At first blush, it sounds like a good idea: require the labeling of genetically engineered foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat. Yet such a law, proposed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other senators, simply caters to unjustified worries and makes no sense scientifically.
Genetically modified food isn’t new. Since farming began, humans have been breeding food — in other words, changing the genetics — for beneficial traits and better crops. The practice has moved from the field to the lab, as scientists can now transplant genes from species to species.
The laboratory angle worries some people, and in recent years about 2,000 studies have been done on genetically modified foods to uncover any problem. The result? According to the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Science and several other groups, so-called GMO food — made with genetically modified organisms — is safe.
As the European Commission put it, engineering crops genetically is “no more risky than conventional plant-breeding techniques.”
Despite the failure of research to come up with hazards, what’s wrong with better informing consumers by labeling genetically engineered food? Several things.
Such a move doesn’t inform consumers so much as it caters to misconceptions, and government shouldn’t be about that. Labels may limit consumer choice: Despite the lack of proof that such crops endanger anyone, retailers may choose not to stock certain foods. And mostly, politics shouldn’t trump science.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of the genetically engineered label debate is that the labels already exist, in a sense.
The majority of food found in the supermarket, especially processed food, contains some genetically engineered component. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.”
Lack of such a designation almost always indicates some genetic engineering, so those who are worried about a potential hazard need only look for the label. No new law is necessary.
A Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29, contains a blockbuster: In sharp contrast to public skepticism about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.
That overwhelming consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who believe global warming is the result of human activity. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on climate change.
Some 57 percent of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don’t understand the science behind GMOs. Scientists blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.
The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a marginal pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”
A huge literacy gap between scientists and the public on biotechnology is one of the many disturbing nuggets that emerged from the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted in cooperation with the AAAS, the world’s largest independent general scientific society. The full study, released on January 29, is available here.
The eye opening take-away: The American population in general borders on scientific illiteracy. The gap between what scientists believe, grounded on empirical evidence, often sharply differs from what the general public thinks is true. The differences are sharpest over biomedical research, including GMOs.
- 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while only 37% of the public believes that’s true—a 51-percentage point gap
- 68% of scientists say it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared with 28% of citizens—a 40% gap.
- A 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research—89% of scientists favor it, while only 47% of the public backs the idea.