Voters Also Have a Right to Know the Science Behind GMOs

 A guest post by Viet Le

On November 6th, California voters will decide if foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) will require labeling. Prop37 argues that consumers have a right to know so that they can make informed choices regarding the foods they buy. One of the issues that scientists have with this initiative is that Prop37, as well as media coverage of GMOs, contain misleading language that distorts the science behind how GMOs are made and how safe they are for consumption. This raises the question of how useful GMO food labels would be if there is general public misconception on the topic.



“Katie PhD” explains “what exactly IS a genetically modified plant” on her blog, see below.

 Many scientists and science communicators are seizing this opportunity to educate the public about GMOs. Some are taking the opportunity to explain to the public what a GMO actually is while others are providing insight concerning the safety of GMO foods. Others are exposing flaws in a recent study that claims GMO maize causes cancer (More related links can be found in Keith Kloors’ article in Slate).

Unsurprisingly, those entering the fray can also expect to have their credibility questioned. The food industry corporations, having spent a considerable amount of money in an effort to defeat Prop37, have provided the anti-GMO/pro-labeling crowd with a convenient way to dismiss or discredit scientists defending GMOs: they are all corporate shills (or worse).

This, of course, is absurd. Could industry money be swaying science’s stance on GMOs? Maybe. But if buying off scientists were that easy or rampant, then why aren’t more scientists climate change skeptics?

Absent polling data, it’s unclear to me where scientists fall on the issue of GMO labeling. Informally, in my interactions with other scientists, their stances on GMO labeling are not monolithic. Some are pro, some are anti, while others are ambivalent. The issue for most scientists, I think, is not so much the labeling requirement itself, but the distortion of information being used to justify it and how that ultimately undermines science. The difficulty, of course, is that scientists are trying to engage the public dispassionately about a topic the public takes very personally.

In my view, I don’t think GMO foods require labeling, but I certainly respect the public’s right to vote on this issue. However, by Prop37’s logic, if the consumer has a right to know if foods contain GMOs in order to make informed decisions, then the public also has the right to information so that they can make an informed vote. By frivolously discrediting scientists, anti-GMOer’s instill doubt in science and in some sense, deny the public access to that knowledge.

Not every scientist defending GMOs is a corporate shill–most of us are just making sure that the public is getting accurate information.

Related Reading:

“Katie PhD” blog

Prop 37 and the Right to Know Nothing: ”…the central irony of Prop 37 that in backing the bill they are, in tangible ways, working to ensure they do not get information that will be actually useful to them.”

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The transfer of genes between unrelated organisms happens. All. The. Time.

Viet Le is a graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. He describes his research interest as “Understanding how cells communicate via molecular languages, known as signal transduction pathways.” Not surprisingly, he’s also interested in how the scientific community communicates with the general public. He believes that a well-informed public will be essential in shaping the policies that affect science education and research in our country. Viet Le blogs now at Amasian Science. Later this fall he’ll be joining a new public health blog debuting on the PLOS BLOGS Network.
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10 Responses to Voters Also Have a Right to Know the Science Behind GMOs

  1. I have the utmost respect for the scientific method and many scientists, but scientists and companies should not be the gatekeepers of all knowledge. It is not their job or place. There’s a reason fast food restaurants have nutritional information (that few care about) and my pharmaceutical drugs come with lengthy pamphlets I can choose to read or not to read. The key point there is “I can choose.” And, yes, sometimes I may indeed be ignorant about something I’ve read, but I may still find something concerning, meaning the initial information becomes a starting point for me to learn more from those who are experts so I can make a decision for myself.

    With GMOs as they are now, without labeling, it promotes ignorance. Why do you think people are so ignorant about GMOs? Because so few even know they’re eating GM foods to want to learn anything about them! The current level of public ignorance shouldn’t dictate whether the public gains access to information.

    Personally, I take no issue with eating GMOs; however, I do take issue with giving my money to some of the companies who produce them. I’m not alone in that. As a consumer in a society that gets off on saying it’s a free market (laughable), I should be able to access tools that enable me to spend my dollars the way I want. And if someone else thinks my choices–which do not affect them–are ignorant, so what?

    As for feeding the poor and ending world hunger, GMOs may indeed go a long way to helping, but for every step forward they may take us, there are two steps backward as companies like Monsanto use their money and power to become nothing short of patent trolls. That’s the sort of behavior I don’t want to fund, even if it’s only by way of a few dollars here and there.

    • aed939 says:

      Yes, I personally choose not to eat GM foods–that’s my choice. But it is near impossible to determine whether or not foods have GM content unless you opt for much more expensive USDA Organic.

      What we have here is a market failure due to with incomplete information about the product. The government can clearly improve the markets by requiring labels. The issue here is that, in the past, the government has justified their labeling requirements narrowly–in the name of public health, public safety, or to promote standards of identity in order to prevent fraud. Whenever there is a pre-emerging health issue, it takes years or decades to scientifically tie the strong consumer sentiment to public health or safety. I submit, then, that strong consumer preference should be enough to justify the government’s intervention to require the desired information and to thereby greatly improve the market functioning for food products.

  2. aed939 says:

    Actually, the illustration is inaccurate. In the bottom right, the organism is identified as a “transgenic plant.” However, it is actually a transgenic *organism* because it contains genes from a plant and a bacterium. Furthermore, many packaging labels are currently inaccurate. For example, what is called “Bt corn” is also a transgenic organism. So if one uses “Bt corn” flour in a food product and lists the ingredient simply as corn flour, it is mislabeled. The flour was derived from a Bt-corn transgenic organism, and should be labeled as such.

    • Ben says:

      Like it or not, that’s generally the way that these organisms are referred to. I’ve done some work with transgenic E. coli, and the use of nomenclature is similar: just label it according to the bulk of the genetic material present. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

  3. Ginger says:

    So, as I understand it, you are okay with food that contains toxic chemicals such as the BT Toxin in corn? And that our food should be modified for the convenience of the likes of Monsanto and Dow rather than be produced in it’s natural state the way nature intended.

    There are two sides to every story and I do not believe that the scientists are always right especially if they are under the control of big corporations. If the science behind the GMO foods was saw flawless and safe than why are they so afraid to label a package with the three letters “GMO”.

    We see what science does with pharmaceuticals that often times create more problems than they solve. Why in the world should we as consumers allow GMO foods to be shoved down our throats without even having the chance to say we don’t want it. It’s our right to make a choice and Monsanto, et al, don’t want us to have that choice.

    Sorry, I for one, do not trust this science. It’s one thing to cross pollinate within a species and a totally different thing to cross the species line to create new food varieties or to add toxic chemicals to our food.

    If GMO food is so safe, why does Monsanto and it’s cohorts need to spend $37 million dollars to defeat Prop 37. Something is very suspicious.

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  5. George says:

    I see alot of non monsanto sponsored studies on gmo crops show that rats get tumors and live shorter lives so I’m sold on not eating gmo.

    Specially when their own cafeteria doesn’t use their own craps and gmo crops are also designed to produce pesticide and also absorb huge amounts of pesticide that would normally kill any normal plant.

    Monsanto made corn that produced it’s own growth hormone to feed to livestock.
    Next Monsanto can make corn that makes people docile and obedient and obey, they can call it anti psychotic corn.

  6. David says:

    I would like to see more studies on the effects of GMO plants with pest and/or pesticide resistance on the environment. BT genes are a good example. Does BT have downstream effects on other invertebrates ?

    Personally I would be more concerned with residual herbicide and pesticide in food than antifreeze genes. There just needs to be more scientific public engagement on these issues.

  7. GMO Aware says:

    The desire to know about more the foods we’re eating still exists despite the disappointing failure of the GMO labeling mandate of Proposition 37. If you want to avoid GMOs in your food, there are still alternatives, including buying organic, as any product that carries the USDA organic seal cannot contain GMOs. In addition, be sure to pay attention to the little stickers on your grocery store produce. The numbers on these sticker indicate how the produce was farmed: 4 digits = conventionally farmed, likely subjected to herbicides and/or pesticides; 5 digits, beginning with 9 = organic certified, no GMOs, pesticides, or herbicides; 5 digits, beginning with 8 = conventionally farmed and GMO, almost certainly subjected to herbicides and/or pesticides. Stay healthy!

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