GMO Labeling Moves Forward, Leaving Science Behind

CC: Daniel Goehring

It appears that the GMO labeling debate is nearing its end. GMOs altered through the process of transgenesis, the process of introducing an exogenesis gene into another organism, will soon become labeled on food packages across the nation. Some will be labeled because of new regulations, such as in Vermont. Others will be labeled because large food companies can’t guarantee that what they package with a non-GMO label will not end up in a state like Vermont that requires the GMO label.

Advocates of labeling like to claim that this is a victory for transparency. They claim that this allows the consumer to know what he or she is eating. They point to health risks from GMOs. They claim that this is a victory for the little guy against Big Ag, and its supporting industries such as the dreadful Monsanto.

All that is certain about this is that there is a big loser: science. Ignorance has scored another victory.

A case could be made for transparency if there was meaningful information being provided to the consumer. However, the labels are only going to state that the product is a “genetically modified” something or “produced from genetically modified” something.

This falls far short of other labeling requirements that the consumer has become familiar. Cigarettes don’t state that they contain just tobacco. They explicitly state the dangers of heart disease, cancer or dangers to pregnant women. Nutrition labeling identifies the amount of calories and specific nutrient content in a food. Even ingredient labeling provides helpful information by ranking the ingredients in decreasing order of volume.

GMO labeling fails in comparison. It doesn’t identify GMOs like golden rice from herbicide-resistant crops. Golden Rice takes the gene for beta-carotene from another plant and inserts it into rice to increase the availability of Vitamin A to prevent blindness and death among children in developing countries. Herbicide-resistant crops are developed so that they are resistant to products like Monsanto’s Roundup. This allows the herbicide to be used liberally among crops. Although no studies have found any health dangers in herbicide-resistant foods, there are legitimate concerns about the environmental effects from increased herbicide use. Golden rice and herbicide-resistant rice are far from the same thing, but in the scheme of GMO labeling, they are treated the same.

Far from providing informative guidance, GMO labeling deceives the reader into believing they know enough to make a judgment. It clumps that which is good or bad in biotechnology and throws it all under suspicion. While it doesn’t specifically identify herbicide-resistant GMOs, it also doesn’t specifically identify GMO crops that can be grown in otherwise non-agricultural soils or ones that are drought resistant or those that allow for the use of even fewer pesticides than non-GMO crops.

GMO labeling is not a door to transparency, but a mask that hinders the identification of less desirable GMOs from the more desirable ones. That isn’t just a misrepresentation of GMOs, but a disingenuous strategy that mocks the real nature of transparency, which is to provide openness, information and accountability. The argument for GMO labeling masks the critical debate needed on how the technology should be applied.

Labeling advocates argue that there are risks to GMOs, but decades of scientific studies have not identified a single health risk. Ask a labeling advocate what is the hazard to fear, and their specifics are silent. The only argument presented is a nebulous to be discovered health risk. This is not to deny that a GMO may pose a health risk at sometime, but that needs to be born out in studies the same way a new drug is introduced into the market. Blind fears of frankenfoods provide no factual evidence. When a health risk is found, it shouldn’t be labeled. It should be banned. First, we have to find the health risk.

The idea that transgenesis is dangerous because a gene could cause undesirable side effects is ridiculous when compared with how many genetic crop varieties have been developed since World War II through a process known as mutagenesis. While transgenesis is a highly selective process of identifying and sniping DNA to create a limited mutation, mutagenesis is a bit like rolling the dice on the DNA craps table. Mutagenesis involves the use of radiation or toxic chemicals to create mutations. While these agents are somewhat predictable in the effects that they have, other DNA is altered as well. What that will be is unpredictable. Yet, there are over 2,200 crops that have been developed from this process. No one is requiring labeling of those genetically modified organisms. People eat them without adverse health effects. Their seeds drift into the environment or mingle with non-mutagenetic crops on farms. Yet, there is no outrage over this.

Perhaps the most baffling part of the GMO labeling argument is that labeling advocates have little or no interest in labeling the pesticides used on a food. While demanding that there be GMO labels so that consumers may know what they are eating, there is no significant movement to inform the consumer of pesticide use on crops. We do know that exposure to pesticides causes health risks. However, nowhere is it a requirement that rice farmers, for example, list the pesticides used in growing it. Yet, if DNA is taken from a carrot to increase beta-carotene, then there are irrational health concerns.

A primary reason for the lack of interest in identifying pesticides on labels is that neither traditional nor organic farmers want this. We know that traditional agriculture uses lots of pesticides, but few people realize that organic growers are allowed to use about 20 pesticides in doses far exceeding the doses of synthetic pesticides as this Scientific American article in 2011 reports:

[It] turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971 1. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.

If you think that because these are “natural” pesticides, then it is okay, well, try some rattlesnake venom on your plate or roll your own filterless cigarette from a tobacco leaf. They are both as natural as can be and are dangerous to one’s health.

Then there is the political argument that always centers around Monsanto. For many on the left, Monsanto has become a bogeyman for all that is wrong in the food production chain. A common argument is that they want to develop herbicide-resistant crops so that they can sell more Roundup. They would probably like that, but so what? Monsanto is a corporate giant interested only in profits. So is Exxon, Walmart, Home Depot and every other corporation that Americans buys services and goods from on a daily basis. That is the nature of corporate giants. They need to make money to stay in business. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that since it leads to more efficiency and cheaper products. Of course, when that compromises the public health, environment or other concern, then it is a problem.

While Monsanto is a huge corporation, it is about the same size as Whole Foods, which is not the brunt of the corporate hatred that Monsanto endures. Whole Foods, like Monsanto, is a corporate giant also only interested in profits. The entire Monsanto bogeyman argument centers around political passions, not reason. For that, it shouldn’t even be considered as a reason to oppose GMOs.

GMO labeling isn’t going to make foods safer or the environment better. It is likely to do the opposite. It will tarnish all GMO foods as bad when there is no evidence that they are. Science will become restricted. Breakthroughs to feed a hungry world more economically will slow. The necessity to create crops to adjust to climate change as the world becomes warmer and drier will not be addressed as speedily. Less efficient crops will be used on less desirable land  that will stress the natural environment even further. A far better solution than GMO labeling would have been to create a movement where foods are voluntarily labeled as non-GMO, like Kosher foods. It wouldn’t provide any helpful information either, but those who want to know what is GMO free could make a choice as they desire. Instead, we are left with an assault on science for the same reason that science is always assaulted —  fear and ignorance.

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Science and the Presidential Election

As voting begins for the primaries and caucuses of the 2016 Presidential election, reason appears to have taken a backseat to emotions as the catalyst for supporting a candidate. The 2016 Presidential election is not as much about improving the economy or developing a coherent foreign policy, but making the sand glow in the Middle East by carpet bombing ISIS or building a wall on the Mexican border to be paid for by Mexico. Instead of intellectual discourse or detailed plans, this election is beset by fear, symbolism and personal insults. American voters are left with candidates short on substance and long on rhetoric. The candidates’ positions on science exemplifies their paucity at understanding reality.

Fourteen candidates remain in the hunt for the Democratic and Republican nominations. For many of these candidates, their hope is a slender longshot. There are the three Democrats: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. For the Republicans, 11 remain: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum.

Comparing these candidates on seven major science issues leads to some obvious conclusions, but some surprising positions as well. Anthropogenic climate change, evolution, alternative medicine, space exploration, GMOs, nuclear power and stem cell research cover a broad range of scientific issues from health to outer space.

While most of the candidates accept that the earth is warming, many do not see humans as a cause of it. This is in stark contrast to the near unanimity of the world’s climatologists. Unfortunately, climate change has become more of a political issue than a scientific one. To no surprise, the three Democrats all accept anthropogenic climate change.

On the other side, are the likes of Ted Cruz who stated last year that “the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.” Santorum, Rubio, Trump, Huckabee and Carson are in the same camp of deniers, rejecting that humans are the primary cause of the warming Earth. Trump has even charged that the crisis is entirely a creation by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive.

Fortunately, not all Republican candidates are completely on the side of ignorance. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have taken positions of being not sure. Bush has called the issue “convoluted.” Perhaps, he was simply talking about his position. Paul has acted even more confused, voting both for and against resolutions placing the blame for higher temperatures on human activity.

Only Chris Christie, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina accept that humans are involved, but none of them are ready to propose significant action. Generally, they see the problem needing a global solution and action solely by the United States would be detrimental to the American economy. At least there is some logic in their position and an acceptance that scientists know more about science than pandering politicians.

Without evolution, modern biology would be turned upside down. Yet, few issues exert such profound emotional reactions as the idea that life forms can adapt to changing environments. The opposition is almost always based on religious beliefs. If there is an atheist in the world who denies evolution, then that person is a lonely creature. Evolution is not an issue that often arises in political debates. The issues where it arises usually involves school boards or educational curriculum. Presidential candidates don’t often face those issues. Yet, few issues are as defining as evolution. It is easy to peg most of the political positions of an evolution denier by knowing only that he or she denies evolution.

However, the position of most candidates is unclear. How Sanders, O’Malley, Trump, Fiorina and Cruz view evolution is unknown. An assumption can be made for some candidates, like Sanders, who is the least religious of all the Presidential candidates. Unfortunately, without solid proof, an assumption is a poor alternative to reason and fact. Cruz’ father, an evangelical preacher, calls evolution “a communist lie.” However, Cruz has refused to be cornered by questions about evolution so his position is no more definite than Sanders’.

Paul, Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio have addressed evolution in limited terms, usually by calling for intelligent design to be taught alongside it or by declaring that it is outside their political responsibilities to address. They don’t seem to deny evolution, but all want to avoid appearing to embrace it. The positions of Santorum, Huckabee and Carson are much easier to discern. All three disbelieve in evolution. Only Clinton has openly embraced evolution and rejected the nonsense known as intelligent design.

Few issues have transformed life as modern medicine. It has extended lives and dealt a hearty blow to childhood diseases. Many supporters of alternative medicine are quick to criticize those who doubt anthropogenic climate change for their lack of faith in science. However, the pro-science attitude of these alternative medicine supporters stops when the science involves modern medicine. Unless an alternative medicine practice can pass the same rigorous tests that traditional medicine has met, belief in non-traditional medicine is as sound as believing that climate change is just a vast conspiracy run by scientists in search of lucrative government grants for research.

Like evolution, alternative medicine doesn’t leave a clear track record on most politicians’ resumes. The closest alternative medicine doubter there is among this year’s crop of candidates is John Kasich. Even then, his measuring stick is more of an analogy than fact. Kasich suggested that voters who back non-politicians Trump or Carson to run government is akin to having a sick person turn to alternative medicine over a doctor with a medical license. That’s a very weak link, but at least Kasich degrades alternative medicine…some voters too.

A number of candidates provide no information on where they stand. O’Malley, Santorum, Fiorina, Paul, Rubio and Christie fit that bill. Cruz, may or may not be a friend of alternative medicine, but he did propose a strange bill that would radically speed the approval of new drugs in the United States. If the FDA declined to approve one of these drugs, then Congress could override it. In other words, Cruz is willing to entrust the efficacy of medical drugs on the vote of Washington politicians. That’s a different kind of alternative medicine.

On the other hand, Carson, Trump and Huckabee have enthusiastically marketed natural and unproven medicines. As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush signed a proclamation declaring that alternative health care therapies provide “affordable, quality health care.” Hillary and Bill Clinton have a long association with Dr. Mark Hyman, a promoter of pseudoscience medicine.

However, none of the candidates have a longer history supporting alternative medicine than Bernie Sanders. In 2010, Sanders hosted a Complementary and Alternative Health Care conference. In 1996, he played a crucial role in getting naturopaths licensed in Vermont. Sanders was also responsible for getting the Affordable Care Act to include complementary and alternative medicine. His support for alternative medicine professions comprises a long list.

Space exploration has many supporters among the Presidential candidates. Clinton, O’Malley, Bush, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, Rubio and Kasich robustly support NASA. Perhaps the most ardent supporter of this group is Rubio, who even speaks of militarizing space. Fiorina is a supporter too, but may prefer privatization over NASA.

Despite public support for NASA, Sanders has often voted for cutting NASA’s budget with the argument that the needs of people on the planet must come first. Christie and Trump appear to take a similar position that the earth’s problems must be solved first, but without a nod of general support for NASA. The strongest opponent to space exploration appears to be Paul.

Genetically modified organisms have become a big issue in food politics. While the science is that a gene is a gene and transgenesis is basically no different from traditional plant breeding, except that it is more efficient, critics fear Frankenfoods. In fact, Frankenfoods have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. Staples like broccoli and corn do not exist in nature. They are purely manmade. The current debate surrounds labeling, which is opposed because there are no known health side affects to GMOs.

Most of the candidates support GMOs. Clinton, Paul, Bush, Cruz, Christie, Huckabee, Fiorina and Santorum are supporters. As Fiorina said, “Let’s not ignore the science, GMOs are safe. The scientific evidence is clear.”

O’Malley and Kasich have somehow avoided substantial comments on the subject, while Sanders, Rubio, Carson and Trump oppose GMOs. Trump riled up Iowa voters by tweeting about GMO corn causing brain problems as a reason Carson has so much support.

As the growing threat of natural disasters from climate change looms, the most immediate and effective energy source to combat climate change is nuclear power. While 10,000 people have died from nuclear power since its use as an energy source, almost all the fatalities have come from two horrendous and preventable Soviet accidents. On the other hand, a conservative estimate is that 170,000 people die every year from coal-powered energy. The need to confront the risks of a changing climate is immediate, and nuclear power, along with renewable sources, remains part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions.

When it comes to nuclear power, the lines are split by party. O’Malley and Sanders both oppose nuclear power. Clinton is alone in the middle, apparently trying to play both sides of a controversial issue. Every single Republican is in favor of nuclear power, although it is difficult to pin point Cruz’ position.

Finally, there is stem cell research. Stem cell research was a major issue in 2008. Eight years later, it is still a point of contention, but rarely discussed on the campaign trail. The benefits of stem cells in medicine are indisputable and immense. Further research promises even greater benefits. The argument against it rests solely on the morality of abortion.

To no surprise, this issue breaks down by party even more than nuclear power. All three Democrats support stem cell research. Of course, the eleven Republicans all oppose it.

Taking the totality of these seven issues, one candidate stands out far above the rest. That is Hillary Clinton. Not too far behind are John Kasich and Carly Fiorina with most of the rest bunched after that. Sanders slips towards the bottom, but at the very bottom is Donald Trump.

This list of issues is somewhat arbitrary and there maybe a mistake here and there on a position for the candidates. Seven issues, fourteen candidates, and a lifetime of sometimes shifting positions can make cornering a candidate’s position difficult. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these positions accurately reflects the candidates views. That Trump should rest at the bottom of this list as a science supporter is an uncomfortable thought for the candidate who has the caught the most attention in the election year. It is an indication that many voters prefer rhetoric over facts.

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