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Is GMO Labeling A He-Said, She-Said Debate?

There’s no question where Chelsea Green stands in this debate. We believe eaters have a right to know what they’re eating, and the right to choose what they believe is healthy — which includes avoiding GMOs if they agree with most of the organic foods community that these franken-foods are questionable at best. Foods containing GMOs should say so clearly on their labels because this isn’t trivial information. It’s important, and speaks volumes about where a food, or a “foodlike product” as Michael Pollan might call most of what’s in the grocery store, came from.

Recently, Forbes published this article by Michelle Maisto, a response to an earlier one by Henry Miller. Organic Consumers Association shared Miller’s article widely, and we wanted to share Maisto’s response.

Enjoy, and visit the original article to comment.

I was recently surprised to discover, along with other Forbes readers, that my fellow contributor Henry Miller had written an op-ed strongly disagreeing with an opinion I’d blogged about.

I’d written that I believe genetically modified (GM) foods should be labeled, so that consumers have a choice about whether or not, or how often, we’d like to eat them — just as we have a choice between organic or not. I didn’t delve into the matter of whether GM foods are safe, wanting to keep to the topic of labeling, and for this reason I used surely some of the gentlest language ever employed when discussing Monsanto, the world’s largest provider of GM seeds and by far the biggest muscle behind the movement preventing the labeling of GM foods. (In its fiscal year 2011, it muscled in nearly $12 billion in net sales.)

While I blog from the point of view of being a mom making choices for my family, Miller writes under his credentials as an academic and former scientist. So I was surprised he’d bothered to respond to my post, and surprised, too, that even with the help of cowriter Gregory Conko his logic was muddied to the point of making Monsanto seem a modern-day Gregor Mendel and me a “radical food activist.” (A label, to be honest, I rather enjoyed — it’s a nice balance to being called “Doris Day” by The New York Times.)

I was less surprised, however, once I realized that at least one Monsanto executive sits on the board of the Hoover Institution, where Miller is a Fellow. Though since Miller was the founding director of the FDA office dedicated to GM issues, where he was known for his speedy approvals, surely he’s acquainted with a number of Monsanto folks.

My surprise abated, too, as I discovered the long list of topics on which Miller and I disagree. He, for example, believes restrictions on the use of the chemical BPA in things like baby bottles and plastic containers are nonsense, that DDT should make a comeback, and that people who suggest caution regarding the pesticide Alar, synthetic chemicals and even leaky breast implants are “fear profiteers,” while I feel quite the opposite. He’s also been linked to a big-tobacco-funded assault on what he likes to call “junk science.” (Maybe Miller’s editorializing should come with a warning label.)

These differences aren’t reducible to mom vs. scientist, or even Left- vs. Right-leaning politics. GMOs are the cover story topic of this month’s issue of “The American Conservative,” in which Joel Salatin writes, “In 2010, some 67 scientific studies, from different parts of the world, impugned transgenic modification.”

One of Salatin’s central arguments is that, “A culture that views animals and plants as inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated … will view its citizens the same way. And other cultures the same way.”

I doubt I can write anything that might shift Mr. Miller’s opinions, which he’s certainly entitled to and has his reasons for. But since the premise of this blog is to share information with readers as I encounter it, following some recent reading, three of Miller’s assertions seem particularly worth addressing.

To start with a small one: Miller writes that the FDA “requires labeling only to indicate that a new food raises questions of safety, nutrition or proper usage.” But this doesn’t really hold up, since products throughout supermarkets are labeled as “organic,” “irradiated” or even “made from concentrate.”

Miller also calls the safety record of GMO foods “extraordinary,” writing that there hasn’t “been a single ecosystem disrupted or a single confirmed adverse reaction.” Which, of course, is ridiculous to say — short of being omnipresent, he can hardly be aware of all changes occurring in all ecosystems. Additionally, it’s just not true, as the beginnings of such changes are occurring.

In addition to GM crops being found growing in the wild, calling into question their potential long-term effects on wildlife in those ecosystems, genes from GM crops, as The Guardian reported in 2005, have “transferred into local wild plants, creating a form of herbicide-resistant ‘superweed’.” These superweeds — at least one of which, pigweed, can grow three inches in a day — are causing farmers to use even more herbicide (though Miller asserts that farmers planting GM seeds “spray millions fewer gallons of chemical pesticides”).

Fast Company reported that herbicide resistance has grown beyond what weed scientists have ever seen before and is leading to the development of alternative chemical solutions — one of which, an expert told The New York Times, is expected to be responsible for a “large-scale problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of trees, if not more.”

If you’re more interested in learning about what we here at Chelsea Green think about the issue, peruse our selection of books by Jeffrey Smith, including Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. You might also enjoy the documentary, The World According to Monsanto. And if you’re keen on getting into the green counter revolution yourself, check out our perennial best seller, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners!


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