Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ginnifer Goodwin, Sarah Gilbert, Jillian Michaels, Jordana Brewster, and other celebrity moms speaking against the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act:
We are scientists, science communicators, and farmers. We come from varying educational backgrounds, work in different careers, live across the country, and are of different ethnicities. Like you, we are moms.
As parents, we can all agree that our greatest fear is harm to our children. President Obama said after the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world.”
We know your statements come from love and concern for your children, because ours do, too. We feel that it is our responsibility to clarify misconceptions about genetically engineered or genetically modified organisms, often called GMOs. We want to provide insight into why we feed our families food containing ingredients derived from GMOs and explain why we oppose mandatory GMO labeling.
Plant breeding and genetic engineering
Scientists use many methods to create new plant varieties. A plant’s taste and color, drought and pest resistance are encoded in genes in the plant’s DNA. Traditionally, new plant varieties are created by cross-pollinating plants with desired characteristics. But in the same way that we cannot choose only our best traits to give to our children, a plant breeder cannot choose which traits are in the resulting plants. It’s left to chance.
In radiation mutagenesis, plants are bombarded with radiation in hopes that a desirable trait will result from random breaks in the plant’s DNA. This method has been used for decades and has led to many new plant varieties that we enjoy, including varieties of wheat, peppermint, and grapefruit. These plants are eligible for the USDA’s organic label and are not considered GMOs. Other plant breeding tools include chemical mutagenesis, cell fusion, and chromosome doubling.
Genetic engineering is simply another plant breeding tool. It results in a targeted genetic change or adds one or a few carefully chosen genes to a plant. The technology may sound scary, but genes actually transfer naturally between species. Genetic engineering has been used for decades to make life-saving medicines including insulin. Hundreds of studies show that the process used to create GMOs, and the GM products currently on the market are safe, and scientific bodies around the world agree.
The genetically engineered plants used today allow farmers to apply fewer insecticides and less toxic herbicides. Some are disease resistant and drought tolerant. Apples and potatoes that are just now entering the market will reduce food waste due to brown spots and bruises. Scientists have developed additional beneficial traits that haven’t reached the market due to unfounded fears and a burdensome regulatory system. Examples include citrus greening resistant oranges that could save the US citrus industry, and blight resistant chestnut trees that could repopulate the great chestnut forests of the US and provide habitat and food for wildlife.
Genetic engineering has even greater potential to help farmers and families in other countries. Nutritionally enhanced plants like super cassava and golden rice can help get children the nutrients they need to grow up healthy and strong. Insect resistant eggplant and other pest or disease resistant plants can reduce the need for pesticides and help increase farmer incomes so they can send their children to school. We worry that anti GMO sentiments in the US could slow adoption of these plants in the places where they are most needed.
As moms, we endorse informative, relevant food labeling to protect consumers and help us nourish our bodies with varied, balanced, and healthy diets. For example, labeling for nut, milk, or egg residue is relevant. Severe allergic reactions are a real concern. Nutritional information of protein, fats, fiber, sugar, vitamins, and minerals are also relevant. This information empowers parents to prepare nutritionally balanced meals.
You say you have the “right to know what’s in our food”. Labeling whether a product contains ingredients derived from a GMO crop tells you nothing about what is “in” the food. Genetic engineering is a breeding method, not a product. It isn’t an ingredient to scoop into a bowl. For example, sugar from GMO sugar beets is just sucrose, there is nothing “in” it. It is just like sugar from sugar cane.
All food comes from organisms that have been genetically altered by humans, with the exception of a few wild plants and animals. The ancestors of bananas, carrots, and many other foods are almost unrecognizable. In the same way that information on whether a home was built using an old fashioned hammer or a modern nail gun does not inform you about the home’s safety or quality, knowing whether foods contain ingredients derived from GMOs does not tell you about safety or quality.
There are thousands of different varieties of corn grown across the US, yet we know all of them as “corn” regardless of the breeding techniques used in their development, and regardless of the many differences in DNA sequences between varieties. Each farmer chooses which variety to grow and which practices to use based on the environmental and economic conditions on their farm. The term “GMO” doesn’t reveal whether a plant variety is patented, what pesticides were used in its production, the size of the farm, or other details that many labeling advocates may find important. These production process details and many others are currently indicated though voluntary process-based labels such as certified-humane, kosher, halal or grass-fed. Organic and voluntary non-GMO labels, both of which exclude GMO ingredients, are very common and provide that choice and information to those who want it.
Mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients will increase fear, and make foods more expensive for Americans families. The “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” recently passed in the House and is being discussed in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee. Anti-GMO activists, including Organic Consumers Association, Only Organic, GMO Free USA and more, have portrayed it as an attempt to hide what’s in our food, calling it the “Denying Americans the Right to Know” Act. However, the text of the bill states that a GMO should be labeled if it is materially different from its non-GMO counterpart, while specifying that the mere fact of being GMO is not enough to be classified as materially different. The bill also registers all GMOs that are used in food production, establishes a national GMO food certification program to avoid a state-by-state patchwork of GMO definitions, and creates national standards for labeling GMOs.
Call to Action
Please, don’t co-opt motherhood and wield your fame to oppose beneficial technologies like genetic engineering. Certain celebrities have misled thousands of parents into thinking that vaccines are harmful, and we see the same pattern of misinformation repeating itself here. When GMOs are stigmatized, farmers and consumers aren’t able to benefit from much-needed advancements like plants with increased nutrients, or plants that can adapt to changing environmental stresses.
We, like millions of other Americans, line up to see your movies, and respect your occupation. Though our jobs differ, we share a common goal: to raise healthy, happy, successful kids. As moms we feel it is our responsibility to use the best available information to protect our children’s health, and to let the best science inform the choices we make for our families. We ask you to take the time to learn about how genetic engineering is being used by farmers, and the potential it has to help other moms raise healthy, happy, successful kids.
You have the opportunity to influence millions of people, so please use that influence responsibly, and ensure that your advocacy is supported by facts, not fear. Contact any or all of the undersigned, chat with farmers who grow biotech plants, or visit a college campus and talk with experts. We’re happy to discuss how this breeding method of genetic engineering could be used in harmony with many other approaches to help feed the world’s growing population, protect our environment, and preserve the Earth’s natural resources for all of our children.
- Kavin Senapathy: Freelance writer, science popularizer, co-founder of March Against Myths, mother of two (ages 4 and 2)
- Dr. Layla Katiraee: Scientist, writer at FrankenFoodFacts and Biology Fortified, and mother of a 3-year-old
- Dr. Anastasia Bodnar: Scientist, co-founder of the non-profit Biology Fortified, Inc., and mother of a 15-month-old
- Dr. Alison Bernstein: Scientist, writer, mother of two (ages 7 and 2), AKA “Mommy PhD”
- Julie Borlaug: Associate Director for external relations at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, and Strategic Initiatives, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, and mother of a 6-year-old
- Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam: University researcher and animal biotechnology specialist, and mother of two (ages 15 and 17)
- Sarah Schultz: Nurse, wife of a farmer, writer at Nurse Loves Farmer, mother of two (ages 5 and 2)
- Sara, science communicator and blogger at It’s Momsense, mother of two (ages 5 and 7)
- Jenny Splitter: Writer at Grounded Parents, storyteller, mother of two (ages 11 and 4), Science Activist and food allergy parent
- Joni Kamiya: Biotech papaya farmer’s daughter, blogger at Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter. Mother of three (ages 7 months, 5, and 10)
- Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD – Farmer & Registered Dietitian, AKA “The Foodie Farmer”, mother of two (ages 15 and 17)
- Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung: University biotechnology educator, program administrator and mother of an 11-year-old
- Krista Stauffer: Dairy farmer, writer, blogger at The Farmer’s Wifee, Founder of Ask the Farmers and mother of three (ages 8, 5, and 3).
Additional signatures (if you’re a parent, and a scientist, science advocate, or science/ag communicator, please contact Kavin via private message to add your name!):
- Dr. Shelley McGuire, Associate Professor of Nutrition at Washington State University, mother of three (ages 17, 21, and 24 years)
- Julie Gunlock, Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and mom to three boys