Scientific American’s Bad Logic on GMO’s

The Editors penned a shockingly bad opinion piece in this month’s Scientific American, chock full of obvious errors of fact, economics, and logic that should embarrass those responsible for it. The core argument of the article is that GMO labeling should not be mandated (as California’s defeated Proposition 37 would have done).  The editors offered four arguments

(a)    GMO’s are little different from what farmers have done for centuries;

(b)   labeling GMO foods would not provide information, but would falsely indicate there is something wrong with non-GMO food;

(c)    would end up limiting consumer choice and increasing food prices by driving outMarket Scene GMO foods and

(d)   would weaken our ability to raise the living standards of the so-called “Third World.”

Where to start in a short blog post?

Let me start by saying that I am not entirely opposed to GMO products. If you want a really good, considered look at GMO issues, Nathanael Johnson’s series in grist is an excellent place to start. And, it looks like using GMO’s may be the only way to save oranges from Citrus disease that is ravaging the world’s orange groves. But, this is getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the Scientific American article.

The first error is in saying the there’s no difference between genetic engineering today and what humans have done for thousands of years through selective breeding of plants and animals. (Neither of the links provided actually link to articles about the issue.) Unlike breeding, genetic engineering introduces new genes from related or unrelated organisms into the target organism (e.g., a gene providing pesticide resistance into corn from a non-corn species). Read this for more detail. This does not make it inherently unsafe or undesirable, but inserted genes could have harmful effects (e.g., conceivably stimulating an auto-immune response).

The Editorial Board Did not Do Its Homework

The second, egregious error shows that (a) the writers did not do their homework and (b) the fact checkers were asleep at the switch:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic.

In fact, the FDA relies on testing by the manufacturers themselves. While they may ask questions (so it’s not entirely just a rubber stamp), there is no government testing in the United States.  Particularly in the case of Monsanto, which must give permission to outside organizations that wish to do testing, there is no, or little, private US testing that is not under Monsanto’s thumb. Moreover, most of the testing in the US is short-term, rather than lifetime and multigenerational testing on lab animals.

Can’t the Market Decide?

Turning to the issue of labeling and consumer choice, explaining that it has limited consumer choice in Europe because “most major European retailers had removed genetically modified ingredients from products bearing their brand.”  They write that after 1997, when Europe began requiring GMO labeling, “most major European retailers had removed genetically modified ingredients from products bearing their brand” to avoid driving consumers away. The implication is that this would happen here as well. It’s interesting in just the prior paragraph they write,

The GMO-fearing can seek out “100 Percent Organic” products, indicating that a food contains no genetically modified ingredients, among other requirements.

The obvious question is why hasn’t 100 Percent Organic had the same effect?

Moreover, this shows the little faith the authors have in the workings of an “open” market economy to satisfy consumer needs. In fact and setting aside how open the economy actually is, one of the tenets of economic theory is that an open economy can only be optimal if all buyers and sellers have the same relevant information.  Lack of information on one side relative to another, gives those with more information more power in the market. And, in fact, in the case of “organic foods,” we see that labeling foods as organic has not only not pushed out other foods from our supermarkets, but has created a class of foods for which consumers are willing to pay a premium.

Do GM Crops Increase Yield?

Finally, the editorial makes the argument – or rather assertion – that GM crops increase yield. This, too, is at least questionable (see GMO Myths and Truths, p. 72).  We also know that the use of Roundup  Ready corn has resulted in the increase tolerance of weeds for pesticides, so that more pesticides must be used, which clearly raises costs for farmers.

Finally, looking carefully at the arguments in this article, I am struck by how closely they follow the talking points agri-business used in working to defeat Prop 37. Since reasonable questions can be easily raised about virtually all of the points, what were the editors thinking? Or were they thinking at all?

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