The organic industry’s GMO hoax

The Senate failed to pass an amendment that would create a national policy of labeling foods containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Congress was forced to move on the issue after the Vermont legislature passed a law requiring all food and beverages sold in the state to carry a label if any ingredients were produced by genetic engineering. Without federal guidance, food companies are at the mercy of whatever patchwork laws the states cobble together. Sold as consumers “right to know” about their food, the real purpose of the Vermont law is to scare customers into buying pricier organic food by making them afraid of a safe technology. 

Genetically modified crops are scientifically designed to enhance certain properties in a plant. Plants can be made pest-resistant or more nutritious, for example. 

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More than 1700 studies, conducted worldwide, have demonstrated genetically modified foods are safe for human and animal consumption. Their use has dramatically cut pesticide spraying, while simultaneously increasing yields and farmer profits. 

To be considered organic, among other things, products must be free of genetically engineered ingredients. After recognizing the threat this new technology posed to its industry, organic product manufacturers began to insinuate GMOs were somehow dangerous and demand labeling. 

Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, admitted that scaring consumers into buying organic food was a marketing ploy, saying the first step to growing organic market share is to change labeling laws. 

Other leaders in the organic industry believe the same, and they put their money where their mouths are. GMO labeling organization, Just Label It, was initially funded by a “who’s who” of organic product companies, including Organic Valley, Clif Bar, Annie’s Homegrown Organic, and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. The head of the group is Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Stonyfield Organic, who regularly implies that there is a link between GMOs and cancer or birth defects (there isn’t).  Stonyfield Organic’s website claims, “There’s still a lot of work to be done to learn about the possible negative effects of GMOs on animal and human health.” Just Label It recently compared senators who voted against GMO labeling to Darth Vader, as though standing up for science based policy is the equivalent of being part of the Evil Empire. 

There’s no scare tactic too dirty for the organic industry seeking new customers. The Organic Consumers Association recently claimed that it was pesticides, not the Zika virus, causing birth defects in South American children. (That’s false.) Horizon Organic Milk’s “consulting pediatrician” Alan Greene wrote in his book Feeding Baby Green that GMOs have caused food allergies. In actuality, no crops on the market contain allergens created by genetic modification and scientists carefully test new products to make sure that will never happen. But Horizon’s quack doctor continues to propagate the myth. 

Besides the marketing, the organic industry has funded anti-GMO scientists who regularly perform poorly designed experiments that they claim “prove” GMOs are somehow problematic. Charles Benbrook, formerly a Washington State University research professor, indicated he was a “scientist for hire” in recently released emails. He offered to author an anti-GMO study for an Australian trial lawyer in exchange for a six figure payout.   

The pay-to-play revelation was no surprise to those in the agriculture community. The organic industry funded his position at Washington State University from 2012 to 2015 and, in turn, he published numerous studies claiming to demonstrate the dangers of conventional agriculture and the benefits of organic.   Those studies have been widely discredited and debunked by the scientific community for their “inaccurate claims,” “biased assumptions” and “misleading uses of official data.”   

That didn’t stop the organic industry, and its activist allies, from trumpeting Benbrook’s findings   and using them as proof that GMO labeling is necessary.  

The congressional failure to pass the Roberts amendment (S.3450) providing federal guidance on GMOs shows these scare tactics have worked. The organic industry has taken a safe, effective technology and scared people into thinking it needs to be labeled. A better label for those worried about GMOs would be for organic packages, saying “I’m with stupid.”

Zaluckyj is an attorney and agriculture writer at The Farmers Daughter USA.

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