Should GMOs be labeled?

December 2, 2015 • 12:45 pm

UPDATE: Today’s New York Times has a four-person essay debate on exactly this topic: “Are genetically engineered salmon too fishy?

Go have a look; the question at issue is this:

Is the F.D.A.’s approval a sign of scientific progress, or a danger to consumers and the environment?


I used to think that if a food was made from a genetically modified organism (“GMO”), that modification should not be required to be put on the food’s label. My reasoning was that such labeling would tend to scare off consumers, and. more important, there was no indication that any GMO was harmful. Indeed, when the first genetically modified animal recently hit the market, a salmon engineered with genes from other fish to grow quickly, the FDA had already ruled that mandatory labeling as a “GMO” was not required, though they did issue guidelines for voluntary labeling.

Now Vermont has passed a law requiring that salmon (and all genetically modified foods) must labeled as GMOs starting in July; and a U.S. district court has upheld that requirement as constitutional. The Vermont law is being fought by a consortium of food groups who think (probably correctly) that such labeling will scare away consumers.

Regardless, though, I am starting to think that all GMO foods should be labeled as such, regardless of the consequences. After all, all foods, even tomato sauce, have to be labeled with their ingredients, including coloring agents, even though we know the ingredients aren’t harmful. Why should foreign genes be an exception? Because the addition is a bit of DNA—one that makes a protein that is ingested—rather than Red Dye #4? Is there a good rationale for making a distinction?

Granted, I am prefectly convinced that GMO foods are safe. But why withhold the fact that some foods contain foreign genome? After all, foods are labeled as “organic” though in most cases there are no problems with the non-organic equivalent. But I’m starting to come around to the view that we should let the consumers make up their minds, and not make it up for them by omitting ingredients because they might scare people away.

I’m not firmly wedded to this view, and am open to arguments to the contrary. I also know that for years we’ve eaten genetically modified plant products without their having been labeled. But maybe Vermont is right, and it’s time to put the GMO label on all genetically modified foods.

322 thoughts on “Should GMOs be labeled?

  1. I do think more labeling is better. If GMOs must be labeled, then added sugar content should also be labeled, etc.

    My only concern is that just like anti-vax, activism has poisoned the well and less educated people might avoid the label. Just look at the stupidity of avoiding gluten. The solution is to make it cheaper and better. Then the FUD activism won’t stand a chance.

    1. My only concern is that just like anti-vax, activism has poisoned the well and less educated people might avoid the label.

      … while other consumers actively seek them out.

      1. GMO’s are controversial because they are made by corporations who have yet to evince caring of human life over their profits. Now supposedly they are all vetted by outside independent sources to show they are harmless. And that anyone who has a problem with it are on the same side as anti-vaxxers and Creationists. Which I would disagree. However without any real proof and without long term studies of humans how can we know for sure? Genetic engineering is nothing like breeding. Since you can go in and change the strands of DNA you want add and subtract putting in DNA that isn’t normally found in wheat, corn or tomatoes. Some are truly wondering has the due diligence actually been done on testing? Stories get out of independent testing showing problems with tumors and sterility among other things.

        It comes down to not trusting the corporations and their owners to manipulate the very stuff of life they will be eating. We get no recalls on this.

  2. It would certainly help those of us struggling against the superstitious resistance to GMOs in the UK and Europe if we could point to US consumers happily and above all knowingly buying them. As I’m sure they soon would.

    Otherwise we are open to the accusation of having something to hide.

  3. I’m generally all for labelling – at least to the point where the required packaging starts to dwarf the size of the product.

    And one, perhaps slightly petty reason why I’d personally like GMO foods labelled is so that I can deliberately buy them, to annoy GMO opponents.

      1. I am not quite that contrary. I’ll buy whichever one looks the best. Unless of course the organic item is significantly more expensive. Basically, I completely ignore the organic label.

        1. Me too.

          Although my son made a thought-provoking comment when we were in the supermarket and ran across organic bananas. He suggested that given what we know about banana culture they might be one good product to buy organic.

        2. My understanding is that “organic” in many cases doesn’t mean what people assume it means – no pesticides for example. It seems to be quite a complicated descriptor. That said I see problems with inorganic foods especially in the produce section.

          1. Yeah, there’s a lot of wrangling between small groups that want to make/keep “organic” pure and large farm corporations that want to water it down so they can easily slap the label on their product and charge more. Usually the side with more money wins.

          2. I picture produce isles with labeled organic (its real meaning) those with genetic manipulation which you can look up right there as to what was done, irradiated, if it was grown in “biosolids” aka sludge, use of bone meal etc. Anything that is done to the food needs to be labeled and in this day and time they can do that too. I like the idea and the corporations need to show a much better face than they have too for people to believe them.

            It would be even better if they use an independent data base that has the information you can look up at the store.
            A plant grown orgnically. But was irradiated for longer shelf life. Or grown in biosolids instead of loam etc. Could make it much more complex and therefore complicated. Some will others won’t. Just some thoughts on it.

      2. I did enough formal study of soil science in the 1980s (before this guph was particularly common), and of food chemistry before then, to have never knowingly brought organic, and only to have done so accidentally on rare occasions. Pseudo-scientific marketing bullshit.

        1. Historically I think the organic food movement was given a big push by Rachel Carson’s prescient book Silent Spring. Chemical and agricultural industry advocates at the time reacted much the way GMO advocates are reacting here today.

          Organic labeling has many problems, agreed. But the constant stream of new, poorly tested and potentially dangerous pesticides (dangerous to humans and/or to the ecosystem) applied to our food is something to be concerned about, and the organic label is helpful (if imperfect) for those who care about that.

          1. Since “Silent Spring” was about things that had already happened – with warnings for the future, I agree – I’m not sure that prescient is quite the right word. “Predictive” and “frightening without going over the top” might be better, and I don’t have le mot just to hand ; I’m sure there is one, somewhere. Probably in German.
            Another consequence of the events described in “Silent Spring” is in fact, that there are no longer new and poorly tested pesticides coming out of the chemical industry. There are new and very thoroughly tested pesticides (etc) coming out, and there are some very old and completely un-tested “traditional” pesticides out there (I’m thinking of sulphur, for an example) still in use. But new pesticides? Tested to the eyeballs of rabbits and the testicles of rats. And latterly, to cultures of human eyeball and human testicle, for better modelling accuracy.
            You can feel how you like about the marketing. But like all marketing, it’s applied psychology with only the faintest of acquaintances with evidence.

          2. “Silent Spring” is attacked as pseudo science and worst by the Reich Wing who finds such things as destroying life trivial and otherwise of no consequence to them that believe that their Aryan-Nordic deity will come and renew the Earth when it returns one day. Otherwise the Biblical mandate to use the world for their own needs. (Some how “steward” is missing from their vocabulary.)

    1. Deciding what should count as an ingredient reflects the concern over label etc. size. For example, some products list “natural flavours” as an ingredient. Or “Colourings”, etc. What are those? Why do they not get spelled out like sodium EDTA? I guess I could look at what Health Canada or whoever mandates, but it seems sort of weird.

      On the other hand, is a changed gene(s) an additional ingredient? If it is not, should one also have “genetically crafted” (as opposed to engineered), where crafted means pre-scientific gene modification (as has been done on almost every crop)?

  4. Why only label for genes added via one method over another? Must we label when genes are added via conventional breeding as well?

    A gene isn’t really an ingredient in the food, and there is only one reason to add it to the label. Red #40 is safe, but I might be allergic. No one is allergic to GMOs.

    Let companies label “non-GMO” to market to misguided people.

    Also, knowing something is GM tells you nothing. Was it modified to withstand pesticides? Is it resistant to some fungus or another? It’s so broad, it can’t be useful. It’s only there to worry people into thinking that if it must be labeled, then it could be dangerous.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard that such labelling would not be all that useful when it comes to truly understanding what is in the food or how the food came to be….Also, I have heard the argument that it would be expensive and next to impossible to accurately label GMOs and I think this really means that in order to truly inform the public about what modifications were done, there would need to be mounds of information accompanying.

      I supposed the only way around this would be to have a high level, generic label (which means everyone should agree on a standard and adopt it so there is not confusion) and then that supplementary information should be available upon request (mailed and maintained on a web site).

        1. Do you really think consumers will go out of their way to go on that website to see why? Do you think that information posted will actually have any meaning to them, and they’ll understand what the GMO’s purpose is? The more likely result will be that people will see GMO on the package, think “Wow I’ve heard about that and it’s not good so I won’t buy it,” and buy something else. The information means nothing to them and only serves as a deterrent, when in reality, as you yourself have said, Coyne, there is nothing from which to be deterred.

          1. Yes, I do think that if people are concerned, they can go to the website, which can also cite studies showing that the added DNA or its product aren’t harmful. You know, though, you could have made your comment much more civilly, especially without referring to me as “Coyne,” which I detest. You’re apparently one of those people who just jumps into a website and leaves a rather brusque comment without observing the culture of that site first. So I’ll let your comment stand, but from now on I’ll ask you to post elsewhere.

          2. Jerry, is this comment directed to AH or Amanda W? The placement looks like it’s the latter while the content looks like the former?

          3. Good of you to bring that up. Obviously it was aimed at AH, as you said, by the reference to being called “Coyne” if nothing else. And when I first read PCC’s reply, it was directly beneath AH’s post!

            I’ve noticed today that comments of mine that I expect to have appear at the bottom of a string of comment replies have instead appeared right below the original comment, even though there were many earlier replies.

            Has anyone else noticed this? I think that there’s something to be said for chronological order in the effort to keep conversations understandable, and find this annoying.

          4. AH, concerning your main point, I agree with you. I don’t think certain people are going to change their minds until the GMOs-are-OK message shows up on Oprah, in the Huffington Post, etc.

          5. I find it objectionable for society (and Monsanto) to dictate, by withholding information, what I and others should eat, using the allegation that we are incompetent to decide because of defects in our intelligence, motives, or morals.

          6. When I go to the store I see countless products labeled “GMO Free” and “Organic”.

            Why do you not find this labeling enough to prevent you from eating what you want to avoid?

          7. I heartily agree with Cole, Diana, and AH.

            First, DNA is not an ingredient and it is not an additive – it becomes part of the food itself, and the DNA or protein is broken down in the human body just as any other DNA or protein may be broken down. One reason ingredients are required to be listed on food packaging is to inform consumers about something that could potentially be dangerous to them. Because the science doesn’t yet indicate that GMOs are dangerous to human health, including a label on the package might indicate that it is something that people ought to watch out for and potentially avoid. After all, this is the purpose of allergy labels. GMO labels could very well take on the nature of an allergy label and come off as a warning.

            Let’s say a tomato A includes DNA from an orange, and tomato B includes DNA from a fish. The fact that these genes now exist as part of the tomato’s DNA only matters if the DNA actually impacts the food in a meaningful way — for example, now tomato B has the same protein that makes people allergic to fish, therefore they are now allergic to tomato B. However, tomato A only has DNA from the orange to give it a more vibrant color. Certainly, the fact that the tomato B includes this fish gene should now be labeled, because it now poses a threat to human health; whereas the DNA from the orange to give the tomato A a brighter color would not pose a threat to anyone. The FDA’s current labeling schemes already address the problem of tomato B. The solution is an allergen warning: “This product contains fish.” A GMO label is not the proper solution because it does not get at the heart of what makes the food potentially worrisome for a consumer.

            This is why a generic GMO label is insufficient – as Cole points out, the origin of the GMO and the purpose for which it is injected into the food matters a great deal as to its potential effect on a human. Unfortunately, not everyone takes the time to read labels or do research on what they eat, as AH pointed out. Legislation must be drafted in a way that covers the greatest amount of people while having a rational basis in the realities of what is being regulated. Because the reality is that not all GMOs pose a threat – indeed, most do not – a label is not the best way to go about this.

            Additionally, the “organic” label is voluntary. It is true that there is no shown difference between organic and non-organic food, at least in their impact on human health. We also have voluntary “non-GMO” labels that companies can use. If an “organic” label is voluntary, it does not follow that a GMO label must be mandatory, where in both cases there is no scientific difference between organic/nonorganic and GMO/non-GMO foods. If people feel strongly about buying non-GMO (just as many people feel strongly about buying organic), they can seek out the non-GMO label (as they seek out the “organic” label), rather than impose a general GMO label on everything that may include a GMO component.

            Finally, there is risk that labeling a GMO might create a slippery slope – what other information must be labeled? A lot of people say that they know GMOs are not scientifically proven to be dangerous, but they care about avoiding GMOs for other reasons. I argue that those other reasons do not justify a food label. For example, someone may understand that GMOs are not scientifically proven to have any effect on human health, but may instead be concerned about the environmental effects of using a pesticide-resistant crop of tomatoes: the farmer over-applies pesticide, resulting in contamination of ground water, the soil, and also negatively impacts the local flora and fauna. Do we have to label GMOs due to their effect on the environment, because that is information a person cares about? Or, a person may be concerned about the political and economic issues of GMO producers – Monsanto and other large agribusiness companies holding a monopoly over the industry and taking business away from small farmers while exerting monetary influence over Congress in order to shape favorable legislation. Does this also justify labeling a product as GMO, to communicate this political and economic information to consumers? Others have pointed out in this comment thread that GMOs are not the only things that create a risk to the environment. The farm machinery used to till the land and harvest crops also destroy habitats and release pollution into the air – but we do not require food companies to label what sort of farming equipment they used to grow and produce the food. There are many aspects to the GMO debate with which a person may be concerned and want information — but a food label is not the place to communicate this information or have these policy debates. The food label is meant to communicate information about the food product itself; it is not the vehicle by which to communicate information about the company, about the environment, about politics, about the economy. These discussions are best left to the public forum.

            I myself believe the environmental consequences of GMOs are their biggest danger – but I do not think a food label is the way to fix those problems. Regulation of pesticides is the more appropriate route to reform. The ultimate question we must ask ourselves is “is this the proper forum to communicate this information, given the nature and purpose of the forum?”

          8. Thanks for posting such an excellent comment Amanda.

            The only thing I’d add is that organic labeling, while voluntary, actually requires manufacturers to register and pay for that certification, something very different than what is being sought with Gmog labels.

      1. I don’t think it must be that long. It could be like the ingredients. Companies don’t need to explain what each ingredient does. E.g. “Engineered genes: Cry1A.105, CryIAb, CryIF, Cry2Ab”. People who care can look them up and know what they do.

        1. That is the problem with labeling that would be extremely expensive to accomplish if its even possible. Just a 10 acre plot can have a half dozen or more different seeds growing with different traits. If you have to label each one that is a whole lot of time wasted because you have to go back and wash the harvester before the next pass while segregating each seed and on and on. And for what? When Cheerios went GMO free it did nothing to sales.

          You get polls that show 90 percent of the public wants labeling but when it actually gets on the ballot is has mostly lost. THis is an issue most people don’t care about but will say they are against it because why not it sounds more wholesome to be for all natural corn.

      2. Nearly six months ago I pinned a copy of this cartoon to the wall of the office, as it sailed out of Turkish waters, never to return (it’s going back in 1-5 months)
        It has stayed stuck to the wall not because of a guardian troll, extraordinarily strong glue, or anything like that. Just – it keeps on being appropriate.
        And I think it’ll apply here. If for no other reason than people who don’t want any sort of labelling can turn use the obvious technique to filibuster the whole topic into ridiculousness.

      3. You should have instant access at the store with the product once scanned there can give you a rundown on it and you can go into any details via hypertexting as you go.

    2. Well said.

      And while I agree that voluntarily labeling “non-GMO” is the better approach, if one were to try and standardize that labeling, there might be some issues (ex: Chipotle banned GMO food from their restaurants, but they still serve soda made with corn syrup that’s made with GMO corn, and still serve meat raised on GMO grain).

      1. You can’t feed a cow rendered cow—directly. However there are ways around it. Rendering and feeding herbivores, except for pigs, rendered cow, pig, turkey, chicken is common. So in a round about way the rendered cow is fed to those other animals then they too are rendered and fed back to other cows.

    3. It was modified to become a hideous frankenfood which, after eaten, will gestate for a period and finally erupt out of your abdomen Alien-style. This is the plot those nefarious scientists have concocted.

      Anti-GMO nutbag

      1. How could it do that? What DNA was hybridized with it to produce such a reaction? It would have had to have been done deliberately if it could be done at all. So the idea is ludicrous and fails as humor. Just a grotesque caricature.

    4. You make really good points that persuade me that GMO labeling is the wrong way to go. I was leaning the other way, but now realize it makes no sense. Thanks.

      1. Then you are against labeling then? For if GMO manipulation doesn’t warrant it then nothing else comes close.

    5. “A gene isn’t really an ingredient in the food, and there is only one reason to add it to the label. Red #40 is safe, but I might be allergic. No one is allergic to GMOs.”

      Genes make proteins. Health concerns about GMOs aren’t about the genes but about the products they make. Bt toxin being the most obvious one. It is just as possible to be allergic to the Bt toxin as it is to be allergic to RD#40.

      I do agree that the labeling should be more specific. But you are getting carried away by your own rhetoric when you say that the GMO label tells us “nothing”. It tells a person that there might be Bt toxin in the food. Someone who is uneasy about eating Bt toxin could then choose a brand without that label.

  5. I think they should be labeled because even though they are harmless for consumption, People may have other environmental concerns or ethical concerns with regards to companies like Monsanto etc.

    GMOs are safe for human consumption. But we obviously can not know all possible unintended consequences environmentally speaking. I personally see no reason for alarm in that category either, but there is no way the science could be complete in that regard.

    Nothing wrong with giving people the option. Plus fighting against labels looks suspicious. Accepting labels looks credible as in “we’ve got nothing to hide.”

    The message that they are safe is more supported by makers not being afraid of the label.

    1. I agree with this view. Give us the option. There are serious ecological risks involved with many GMOs and I would avoid buying those products if I could. I am so tired of people telling us that GMOs are safe, period, and who accuse all opponents of ignorance.

      1. There are serious ecological risks due to the use of tractors and fertilizer. We should demand that products using these technologies be labeled.

        1. The potential GMO risks are greater than most background risks.

          Some GMOs (eg Bt and freeze-resistant ones) can be ecologically equivalent to introducing very invasive new species to an area. There are laws controlling the purchase of seeds of invasive plants, and for good reason. I don’t think it is unreasonable to regulate GMOs to the same degree, and if the govt won’t do it, I want to do it with my pocketbook. Labels please.

          1. Your first sentence is both true and meaningless. One can imagine a mad scientist creating a “Frankenfood” that destroys all other life forms. Not likely, but one can imagine it. Meanwhile, GMO risks can be trivial to nonexistent. Do you eat cheese?

            Is there a species of plant that is more invasive to an environment than fossil fuel powered earth moving equipment?

            Think about it, Lou.

          2. Invasive and destructive are two different things. One can lead to an irreversible loss of species diversity. Earth-moving equipment can be restrained to a given area; not so invasive species, in almost all cases.

          3. Potatoes are invasive outside of South America. Corn, beans, squash, and tomatoes are invasive in the Old World. Wheat and rice are invasive to America.

            A GMO modified tomato is no more invasive than the ones we are all familiar with.

          4. Diane G’s point is the important one, and GBJames, you may be mixing up “invasive” with “non-native”. Invasive plants are things like kudzu and buckthorn in the US, both of which have transformed large areas of the country, with little hope of control. GMOs that are dramatically resistant to pests or to frosts are theoretically very likely to be invasive, or in the case of crops like canola with nearby wild relatives, they transform the weed relatives into superweeds.

          5. I’m perfectly aware what “invasive” means.

            GMO modified corn is no more likely to escape into the wild than non-modified corn.

            How often have you seen a wild stand of corn? On what basis, beyond pure fantasy, are you claiming that GMO soybeans (like most are, BTW) is going to escape and become invasive? Invasive to where?

            This is pure paranoia.

          6. Again, you are bringing up corn when the example I gave was canola. Transgenes have already transferred to their wild relatives.

            You say you are not confused about what “invasive” means. Then please support your statement that non-GMO corn, tomatoes, and rice are invasive in North America. Show us some wild ecosystems overwhelmed by escaping tomatoes…

            On the other hand, if Bt genes get into wild relatives of crops (and they already have in some places), these relatives may have a very large selective advantage over other species, in ecosystems where herbivorous insects are common. On a website that focuses on evolution, I would hope that most of us can see this as a reasonable concern.

          7. Here you go, Lou. Notice that these crop plants, grown all over the world, did not originate in all the places that they are now grown. There is no wheat in the Western Hemisphere that is native. All of it grown in the Great Plains is, effectively, an invasive species which depends on human beings to spread.

            Oh, the horror of it all.

          8. GBJames, I guess you really don’t know the difference between “non-native” and “invasive”, then. Few or none of those crops you mentioned are invasive in lost places, though they are non-native.

          9. I’ll ignore the obnoxiousness of that comment while I await your explanation of how GMO wheat, rice, corn, tomatoes, apples, and soybeans are going to escape and destroy the world.

            Speaking of waiting, I (and other) are also waiting for an explanation of how labeling GMO products will prevent this “escape”.

            But mostly I’m waiting for someone to answer the question I’ve asked repeatedly on this page…

            Why is voluntary “GMO Free” and “Organic” labeling of products not “informative” enough for your purposes?

          10. GB, there is nothing obnoxious about Lou’s reply. You either do not know what an invasive species is, or you’re purposefully misrepresenting them. Lou (& I) at least give you credit for the first explanation.

            Next you switch to ridiculous hyperbole when Lou’s been talking about specific cases. And you seem to be unaware that “transgene escape” has in fact been documented.

            Next you accuse Lou of maintaining that “labeling GMO products will prevent this “escape””, when all he has said on the subject was to agree with Matt’s thoughts on the matter, to wit, “I think they should be labeled because even though they are harmless for consumption, People may have other environmental concerns or ethical concerns…”

            Lou is a trained and accomplished ecologist; what are your credentials in any biological field? (I’m not saying one needs to have credentials to be informed and have an opinion on a given topic, but the “be informed” part is important.)

          11. I am perfectly clear on the difference between Garlic Mustard, spreading along my river banks, and wheat fields spreading across the Great Plains. I’ve been dealing with Buckthorn trees for a very long time. I know that the earthworms in my back yard are likely the result of European transport to the East Coast in Colonial times. The lake where I live has been overrun by Alewives, Zebra Mussels, and Quagga Mussels in turn.

            I do not think, from the point of view of hazards to the environment, there is a significant difference between Garlic Mustard. Perhaps the wheat is a worse hazard since there are probably far fewer native plants and animals in the thousands of square miles that have been destroyed by agricultural practice than there are that have been destroyed by the spread of garlic mustard.

            I found Lou’s comment dismissive and I find yours now, Diana, as simply an appeal to authority.

            This page focuses on whether or not GMO products should be labeled. I’ve read Lou’s comments to be clearly “yes”. If the subject was whether this or that particular GMO product was hazardous I don’t think we’d be having this exchange. I am not advocating ignorance nor the practice of not paying attention to environmental consequences of human activity. I am simply arguing that the GMO labeling movement is almost entirely comprised of fear mongering and broad-brush attacks on a very useful technology.

          12. Should GMO food be labeled as such? Many people here are saying no, but a significant number are saying yes; and all but a few are doing so politely without strawmanning or insulting.

            Or dodging. You’ve made perfectly clear that you had no idea there was any difference between a non-native plant and an invasive species and have been trying to ridicule those who’ve tried to explain it to you. Suddenly listing a few valid invasives doesn’t hide the fact that you were mistaken.

            I am simply arguing that the GMO labeling movement is almost entirely comprised of fear mongering and broad-brush attacks on a very useful technology.

            Have a look at labeling supporters here, who have suggested, amongst other reasons, that not doing so makes it look like there’s something to hide about GMO foods. Have a look at other reasons people have given for their support of labeling. I don’t believe I’ve seen a fear-mongerer or broad-brush attacker amongst them. I don’t dispute your characterization (above)of a significant portion of the opposition movement. I think you could have begun by stating that you were opposed to labeling because of that, and given your reasons, and we’d all have had another discussion. Instead you’ve been combative.

            To dismiss other opinions about GMO labeling so brashly is just like the “arguments” of those who dismiss and disown the New Atheists because most of the popular complaints about Islam come from the political right.

            Some of the comments in this thread have caused me to question my original opinion on the matter. Yours, however, have made me nothing but sad.

          13. Frankenstein wasn’t about destruction. He just lost his love for his “perfect man” and rejected him.

            Accidents and unintended consequences can be most serious in these matters. So far Iseem fine from all the GMO and irradiated food I have ingested over the years. But how would one know any of them were a cause of anything? We don’t have long term tests on that. We are the lab specimens and the ecosphere is the testing laboratory.

        2. Seconded. Agriculture carries inherent environmental harm.

          So far as I can tell, there is no environmental risk associated with use of GMOs per se. There may be environmental risks or benefits associated with particular GMO crops. As a marker for products that are or are not environmentally “friendly”, I think GMO labelling would be misleading. It may appear to be informative, but it isn’t. I feel the same way about organic labelling, but since it’s voluntary I don’t think we have a particular basis to disallow the practice.

          1. What about the discovery of gene drifting to other species of plants from GMO plants? Weeds are already tough and self sufficient. Maybe we should have food plants that are that way instead of generating their own insecticide and fungicide and giving the weeds those characteristics from that genetic drift?

      2. I agree with Matt and Lou Jost on this. In regard to the Frankenfish specifically, there are good reasons to worry about the effect escaped fish will have on natural salmon populations, some of which are at critically low numbers. And yes, these fish will escape. See Devlin et al. 2004. Population effects of growth hormone transgenic coho salmon depend on food availability and genotype by environmental interactions PNAS 101: 9303-9308, for a discussion of some of the possible risks. I would happily eat GM salmon if I knew I was not supporting environmentally irresponsible actions.

        1. On the other other hand, the more farmed salmon we can eat, the fewer wild salmon we’ll have to catch.

          According to wikipedia:

          AquaBounty addresses these concerns by cultivating reproductively incapable females. Most escapees cannot reproduce either natively or by interbreeding with wild stocks, because treatments of eggs have been found to render 98.9% of them triploid; batches with more than 5% diploid individuals will be destroyed.[5][17] The company plans to provide farmers with fish rather than eggs,[1] and has proposed that AquAdvantage fish only be raised in land-based facilities.[18]

        2. Suspect that salmon growth hormone is far enough removed from human that it would not have any effect on humans EVEN IF administered in the same way as HGH to have an effect. And since HGH is not given orally for therapeutic uses, I can’t see any reason to be afraid of eating it. I’d be happy to try some myself. Preferably smoked, but OK with any recipe.

          Basically, we’re at this stage because there are too many people on the planet, and if the world would address that, the folks fretting over this wouldn’t have this to worry about.

        3. Some companies want to replace the natural salmon with their own “stronger” artificial varieties. Bigger more aggressive fish.

    2. In the end, none of GBJames’ arguments make a case against labelling. There’s nothing wrong with letting the consumer know the details of what they are buying. Everyone knows tractors and fertilizers are used. As for what kind of fertilizer is used? That should be labelled too. It’s suspicious to be so strongly against labelling. How on earth is informing the public a concern?

      1. That is bogus, Matt. GMO labeling does NOT tell consumers details about what they are buying.

        Why aren’t you demanding to know the details about what is in your “conventional” products?

        And given the huge number of products labeled “GMO free” and “Organic”, what additional information will a GMO label provide you? You can already buy GMO free products as much as you like.

        1. Obviously we need more than hard copy labeling. Much more detail now and in the future as we continue to over manufacture our food. The more we put in the more information we will need.

  6. If they’re really serious about this I’d suggest investing in the label printing companies. After all, pretty much EVERYTHING is GMO in one way or another.

    1. This was my objection – I’m not against labeling but it has to mean something and pretty much anything with a soybean or corn content (for example) would be GMO positive. So that’s a whole lot of the food chain with just those two (even excluding the animals fed on GMO plants – GMO to the power -1?). It might actually be easier to assume that everything is GMO and just label the things that are not as GMO-free.

        1. No company can truthfully do that. Everything you have ever eaten has been genetically modified one way or another. The GMO label, as it stands, is a liar label.

          You, yourself, are a GMO. Shall we slap that label on your forehead? Never mind.

          1. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques (i.e. genetically engineered organism).

            Genetic engineering, the direct manipulation of genes using biotechnology, was first accomplished by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973.[16] Whereas selective breeding depends on naturally occurring genetic variation within a population or species, genetic engineering can involve the intentional introduction of genes from different species. Advances have allowed scientists to manipulate, remove, and add genes to a variety of different organisms to induce a range of different traits.

            Both quotes above from the Wikipedia page on Genetically Modified Organisms. The definition explicitly excludes hybridization and artificial selection of natural variation. How, then, is GB a GMO?

          2. But the important thing is that hybridized organisms have never gone through testing like GMOs are subject to.

            How implausible is it that some allergen or toxin could show up using conventional breeding processes? Genetically engineering is a precise process that’s easily monitored.

            I, too, like to point out to people who are unaware of this fact that plants have been genetically modified since agriculture began. But I don’t call those plants GMOs.

            I am part of the no-label camp, unless as someone said way back (sorry can’t recall who), the specific inserted genes are labelled as ingredients–otherwise labeling doesn’t make much sense.

          3. “…as someone said way back (sorry can’t recall who)”

            Matt, Lou, and others. 🙂 I agree with all of you.

          4. AGMO for artificially genetically modified organism just to stop the obvious from being a bore and a bother. Artificial gene insertion, not breeding, not normal gene splicing. We know the difference without saying so please don’t be coy about it. You were trying to make a point and failed.

  7. None of the label proposals that I’ve read (and I’ve read them all, I think) are scientifically sound. That’s not something science supporters should encourage in federal label requirements if we want labels to really convey information.

    GMO sugar, for example. No genes. No difference in the sugar. But has to be labeled?

    Non-GMO crops use herbicides. But everyone thinks that only GMO crops use herbicide. A GMO label falsely implies people avoid herbicides.

    Cheese. Always excluded in labeling, but most of it uses GMO enzymes.

    The labels proposed are merely a target for fear. Most of them have some vague hand-wavey “May contain….”. That’s of no actual value in making decisions.

    If you wish to support a label type, check out the new QR code version that’s proposed.

    1. You bring up a good point about herbicides. Why shouldn’t those be on a label? I’m more concerned about herbicides than I am about GMOs after all.

        1. There is no “foreign ingredient” in the salmon either. There is an additional gene in that causes the fish to grow faster. It is a gene from another fish species. The “ingredients” are all the same as before… salmon protein, salmon fat, etc.

          1. If consumers need to know what genes are in the organisms they eat, perhaps we should require that all commercially sold cultivated organisms have a published genome?

            I don’t know of any reason to think a nucleotide sequence of itself has any nutritional importance but, supposing it does, it seems extremely unlikely that this would have any meaningful correlation with the “GMO” category. If we take a gene from an orange and stick it into a tomato as discussed by Amanda W. above, in what sense is that gene an ingredient of the tomato and not of the orange? It is equally present in both. If that nucleotide sequence itself has any nutritional relevance, surely both ought to be labelled.

            So far as I can tell, GMO labelling is about process rather than content. I don’t think consumers have any particular interest in or reason to know the genomes of crops. With the exception of a few molecular geneticists working with crops, we don’t have any idea what to do with that information. GMO labelling is intended, by its advocates, to mark foods that are “unnatural”. To me, this puts it closer to kosher or halal labelling than nutritional labelling.

          2. Then imagine that the “grow faster” transgene escapes into the wild population and spreads so that some fish are growing rapidly and some are growing normally. Is there going to be enough of a food supply to support both the normal and the fast-growing fish? Does faster growth affect survival in the wild? (Presumably farmed fish are harvested at a relatively early age.) How might it interfere with naturally-timed spawning behavior?

            Although the information that squeakysoapbox provides way up in comment thread #5 is definitely reassuring, we have to remember that this is business we’re talking about now, not science. If the field is lucrative enough to grow a company then it will also grow competition, which leads to cost-cutting, which leads to cut corners and, well, we all know the dangers with that.

          3. Were having growth factors constantly “on” (which appears to be the basic mechanism with these fish) would provide a substantial advantage to salmon over other fish, I think this is well within the realm of things we would expect the normal random mutation / natural selection process to create. So, my best guess about this hypothetical scenario is: If these salmon were to escape and interbreed with wild salmon, their offspring would probably have equivalent or lower fitness and the overall fitness of wild salmon would decrease very slightly.

            I don’t think the risk is zero, but I don’t see any reason to think there is appreciable risk. On the other hand, there are obvious potential environmental benefits to growing these salmon–less food needed per pound of edible salmon. The environmental harms caused by fishing for wild salmon and by using wild-caught fish as food for farmed salmon are not hypothetical, but well-documented. There’s some good discussion of that issue here:

            I don’t think the hypothetical questions you raise here are relevant to the points raised by GBJames and myself in this portion of the comment thread, though, since both of us are responding to the idea of “genetic modification as ingredient” which is a wholly separate issue from the potential environmental consequences of a particular form of genetic modification. A potential risk to wild salmon or other fish is not an ingredient of a food.

          4. That’s a good article. (Though I wish he hadn’t seemed to lump all skeptics into the “ideologically opposed” camp.) And you are correct that I’m in no way worried about “Frankenfood.”

            So you’re right that my concerns really have nothing to do with food labeling, and I’ll try to remember that. It’s just that it doesn’t take long for any pro-GMO discussion thread to start insisting blanketly that all possible forms of GMO are proven harmless, to confuse GMO technology with traditional hybridization, etc. The answer is probably that different cases should be evaluated on their merits and not automatically opposed; but by the same token not automatically approved by the “ideologically in favor” camp. 🙂

          5. Diane – I agree entirely that any evaluation of GMOs should be on a case-by-case basis. This is a large part of why I don’t see talking about or labelling GMOs as a whole as particularly meaningful–it’s a tool that can be used to increase agricultural efficiency, lessen environmental harm, increase nutritional value of foods, make loads of money for people selling seeds, make loads of money for people growing crops, sell herbicides or pesticides, further the control of a small set of agricultural corporations over national food production, or just about any combination of the above! I don’t think GMO is inherently safe or unsafe, just a tool that can be used for whichever goals we may happen to have in mind. And, of course, we do have a tendency to misuse our tools!

            I also agree that the “pro” vs. “anti” dichotomy tends to be too pronounced in discussions of GMOs.

          6. aspidoscelis, nice list of possible motives, both the admirable and the shady. I now think we might be in total agreement here. 🙂 Thanks for the rational conversation.

          7. ‘Then imagine that the “grow faster” transgene escapes into the wild…’

            To be clear, the gene in question already exists in wild fish, just not in salmon.

            So the question is whether the risk of these engineered fish will escape, breed with wild fish, and produce wild offspring that are competitively successful against wild ones. This is a logical possibility. It is extremely improbably for reasons discussed elsewhere on this page.

            In any case, GMO labels will have no affect on this unless consumers are frightened enough to prevent sale of the product. (Which, after all, is the point of GMO labeling.)

      1. Yeah. And some people are certain that if they avoid GMOs they avoid herbicide. That’s misleading.

        Part of the problem now is that the misinformation campaigns led by anti-GMO folks are backfiring on them. They created the fiction monster, now it’s working against them.

        I’ve told them if they want to label herbicides, go ahead. But aiming at GMOs is the wrong way to do it.

        1. A consumer can be sure that a glyphosate-resistant GMO was sprayed with lots more glyphosate during its growth than a non-GMO crop of the same species.

          I suppose it is possible that non-glyphosate herbicides are worse than glyphosate ones, though. But give us the choice! Labels please! (Specific ones, though…not just “GMO” but RR-GMO, Bt-GMO, etc).

          1. Well, no, you can’t conclude that. Because the labels do not say what trait was used. Plenty of GMOs don’t use glyphosate. Plenty of non-GMOs do.

            Less than half the glyphosate in use is for GMOs.

            But still–don’t aim at GMOs if you hate glyphosate. Which I don’t understand the disproportionate glypho-hate. Why don’t you dislike the other herbicides?

          2. Because it’s glyphosate-resistant crops that are being manufactured now and thus capable of transferring those genes to native species; and because as Lou says it encourages more frequent use of glyphosate on crops which hastens selection of resistant weeds.


            (The benefit to weeds, when you think about it, is sort of doubly ironic since most of them were invasives in the first place.)

          3. GBJames, that’s another odd thing to say. I mentioned canola as an example, and neither I nor Diane mentioned corn for this particular problem. Instead of trying to score rhetorical points, why not actually discuss the issue seriously?

          4. I am discussing it seriously. I’m seriously concerned about how anti-GMO advocates confuse all kinds of separate issues to fabricate a threat that is far greater than remotely exists.

            If we were discussing labels seriously we’d be agreeing that “No-GMO inside” labels (as currently exist) provide all the information needed by those of us who want to avoid GMO products. But the real agenda is to block a kind of technology by generating as much fear of the unknown as possible.

            If your concern is overuse of pesticides and herbicides, then make that case. It is the generalized hostility to GMO technology that is absurd. And absurdities don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

          5. That’s not how glyphosate superweeds happen. There’s no evidence of genes transferring the resistance. It’s actually just evolution.

            But that said, non-GMO herbicides do the same thing. That’s why this odd fixation with GMOs and glyphosate is bizarre. And still has nothing to do with labels.

          6. (quotes below from memsomerville’s comment above)

            “Well, no, you can’t conclude that. Because the labels do not say what trait was used. Plenty of GMOs don’t use glyphosate. Plenty of non-GMOs do.”

            Note that Lou is quite clearly specifying “a glyphosate-resistant GMO.” In that case, yes, you can assume glyphosate was used on that crop. How do you conclude differently?

            Also note that Lou recommends specific labels. He suggests RR-GMO, which means Roundup-resistant-GMO. (i.e., glyphosate-resistant GMO)

            “But still–don’t aim at GMOs if you hate glyphosate.”

            He has never declared any blanket opposition to GMOs–why do you say that he has? He has never expressed “hatred” for glyphosate (in fact, quite the opposite; he uses it himself under certain conditions)–why do you accuse him of that then?

            (Note: this may appear above my first comment, but it’s actually my second reply to memsomerville’s comment above. My first reply dealt only with his/her remark, “Which I don’t understand the disproportionate glypho-hate.” On re-reading his/her post, the strawmen bothered me more and more…)

          7. Memsomerville, maybe we don’t disagree. See my last sentence:
            “Specific ones, though…not just “GMO” but RR-GMO, Bt-GMO, etc”

            I don’t hate glyphosate more than other herbicides; on the contrary, it is my herbicide of choice when I need one in an area that does not contain bodies of water.

            What I hate is the massive use of herbicides which is an integral part of the production system for most GMO crops.

          8. Then you should be arguing against herbicide over-use and not mixing it up with fantasies of GMO corn becoming an invasive species.

          9. Which GMO crops do you NOT consider to be equivalent of invasive? Which GMO crops to you advocate the use of? Which ones do you NOT think are “potential” health and ecological disasters?

            Until you provide a list of GMO crops that you support the us of, I’ve invented no straw men.

          10. “Which GMO crops do you NOT consider to be equivalent of invasive?”

            That’s a meaningless question. Nothing is considered invasive until it has spread and somehow disrupted an ecosystem.

            If you plant a pansy in your garden, that is not an act of invasion. When your house is covered in kudzu, or your fencerows consumed by Oriental Bittersweet, that’s an invasion.

          11. Diane, I’m simply trying to tease out whether Lou is playing straight in his hostility to GMO technology. If he lists GMO products that he considers hazards and can list NO GMO products that are “OK” for the market, then I don’t think it is correct to view his position as not systematically hostile to GMOs.

            It is rather like anti-vaxxers who claim not to be anti-vaccination. They go on and on about potential horrors, mostly imagined, but try to appear “balanced” by claiming to be for “safe vaccination”. A list of “safe” vaccines is not to be found on an anti-vaxxer’s web site. Just claims to be for “safe” ones.

          12. I know you said that. But I have read all the label proposals, and none of them specify traits.

            But still, labels do nothing to assist in your hatred of herbicide. Using a proxy for your problem is not a sound scientific sort of idea.

          13. I don’t hate herbicide. I have a half-empty liter of glyphosate a few feet away from me as I write this. What I hate is an agricultural system that promotes blanket use of it.

          14. For what it’s worth, Bt is one of the more widely used pesticides in organic crop production.

          15. Lou Jost – I now notice that further down the thread you address this issue, writing:

            “Yes, but that is a surface application. In Bt-GMOs the cells themselves produce the toxin internally and it cannot be washed off. It will be eaten in large quantities.”

            It is not clear to me that this distinction is relevant. There does not (so far as I can tell in a quick check) appear to be any indication that its presence in food poses any human health risk. The risks of Bt use appear to be environmental rather than nutritional, and in that context it is the rate of Bt released into the environment, not the amount present in foods sold for human consumption, that is relevant. I don’t happen to know how rates of Bt release into the environment vary between crops that produce Bt and crops to which Bt is applied, although that Bt applied to crops washes off makes me think the rate would be higher for crops to which Bt is applied. One would think that a persistent pesticide would be much more effective at lower application rates than a transitory pesticide.

          16. “The risks of Bt use appear to be environmental rather than nutritional…”

            The risk to insects is “nutritional,” though, in that it must be eaten to be effective. And in addition to insect pests there are a host of species playing significant roles in any given environment. Plus, insects are quite capable of adapting to environmental challenges, thus only furthering the co-evolutionary battle.

            But again, I do see that this is not an issue of food-labeling (unless, perhaps, for those who do not wish to support Big Ag).

          17. Diane – The risk to insects is why I think crops that produce Bt are probably less hazardous than those to which Bt is applied. A sprayer is pretty non-specific. You’ll spray the crops you want to protect, the weeds you’d be perfectly happy to have critters eat, probably have some drift onto adjacent fields, it’ll wash off and end up… somewhere… etc. If a crop produces Bt in its tissues, the insects that will be harmed are presumably only those we explicitly wish to harm–those eating our crops. And so long as we’re trying to feed billions of people with agriculture, the goal of harming insects that eat our crops is pretty non-negotiable.

            For what it’s worth, my basic viewpoint in all this is:
            1) Agriculture is inherently damaging, and severely so. It’s probably the worst thing we can do to a landscape short of a shopping mall or a pit mine.
            2) Everyone uses the most effective pesticides and herbicides available to them.
            3) The damage caused by agriculture can be somewhat reduced by using pesticides and herbicides that maximally harm their targets without harming other plants or critters.
            4) The damage caused by agriculture can be somewhat reduced by increasing yield per acre and thus reducing the number of acres destroyed by agriculture.

            So that’s why I think Bt-producing crops are a good idea. So far as I can tell, it’s more targeted and more effective than topical pesticide applications. It is not a panacea. It is not free of harm. It’s agriculture, but perhaps less worse.

          18. Aspidocelis, I am not sure about the human health tests; there are tests that showed harm, but these are controversial, and I have not gone through them in enough detail to say who is right.

            But you’ve missed what I think is the main ecological hazard of Bt: escape to wild relatives of GMOs, giving these a sudden large advantage over other plants in the ecosystem. This could lead to the same ecological disasters as the introduction of any other invasive species.

          19. After a very brief lit search I’ve found only two recent papers concerning Bt toxicity that might apply here:

            I believe the first is the one used by anti-GMO folks, but not really applicable (even better it also looked at glysophate!).

            The researchers used human embryonic kidney cells. So the materials didn’t even need to go through the digestive process (not really helpful). You guys might be able to see this one:
            It sure looks like their results were pretty inconclusive, but they say that “modified Bt toxins are not inert on nontarget human cells..”

            This other one might be more informative.
            Researchers fed young pigs Bt maize and found that neither the toxin or the gene “were detected in the organs or blood”. Some toxin fragments were found in the GI tract and the gene was only found in the stomach.
            The main significance was in an immune response in the pigs. So that’s important.

            One thing that might be important about ingesting Bt toxins is the possible effect on our gut microbe population. In my opinion that does need study.

          20. Nice info, thanks Lynn. (And interesting point about our gut microbiome!)

            Perhaps human ingestion is the only factor to worry about regarding food labels. But I would still support labeling with identification as to the kind of GMO (as you have also, in another post here) on the grounds that more information is better than no information, and so that concerns beyond human ingestion, such as Lou’s and others’ environmental misgivings regarding Bt, cannot be swept under the rug.

          21. But as I say elsewhere here, those are surface sprays and the residue is washed off. Quite different from eating a Bt-crop which whose every cell contains the toxin.

          22. There are plenty of surface sprays that do not wash off.

            And I’d remind you of that old principle: “The dose makes the poison”. “Whose every cell contains the toxin” is pure paranoid scare verbiage.

          23. How so? The entire plant produces Bt in quantities high enough to be toxic to their pests. That’s why the Bt modification works.

      2. “Non-GMO crops use herbicides. But everyone thinks that only GMO crops use herbicide.”

        This is a highly misleading statement. Roundup-ready GMOs typically receive more herbicides during their life cycle than their non-GMO versions, and in general, the adaption of Roundup-resistant crops has driven up the use of herbicides by a large factor:
        At the same time, insecticide use has dropped slightly due to Bt-modified crops. The increase in herbicide use dwarfs the decrease in insecticide use, though it is possible that the insectices avoided are more dangerous than the herbicides added.

        1. I have talked to many people who think only GMOs use herbicides. They are often shocked to find out that other crops do to. Like when Chipotle switched away from GMO soy (because herbicide) to sunflower (which is herbicide tolerant, uses herbicide). But there’s no label, so who cares, right?

          And the Benbrook work is very misleading. Glyphosate has replaced other herbicides. But still, plenty of others are still used as well. Nonetheless, per acre usage is down.

          And there are more treated acres because of the stupid biofuels ideas that environmentalists were pushing years ago. Remember that?

          So the Benbrook work uses misleading handwaving to fool people. He’s good at it, I’ll admit that.

          1. So educate people about herbicide use.

            Pounds-per-acre usage is down for corn, but the proportion of total acres treated is up by a factor of 1.5, according to your same source. Glyphosate pounds per acre is way up, as your source shows.

            As your source says, some of the other herbicides are now applied in smaller quantities because there are newer, more effective formulations, hence reducing the pounds per acre. It is difficult to say what that means ecologically or for human health.

        2. Thank you, Lou, for the link. This is a very interesting article that provides some useful data. It is also indicative of how the purpose of genetic modification affects incentives with respect to pesticide use. This is one I will definitely save.

          1. That is an awful article which is why its in a no impact journal. Benbrook makes up about half the data because the USDA did not have funding to collect data for about 5 or 6 years but when they started collecting data again it showed the down ward trend continuing which Benbrook pretending was an increase. And lets not forget he is paid by the Organic Industry.

    2. Education of the consumer is needed so they know what they are dealing with. I just hope the average consume wants to educated.

  8. The problem is that it will beocme a ‘California label’ for the requirement that everything possibly carcinogenic must be identified. So, EVERYWHERE you go,verything you buy has a warning label and it’s completely meaningless.

    This gets very complicated, because tracing all ingredients in a product would become a nightmare (though a field day for lawyers). Whatkind of genetic change would count as a GMO? We’ve been modifying, and making use of naturally accidently moidified foods for thousands of years.

    The labelling thing has a strong flavor of ‘intelligent design’ to it, carrying the implication that whatever is found ‘in nature’ is somehow potentially superior, ignoring the fact that plants don’t give a damn about human health.

    MUCH more sensible to let those people who have issue with this LABEL THEIR PRODUCTS as Non GMO. Nothing is stopping them.

    1. Heh. I thought that too. I remember being momentarily horrified when I read that there were carcinogens in the restaurant I was about to eat in in California. My family had to explain that that label goes on everything. Which, of course, nullifies the usefulness of the label.

    2. I have a friend who is not an academic and not anti-GMO, and we got to talking one summer night over beers about the GMO thing. I started with the line that we have been genetically modifying crops for millenia, blah blah blah, and he stopped me. He said that he knew that selective breeding was not the same thing as putting in genes along with other genes. He knew, for example, that viral genes are often put in as well. He pointed out that that was different in procedure from selective breeding where one selects for genes that are already there. He added that frankly, it was a little down-talking to try to pretend that they were the same thing.
      I had to admit that he had a point.

      1. I agree that too many are conflating what is essentially traditional hybridization (such as the Honeycrisp apple, mentioned above, or hybrid corn) with GMOs, ignoring the latter’s use of vectors and the fact that the genes themselves may come from completely unrelated organisms.

        1. On an evolution site we should be at least curious about the phrase “completely unrelated organisms”. Which organisms, exactly, are completely unrelated to others?

          1. Genes you would never find in certain organisms like light producing ones in say rabbits or humans. I mean bright lights not those that can be seen only under certain conditions for humans.

  9. You know, I have not thought of it this way before but if this gets to be the norm, then its effect might not be what the anti-GMO special interest groups had hoped it would be. That is, after some broo-ha-ha people would eventually say ‘meh, looks like the same Doritos that I bought before’, and go ahead and eat them with their FlavrSavr salsa dip. The scare tactic that it was intended to be might not work.

  10. “GMO” is not an ingredient and treating it as such is a category error.

    The GMO labeling movement is not intended to inform consumers, it is intended to frighten them. It provides literally zero information as to the health or environmental costs or benefits of a product.

      1. I don’t know the chemistry, but I’ll wager that “Red Dye #4” is an actual ingredient.

        But I agree that “organic” is a useless label, too.

        1. If a food is labeled “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” the item must have an ingredients list and the contents should be 95% or more certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering, according to the USDA. The remaining 5% may only be foods or processed with additives on an approved list.

          Based on this, I don’t see how an organic label is “useless”. GMO as other’s have pointed out would need to be specified as to what type of GMO, but the organic label is pretty straight forward. Maybe you think it’s useless because not all producers continually adhere to USDA’s certification…and I can see that. I don’t know how thorough or often the organic food industry is tested to see if they meet the criteria.

          1. It is useless because “organic” labeling implies that these products are in some fashion healthier than “conventional”. But organic pesticides are often just as harmful as inorganic ones. “Synthetic” is equated with “unhealthy”. Irradiation doesn’t make food less healthful to eat.

            There has been a gigantic fraud committed on the public, IMO.

            (None of the above should be read as an argument that it doesn’t make any difference what you eat, simply that the “organic” label doesn’t mean that you’re eating healthier or that the environment is benefiting in some way.)

          2. must not be processed using industrial solvents,

            Water is an industrial solvent. It is probably the single largest solvent in use in industry the world over.

          3. You know there is a great difference with using just plain water with other industrial solvents which have very different characteristics of water. Disingenuous here.

        2. “Organic” is a voluntary label disclosing that a certain foodstuff is in line with somebody’s ideological preference, just as “Non-GMO”, “kosher”, and “suitable for vegans” are. See my comment below.

          1. Organic isn’t ideological unless some have made such. Still can be meaningful. Think before the chemical Green Revolution. It has meaning unless one wants to remove that meaning. Then in so doing if you believe that ideology then labeling itself is useless and therefor should be stopped immediately.

          1. I’ve come to the conclusion that people have started using “genetically modified” as a technical term. It means *now* “modified by genetic engineering”, as opposed to “modified by genetic craft”. See my earlier remark on the meaning difference.

            Does this amount to a moral or risk difference? Not in my view, except for the the usual datum that technology is generally *both* safer *and* more risky/dangerous than craft. Think of a tooth-sharpened spear vs. a nuclear weapon on the one hand or a folk medicine vs. a pharmaceutical. One can do more with science backing, for good or for ill. It is for this reason that I am cautiously in favour of genetic engineering of foods etc. rather than genetic craft. On the other hand, there is no need to in some cases, and I am opposed to “terminator” technologies in general, because of the freedom it takes away. (Even if in practice saving seeds doesn’t happen much.)

  11. Nearly all foods (except for salt, sugar, and a few others) should be labeled with a clear warning that they contain DNA. 🙂

  12. Salmon with foreign genes must be labeled but McDonald’s deadly burgers and fake shakes don’t? This sounds like something Republicans would do.

    I suggest we label every thing that contains genes.

  13. Imperfect as all of these labeling schemes are, they have at least done one really important thing. They have gotten more people to consider what they are ingesting as food and how it was processed. Since we literally are what we eat, that isn’t a bad thing.

  14. GMO foods are already labeled by their lack of labeling. Due to the ubiquity of GMO products, unless packaging specifically states that ingredients are “Non-GMO” then you can pretty much assume that the product contains GMO’s. The labeling movement is redundant and the underlying motivation is for GMO labeling to be a “Warning” rather than merely informational. The focus should be on making sure that those who label their products as “non-GMO” are telling the truth rather than forcing almost every product on the shelf to make a mandatory packaging change.

    1. Most people don’t even think about it. Labeling or no they would buy it. I developed diabetes late. An I wasn’t even grossly over weight. Some 10% are genetically predisposed to having it manifest.

      I am not against human created GMO of things, I would just like to have them done by those whose bottom line isn’t their profit over my life. Is that too much to ask?

  15. I would agree if and only if, we also include all things that are not ingredients, but used in the processing and/or growing of the foods.

    I’m more concerned about organic foods and the highly toxic copper compounds that are allowed to be sprayed on them. I find it hilarious that organic growers are allowed to SPRAY Bt all over the plants and ground, but Bt in the genome is a crazy thing that should be labeled as wrong.

    My last point (in a very short time) is that two previous labeling laws (California and Washington) were explicitly about promoting one industry (organic) over another industry (GMO). In the Washington case, it was explicitly stated in the law itself. In California it was because the law only affected supermarkets. A bag of chips fried with GMO-based canola oil in the grocery store had to be labeled. The same bag of chips in a gas station, hospital vending machine, or school lunch room did NOT have to be labeled as such. Further, the CA law stated that anyone (literally, anyone) could sue THE MARKET for mislabeled products, but the market was required to not require documentation of GMO or non-GMO products. In other words, the idea was purely to scare markets into not stocking GMO products in favor of organic products (which are rarely offered in gas stations, schools (due to cost), and the like).

  16. So we are just labeling the fish if it has been modified. But not if it just eats modified food. Or do they label both. You would have to label just about everything so the GMO label would soon be worthless.

    The idea that only GMO crops have herbicide added is certainly a false belief. As an example 2,4-D has been around and used on corn crops for many years before they started modifying corn seed. They modified the corn seed so they could put something on it even more toxic and that probably is what is killing the Monarch butterfly.

    So now, to save the butterfly, can they modify it as they did the corn seed?

  17. Yeah, I’m glad you broached the subject. In Washington, a proposed law (I-522) was defeated in 2012 which would have required the mandatory labelling of GMOs, but with highly canned-sounding text – something like “made partially with genetically modified ingredients,” and nothing more. Consumers for the law would constantly cite the “right to know” what’s in their food.

    I don’t see how that particular law would have been even slightly helpful, since there would still be no indication which ingredient(s) were modified, any further details about how they were, or what the reasons were for the modification. If anything, it sounded anti-consumer information to me.

    What with all the efforts to organize GMOs in terms of particular modifications to particular organisms and make patents for these modifications, I’d certainly look more closely at requiring GMO ingredients to be specifically mentioned *in* ingredient lists (like, “Monsanto Corn 1A” instead of just “corn,” giving consumers a trail to follow if they want to learn more about the corn – something that actually would inform consumers), but so far, I’ve never heard anything proposed like that.

    I think it’s great that companies on their web sites, however, do what they can to explain what they modify and why – I’m glad they don’t feel they even need laws to do that much, and that they do it proudly.

  18. My best analogy is that it would be akin to requiring an Applesauxee to list the specific varieties of apples used.

    A GMO salmon is no different than a Honeycrisp apple. In fact, apple varieties are more disparate than GMO and non-GMO versions of the salmon.

    It would also be akin to requiring organic labeling. We’ve seen from organic and gluten that consumer demand voluntary labeling works just fine. Let those who are paranoid about GMOs pay a premium to companies that will ensure their entire product line is GMO free.

    What I suspect is going to happen is that we will end up with mandatory labeling, and most products will be labeled with “This product may contain genetically modified ingredients”. Whoopee. Prop 65 (California) all over again.

    btw, did you know that in California not only can we not raise GMO salmon, we can’t do GM research on salmon either. A bill pushed by the commercial fishing industry was signed by Jerry Brown last year.

  19. If GMOs are not labelled then it puts a lot of pressure on supermarkets to declare themselves GMO-free in order to reassure customers that they won’t be buying them un-knowingly.

    Whereas, if they are prominently labelled, then supermarkets might be happier to stock them, knowing that customers would have a considered choice.

  20. GMOs are sort of like medicine: Commodities being tested for human consumption that help improve our lives. A label seems appropriate, but defining what is not a GMO is problematic.

    On the same note, I predict that some GMOs will inadvertently outperform some medical treatments. It is already clear that human performance is enhanced by synthetic foods, both for athletes and for systemically challenged people, like cancer and/or autoimmune patients.

  21. As a European (by adoption) who has long favored GMO labelling, I think a point or two has not been made. I am not opposed to GMOs as such, I know about breeders’ selection too. Still, the time scale of GMO development is quite different from that of traditional plant or animal development. Also, all such new products should be tested. Traditionally, it was the farmer’s own family who were the testers. Now it’s laboratories. Call me suspicious, but when the tests are done by the people who stand to make money off the product, I find it natural to be sceptical of their claims.

    Also, I do not recall having seen evidence that we need GMOs in order to feed the planet. That is probably another subject, though.

    1. Read up on Golden Rice and let us know how you define “in order to feed the planet”.

      In a time of global climate change, being able to create, for example, crops that are drought resistant might lead you to reconsider.

      GMO technology is how we produce insulin for treating diabetics. Is that a bad thing? Some people think so.

    2. Yes let’s remove gmos from the food chain and let us see what happens!! And yes it should be the companies that produce the gmos that should foot the bill for their testing for they are the ones making the profit when and if their food makes it to our tables. Do you suppose they will be in business very long if they produce a deleterious product? The science is out on gmos with 90 % of scientists agreeing that they are safe!! Pretty powerful stuff!!

      1. They should foot the bill for the testing, yes. But they should not carry out the testing. Like medicine, we would be better served if safety tests were done independently. Corruption and unethical behavior in pharmaceutical science is well-documented.

        Safety testing should be done by the government (or a private company contracted by the government) and paid for by the companies producing the products. All results should be published.

  22. I live in Washington state and several years ago we had an initiative on the ballot to require GMO labeling. During the campaign I asked some fervent anti-GMOers exactly what it is they have against the technology and if they had any actual evidence that it is or could be harmful. I did not get any sensible answers and the ones I did struck me as being similar in some ways to the arguments against same sex marriage – arguments based not on actual risk but on ideology. It was very disconcerting as some of the folks making those arguments (against GMO) were quite well educated.

    In the end I decided that despite the inability of the anti-GMOers to come up with a reason to back the initiative, I voted for it for precisely the reasons Dr. Ceiling Cat mentions. Though I have no trouble with GMO, I don’t give a fat rodent’s behind if an agribusiness profits are harmed by labeling. In the end I felt that information about what’s in our food is information that we can use or not as we see fit.

    The initiative failed as is most often the case on things I vote for. Just so, if you want to place bets on any sports game, just pop me a line to ask which team I want to win then place your bet on the opposition. Guaranteed you’ll win your bet.

  23. Maybe it’s a good idea. It would take away the “why are you trying to hide it” argument, and help to normalize GMOs.

  24. I eat salmon now. I don’t know what the DNA is of any given fish I eat (beyond just fishy type of DNA.) Will knowing there is a different DNA sequence in my salmon make any difference? It’s still salmon with fishy DNA and now maybe just a little bit of different DNA but essentially I’m still eating salmon.

    What would matter to me is how that GMO salmon affects me. Does it have a different nutritional value? If not, I probably don’t care. Did the GMO allow the fish to survive, grow, flourish? That could be good. Did the GMO encourage the farmers to use bad practices? That would be bad.

    Labeling has to give me relevant information, not useless information.

    1. Very good point. It should be the effects of GMOs that deserves the label. At present, I am not aware of any deleterious effects. And if the effects are good, why should they be labeled at all?

        1. Everything has risks. Your advocacy seems to emphasize the risks and discounts the possible substantial benefits.

          A reasoned argument would weigh the benefits against the risks and not focus on the risks alone.

          1. How seriously do you take the risk of irreversible ecological harm? When an altered crop hybridizes with a plant of similar lineage, transgenes can escape into the environment (which has been demonstrated to happen). This advantage could create “super weeds” that cannot be controlled by herbicides and might outcompete native plants. While the benefits, in this case, consist of allowing farmers to use more herbicide than they otherwise could, and greatly enriching agri-pharma.

          2. “How seriously do you take the risk of irreversible ecological harm?”
            I take that very seriously, but I also factor in the odds that this will occur when weighing the risks vs rewards.

            The potential for good from GMOs is almost hard to overestimate when one considers the new tools being developed like CRISPR/Cas9.

            Like all new technologies, the first attempts are usually somewhat crude and not well thought out. As the technology further develops and becomes more refined we understand both the benefits and the risks better. We are at the beginning of what is likely to be an extremely powerful and impactful new technology. Caution and due consideration of the dangers is certainly warranted. I am suggesting that the benefits be equally considered whenever discussing the dangers.

          3. Fair enough. Though I might point out that we don’t really know the odds (or likely results) of escaping transgenes. What we do know is that it can happen–it happened in bentgrass.

            All in all I’d love to see the technology continue to grow and get better & better. And I’m sure it will. I just react a little negatively to those who insist that we now have all angles accounted for and there’s absolutely no risk to worry about.

          4. I also agree with that. What bugs me is the knee-jerk, arrogant defense of all GMOs by so many, using bad or deliberately misleading arguments. I do agree with many advocates of GMOs here that it must be done on a case-by-case basis.

            As Diane says, it is also hard to weigh the risks, costs, and benefits properly. Especially when some of the consequences are non-localized and impossible to control. Once the genie is out of the bottle she doesn’t go back in.

            Public awareness and skepticism about GMOs is the only way to force Monsanto and others to do the extra work to insert additional tightly linked senescence genes or use other tricks to reduce risks of escape. Labeling helps in this process.

          5. “…the knee-jerk, arrogant defense of all GMOs…”

            Oh, ye gods of irony!

            What is under consideration is whether products grown with GMO technology should be require to be labeled. All examples in the real world of such labels are ones that demonstrate that NO useful information is provided that isn’t already provided by “No GMO” labels that currently litter our grocery stores.

            The knees that are jerking are those belonging to the fear mongers warning us to be very, very, frightened of this technology.

            If you give us a list of GMO products that you support I’d change my view of your position.

          6. GBJames, you’ve continually ignored what I write and instead invented straw men. But I’ll try once more:

            1. I use glyphosate.
            2. I have no problems with GMOs per se. Modifications that increase nutritional value or harvestability are fine.
            3. I agree with many commenters that GMO labeling should be specific (Bt, Roundup-Ready, etc) in order to be more useful. But incomplete information is still information.

            The things that DO bother me are those I’ve explained in my earlier comments.

            Meanwhile, please learn the difference between “invasive” and “non-native”.

          7. I’ll repeat the main GMO labeling question one more time. (Then I’ll stop for fear of violating one of Da Roolz.)

            Why can’t you purchase “organic” and “non-gmo” products at your local Whole Foods or other “natural” foods store? Why does this labeling not meet your labeling requirement?

          8. Contrary to your arguments above, I think intrinsic bt toxin made by GMOs should count as an ingredient and so should be on the label along with the other ingredients.

            But my main concern here is just to point out that there are legitimate reasons for avoiding certain GMOs.

  25. I am for the labeling of GMO products. If they’re safe, why not label them? I’m not a scientist and I don’t know if GMOs are safe or not, but it does seem like it’s a little early to say that they are definitely safe. For me the biggest issue is that many GMO crops have sprayed with Glyphosate.

  26. I think required labeling will only reinforce the unwarranted stigma that GMO foods have (at least in the near term). If labeling does happen, there needs to be additional information included on that label…something to the effect: there is currently no scientific evidence that GMO foods are any more harmful to human health or are any less nutritional than their “organic” equivalents.

    1. Something like that is what they said about thalydomide, too. I know, it’s not the same thing and I am exaggerating. I plead guilty to that. Still, until each one is proven good for us, doubt persists and labelling should be enforced. Most people won’t care, anyway.

      Can anyone cite any tests of GMOs that were not performed by the companies trying to make money off them?

      1. Yes, the parallel with thalidomide is laughably silly.

        The GM crops on the market have been extensively tested for safety.

        There is exactly zero reason to expect for a genetically modified crop to pose more danger, on average, than a new strain of the same crop produced by more conventional breeding techniques. Biologically, BOTH are genetically modified – it is just that the conventional one is modified in a more random and haphazard fashion, and has passed fewer checks.

      2. No, but the item to keep an eye on is Glyphosate, the main weed killer in Roundup and now in many other herbicides used on the GMO Corn and Beans. So the corn and beans may be safe as far as GMO goes but the reason for these seeds creation is to survive spraying them with Glyphosate.

        The EPA has never tested it and neither has the USDA – however they are now thinking about it. The EPA tesed lots of pesticides but not this stuff. They have even said this stuff may be responsible for the loss of the Monarch butterfly and the important thing to understand is this is “thee” herbicide in the Mid West and has been for many years now.

        1. I should say the USDA tested some soybeans in 2011 and the glyphosate in these beans were within tolerance of the EPA guide lines.

          1. But that contains not a word about the potential effects on the surrounding floral community.

      3. WHy yes I can. A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Researech (2001-2010). I only have a PDF but its easily to find with a bing search. Alessandro Nicolia meta review published in Critical Review of Biotechnology 2013 “An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research”. The Trillion meal study Journal of Animal Science 2014 by Alison Van Eenennaam.

        I can go on and on listing hundreds of peer reviewed independently financed studies on GMO and guess what all but 2 have found GMO are no different then conventional crops.

  27. GMO labelling is meaningless. It is not something that can be expected to have a common biochemical or ecological effect. Basically, it amounts to putting a scare label for people who are irrationally scared by it.

    Avoiding GMO is an ideological choice, and should be treated as other ideological choices: a food product that matches somebody’s ideological choices can brag about it. Food thad does not match an ideological choice does not have to state that it does not.

    These are labels for ideological choices that people who make those choices can use as guide:
    – “Non-GMO”
    – “Halal”
    – “Kosher”
    – “Safe for vegans”

    These are NOT labels for ideological choices and should NOT be compulsory:
    – “Contains GMO”
    – “Not halal”
    – “Not kosher”
    – “Not safe for vegans”

    I am sure you agree that e.g. compulsory labelling of non-kosher food would be a stupid and oppressive thing to mandate. A person adhering to strict kosher diet should actively look for food labelled as kosher. A person adhering to strict non-GMO diet should actively look for food labelled as GMO. (I am not aware of anybody who actively avoids either kosher or non-GMO food.)

    1. I forgot to include “Organic” among ideological preferences. Everything said above also applies to labelling of foods as “organic” or “not organic”. Neither should be compulsory. Who wants organic, let him/her look for the “organic” label. He/should not be allowed to force the conventional produce to be labelled as “not organic”.

      1. I think this is a good suggestion. I don’t oppose “GMO-Free” labels, although I think they are misguided. This kind of labeling already exists all up and down the aisles at Whole Foods. My question is this… Why isn’t this kind of labeling not good enough for Big Organic™?

    2. Correction: above, I meant to say “A person adhering to strict non-GMO diet should actively look for food labelled as NON-GMO.”

  28. In my view, the reason to label such things is not because they are unsafe to consume, but because they are ecologically destructive. If GMO organisms were mandatorily back crossed to native species, I would have no concern. Unfortunately, the public is unlikely to grasp the latter, and is instead apt to focus on Frankenstein stories

    1. Why would they be ecologically destructive (in comparison to conventionally bred ones)? However you deconstruct that argument, you will find out there is no plausible science behind it.

      1. The comparison with conventional breeding is commonly made by GMO advocates, but it ignores the radical “saltational” nature of the transformed genome. Evolution doesn’t normally work by such dramatic saltations, and ecosystems will not have time to adjust to them. Some genetic modifications involve cross-phyla gene transfers. These can give a much bigger and much more sudden advantage than normal plant breeding, which usually involves just small incremental changes due to novel combinations of existing genes, or small mutations in a few bases, or sometimes changes in ploidy.

        A native leaf-eatng insect community will have a much harder time adjusting to a novel gene that was never in plants to begin with.

        1. You can judge the potential ecological impacts of saltational changes by looking at what sometimes happens when an invasive species suddenly arrives in an ecosystem. The results vary from nothing to total disaster. There have been multiple total disasters. GMOs are essentially globally new species, often with radically novel genes for their phylum. They are potentially far more invasive than the usual invasive species, whose genomes are only slightly different from the genomes of their native relatives.

          The difference could actually be quantified.

          1. The problem is that comparing a GM plant containing one foreign gene with an invasive species is a simile that belongs to poetry, not science. See my comment below (no. 50).

  29. I can see a radical group like “Center for Whats Edible Progress” creating a heavily edited video showing salmon with extra eyes and potatoes with weird faces.

  30. IMO insisting on a law for labeling GMO’s as such is a bit like the flip version of, say, a cereal company putting a big sign on their boxes of corn flakes announcing “Contains NO gasoline!” Technically true, yes. Accurate. But seems to me there’s a kind of sly little passive aggressive deception going on anyway.

    1. I see “gluten-free” signs on all sorts of things – including in one memorable instance, bottles of water.

  31. I’m all for labeling in the interest of full disclosure. The problem with generic labeling of GMOs is that there is nothing generic about genes. If we want to encourage people to think rationally about GMOs then we need to give them the information required for rational thoughts: the functions of the trans-genes. Of course, this opens a huge can of worms about how to provide that information in a way that can work with food packaging and can be interpreted by consumers.

    The best solution I can think of for this labeling problem is to create an online database of trans-genes, their functions (in layman’s terms), and a link to GenBank. Food packaging could then provide 1) a generic GMO label, and 2) a key (id/name/whatever) to look up the genes in the database.

    The biggest problem that I see with this solution is that it depends on the biotech companies to actually disclose what they probably consider proprietary information. But whatever. They could be made to deal with that.

    1. “…the functions of the trans-genes.” Exactly!

      In the glyphosate case we do know; they prevent glyphosate from in turn preventing the production of a plant enzyme.

      “Glyphosate, (the active ingredient in Roundup and other herbicide products) kills plants by interfering with the shikimate pathway in plants, which is essential for the synthesis of the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan. The shikimate pathway is not present in animals, which instead obtain aromatic amino acids from their diet. More specifically, glyphosate inhibits the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS).” –Wikipedia

      “Some micro-organisms have a version of EPSPS that is resistant to glyphosate inhibition. One of these was isolated from an Agrobacterium strain CP4 (CP4 EPSPS) that was resistant to glyphosate.[94][95] The CP4 EPSPS gene was engineered for plant expression by fusing the 5′ end of the gene to a chloroplast transit peptide derived from the petunia EPSPS. This transit peptide was used because it had shown previously an ability to deliver bacterial EPSPS to the chloroplasts of other plants. This CP4 EPSPS gene was cloned and transfected into soybeans.

      The plasmid used to move the gene into soybeans was PV-GMGTO4. It contained three bacterial genes, two CP4 EPSPS genes, and a gene encoding beta-glucuronidase (GUS) from Escherichia coli as a marker. The DNA was injected into the soybeans using the particle acceleration method. Soybean cultivar A54O3 was used for the transformation.”–Wikipedia

      1. In the database I envision, this would be described in layman’s terms. Something like: Glyphosate is a pesticide that prevents plants from making three amino acids that they need and which are important to human nutrition (tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine). This gene provides plants with another way to make those amino acids, which glyphosate does not affect.

        1. Sounds good. It would let those with environmental concerns about certain interventions know where to look. I think your idea of a database is a good one, esp. as more and more GMO’s reach the market.

  32. I wish to recommend Dr. Novella’s posts on GMOs at NeuroLogica and Nathanael Johnson’s long series of GMO stories at Grist. I recommend them because they both explore GMOs with depth, nuance, and good-faith consideration of the issues and arguments. It was quite interesting to see each of them document how their thoughts changed over the last 1 – 2 years, even when I may have disagreed with them on one point or another.

    I am strongly against mandatory labeling. I would have zero issue with the creation of a voluntary “GMO-free” certification standard, however.

    Previous commenters and the writers I mention above have covered lots of important points already, so here’s a few secondary ones:

    1) Many people offhandedly assert that anti-GMO and anti-vaccine deniers are the Left’s version of global warming deniers, but Dan Kahan (Cultural Cognition Project) has pretty convincingly shown that they are not. GMOs and anti-vaccine sentiments simply aren’t politically polarized between left and right in the way global warming or nuclear power are. (Though I suspect people pretending that they are already polarized might make it so, in a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Those assertions also imply that anti-GMO/anti-vaccine positions represent a larger rise in anti-science attitudes in the US, but neither position really has the size or growth you’d expect if that were true.

    2) As Prof. CC covered previously, while 82% of Americans support labeling of GMOs, 80% also support labeling of foods containing any DNA. I strongly suspect that, in fact, a very large majority of people don’t know much at all about GMOs and/or have little to no opinion on them. “Sure, consumers deserve to know,” is a very easy, understandable default position to take in a poll if someone didn’t really know or care about GMOs before being asked. It reminds me of how popular it was (still is?) for people to say we should teach both evolution and creationism/ID in schools, because “it’s only fair to hear both sides.”

    Apologies for the length.

  33. Reminds me of the angst Michael Pollan described experiencing, in his 2001 book The Botany of Desire, over whether to disclose that that the potato salad he was bringing to a town picnic had been made with Monsanto’s genetically modified spuds.

    I didn’t see any reason why he should. On the other hand, I have difficulty seeing merit in the view that information should be withheld from consumers out of a paternalistic concern that they might misuse it. Even if it’s empirically true, I have difficulty with it on policy grounds.

    1. And in that particular example, the potatoes contained a substance toxic to insects which was not in potatoes or other common foods until genetic engineering put it there. I do not know if the safety tests for this toxin were really objective. They were not extensive either, as FDA ruled the added toxin should not be treated as a food additive.

      Obama’s appointment of a Monsanto executive, Michael Taylor, as FDA Deputy Comissioner for Foods did little to help the credibility of government oversight of these issues.

  34. How do you decide what’s genetically modified? Interspecies mating (bye-bye wheat)? Mutant selection (bye-bye maize)? Cloning? (bye-bye apples and wine)?

    CRISPR? (bye-bye things we don’t have yet, like nonallergenic peanuts)?

    What if the introduced DNA sequence is entirely synthetic?

    What if it’s a transposition from another locus (e.g., a regulated promoter)?

      1. So you side with those who choose to be hostile to a particular modification technique and don’t really care about the actual effect of the modification?

        1. (FWIW, my husband is a Big Pharma protein scientist who’s been working with recombinant techniques since the early ’80s. One of their (then, Upjohn’s) earlier products was recombinant bovine somatotropin, during which they were in steep competition with Monsanto; until after a few mergers they were all (add Pharmacia) the same company; till Monsanto was spun off again. The Upjohn lineage ended up as part of Pfizer after a series of other mergers…It’s a small world. Meanwhile H has continued to work with recombinant techniques and proteomics. My training was in Ecology/Evolutionary biology, but I’m not unfamiliar with the other end of the scale. And certainly not some organic-wooist.)

          1. (Along the same lines–you may not be old enough to remember, but rBST occasioned one of the first big to-label-or-not shitstorms.)

          2. Way OT and just because I’m so anal–I am no particular fan of rBST! Though my concern is more for the poor cows than the milk itself.

  35. The labeling should be optional. To require it, implies that this is one of the critical things to know about this product. Consumers that care can buy products marked GMO-Free, just as they to today.
    There is genetic variation in most products we buy and non-GMO corn looks different today than the “heirloom” variety of the past, for example.

  36. Requiring labeling of something unimportant obscures the important nutritional facts about what you are eating. A product with tons of Organic sugar cane needs to highlight the amount of sugar in it, not to obscure it with not important info.

  37. Most likely most GMO crops are harmless in themselves-as far as human toxicity is concerned;tho’I have questions about Bt etc. The principal argument for labelling is to allow consumers to have some kind of choice in growth methods,organization of farm methods and marketing. Typically GMO seeds are very narrow genetically, derived from only a few derived plants-this is not a good long term strategy-a few environmental variances can wipe out very large percentages of a crop. And since seed most often cannot be saved-either because the plants don’t set fertile seed or the manufacturer does not permit saving seed then no selection occurs to improve yields in local conditions.Genetically narrow crops and no tradition of saving seeds with varied characteristics is a dangerous corner to paint oneself into. Many ‘land races’ of traditional crops exist in traditional societies which exceed in yield GMO crops. And are better selected and more varied genetically for the particular environment. Golden rice is a case in point
    Often great amounts of pesticide and herbicides are used which destroy the quality of the soil and pollinating organisms. Often pollinators are imported for the short pollinating season and since fields are vast and mono cropped no sustenance is around in any case for any wild insects other than the short flowering season.These last points are true also for modern non-GMO farming practices.And need to be addressed for long term sustainability. GMO exacerbates these difficulties because tiny numbers of companies control vast amounts of productivity and, not so incidentally, also control the manufacture and sale of herbicides and insecticides. Not a good monopoly to paint oneself into.

    1. “allow consumers to have some kind of choice in growth methods”

      What is wrong with “No GMO” labels we already have? What prevents you from purchasing foods that are labeled that way? My grocery store is full of them.

    2. Bt is an allowable pesticide for organic crops.

      Use of GMO crops reduces (not increases) pesticide and herbicide sprays, plus it allows chemicals that are far more specific for the pest (i.e. not harming everything, just the target organisms).

      1. “Use of GMO crops reduces (not increases) pesticide and herbicide sprays.”

        Exactly the opposite for glyphosate-resistance. It provides resistance to a given herbicide, thus allowing farmers to use that product freely to target the weeds that grow within the planted acreage.

        1. You are correct. My mistake.

          Of course, Bt and glycophosate are very specific compounds that don’t harm non-target species.

          Yes, glyphosate is as innocuous a herbicide as you can get.

          U.S. EPA ReRegistration Decision Fact Sheet for Glyphosate (EPA-738-F-93-011) 1993.
          No effect on humans from eating maximally sprayed glyphosate fields with a maximal residue over the lifespan of the human.

          Giesy, John P.; Dobson, Stuart; Solomon, Keith R. (2000). “Ecotoxicological Risk Assessment for Roundup® Herbicide”. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 167: 35–120. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-1156-3_2. ISBN 978-0-387-95102-7.

          Practically non-toxic to slightly toxic for amphibians and fish (compare to other herbicides).

          Andréa, Mara Mercedes de; Peres, Terezinha Bonanho; Luchini, Luiz Carlos; Bazarin, Sheila; Papini, Solange; Matallo, Marcus Barifouse; Savoy, Vera Lucia Tedeschi (2003). “Influence of repeated applications of glyphosate on its persistence and soil bioactivity”. Pesquisa Agropecuária Brasileira 38 (11): 1329. doi:10.1590/S0100-204X2003001100012.

          Glyphosate is bound to the soil and deactivated quickly (although repeated treatments reduce the ability of the soil to bind the compound).

          1. Yes, but you’re ignoring the fact that as a part of the plant’s genome, it can spread to other plants. And also that repeated use of a single pesticide will select for resistance amongst the target species; imagine “super weeds.”

          2. Yes, the super weeds or glyphosate resistant weeds are already out there so the chemistry folks have already accomplish the next GMO of Corn and Beans to take glyphosate plus 2,4-D. I forget the name of the product but it is by Dow. This new combination is suppose to be the next version I guess we call it – GMO and weed killer 2.0. Corn could take 2,4-D without modification but not beans.

            However, the EPA has suddenly put a hold on use because this new herbicide may be more toxic than they thought. I don’t fully understand it or why this one is any worse than straight glyphosate. If this is the stuff that is wiping out the butterfly (and we don’t know this for sure)I don’t see them doing anything about that.

          3. Thanks, I was unaware of that. Then someone below posted its (commercial) name: Enlist Duo, and I looked it up. Organisms aren’t the only things that involve. 😉

          4. “Yes, glyphosate is as innocuous a herbicide as you can get.”

            Which I agree is a good thing, and all the more reason not to do anything that will accelerate the natural selection of glyphosate resistant plants, thus rendering it ineffective far earlier than might otherwise be the case.

      2. “Bt is an allowable pesticide for organic crops.”

        Yes, but that is a surface application. In Bt-GMOs the cells themselves produce the toxin internally and it cannot be washed off. It will be eaten in large quantities.

    3. Have you seen a seed catalog? A single zip code will have hundreds of different choices of maize from a single seed company.

      Maize and other hybrids you cant save because they don’t grow true. Soy and Cotton where moving to buying new seeds annually decades before GMOs hit the market. Its cheaper buying new seeds each year. The lost of land to market selling crops, the cost to clean have treatments applied, and the extra labor costs are more then new seed.

      That is a fantasy that traditional societies have yields anywhere close to the US. The yields in Africa are about 20 to 30 bushels an acre and in the US we are averaging over 180 with Illinois going over 200 this year.

      There is less pesticide used with GM crops. Its the whole point of GM crops. This is just the normal anti GM side Farmers are Stupid argument. Don’t even bring up the bogus Benbrook study its garbage which is why its in a low impact journal.

        1. No. There is more Glyphosate use but that is because it replaced much worse herbicides like Paraquat. Its a great thing Glyphosate use is up compared to other herbicides as glyphosate is much safer both for humans and the environment.

          1. Glyphosate is what I was referring to, obviously. I’m well aware of its relative safety compared to other herbicides; that does not translate into more=better. Even if it were completely benign (and it’s not; it obviously kills plants), overuse will hasten the evolution of resistant weeds, putting us right back where we started–needing to use less benign herbicides whilst scrambling to find the “new glyphosate.”

            Meanwhile glyphosate-resistant transgenes can escape into the environment creating new resistant species which then have a competitive advantage over non-resistant plants.

  38. Even if GMO foods are perfectly safe, I want it labeled as GMO. I think we have the right to know that. When the manufacturer/grower doesn’t want to add that info, makes you a bit suspicious that they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

    1. What is wrong with current “No GMO” labels that clutter the products at Whole Foods and elsewhere? What “right to know” is not currently there for you?

  39. I want to know if my food contains allochthonous engineered DNA, the function of the genetic modification and its significance for agricultural practice (e.g., genes that induce paralysis or hormone imbalance in poultry to allow them to grow faster), and who makes money off the patent. Misguided liberals and their conservative friends have no right to tell me I cannot know.

    1. Why can’t you purchase “organic” chicken at your local Whole Foods or other “natural” foods store? There’s no shortage of such products where I shop.

  40. I think that we should only *require* labeling if there is a good reason to do so. For example, I am unaware of, say, a requirement to label produce as to how it was shipped, what phase of the moon it was harvested in, if it was free of being bombarded by wifi waves, etc.

    Now if the genetic modification changes the nutritional characteristics, then that change should be labeled.

    1. This. Food labels are too important to mess around with. First of all this is compelled speech which should always require a higher bar in order to force. Food safety is a good reason to force speech. Consumers finding something icky because they are ignorant of the science is not.

      The next problem is what gets labeled? Do HFCS and Oils get labeled when they have 0 GMO cooties in them? What about cheese? Or animal products that have eaten GM corn? This last one will be awesome for the price of meat.

  41. I’ve never been able to understand how we allowed agribusinesses to transform this from a simple proposition that in a free market consumers have a right to know what they are buying, and a right to make their purchasing choice on that information, to a debate over whether the product is safe or not. Even though we are hiding nothing, even though masses of studies show this stuff is probably the safest food in the world, consumers are right to not trust us. We have put ourselves on the wrong side of an ethical divide. Businesses’ right to make a profit should never trump a consumer’s right to know what they are buying and choose how they spend their money. In fact, in a free market companies do not even have a right to a profit.

    In Australia we have had mandatory GM food labelling since 2001. The legislation has worked so well that the 10 year review in 2011 found no need to modify it. Those four extra words on the label, “contains genetically modified products”, do not add a huge burden to packaging costs. A few Australian consumers avoid such GM products, as is their right. They put no one else at risk by this. They just pay marginally more for their produce. Our agribusinesses have not been noticeably damaged by this. Some parts of the sector have thrived by going the GM free route, and providing for a niche market. This is what markets are supposed to do.

    From Food Standards Australia New Zealand:

    GM foods, ingredients, additives, or processing aids that contain novel DNA or protein must be labelled with the words ‘genetically modified’. Novel DNA or protein is defined in the Food Standards Code as DNA or a protein which, as a result of the use of gene technology, is different in chemical sequence or structure from DNA or protein present in counterpart food, which has not been produced using gene technology.

  42. Labeling foods as “GMO” and stopping there is no better than labeling them “processed”. It tells you precisely nothing about the food. To have any meaning at all, you need to (at least) specify exactly what the genetic modification is. There is a big difference between modifying food to express a toxin and modifying it to express vitamin A. I’m all for labeling that because information is good even if it might be misunderstood or cause unnecessary fear, the value of information is greater than these costs. I’m completely opposed to merely saying “genetically modified” on the labeling because that isn’t information at all, that’s just spreading fear for the purpose of spreading fear. It perpetuates a completely false category of “natural” and “non-natural” that makes people dumber, not more able to make rational choices.

  43. People get too hung up on the question of whether GM foods are safe in regards to labeling. GM salmon are almost certainly safe to eat, but that is not the main reason GM salmon are opposed.

    There are many other reasons GM foods are opposed: contamination (and possible extinction) of wild forms; contamination of neighboring farms causing legal trouble for farmers; greatly increased pesticide use causing environmental damage around farms, in ground water, and in waterways after runoff, and increasing the poisoning of farm workers and those living near farms; ethical complains about patents and future Terminator genes especially in third-world countries; dislike of the overall behavior of the corporations creating them (generalized boycott of Monsanto); etc.

    So there are many reasons why GMO labels provide useful information to people. Remember: free market theory depends on all parties to a transaction having all information that would affect their decision. And it’s distasteful keeping the public people in the dark for the sake of corporate profit.

    Finally, regarding safety, there are some real concerns. The use of genes that cause crops to actually /produce/ pesticide (e.g. BT corn) are potentially dangerous for eating given that we can’t be sure how the genes may evolve or drift, and they haven’t undergone much testing for safety.

  44. I’m resistant to the idea of GMO labeling and voted against it in a recent election in Colorado.

    I don’t generally view the potential health hazards of GMO any differently than from conventional cross hybridization of different varieties.

    Introduction of environmentally invasive species created through GMO may be something to worry about.

  45. Isn’t it being dishonest when a label implies that the food is better for the fact that it is GMO free? See this article in The Atlantic July 24, 2015:

    Vermont should not be taken seriously. I live here and know that this state has an overabundance of weird woo-woo types who are “into” divination, homeopathy, biodynamic gardening and so forth.

  46. I suppose we could just look at other countries, where labelling genetically modified food is more common. “Contains genetically modified corn,” or something like that. Most of Europe Asia, and Oceania labels. Can’t we just find out how it is working out for them? Looking at data, in other words, instead of just tongue wagging.

    I think a lot of people are suspicious of GMO. If the intent is to change that, the refusal to label isn’t helping.

      1. And again, animal consumption of these crops is not what those here who are a bit worried about this technology are concerned with. We worry more about transgene escape into the environment and the fact that mass use of glyphosate resistant plants will eventually select for glyphosate resistant weeds, and the coevolutionary war will escalate by one more step. (And Monsanto will have to come up with the “next glyphosate.”)

        There are some good discussions of the risks versus benefits of this technology above, though.

        1. It’s been correctly pointed out to me that those kinds of worries are not relevant to the food-labeling debate. But there is enough anything-GMO-is-just-hunky-dory sentiment here that we environmental skeptics can’t help but step into that particular discussion.

        2. It cant “escape” to the environment. First there is no wild soy or wild corn in the US that is native but more importantly it does not give an evolutionary advantage to wild species. Wild maize is just not sprayed so who cares if it has glyphosate resistance.

          The super weed issue is so overblown. Ok so in the worst case glyphosate is no longer effective next year we had 20 years of low to no till farming which is a win. There are new products coming online like Enlist that address this.

          And of course the Monsanto Boogie Man comes out. How they became the pure evil is worthy of a series of books. Basically everything are accused of doing is bullshit.

          1. Bt is an insecticide not a herbicide. It kills insects. Resistance is not a major concern either as refuge in a bag in now the standard along with stacked traits which have different modes of action.

          2. I know that. I am talking about the risk of making super-competitive weeds that take over wild ecosystems. Bt gives their bearers a large advantage over other species and if there are lots of insect herbivores in the environment, the Bt-bearing species could take over.

          3. Scientists have identified wild species capable of hybridizing with several current GMO crop species (Google it), and there are wild versions of the same species for others–see canola.

            …canola is capable of hybridizing with at least two—and possibly as many as eight—wild weed species in North America, including field mustard (Brassica rapa), which is a known agricultural pest.

            GM canola in the wild has been identified everywhere from Canada to Japan in previous research


            You can also Google to find documented instance of transgene escape.

            BTW, I agree with you for the most part about the demonization of Monsanto (or any other corporation, for that matter). Expecting altruism from corporations is ridiculous under capitalism; regulation has to come from outside, i.e., governments. Meanwhile corporations are extremely concerned with their reputations and want to avoid bad publicity as much as possible. The people to be mad at when we rail against “Big Pharma,” “Big Agribusiness,” fast foods, etc., are our senators and representatives. (Not to mention, in many cases, consumers themselves. And Wall Street.) And of course they’re all about profit and will take advantage of any loophole or leeway available. We could easily legislate our way to lower drug prices if Congress itself wasn’t so plutocratic. But that’s another rant for another time…

          4. The situation with Monsanto is even murkier than with most large corporations. Obama appointed a Monsanto VP as Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, which is in charge of food safety and labeling….

          5. Well, I didn’t mean to suggest they were saintly. 😉 How disgusting. But again that shows how little oversight anyone in government is championing and how corporations are entities that will take advantage of any leverage they can get. I’ll bet Dow would have been just as eager to have that position.

            I’m no fan of international corporations, but I’m afraid they’re here to stay. My husband’s employment hasn’t deterred me from writing the occasional letter to the editor deploring his company’s (remember, we’ve been through several name changes!) policies or actions. Globalization is here to stay, too. The only solutions I can imagine are very long-term ones; as mentioned, international labor unions, for one. And something probably impossible–an educated public voting intelligently for politicians that will rein in corporate malfeasance. Or maybe an educated public that will at least shop according to their conscience.

            (Monsanto already had a “reputation” when they merged with Upjohn, which meant there were no tears shed when they departed…then along came Pfizer…But people do need to remember that the vast majority of corporate employees are honest workers making a living. When anyone rails against them they should specify the top executives and the Boards…)

  47. I am a genome biologist by profession, and what you are saying makes no sense whatsoever. Neither genomes nor evolution work the way you seem to imagine you do.

    Your concept of “saltational” nature of genetic modification is not used in genome biology and seems wholly made up for the sake of this and similar arguments. There is nothing “saltational” about introducing one foreign gene. A typical plant has 20000-40000 protein coding genes. Most forms of genetic modification add one more, which brings a specific trait relevant only in specific context. There is nothing special for ecosystems to adapt to – to me as an expert it sounds like drivel. The fact that the added gene comes from another phylum is likewise irrelevant – all living organisms share the same origins, all have proteins made up of the same 20 amino acids, and out of 20000-40000 proteins encoded by a plant genome, there is a continuum of similarity of sequence and structure to proteins from other phyla. Fearing that an addition of one specific protein will potentially result in a disaster is akin to fitting a bicycle bell inside your Toyota sedan and fearing that this may turn it into Stephen King’s Christine.

    On the contrary, conventional breeding ofter includes irradiation or chemical mutagenesis of seeds to increase the appearance of new traits. Those random methods may induce hundreds or thousands mutations and even gross structural rearrangements in the genome in addition to the one responsible for the desired trait, and they are released to marked without any idea what those mutations actually do.

    1. Axolotl, thanks so much for your clear presentation of expert knowledge as I vaguely knew that Jost’s approach is more ‘poetic’ than not but had no means to cut through his ‘poetry’ than to say to myself, huh?

      The only focus worth it is weighing the risk against benefits based on solid knowledge. Everything else is noise. But we are not much more than noisy apes. My particular noise is that I am deeply, madly in love with biotechnology so I do appreciate the push from the other side.

      My present stance is voluntary labelling in general, case by case evaluation as the technology develops (yah, CRISPR!), and befriend plant geneticists as much as you can via social media (they are such nice folks.

    2. Sure, I was using figurative language. Why are some species invasive when brought to the US but not in their native land? It is because in the place where the species is native, there has been enough time for it and the other members of the community to evolve together. When it is brought suddenly to a new habitat without co-evolved predators, disaster can often strike.

      There is no minimum number of novel genes needed to make a species invasive. You just made that up. The Bt gene alone would be enough to make a species invasive in a habitat where insect herbivores had a large effect on plant growth.

      Yes, your example of irradiation may produce many different mutations. As you surely know, if you are a professional, the vast majority of those mutations are neutral or deleterious. The process is not at all comparable to inserting a whole, complex, highly favorable gene into the genome. The risks from the latter are far greater.

      1. “There is no minimum number of novel genes needed to make a species invasive.”

        This makes as much sense as “there is no minimum number of bicycle bells to turn a car into Stephen King’s Christine”.

        “You just made that up.”

        I haven’t made anything up, it is you who are confused.

        “Yes, your example of irradiation may produce many different mutations. As you surely know, if you are a professional, the vast majority of those mutations are neutral or deleterious. The process is not at all comparable to inserting a whole, complex, highly favorable gene into the genome.”

        More cluelessness. You first have to understand what it means for a gene to be “highly favourable”. It is meaningless drivel to claim that an inserted gene is “highly favourable”. Highly favourable for what? A gene inserted for a specific purpose is highly favourable only when plant is exposed to conditions in which having this gene make it more likely to survive and reproduce than plants not having this gene. In the absence of these conditions, the gene is neutral at best, or mildly deleterious. None of commercial genetic modifications were made to make the plant more successful “in the wild”, but to give high yield or more desirable traits under particular farming conditions – which is after all why feral commercial crops (GM or non-GM) are almost non-existent.

        And if you are afraid about unanticipated, unintended consequences, you have to realise that there is no biological basis for any precise intervention designed for a particular purpose to be more efficient than a random one in achieving a different, non-intended purpose. Quite the contrary. If the intervention is not explicitly designed to make the crop an invasive species, based on everything we know about biology, that intervention has a lower chance to make it invasive than random mutagenesis.

        1. “It is meaningless drivel to claim that an inserted gene is “highly favourable””

          Of course a gene’s contribution to an organism’s fitness depends on the environmental context. But I have been discussing specific examples and specific contexts, such as the Bt toxin-producing gene in the context of environments in which insect herbivores are important.

          “If the intervention is not explicitly designed to make the crop an invasive species, based on everything we know about biology, that intervention has a lower chance to make it invasive than random mutagenesis.”

          The Bt example I just gave (and have been giving repeatedly above) shows that your assertion is not correct. A Bt-modified plant can have a big advantage over other plants if generalist insect herbivores are important in that habitat. The intervention is not at all the equivalent of random mutagenesis.

          And again, the insertion of a complete, large, complex, fully-functional gene is not at all comparable to random mutations, especially random point-mutations. Most of those are neutral or deleterious in the wild.

          1. aspidoscelis below gave a relevant answer, but let me explain a bit.

            The purpose of Bt toxin gene is to protect the corn against corn borer and cotton against bollworm.

            Corn borer does not attack almost any plants except corn, and bollworm does not touch any other plants around it. Most plants in most environments – including weeds in cornfields and cotton fields – do not have any significant insect pests and even if they received it from a Bt crop it wouldn’t confer any competitive advantage to them.

            If it did, in fact, it could have happened many times by now. The gene in question comes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a very common soil bacterium in frequent contact with wild plants. Many, many more wild plants are in contact with that bacterium than they would ever be in contact with Bt crops, and even if one takes into account a lower functional transfer efficiency from bacterium to plant compared to plant-to-plant, if it was able to confer invasiveness to a wild plant, it would have happened many times over. It didn’t.

            “And again, the insertion of a complete, large, complex, fully-functional gene is not at all comparable to random mutations, especially random point-mutations. Most of those are neutral or deleterious in the wild.”

            Nonsense again. The fact that the gene is ” complete, large, complex and fully-functional” (biologist don’t talk about genes in these terms, trust me) is irrelevant. What you refuse to understand is that most foreign “complete, large, complex and fully-functional genes” from other species when inserted into a genome are just as neutral or deleterious in the wild. Not because they do not do anything – but because in a vast majority of “in the wild” contexts simply do not do anything useful. As I tried to explain “favourable” and “deleterious” are not absolute terms. Most random mutations are useless. So is the Bt gene to most plants in most situations. There is no reason to assume that, given the realistic number of situations in which it would be useful and the realistic (very low) rate of the transfer of the functional gene, that it is any more dangerous than random mutations, sorry.

          2. “There is no reason to assume that, given the realistic number of situations in which it would be useful and the realistic (very low) rate of the transfer of the functional gene, that it is any more dangerous than random mutations, sorry.”

            That is obviously not true for Bt. A random point mutation will generally be neutral or deleterious. The insertion of a whole gene that instantly confers resistance to a broad range of insect pests is, in almost any wild context, going to be beneficial.

            “biologist don’t talk about genes in these terms, trust me”

            Thanks for the advice, but the distinction I was making is an important one and it is perverse to ignore it. These are whole, functional genes being inserted, and in the case of Bt, they will increase fitness whenever insect herbivore fitness costs are greater than the fitness cost of producing the Bt toxin.

            Even if this rarely increases fitness in a wild context, they are far more likely to increase fitness than a similar-sized chunk of random bases. But there is no reason to think that this situation is rare.

            I could hardly believe my eyes when I read your statement that “Most plants in most environments – including weeds in cornfields and cotton fields – do not have any significant insect pests.” I guess you have no experience growing plants, and it seems you’ve never looked closely at wild plants either. Try it sometime. In many habitats, it is actually quite hard to find a plant that hasn’t been damaged to some extent by insects. The damage is often significant. And that’s not even taking into account the most common and significant damage, at the seedling stages. That is not very visible because the whole seedling is killed. If you want to get some idea of how prevalent insects are in the wild, plant some seeds and watch what happens.

          3. “That is obviously not true for Bt. A random point mutation will generally be neutral or deleterious. The insertion of a whole gene that instantly confers resistance to a broad range of insect pests is, in almost any wild context, going to be beneficial.”

            I am sorry, but you are simply wrong – the old adage that little knowledge is a dangerous thing may have you as a poster boy/girl. You keep using words “favourable”, “deleterious” and “neutral” in a way that betrays that you don’t understand what they mean. And you conveniently ignore the fact that Bt gene is abundantly present in the nature (in a bacterium) and in contact in plants, and if it confers such spectacular advantage, many plants would have acquired it by now.

            “Thanks for the advice, but the distinction I was making is an important one and it is perverse to ignore it.”

            When it comes to biology and genomes, please let experts judge what is important and what is nonsense. This is nonsense. Period.

            “Even if this rarely increases fitness in a wild context, they are far more likely to increase fitness than a similar-sized chunk of random bases.”

            This is both an obvious and an irrelevant thing to say. Horizontal transfers happen every day in nature, many including whole gene units. And most of them still do nothing or do damage. In case of laboratory gene modification, it is hard engineering work to make gene from one species active in another – in dose and in places where it may confer any advantage.

            “I could hardly believe my eyes when I read your statement that “Most plants in most environments – including weeds in cornfields and cotton fields – do not have any significant insect pests.””

            Well, you obviously don’t understand what the world “significant” is for here – most of those pests are such that their removal from that plant specifically would not provide dramatic selective advantage to the plant. Just like it does not provide dramatic selective advantage to corn or cotton – otherwise we would have invasive Bt corn and cotton everywhere by now. No, they are still crops that need to be coddled by humans who feed them and remove all competition so they could grow. The only difference is that the coddling does not have to include an insecticide. (And many wild plants have their own defense against insects, too.)

            I will stop here because I will obviously not convince you with whichever expert evidence and knowledge I can muster – Dunning-Kruger is too high in this case. You want to retain a belief that you wedded yourself to with insufficient knowledge. I can just hope that when it comes to legislation, intelligent governments will let experts decide. Real experts.

          4. You will immediately stop throwing your weight around a mocking or insulting other readers. If you can’t discuss issues like this civilly, go to another website. I will allow you to comment again when you stop using this tone and apologize to the readers you are insulting.

            Do you have any idea how to discuss things like this civilly? I don’t think so.

          5. Here is an example of an experimental approach to this question:


            It notes that GMO virus resistance imposes almost no fitness cost, and can be passed by hybridization to wild relatives. If the virus is an important factor in controlling the population of the wild relative, then the population would be expected to increase if it could get the transgenes.

            I expect most transgenes aimed at conferring pest resistance will have similarly low fitness costs; low fitness cost would be one of the designer’s target criteria, so as not to reduce crop yields.

      2. I’m not sure what scenario exactly you’re envisioning in which GMOs lead to invasive species. Let’s take Bt corn as an example. I agree, it’s likely that this trait would convey a substantial competitive advantage if insect herbivory is an important factor in a plant species’s and reproduction. OK, now which plants are we talking about?

        Are you worried about Bt corn becoming an invasive species? If so, on what grounds? Corn persists very poorly after cultivation and it seems very unlikely that Bt production would be sufficient to turn it from a cultivation-dependent to invasive species. And I guess we have done that experiment–Bt corn is out there and, so far as I know, not escaping from cultivated agriculture.

        Or are you worried about the gene involved in Bt production getting into some other plant species? Although plants are generally more capable of producing fertile interspecific hybrids than animals, fertile intergeneric hybrids are still quite rare. I don’t think the other species of Zea are a plausible invasive species threat. A Bt-producing form of filaree, though, might be something to worry about! Is that the kind of scenario you’re envisioning? If so, how does it work–how do the Bt genes get there?

        1. As I’ve said in earlier comments above, I have no fear about corn escaping. However, there are crops in the US that do have weedy close relatives which have already captured some transgenes. Canola is an example. Crops from the Solanaceae or Cruciferae are other possible candidates. Sunflowers are probably another good candidate.

          1. Here you are making an implicit and completely unwarranted assumption that insect pest susceptibility is the only thing that stands in the way of those wild plants becoming invasive. Which, of course, is nonsense.

          2. No, your reasoning is. An already invasive plant can obviously be harmed by exposing it to its predators. This does not mean that a plant that becomes resistant to one of its predators will necessarily turn invasive.

          3. Nobody said “necessarily”. But a sudden increase in fitness due to pest resistance will tend to make the plant more common. How much more common? That depends on circumstances, but if insect herbivores were important in controlling the population, then the newly-resistant population would be expected to increase dramatically.

          4. You’ve also said that “GMOs that are dramatically resistant to pests or to frosts are theoretically very likely to be invasive”. Bt corn appears to fit that description, but you and I agree that it is not plausible that it will become an invasive species.

            I guess this is where I’m a bit baffled. I can think of a counterexample that I think is pretty compelling, and you have presented an example (canola) that I think is plausible but not compelling. Canola is closely related to several species that are (Brassica tournefortii comes to mind) or have some potential to be (Brassica rapa, Brassica campestris) invasive species and can interbree with them. However, that potential problem has been tried–although, perhaps, neither thoroughly nor long enough–and has not spawned any new invasive species. Of course, invasive species may have some “lag time”, but we’ve had Bt canola, which seems to be the best case for your argument that this kind of genetic modification is “very likely to be invasive” for a couple decades. There is some literature out there on transgenes getting into closely related taxa, there is some literature indicating potential issues in an agricultural context (basically, “You can’t get these things out of your field with Roundup!”), but as yet no indication that there is any real invasive species issue coming from Bt canola. The evidence so far demonstrates that a couple of the steps in the process can occur, but not that the whole process is likely or has ever occurred. Again, we might just not have been looking long enough, yet. It could happen next year, or a decade or two from now. Bt canola or hybrids between it and one of the closely-related Brassica species could well become a big problem at some point in the future. But that seems to be the best (or worst) case scenario for the invasive species GMO scenario and nothing has happened yet.

            Given that, I have two objections to viewing GMOs as a real threat for invasive species:
            1) It apparently isn’t about GMO per se, but about a particular subset of GMO. Focusing on the issue as “GMO” seems to be inaccurate. It is, at most, highly context dependent and limited to some subset of GMO crops for which the GMO category is not a particularly informative proxy.
            2) Apart from hypothetical invasive species, we have big problems with real invasive species. Those haven’t involved GMO. Tumbleweed, spotted knapweed, Sahara mustard, garlic mustard, argugula, leafy spurge, Lehmann’s lovegrass, King Ranch bluestem, Schismus, tamarisk, etc.–these are all known and severe invasive species and not by any means a complete listing, just those that come quickly to my mind. GMO is a factor in none of them. Within the realm of demonstrated invasive species problems, GMO is hypothetical and we have real invasives to worry about.

            In any evidence-based risk/benefit analysis of invasive species, I just don’t think GMO is on the radar. At most, it’s on the “maybe, sometimes” list. To me, it doesn’t take much increase in real agricultural efficiency to offset a hypothetical risk. So, if we can get higher per acre yields or lower herbicide / pesticide loads, and thus a real reduction in the harm inherent in agriculture, I need something more than a “maybe” risk to offset that gain.

          5. Thanks for the civil and rational comment. As I’ve mentioned before, I agree with your #1 completely. We differ on #2 only in degree. I think ecological theory tells us we are going to have a serious problem with GMO-invasives sooner or later. I agree with you that we already have plenty of serious problems with non-GMO invasives. To me, the problems they cause should make us want to avoid adding more species to the list via GMOs.

            I do not want to prohibit GMOs. I want to bring nuanced public pressure on Monsanto and federal regulators to take better precautions against escaping GMOs. These precautions include more clever biotechnological solutions like linking the Bt gene to genes that would lower fitness in a wild setting.

            But there will be no incentive for Monsanto to take these precautions if the public does not care.

            It bugs me that some scientists dismiss all worries about GMOs as entirely irrational (as many have done in these comments). This undercuts a nuanced public policy that ideally should foresee problems and take preventative measures before the cat gets out of the bag (hope our host pardons the phrase!)

          6. If you cannot produce credible evidence that it is actually more dangerous than conventionally bred crops (and you can’t) trying to impose an additional control burden is arbitrary and unnecessary and in a just judicial system it would not hold in a court of law. (In a bureaucratic and populist one like the EU, that is sadly not the case.)

            “It bugs me that some scientists dismiss all worries about GMOs as entirely irrational ”

            We dismiss them not as irrational or impossible, but as very, very unlikely – so much that imposing unnecessary restrictions to their development and use is almost certain to cause more damage to humanity by slowing down development of useful products than it will benefit them by protecting them from largely imagined boogeymen.

          7. “We dismiss them not as irrational or impossible, but as very, very unlikely…”

            You do realize you’re talking to a distinguished and accomplished scientist himself here, right? Are you always this condescending and rude?

          8. No, I do not see that the person who I was addressing could possibly be a distinguished scientist in a field that has to do with genome biology or genetic engineering and still stick to arguments of this kind.

            And I apologise, I did not mean to be rude, but my patience has limits when faced with persistent reiteration of the same nonsensical arguments.

          9. You mean not “distinguished” like you, huh? This is a classic example of a non-apology, in which someone pretends to apologize but in reality justifies saying what he said. Of course you meant to be rude. At any rate, I’m not going to ask you to craft a proper apology because you aren’t capable of doing that and meaning it. I’ll just ask you to go be arrogant and peremptory on other websites from now on.

          10. Also, I am not completely convinced that Bt is safe for human consumption in large quantities…but I haven’t waded through that controversy very deeply, and probably won’t.

      1. You don’t need a foreign gene for these kinds of large phenotype changes – in fact, most are a result of a single point mutation.

        1. Which seems to be clearly stated in the comment you’re replying to. Which in turn was in response to Axolotl’s unfounded (and insulting) assumption above: “Your concept of “saltational” nature of genetic modification is not used in genome biology and seems wholly made up for the sake of this and similar arguments.”

          1. I agree. What I wanted to say is that there is no connection between saltational change in phenotype and the type of mutation, or genetic modification. Point mutations can introduce saltational changes, and most foreign gene insertions do not, even when they work as intended. I am therefore not sure that saltation is a convincing argument for being wary of GMO. Speculative environmental effects of GMOs are not a good reason for their labelling, either. Only potential health risks would be a good reason.

        2. But most point mutations are neutral or slightly deleterious in the wild. A whole, working foreign gene is vastly much more likely to produce a large effect. Especially when it is designed to do so!! And this effect is often designed to increase fitness (eg disease or pest resistance).

  48. With so many more comments before me I’m sure I’m repeating what someone else has said by now, but here goes anyway: Yes, please label all food genetically modified by the efforts of humans. The non-GMO aisle will be stocked with salt and not much else.

  49. Not having any strong feelings on this topic either way, I’ve been following this discussion loosely. The rhetoric gets a little heated, perhaps too much so at times, but I’m impressed by the self-regulating, fact-based conversation. I’m happy to see that this forum isn’t the equivalent of the PuffHo comments section. Please avoid ad hominem attacks, gratuitous insults, and argument from authority. Carry on.

    1. Just so you know, I’m anti-alfalfa. Don’t care if it’s organic, GMO, or otherwise. Just don’t like alfalfa.

  50. I used to be in favour of labelling GMO’s as such: ‘if there is nothing to hide, why hide it’ kind of attitude.
    This discussion has changed my mind, labelling as ‘containing GM material’ appears meaningless now.
    I miss the methods from before ‘genetic manipulation’: in the mid-twentieth century plants were irradiated to increase the nr of mutations, and then selection was used. There was nothing much ‘natural’ about it either. Genetic manipulation is much more elegant.

    I think that from a health pov GMO’s are safe, at least after trillions of GMO meals there is no indication that GMO’s are unhealthy.
    I think ‘low fat’ products, meaning ‘high in starch and/or simple sugars such as fructose’ have potentially much more health implications.
    Another example of potentially harmful habits for health is/was the systematic use of low-dose antibiotics in the meat industry.

    Also from an environmental pov. I think the ‘super weeds’ are a bit overblown, after all, they are resistant to a (or a few) specific pesticide(s)/herbicide(s). Stop using those pesticide(s)/herbicide(s) and the advantage disappears.
    Invasive species really do not need GM to be invasive, take the nile perch in lake Victoria, or the catfish in the Ebro (to limit myself to 2 fishy examples).
    Environmentally I think things like biofuels, are much more harmful too, not to mention burning forests, overfishing, damming rivers and so on.

    Whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with the giants in the food industry, they should be regulated as best as we can. Forcing GMO labelling does not appear an effective instrument here.

    1. “I miss the methods from before ‘genetic manipulation’: in the mid-twentieth century plants were irradiated to increase the nr of mutations, and then selection was used. There was nothing much ‘natural’ about it either. Genetic manipulation is much more elegant.”

      That’s a big part of my point of view. In the good old days… we weren’t really very good at achieving what we want. Now we’re a whole lot better at getting a crop to do what we want. If that’s a good thing, it’s a good thing. If that’s a bad thing, I think we should think a bit more about our goals and a bit less about what technology we use to achieve them.

      1. “I think we should think a bit more about our goals and a bit less about what technology we use to achieve them.”

        I agree with you there. I don’t care about what technology is used. I care about the effects and the goals, and the ways of assigning environmental and social costs and benefits, for a given technology. The real problem is not GMOs per se but the way that we ignore or minimize ecological (and perhaps human health) costs and risks when doing cost/benefit analyses in agriculture.

  51. Just label the fucking things and be done with it. No one reads the labels anyway. Who does that? Probably <1% of consumers. Fighting labeling feeds into the wacko conspiracy theories. When people realize, perhaps subliminally, that they can buy cheaper, more nutritious food that's GMO, they will.

    1. Stephan, a lot of the rhetoric on both sides of this debate reminds me of the debate about pesticides in the 70s. Proponents tried to tar and feather environmentalists as irrational kooks trying to stop progress. And yes, some environmentalists did make outlandish claims. But that didn’t mean that all the environmentalist claims were irrational. The net effect of that debate was a set of new environmental regulations that (1) did not stop progress, contrary to the rhetoric of the industry’s PR machine, and (2) had a dramatic positive effect on the environment.

      The main reason you can take such wonderful photos of Bald Eagles in your backyard today is because of those wacko environmentalists fighting against the industry back in the 70s.

  52. Well, I must say I have been enjoying this lengthy discussion-learned a bit and shifted my view a bit. And appreciated comments where the issues are clearly described and separated out. Thank you and to WEIT and PCC who keeps a firm hand on the reins.

  53. GMOs are safe, and are some of the best tested food technology in the world.

    On the other hand, we’ve had mutation breeding for generations. It’s also safe. But far less tested.

    Furthermore, we’ve had cross-breeding and artificial selection for even longer than mutation breeding.

    All of these technologies are a form of modifying the frequency of alleles in an organism population.

    If we’re going to be fair, all three of these technologies should be labelled. Particularly mutation bred produce.

    If we just target GMOs and nothing else it places an unfair market burden on GMO foods.

    Also, I’d particularly love it for the Organic Food crowd to realize how much of what they’re eating is the result of mutation breeding. ^_^

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