20 years.
Well, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think it’s important to consider all sides in any significant debate, but nothing you’ve raised seems to me to be stronger than the reasons in favor of labeling GMO foods.
What do you say to farmers who want GMO labels? Many where I live don’t like how farming has changed since the rise of Monsanto dominance of the seed market… to me this doesn’t look like a consumer vs farmer issue; if some of the consumers (clamoring for GMO labeling) ARE farmers, or farm workers, does that affect your position? or no?
Monsanto’s ‘food my way’ argument has been the spoiled child on the US food scene for the last 30 years… They’ve gotten everything they’ve asked for, policy-wise, when it comes to what US consumers are (not) allowed to know about their food. It seems intellectually dishonest to me to use that argument against consumers who simply want the right to know what they’re eating — and to be able to choose it (or not) based on whatever reasons make sense to them.
Free market, yo. Monsanto can compete or not, based on fair labeling of biotech products. Consumer choice is the key issue; nothing you’ve said changes that. But thanks for sharing your point of view.
You are indulging in demonization as if this was all about one company. Biotech crops are something that has been developed by many companies large and small and much of the early progress was in Europe. Recently there have been GMO crops developed by governmental groups (e.g. in China and Brazil). There have been GMO crops developed by grower groups.
I wish you could know the people who made this happen over these last decades. They are nothing like what you probably imagine. I’ve had the opportunity to know a great many of them in various contexts since 1977. Most of the pioneers are just retiring now. These are idealistic folks serious about the challenge of feeding the world. Many now work at NGOs dedicated to helping third world farmers.
Thanks for letting me put in a little bit of the “other side.” I would recommend that people who want to hear more look at something like the biofortified site (www.biofortified.com)
Ah, nope. Monsanto is still the big name in terms of biotech development; to quote the muppets, ‘whodoyouthink you’re foolin’? yeah/ right/ sure!’… or to quote a journalism professor of my acquaintance, ‘It ain’t slander if it’s true.’ Demonization would be wasted time: simple reporting continues to suffice.
Interestingly, ‘the early progress in Europe’ involved GMO bans and mandatory labeling… go figure! Good model: bring it on.
Since human beings are quite complex creatures, I’m sure some of the individuals responsible for ‘making this happen’ had quite charming personal characteristics otherwise. Sadly for proponents of consumer ignorance regarding GMO food products, that doesn’t make any difference whatsoever in terms of current food policy debate. GMO labeling is still a good idea, regardless of personal warm fuzzies you may feel towards your professional predecessors.
I always encourage people to consider ‘the other side’ of the GMO labeling issue — because its logic is weak, and thererfore supports the position I advocate! There are many good reasons to label GMO foods in the US, and (unless your salary depends upon it) no good reasons not to do so.
EDB readers are goats, not sheep. I leave it to them to weigh the arguments, read the studies, and critically weigh the merit of your arguments. To me, they fall tremendously short. If biotech companies can compete, via good science, so be it. But they don’t deserve an exemption from consumer choice, and to ask for such is ludicrous.
The core issue is still consumer choice in a free market economy. For reasons of health, environment, and social ethics many people would rather buy non-GMO foods. Monsanto/ Dow/ Bayer have the right to plead their case, but DO NOT have the right to supersede consumers’ decisions about what they wish to consume or avoid. No argument you’ve voiced even comes close to addressing that fundamental truth.
Ok, one last attempt. What has Bill Maher ever contributed to the world’s food supply? What have you contributed? How is Eat Drink Better contributing to the effort to feed the world in an age of climate change?
Consumers certainly have rights, but food consumers are a highly dependent class of people for something they need daily. There are lots of products we all buy that are completely optional. Food is not one of them (except for our detailed preferences).
For most of human history, food producers were the majority of society. It is only in recent times that they have become the majority that can be detached, uninformed, and demanding about their food.
I was told, growing up, that my great grand mother from Germany would always say to picky kids, “Ya, you need to be hungry.”
I’ll stop with that
Of course you’re right: consumers have no right to know what they’re eating, and farmers have no right to compete based on consumer demand. Since food is NOT optional, it should be exempt from the disclosure rules that apply to (for example) the contents of a mattress, or a totally optional item such as bug spray. Yep: that TOTALLY makes sense! (eye roll)
GMO foods have done nothing to earn an exemption to the rules we apply to every other kind of food or manufactured product; and it’s not about consumer interests versus farmer interest — that’s pure spin — it’s about consumer and farmer interests weighed against the interests of the biotech megacorporations, and those whose salaries they pay. In accordance with the will of US voters, US law should be based on the needs and the benefit of US consumers and farmers; the end!
Look: I know you have a good gig as an ‘agribusiness consultant.’ I respect the fact that you’ve worked hard in your chosen field, and it makes sense that you’re invested in a pro-biotech outcome. Got it!
But the fact remains that THAT’S NOT A GOOD ENOUGH REASON not to label GMO foods. It doesn’t change the impossibility of collecting meaningful health impact data; it doesn’t change the environmental impact of GMO crops; and it doesn’t change the socioeconomic impact of virtual seed monopolies on farming communities. It doesn’t change the vital fact that people have a fundamental right to know what they’re eating, and what industrial practices they’re supporting. It matters not at all whether Monsanto, Dupont, Mycogen, or WHOEVER manufactures X product agrees with my decision about what I eat: it should be mine, not theirs. If you want to eat GMO food, if you are completely comfortable with it: fine! Feel free. We’re not talking about a ban, here. We’re talking about simple information.
If you want to argue that some specific biotech applications are worth exploring, I’ll listen (if the science is strong enough and from unbiased sources); but if you argue for consumer ignorance, and against consumer choice, your platform caves under the weight of its own foolishness. That’s unsustainable, in every way, and crumples under any kind of objective scrutiny.
But as always, thanks for reading and for sharing your views. I think it’s instructive for EDB readers to see the weakness of the anti-labeling arguments, and appreciate your help in sharing that message.