Imagine for a moment that Amtrak trumpeted a “study” conducted by a supporter that showed airline travel caused cancer or other horrible diseases, despite a contrary scientific consensus. The public would likely be skeptical given the source, and neutral scientists would scrutinize the study’s methodology. If serious flaws were found, you’d expect the outrage in the media would be considerable.
But when opponents of genetically improved food crops promoted such a study (that was recently retracted), the outrage was absent. The media "responded" to strong scientific criticisms and the ultimate withdrawal with a back-page snore. Unfortunately, all but the most interested members of the public lost a critical opportunity to learn that an overwhelming scientific consensus finds crop biotechnology safe.
To recap: A French study calling into question the safety of genetically engineered food was published in late 2012, just as Californians were preparing to vote whether to be the first U.S. state to require that foods having genetically improved ingredients should be labeled as such. Genetic improvement of food crops functions on the same principles as selective breeding, a process farmers have used for millennia, with the key difference being that scientists use precise processes to get the plants to express the desired traits, rather than trial and error.
Rudolf Buehler, founder and head of the farmer's association of the town of Schwaebisch Hall (Baeuerliche Erzeugergemeinschaft Schwaebisch Hall), demonstrates in front of the German federal chancellery with free-range pigs on January 15, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. The pigs, which are not treated with hormones or antibiotics except in medical emergencies and are only fed with non-genetically-modified food, were brought to the demonstration as a symbol against industrial farming and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement to be negotiated between the European Union and the United States that organic farmers see as a threat to environmental protection, health and safety standards as well as consumer rights. Credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images
The American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) oppose the labeling scheme, with the AAAS noting, “Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.” As for the French study, science has finally caught up with the hype. Since its publication, it has been debunked by six different French scientific academies, as well as the German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment, the European Food Safety Authority, and dozens of other scientists.
And now, following all of that, the journal that published the study has taken the extraordinarily rare step of retracting it altogether. That puts the genetically-improved-foods-are-dangerous activists in the same discredited camp of the vaccines-cause-autism nuts and cellphones-cause-cancer data-fudgers.
There is no credible evidence anywhere that biotechnology causes harm to consumers. As a result, the World Health Organization affirms, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
Voters have heard the messages: California and Washington State voters defeated labeling proposals at the ballot box in 2012 and this November. But losses and the retraction of their only appearance of evidence hasn’t stopped activists. The same labeling scheme that flopped in Washington and California is being brought to Oregon, Colorado, and the national level in campaigns that will likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
This photo taken Oct. 16, 2013 shows corn harvested and dumped into a waiting truck on Larry Hasheider's farm in Okawville, Ill. Hasheider grows soybeans, wheat and alfalfa on the farm, nestled in the heart of Illinois corn country where he also has 130 dairy cows, 500 beef cattle and 30,000 hogs and even gives tours, something he says he never would have done 20 years ago. Add one more item to the list of chores that Larry Hasheider has to do on his 1,700-acre farm: defending his business to the American public. There's a lot of conversation about traditional agriculture recently, and much of it is critical. Among the issues people are concerned about: genetically modified crops, overuse of hormones and antibiotics, inhumane treatment of animals and whether the government subsidizes unhealthy foods. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
A small part of what’s driving campaigners is ideology—a misguided crusade by environmentalists with any “chemical-sounding” product presumed evil and anything “natural” presumed good. Ironically, it’s a gross misunderstanding of the natural world: “All-natural” deadly nightshade and hemlock are lethal poisons, as are thousands of other natural compounds. At the same time, the vast majority of lifesaving drugs and vaccines are all synthesized in laboratories by scientists.
More insidious, though, is the crony capitalism driving these campaigns. Hiding behind advocates’ purported concern for a “right to know” about genetically improved ingredients is the hope that unnecessary labels will scare consumers to spend more on organic or “non-GMO certified” products.
The efforts are bankrolled by organic food and consumer products manufacturers who want the government to advertise against their competitors. In both California and Washington State, three of the largest donors to the campaign to require that genetically improved foods be labeled were Mercola Health Resources, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and Nature’s Path Foods. In Washington State alone, Dr. Bronner’s dropped over $2.2 million, with the other two companies putting up over $100,000 each. All three sell organic foods or organic consumer products, which claim to avoid biotechnology.
Next time you see a campaign to label a safe product you ought to question, “Why the noise and fuss?” Perhaps we really need a label for consumer scare claims.
Will Coggin is a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.
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