Why I believe in labeling GMOs

Hello heroic herpetologists!

Gatsby, stop talking with your mouth full!
Gatsby, stop talking with your mouth full!

Today’s post is a continuation in my long-form series on genetically modified organisms (GMOs): Marathonsam’s Pragmatic Perspectives (click the link to read my initial foray into longer-form journalism). I’m going to share an opinion editorial that I researched and wrote a few months ago covering the impacts of propagating GMO plants on American Agriculture. While I was writing this piece, voters in both Orgeon and Colorado rejected ballot initiatives that would have mandated labeling food made with GMOs. The campaigns on both sides of the issues fought ferociously;  in Oregon the final outcome hinged upon a difference of merely 802 votes. In both cases the opposition SERIOUSLY out-spent the pro-labeling campaigns (over 15 million dollars flowed into Colorado alone). The anti-GMO-labeling coalition, led by the grocery manufacturers of America, PepsiCo, and our old friends at monsanto, tripled their lobbying dollars during 2014, spending over $27 million to oppose efforts to label GMO products.

Oh THESE guys again...
Oh THESE guys again…

Supporters of GMO labeling spent roughly $1.9 million in 2014. Clearly, the spending balance is seriously skewed, which further complicates getting quality information. Opponents of GMO labeling effectively launch a media blitzkrieg whenever the merest hint of a ballot measure begins to take shape.

Not to cast negative aspersions, but seriously these guy's media strategy would have Goebbels saying: "whoa, tone it down."
Not to cast negative aspersions, but seriously these guy’s media strategy would have Goebbels saying: “whoa, tone it down.”

In the face of the onslaught of opposition, the pro-GMO labeling groups tend to rely on shrill, provocative pronouncements warning consumers about toxic tomatoes waiting to pounce off of their supermarket shelves and poison their children.

Cue "Psycho" music
Cue “Psycho” music

Unfortunately, this strategy undercuts their arguments for many reasons. For one thing, most fresh produce available for purchase is categorically NOT produced using GMOs.

Though the world waits with bated breath for a GMO banana phone
Though the world waits with bated breath for a GMO bananaphone

The most common GMO crops in the united states are corn and soybeans. Most Americans only eat corn on the cob on the fourth of July, and would only willingly eat a soybean if they were held at samurai-sword point.

candy corn
We are fond of CANDY corn, though.

However, given the ubiquity of King Corn and his Syrup in processed food, Americans truly do consume a SHOCKING amount of GMO products without their knowledge. Every kernel of candy corn came from GMO corn syrup. GMOs aren’t glowing rutabagas, GMOs look like anything  and everything that comes in a package and contains high-fructose cornsyrup.

Not pictured: GMOs
Not pictured: GMOs
Ironically, though these are gluten free they DEFINITELY have GMO corn syrup in them
GMO corn syrup is 100% gluten free

Whatever a GMO may or may not look like, the claim that these products are innately harmful to human health is PATENTLY UNTRUE. Nothing inside of the tissues of a GMO plant is harmful to humans in and of itself. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. These products are subject to EXTREMELY careful, extensive, long term scrutiny and the basic process of genetically modifying an organism does not do anything to make these products harmful.


Obviously, one COULD genetically modify a potato to produce ricin, if one felt so inclined. That would be one hell of a toxic GMO. However, the modifications that are approved for human consumption do not cause any detrimental impacts on human health. Frankly, it’s more dangerous to eat a serving of unmodified french fries that to sample a GMO soybean.

Think of your arteries!
Think of your arteries!

When proponents of GMO labeling rely on shrill claims that aren’t substantiated by science they undercut their own valid arguments. I believe that GMO products should be labeled because GMO agriculture relies on horrifically bad farming practices and Americans need to know how their food is produced. I wrote up a screed opinion piece making my own case. I’m delighted to share it with you, my gentle readers. I’ve included footnotes with the references that I used to make my claims, in case anyone is interested in pursuing the topic further. Chime in in the comments with your own opinions about GMO labeling, I’d love to hear what you think. Let’s hit the trails to talk GMO labeling!trail


The process is the product: label GMO foods

(marathon)Sam Million-Weaver

The term genetically modified organism (GMO) conjures up images of a chimeric cornucopia overflowing with eternally firm FLAVR-SAVR tomatoes and freeze-resistant flounder-spliced fruit. In reality, the prototypical GMO product sold in America today more closely resembles a common candy bar. While a humble GMO cornstalk may fail to capture the public’s imagination, high-fructose corn syrup derived from amber waves of genetically engineered grain saturates supermarkets from sea to shining sea [1].

I'm going to beat that metaphor to DEATH
Get used to this picture. Corn’s a big player in this story

American consumers are largely uniformed about which items on the shelves of their local grocery stores originate from GMOs. Only 43% of respondents to a recent online survey were aware that food made with GMOs is currently available for sale in this country, and three quarters of those surveyed were under the impression that they had never consumed such a product [16]. Labeling goods generated using GMOs would reveal the ubiquity of these products in our food supply. Current FDA regulations mandate labeling GMO products only if “a bioengineered food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart” [2]. Most GMO products themselves likely are indistinguishable from unmodified food in terms of human health risks. However, GMO plant production is radically different than conventional cultivation techniques. Foods produced using GMOs should be labeled so that consumers may make informed decisions about the agricultural practices that they wish to support.

Purchasing power to the proletariat!
Purchasing power to the proletariat!

A deluge of emotionally charged declarations surrounds the debate over labeling GMOs. Proponents of GMOs claim that they are equivalent to un-modified foodstuffs; opponents assert that these products present a risk to human health. Both statements are misleading. Extensive long-term feeding studies in animals demonstrate that GMO foods are broken down into their nucleic acid and protein building blocks and digested just like any other plant [3]. No investigation has ever found any direct negative health effects associated with eating GMO foods [4] and the only paper ever to purport that GMOs are potentially hazardous to humans was widely discredited and subsequently retracted [5]. However, the agricultural methods used to produce these products render them distinct from un-modified organisms, changing the way that farmers cultivate their fields. The farming practices associated with GMOs deserve careful scrutiny, and consumers deserve to know how their food is produced.

How the hell do you make these things anyhow?
How the hell do you make these things anyhow? What part is Ding and what part is Dong?

GMO agriculture has fundamentally altered farming in the United States. Since the advent of the first commercially available GMO crops in 1996, adoption of these technologies has expanded to such a degree that the majority of American agriculture is produced using GMOs. Genetically modified organisms made up 93% of American corn crops and 94% of soybeans in 2014 [1]. Corn and soybeans cover roughly half of the United States’ 335 million acres of commercial cropland (85 million and 73.8 million acres, respectively) and these commodities are extensively used as livestock-feed [6]. Proponents argue that these products are a boon to the economy, noting that agricultural yield has increased by 22% and that farmers have seen a 68% increase in profits over the past two decades [7]. This increased productivity stems from farmers sidestepping costly traditional pest control measures, through the cultivation of genetically engineered insect-resistant or herbicide tolerant organisms [1,7].

Insect resistant organisms are actually pretty miraculous
Insect resistant organisms are actually pretty miraculous

Insect-resistant GMOs encode proteins that are harmless to humans but lethal to any lunching pests. Herbicide-tolerant GMOs are immune to the effects of a particular plant-killing chemical, which allows farmers to easily eliminate invasive weeds while sparing their crops [1]. Both have changed the ways farmers treat their fields: the widespread adoption of insect-resistant crops has seen a 40% reduction in insecticide usage [7]. However, while the use of chemical pesticides targeting insects has declined, the ubiquity of herbicide-tolerant crops has led to an additional 527 million pounds of weed killing chemicals applied to crops over the past 15 years [8]. Despite the reduction in insecticides, pest-management chemical usage overall has increased by 8.9% every year since the advent of GMO agriculture [8].


And WHO sells RoundUp?
And WHO sells RoundUp?

The dramatic increase in herbicide use associated with wide-scale GMO adoption deserves further scrutiny. The most common commercially available herbicide-tolerant GMO crops carry genes rendering them immune to the toxic effects of glyphosphate, the active ingredient in RoundUp weed-killer [1,7,8]. Glyphosphate is regarded as safe to humans [9]. However, the chemical is not used in isolation: any herbicide must be mixed with adjuvants and surfactants before it is applied to plants. While the active ingredient alone is innocuous, the adjuvants are toxic and mutagenic to human cells [10,11]. Indeed, long-term exposure to glyphosphate-containing herbicides is associated with an increased risk of non-hodgkin’s lymphoma [12]. While the herbicide-resistant GMO and glyphosphate alone are both likely completely harmless to humans, dramatic increases in the usage of glyphosphate-containing herbicides have potentially dangerous impacts on health. This is a case where the total risk of the whole system is much greater than the sum of its individually innocuous parts.

Much like eating dinner at Hooters, one of these things probably wouldn't kill you but added together
Much like Hooters’ appetizer menu. One of these things in isolation probably wouldn’t kill you but added together is a one way ticket to a trip bypass

In addition to potential human health risks, herbicide-intensive GMO agriculture alters entire ecosystems. One concern associated with any pest-management practice is the emergence of resistant organisms. Just as antibiotic-resistant “super-bacteria” strike terror into clinicians by rendering traditional treatments ineffective, super-weeds and immune-insects have the potential to devastate a farming system founded in GMOs. Since 2005, over 135 novel glyphosphate resistant weed species have emerged [13], raising concerns about the long-term viability of continuously applying large volumes of this agent to our fields. Insects, by contrast, are slower to develop resistance to the bacterial toxins produced within GMO plants [14]. The presence of alternate non-GMO food sources in the environment and recessive genetic inheritance decreases the selective pressures that facilitate fast spread of a resistance trait [14]. Despite this, resistant species have emerged on several occasions [14], devastating crop yields in the Midwest [15].

Although I could probably do JUST as much damage with my weed-eater
Although I could probably do JUST as much damage with my weed-eater

The environmental impacts and human-health risks of herbicide-intensive large-scale GMO agriculture have largely been overshadowed by the irrelevant debate over the nature of the products themselves. Even though recent initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and California failed to garner sufficient votes to mandate labeling GMO products, a 2013 online survey determined that, when asked directly, 73% of respondents believed that GMO food should be labeled [16]. Labeling items produced with GMOs will reveal the sheer omnipresence of these products to consumers, opening the door for a long overdue conversation about American agricultural practices.

We need to talk
We need to talk


1) United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (July, 2014). Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. Accessed November 8th, 2014 http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/documentation.aspx

2) United States Food and Drug Administration. (2001) Guidance for Industry Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering. Last Updated: July 7th, 2014. Accessed November 12th 2014. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm059098.htm

3) Van eenennaam AL, Young AE. Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. J Anim Sci. 2014;92(10):4255-78.

4) Nicolia A, Manzo A, Veronesi F, Rosellini D. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Crit Rev Biotechnol. 2014;34(1):77-88.

5) Retraction notice to “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize” [Food Chem. Toxicol. 50 (2012) 4221-4231]. Food Chem Toxicol. 2014;63:244.

6) United States Environmental Protection Agency. (April, 2013) Major Crops Grown in the United States. Accessed November 8, 2014. http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/cropmajor.html

7) Klümper W, Qaim M. A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(11):e111629.

8) Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2012;24(1):24.

9) Henderson, A. M.; Gervais, J. A.; Luukinen, B.; Buhl, K.; Stone, D. 2010. Glyphosate Technical Fact Sheet; National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services. http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/glyphotech.html.

10) Mesnage R, Bernay B, Séralini GE. Ethoxylated adjuvants of glyphosate-based herbicides are active principles of human cell toxicity. Toxicology. 2013;313(2-3):122-8.

11) Chaufan G, Coalova I, Ríos de molina Mdel C. Glyphosate commercial formulation causes cytotoxicity, oxidative effects, and apoptosis on human cells: differences with its active ingredient. Int J Toxicol. 2014;33(1):29-38.

12) Schinasi L, Leon ME. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticide chemical groups and active ingredients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014;11(4):4449-527.

13) Heap, I.  The International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.  Accessed: Friday, November 7th 2014.  www.weedscience.org

14) Tabashnik BE, Brévault T, Carrière Y. Insect resistance to Bt crops: lessons from the first billion acres. Nat Biotechnol. 2013;31(6):510-21.

15) Gassmann AJ, Petzold-maxwell JL, Clifton EH, et al. Field-evolved resistance by western corn rootworm to multiple Bacillus thuringiensis toxins in transgenic maize. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014;111(14):5141-6.

16) Hallman WK, Cuite C, Morin X (2013). Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods Working Paper 2013-01. Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. http://humeco.rutgers.edu/documents_pdf/news/gmlabelingperceptions.pdf

10 thoughts on “Why I believe in labeling GMOs

  1. Regarding your assertion that “No investigation has ever found any direct negative health effects associated with eating GMO foods” why did the FDA make StarLink corn illegal for human consumption? Why has the US food supply been monitored for the presence of StarLink since 2001? StarLink is just one more variety of Bt corn. An article from the NY Times in 2009 illustrates some of the challenges in trying to perform the research that you imply has already been done, or doesn’t even need to be done: “People are afraid of being blacklisted,” he said. “If your sole job is to work on corn insects and you need the latest corn varieties and the companies decide not to give it to you, you can’t do your job.” Why stifle research if GMOs are perfectly safe? Why not label them clearly if there’s nothing to hide and nothing to worry about? If (as you say) “the nature of the products themselves” is irrelevant, why not study that nature definitively and independently rather than cursorily and sponsored by the companies that stand to benefit most from studies that exonerate GMOs? Maybe we can agree that if GMOs are actually harmless (although I don’t think StarLink corn ever would be called that), then the large corporations which engineer them are doing themselves and their shareholders a disservice by creating the unnecessary impression of strong-arming, coverup, and suppression. “No evidence of harm” is not a high enough standard, either, not for my children (for example). Why not advocate “clear evidence of harmlessness”? Transparency and good science is always an anecdote to fear and superstition.


    1. I think that we agree with each other, and are talking past each other. I’m in favor of labeling GMOs. I’m against using herbicide tolerant GMOs. However, your comment illustrates precisely the emotional outrage that prevents people from having a calm conversation about this issue.

      I think that GMOs have wreaked havoc on American farming, and I want to see them drastically reduced. However, I intend to make my arguments on scientifically backed evidence, and frankly, the health impacts are besides the point.

      I agree that transparency and good science are critical, ESPECIALLY for food products. The good science indeed indicates that eating anything drenched in glyphosphate is probably a REALLY bad idea. However, the evidence simply does not exist that GMO foods, in general, cause harm. Now, there will always be exceptions: a GMO spliced with peanut genes is dangerous for a person with peanut allergies. However, a peanut butter cookie is also dangerous to this person. It’s not the GMO itself, it’s the ingredients that are harmful.

      Right now we have decades worth of long-term animal feeding studies that indicate that GMOs do not cause adverse health impacts. I know that people are not animals, but I’m curious as to what you propose for an alternative approach? If you believe a product might cause health impacts (like, say, a new pharmaceutical) you establish its safety using animal models.

      As for StarLink corn, here’s what really happened: the GMO contained a protein that was slow to digest, which indicated that it MIGHT be an allergy risk. The FDA did its due diligence and pulled products from the shelves (even though all of the studies indicated that the spliced in protein did not, in fact, present any health risks. After the recall, people panicked and 30 individuals claimed to feel negative health impacts associated with eating StarLink products (taco shells, I believe). Rigorous toxicology testing confirmed that whatever negative effects these people felt categorically could not be attributed to the transgenic protein. Regulators treated the GMO product with EXTREME caution, recalling it just based on the suggestion that it MIGHT cause an allergic reaction because it’s a slow-to-digest protein. The follow-up studies pretty conclusively found that there isn’t any risk associated with StarLink. Unfortunately, the recall gave the impression that the product was indeed harmful, and the subsequent hysteria overshadowed the actual biology.

      I don’t want to get pedantic, because overall I agree with you. However, I think that StarLink is an example of BAD transparency and improper scientific communication, which robs those of us who are against GMOs of credibility. What I find most objectionable about StarLink is not the insect resistance trait, but the herbicide-tolerance gene that was slipped in alongside the protein that caused such a stir…it all comes back to excessive herbicides and crappy farming.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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