Recapping the 2015 GMO debate: Science eclipses ‘Dark’ voices of anti-biotech hysteria

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It’s a bit ironic that my year of pro-GMO activism comes to a close with the New York Times publishing an opinion piece, “Are You Eating Frankenfish?,” slamming GMOs and calling for mandatory labeling from the guy most responsible for my involvement in the issue: Tom Colicchio.

Thanks to my political disagreements with Mr. Colicchio, a celebrity chef and food activist, I discovered the issue of GMOs about a year ago. As a cooking teacher and writer, I had some vague knowledge about GMOs and, like most consumers, had a reflexively negative view of these “ingredients.” But sparring on social media with Colicchio and other foodies about food policy motivated me to learn much more. Since that time, I’ve been an outspoken (and sometimes brash and unapologetic) advocate for genetic engineering while trying to uncover the motives and funders behind the anti-GMO movement.

So I find it somewhat amusing that 2015 wraps up with Colicchio’s op-ed, which rehashes the same hollow arguments I’ve heard from the anti-GMO movement all year. No, Tom, GMO crops do not contribute to cancer and they haven’t resulted in more use of toxic chemicals; and yes, they do encourage food security and new innovations that can lead to better nutrition—if lobbyists like you would stop spreading misinformation.

In my opinion, Colicchio’s commentary reflects the intellectual fatigue of a movement that’s beginning to lose some steam. As 2015 winds down, I think those of us who understand the promise of biotechnology in farming and food have reason to feel cheerful and hopeful about our cause. I’ve seen a gradual shift in the public’s openness to biotechnology since the start of 2015; others feel the same, including many who’ve been in the trenches far longer than I’ve been. Will history view 2015 as a turning point?

Setbacks to mandatory GMO labeling

Mandatory labeling is the movement’s clarion call, the consumer’s so-called “right to know.” The right to know…what? It’s a thinly disguised effort to demonize a new technology by placing a scare label on packages that tells the consumer nothing about the nutritional make-up of a product or whether it was sustainably grown. It boils down to an attack on science and common sense, but is disguised as “consumer rights.”

The year began with the movement regrouping after electoral defeats in Colorado and Oregon, where voters rejected mandatory GMO labels. A bill in Congress – HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act – advanced in the U.S. House much to the alarm of the anti-GMOers. Movement leaders, specifically Stonyfield Chairman Gary Hirshberg, the benefactor of Just Label It, ratcheted up their opposition to the bill. They nicknamed it “The DARK Act” and lobbied lawmakers throughout the spring and summer to vote against HR 1599.

The House passed HR 1599 in July by a wide margin and earned support from several Congressional Black Caucus members concerned, rightly, that the labels would lead to higher food prices. In response to this, Hirshberg posted doctored photos of Black Caucus members wearing Darth Vader masks and calling them “Death Stars.” (One can only imagine the backlash if a Big Food/Ag company had done the same.) Hirshberg even enlisted “celebrity mom” Gwyneth Paltrow to appear at a press conference on Capitol Hill where she urged lawmakers to defeat the bill in the Senate.

The Senate did not act on the bill this December and lawmakers on both sides are promising to revisit the issue in January. Pro-labeling folks are declaring victory, claiming that the omnibus bill asks the Food and Drug Administration to come up with language to label the new genetically-engineered salmon, but that’s not what the bill says. And if you consider a label on a fish a big win after spending tens of millions of dollars and countless hours pushing mandatory GMO labels, you might want to reconsider how you are spending that yogurt fortune.

Speaking of the FDA, that agency has indicated it sees no scientific mandate for GMO labeling. In November, it rejected a petition filed by the Center for Food Safety, an organic industry-funded non-profit, and other anti-GMO groups that demanded the agency require mandatory GMO labels, concluding: “The labeling of food, whether produced through conventional breeding or genetic engineering, is based on material changes to the food’s characteristics and not on individual views regarding the extent to which food production methods differ.”

In an often stinging and lengthy rebuke, the agency challenged the prevailing narrative of the anti-GMOers:

  • On comparability between traditional and modern breeding: “Genetic engineering in plants is a production method that is comparable to other methods of genetic modification used in plant breeding. Your petition makes broad generalizations regarding genetic engineering, asserting that there are “profound” or “radical” differences between plant breeding and genetic engineering…the simple fact that a plant is produced by one method over another does not necessarily mean that there will be a difference in the safety or other characteristics of the resulting foods.”
  • On environmental impact of GE crops: “Your assertions related to environmental impacts are flawed for a number of reasons. You provided no information to support your assertions that GE crops cause adverse environmental impact. We conclude that the information you provide in your citizen petition is insufficient to establish that all genetically engineered crops, as a class, cause adverse environmental impacts.”
  • On a consumer’s right to know: In support of your assertion that substantial consumer demand indicates that the failure to label foods derived from GE sources is misleading to consumers, you submitted exhibits containing survey poll data; however, you did not provide any information to support your assertion that absent the labeling requested in your petition consumers are somehow misled or deceived.

At the same time, the FDA also released voluntary guidelines for GMO labeling. The agency questioned the accuracy of the word “organism” in GMO:

Most foods do not contain entire organisms (foods such as yogurt that contain microorganisms are exceptions). In light of potential confusion regarding the meaning of the acronym “GMO,” FDA encourages manufacturers to consider the use of other types of statements to indicate that a plant-derived food has not been produced using bioengineering.

One gets the sense the FDA is getting peeved at the highly ideological anti-GMO folks. This month, the agency also approved the first genetically modified animal, the AquaAdvantage salmon, and a chicken that produces an enzyme to fight off a debilitating human disease.

Desperate tactics of anti-GMO activists

The year began with the release of a video called “New MacDonald” an inflammatory portrayal of conventional agriculture. The video was produced by Only Organic, a consortium of high-profile organic companies including Stonyfield, Nature’s Path and Annie’s. But rather than use their money and platform for good – such as promoting the benefits of organic products – the group instead insulted millions of American farmers with a video depicting these farmers as polluters and animal abusers. The video features schoolchildren performing a play: one showing “Old MacDonald’s” farm being sprayed with pesticides, kids wearing protective hazmat suits and animals living in cages. The play then shifts to “New MacDonald’s” organic farm, an idyllic place with happy farmers and liberated animals where no one uses pesticides and, well, it’s just a far superior place. Even mainstream organic farmers were aghast at the hostile tone and misleading portrayal of conventional agriculture.

But that video would soon look like child’s play (pun intended). A far more vicious campaign to impugn the integrity of “pro” GMO scientists was launched, led by U.S. Right to Know. This group, funded by the Organic Consumers Association, filed FOIA requests at several universities, seeking the email correspondence of these scientists in order to find any communication with biotech companies like Monsanto. You can read the full story here. The end result was the character assassination of notable public scientists like Dr. Kevin Folta, who has now suspended his informative podcast and ceased communicating with people on social media. His experience has had a chilling effect: many scientists pledged to withdraw from science communication altogether for fear of having their personal and professional lives maligned.

Earlier this month, the OCA was at it again, announcing at the COP21 event in Paris they would hold a “Monsanto Tribunal” at The Hague next year. The mock trial, designed to look authentic, will accuse Monsanto of “ecocide.” OCA president Ronnie Cummins made clear the objectives of the faux tribunal: “Monsanto….we are going to show that you are trying to poison us all. And we are going to take down your business and the whole factory-farm industrial agriculture empire that goes with it.”

Pro-Science Moms rising

It’s clear that the anti-GMO movement and their mommy foot soldiers have run the table over the last few years, commanding the public debate. This year changed that. A group of science-minded women (including many moms) met in Washington, DC in September to talk about how to advance our cause. It is an impressively diverse group: scientists, farmers, writers, activists representing a wide range of political affiliations. But our passion about promoting genetic engineering transcends any other differences. It’s a formidable group of highly-motivated women.

Science writer Kavin Senapathy, whom I met at the March Against Myths that she helped organize in Chicago last May as a counter protest to the annual Millions Against Monsanto, authored a book this year entitled The Fear Babe. The book carefully counters many of the pseudo-science claims of The Food Babe who helped save the world from pumpkin spice and yoga mat bread. We are joined by other mothers – Julie Gunlock, Amy Porterfield Levy, Jennie Splitter – who are taking on a decidedly assertive tone to push back with some great (and funny) columns. I expect more to come, and more like-minded women to join us, in 2016.

A few breaks

You hate to think of food poisoning as fortuitous (unless you’re trying to lose a few pounds) but you have to consider Chipotle’s woes this year as a small break for the pro-GMO side. Chipotle has earned the ire of not just genetic engineering advocates, but millions of American farmers whom the company has criticized over the last few years. So it been somewhat redemptive to watch Chipotle struggle this year, a victim of their own sanctimony and hypocrisy.

Shortly after announcing their food would be GMO-free back in April, the restaurant chain’s fortune fell precipitously. Numerous outbreaks of food-borne illnesses plagued the company all year and Chipotle is still in major crisis mode. Memes spread across the Internet, contrasting the real dangers associated with food poisoning versus zero danger associated with genetically modified food. Chipotle’s CEO is now apologizing, promising changes to food preparation and even backing off its “locally sourced” ingredient pledge, but their problems, tied in part to misleading claims about GMOs, run very deep. Maybe companies will learn they can end up paying a high price for spinning science.

The biggest break this year – and one that could eventually sway public opinion – is the emergence of CRISPR. Most scientists believe this gene-editing technique is a game-changer and the media coverage has been favorable. Not only that, as I write here, this technology is on a collision course with the food movement since CRISPR has the potential to address many of its concerns, from food safety to animal welfare. Even Colicchio admitted this week that “I think the newer crisper (sic) technologies are fascinating.” Yes, I know he got the phrase wrong, but the sentiment was there.

So I encourage all of us to do a virtual “toast” to a hard-fought and fruitful 2015. Let’s build on this momentum in 2016!

Julie Kelly is a mom of two, a food writer and a contributing writer to the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Huffington Post and other media outlets. You can spar with her on Twitter @julie_kelly2.