All I Want for Mother’s Day is Non-labeled GMOs

As a parent, there are a few things I want my children to know. Of these, one is that vehement opinions can’t logically be had without at least basic understanding of an issue. Another is that it’s okay and righteous to change one’s mind when a convincing argument is presented. This is why I’ve recently had a change of heart when it comes to GMO labeling. I used to be very pro-GM technology, but felt that labeling would help appease consumer fears. I’m still very pro-GM technology, but now I also believe labeling will prove harmful, and should not be pursued. Please, hear me out before you start throwing labels like “Monsanto shill!”

A very simplified diagram from DNA to protein. Credit:  Frank's Photo Essays
A very simplified diagram. Credit: Frank’s Photo Essays

As I’ve said, if you don’t understand transcription, translation, and protein synthesis and function at a high level at minimum, you don’t have sufficient understanding to justify an inherently anti-GM stance. While I won’t get deep enough to explain the minutiae of molecular biology, here is a briefing to start a layperson on genetic literacy:  Essentially, proteins are the most basic functional components of living things. Proteins serve all purposes from structure, immunity, metabolic, nutritive, enzymatic functions, and more. They are macromolecules comprised of amino acid chains (polypeptides.) The sequence of amino acids in any protein determines its 3D structure. This sequence of amino acids is determined by codons, each codon coded for by 3 adjacent nucleotides. The DNA in a gene of any organism can be transcribed (into RNA), and translated (into proteins) in many varied permutations by alternative splicing of introns, allowing the functions of life to be carried out. This is a very abridged explanation, but there are some nice primers here and here.

How do GMOs work?

A GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) is technically defined as any plant, animal, or microbe whose genetic material has been intentionally manipulated by a scientist in vitro using recombinant DNA technology. However, selective breeding practiced since the beginning of agriculture is also intentional manipulation of organisms’ genomes, using a less precise and very lengthy process taking generations to achieve. Arguably, all organisms since the beginning of life could be deemed genetically modified. The difference centers in the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology – or DNA makes RNA makes protein (and not the other way around.) With our knowledge of protein structure, and how genes code for proteins, scientists can alter plants and animals in a precise, targeted manner by adjusting the nucleic acid sequence, or inserting sequences known to code for desirable traits.

How is Genetic Engineering of food beneficial?

Some Genetically Modified Organisms as they presently exist are beneficial, while others are arguably not as beneficial. Without getting into the particulars of the myriad GMO crops in existence, I must emphasize that GM is a toolbox; a set of techniques and not a product. Drought resistance, disease resistance, and increased vitamin content are just the tip of an iceberg of possibilities. Like any field of science and technology, there is fear of the unknown. Still, rather than falling for fear mongering, how about promoting and pursuing genetic literacy? Furthermore, rather than painting this toolbox with one brush, why not handle GM organisms on a more individualized basis?

When much of the public thinks GMOs, they think Frankenfood

Image credit: David Dees Illustration

There are horror stories being whispered around town that The Man has been releasing scary plants into the agricultural system with animal genes inserted! Pretty soon, they’ll have our lettuce and tomatoes walking around of their own accord! Okay, all kidding aside, there are two types of GM: cisgenic and transgenic. Cisgenic GMOs have been modified using sexually compatible organisms, making them quite comparable to traditionally bred organisms (think one root vegetable trait being introduced into another root vegetable.) A transgenic GMO, on the other hand, uses genetic material from a non-sexually compatible organism to introduce a desirable trait. Current US GMO regulations treat both cisgenic and transgenic organisms equally, although they are very different. While this is a topic for another day, it’ll suffice to say that applying the current stringent USDA regulations to cisgenic organisms will greatly encumber the research. Arguably, plants bred by cisgenesis should have laxer regulations. (Not to say that transgenic organisms don’t have their place and benefit.)

Likewise, when people think GMO, they think Evil Corporation Monsanto. In fact, Monsanto has largely and erroneously become synonymous with GMO. While I won’t get into the debate on reasons people believe Monsanto is evil, I will say it stems from the company being a large, multinational corporation. And that, my friends, gets me to my main point:

Why shouldn’t GMOs be labeled?

  1. Labeling regulations will hinder competition and growth among organizations like research institutions, universities, and private sector small and medium sized businesses, effectively clearing a nice, clean, path for large corporations like Monsanto. Contrary to popular belief, Monsanto is not the only player in the GMO game. Here is an incomplete list of organizations participating in R&D in the field. This list only includes institutions who actively work on GMO crops themselves. Other participants include sequencing laboratories (that help determine organisms’ genetic code or expressed genetic codes), experts in proteomics (study of protein structure and function), companies and individuals specializing in bioinformatics (analysis of large biological data), and more. Red tape is always easier for the rich to cut through and navigate. Anti-Monsanto types would be well-advised to reconsider their labeling stance.
  2.  Mandatory GMO labeling will hurt the environment. Labeling will increase stigma associated with a technology that people don’t understand, thus arbitrarily increasing demand for non-GMO foods. Non-GMO foods are harder on the environment in terms of water and energy needed for production.
  3. Labels simply stating generally that a product contains or is a GMO do not make sense; they don’t actually inform the consumer. What type of labels do anti-GMO proponents want? If a label is to be meaningful, it would have to provide detailed information, including the genetic change, and the ultimate protein change achieved. Would the average consumer understand this? IMO, the answer is a resounding NO.
  4. Mandatory labeling is expensive. The end product of labeling, the label itself, would pose but a minute fraction of the cost. A lengthy and involved process would entail separating GMO and non-GMO foods, among other specifics. And who is going to pay for this? You guessed it–consumers of both GMO and non-GMO foods will pay for labeling in the form of higher food prices all around.

If a consumer wants a non-GM food, buy non-GM food! Good news for the concerned shopper! We already have labels that specify whether something has been modified using GM technology. Look for the Non-GMO Project or organic seal. As per strict USDA guidelines, foods labeled organic in the USA cannot be GMOs. We tend to label food for purity as per consumer perception. We don’t label food “non-Kosher.” We don’t label food “non-organic.” Both “Kosher” and “organic” are labels of purity. Therefore, it is illogical to label food as containing GMOs. Rather, if consumers want pure, non-GMO products, they should buy food labeled as such.

Bottom line:  People fear what they don’t understand. You may say, “Let the consumer decide.” Consumers have been deciding about vaccines for a few years now to the detriment of herd immunity! But, I digress. Please, have the wisdom to trust a consensus of truly educated professionals across nearly all internationally accepted organizations with the authority and expertise to take a stance. Not only are GMOs generally considered safe, but GM technology is a powerful tool. Tools can be used to build beautiful and beneficial advancements for humanity, or they can be used as weapons. Please, don’t demonize tools unless they are being used as weapons. We are only in the infancy of the biotechnology age. With such a powerful tool in hand, let’s promote responsible use to benefit society.


Featured image credit:  amy_buthod Flickr page

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, co-Executive Director of March Against Myths, public speaker, Forbes contributor and author in Madison, WI. She is also co-author of "The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House". Follow her on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy

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  1. Thank you thank you thank you thank you!!! This is going to be my go to article for articulating my feelings in this debate. Between the crunchy friends and the science friends, this was all I saw on my Facebook wall when California was debating prop 65.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I very rarely see anything scientifically valid about this issue in my news feed! Interestingly, many of the “science friends” also, understandably, fall for the fear mongering.

  3. In general I agree with your article but you hand-waved away the two most common arguments against GMOs’. When I ask people for specific reasons why they mistrust GMOs it comes down to two things (excluding “I hate monsanto” which isn’t really about GMOs but about bad business practices). First, people are very mistrustful of transgenic modifications. No one that I know cares if you use technology rather than breeding to manipulate a carrot’s existing genome. Rather people are worried that genes from organisms that live in totally different ecosystems are being introduced into farming in ways that might harm the local ecosystem. Second, people are very worried that, while GMO crops might use less water, they might also allow farmers to use more chemicals on their crops than would otherwise be possible and the extra chemicals could hurt the local environment. If one is going to tell people to chill out about GMOs I think those issues should be addressed head on.

    For those who are interested, I found this series at grist to be a helpful source of information.

    1. Carovee said: “Rather people are worried that genes from organisms that live in totally different ecosystems are being introduced into farming in ways that might harm the local ecosystem. Second, people are very worried that, while GMO crops might use less water, they might also allow farmers to use more chemicals on their crops than would otherwise be possible and the extra chemicals could hurt the local environment.”

      For your first point, what mechanism do you see that could cause that to happen? If you take a gene from a soil bacterium and insert it into corn for insect resistance, you still have a corn plant, with an added gene for resistance. How does that differ from conventionally breeding a resistance gene into corn, other than that it will likely take longer for the insect to overcome it?
      Secondly, breeding crops for herbicide resistance does not mean that more herbicides will necessarily be used. Usually, it means a shift away from more toxic herbicides. Glyphosate use has increased, but it has replaced or reduced the use of several other pesticides, some with serious side effects. Glyphosate resistance has also encouraged the use of no-till farming, which reduces erosion, and should help to reduce the seed bank of weed seeds. In fact, some farmers have been able to avoid applying herbicide by carefully managing their use of glyphosate and rotation.

  4. Excellent articulation of the nuance around GMO crops and why most consumers aren’t clear about what GMO means. As a person who works in production agriculture, I have a few more nuances for you to consider:
    1. GMO crops that are marketed heavily are most often genetically modified to resist a pesticide (roundup ready traits allow roundup to be sprayed on the crop and the crop will live while weeds die) and most often on crops that aren’t actually eaten directly by humans (corn used for high fructose corn syrup or cattle feed; soybeans; cotton; alfalfa). These GMO crops are significantly more expensive than non-GMO crops because of the stewardship regulations and fees around the patents. If you want to eat non-GMO, it’s pretty easy if you avoid processed foods and/or buy fresh or local produce.
    2. You state that GMO crops use less water..this isn’t actually a statement that is true for a large percentage of GMO crops that are under production. The cultivation practices of the grower will have more to do with the water needs of the crop. There is a lot of hope in the consumer market (and the grower market (farmers)) that the research is being done on ways to improve our use of natural resources. There is some of that happening so I don’t want to belittle it but…the ratio of the widely marketed GMO crops do not address environmental management but instead focus on pest management. Thanks for bringing balance to this topic!

    1. Sucar – totally agree on your point about water. It’s a bit of hyperbole to promote discussion about the potential for this to become true for more GMO crops in the future.

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