Scientist and Advocate Moms to Celeb Moms: Weigh GMO Food with Facts Not Fear

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.

Food labeling

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.


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
    ***Please use hashtag #Moms4GMOs to add your own message on social media!***
     click here to sign letter
    [Note, edited 8/19/15 at 1 pm CST to include Krista Stauffer, 8/23/15, Shelley McGuire and Julie Gunlock added]

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. Ruby Red Grapefruit: Created by cross-breeding oranges and pomelo. It tasted horrible, until they found a chance mutation that turned them pink. No one had any idea if the pink fruit was healthy, but they ate it anyway. In the 50s, they decided they could make it better by shooting it with gamma rays(creating thousands of mutations). Their only goal? Make the fruit redder. They didn’t test for anything else. The result was the modern red grapefruit.

    Grapefruit causes meaningful interactions with at least 85 drugs and these known drug interactions have KILLED PEOPLE. Yet, you can buy an organic Ruby Red Grapefruit at the store with no warning label at all. Before we put any label on GMO, we should mandate a warning label on grapefruit!

  2. Great post. After seeing the damage that can be done when just one celebrity takes up a cause they don’t really understand (Jenny McCarthy/vaccines) it is safe to say that when several take up a similar cause, the only result is gross misinformation that leads to actions based on fear.

    As a nation we have lost perspective on this issue (GMOs) and way too much mental and physical energy is being wasted on what is essentially a non-issue – meaning that genetic engineering is a valuable tool and not something to be feared.

  3. The problem is that you are focused on the actual genetic modifications, and not the purpose for such mods. Which is to douse vegetables in glyphosate, and other herbicides. I don’t worry very much about the genes added to vegetables through the GMO process. I do worry about what those mods enable, which is primarily spraying with Roundup, a likely carcinogen. Monsanto wants us to get distracted by genes, and ignore herbicides and pesticides. You do your readers a disservice by doing the same.

    1. There are a couple of problems with your comment. If these perceived issues are your only concern with genetically engineered crops, perhaps taking a closer look at some of the facts will actually set your mind at ease a bit.

      First, not all GE crops are designed for herbicide resistance. There are crops which reduce or eliminate the need for spraying insecticides, disease-resistant crops, crops which help reduce food waste through reduced browning and bruising, etc. Much of that is mentioned in the above letter. Also, herbicide resistance is not exclusive to genetic engineering; there are conventionally bred crops which are also resistant to different herbicides. There are actually very few types of crops with this trait – mostly corn, soy, rapeseed, and cotton – rather than something that is common across a wide range of produce.

      It is inaccurate to say that crops are “doused” in herbicides. That is a part of the anti-GMO rhetoric that has nothing to do with common farming practices. Herbicides are generally sprayed early, while the crop is still establishing itself and before any edible parts are present, and the amount used is generally about two soda cans worth over the area of a football field, heavily diluted. It would make no sense for farmers to use more than they absolutely have to, because these products cost them money, there is a lot of labor that goes into spraying, and even the fuel to run the equipment can be expensive. I would suggest talking to actual farmers about their real practices. There are even links up above for some places to start doing that. There are many of them out there who are more than happy to answer questions about what it is they do.

      Glyphosate is classified as a group 2A carcinogen by the IARC, which did not do any testing of its own and whose findings contradict the EPA and those of other regulatory organizations (which find no evidence it causes cancer in humans), and they based this on an incomplete set of data. Their stance takes an overly aggressive cautionary approach, rather than being founded in direct evidence. Even so, their own statements mention a *potential* cause for concern not for home use or exposure, but for industrial applications (people handling it on a large scale). Even taking their classification at face value, it puts it in the same category as things like working the night shift and being a hairdresser/barber, and place it below things like alcoholic beverages, which are consumed in MUCH greater quantities. It’s toxicity in general is relatively low, being about 10 times less toxic than caffeine. It is certainly less toxic and more environmentally friendly than many of the herbicides it replaced.

      The simple truth is that weed control is necessary, to ensure the crop yields needed to feed a growing population and keep food prices from skyrocketing. Herbicides like glyphosate do this and reduce or eliminate the need for tilling, which contributes to soil erosion and the release of greenhouse gasses. Because it is an effective herbicide, it reduces the need for repeated sprayings, which also means less fossil fuels are used.

      Finally, saying Monsanto wants to to be distracted from the use of glyphosate would make more sense if they were the only ones selling it. They aren’t; there are *many* companies that farmers can buy it from, even for use on RR crops. I’m not sure what other pesticides you would be worried about, since the development of crops with their own protection from insects means that while glyphosate use may have gone up, *overall* use of pesticides has decreased.

      Seriously, I highly recommend reaching out to some of the farmers and scientists listed above. Talking to people who actually work in these fields can clear up a lot of misconceptions.

      1. I saw the WHO report and posted about it before, they mention a meta-analysis of a number of studies indicating a statistical link with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Regardless, the advent of weeds that are highly resistant to Round Up has meant that Monsanto has now resorted to more dangerous pesticides, like Enlist Duo. Fraley himself admitted he was surprised that Glyphosate resistant pests have evolved so quickly, when scientists had been warning him for decades.

        Regardless, those of us who love science and are conscientious would never do business with a company like Monsanto or Bayer, as both were involved in the chemical warfare business- not just with Agent Orange (which was bad enough, even though they settled a lawsuit fir $10 million, they did not admit their responsibility for causing half a million birth defects), but DDT, Dioxin, among others, and have a long record of environmental pollution and cover up- like PCBs in Anniston Alabama for over 40 years. I would take anything the EPA/USDA/FDA says with a huge grain of salt, especially considering who the people are who work for those “regulatory” agencies. They didn’t punish Merck nearly enough for falsifying data on Vioxx, blacklisting doctors and the false efficacy of their Mumps vaccine and I’m still waiting for Bristol Squibb Myers and Johns Hopkins Hospital to be punished for intentionally infected Guatemalans to use as guinea pigs. The $1 Billion lawsuit isn’t nearly enough to help the families of the 774 victims. Fat chance since the people who work for these corporations also serve on the boards of these regulatory agencies (Michael Taylor anyone?) or just as bad, on the Supreme Court (yes, I mean you, Clarence Thomas.) This isn’t about science it’s about monetary greed, corruption and power. I’ve always believed that capitalism/corporatism is the enemy of science- but that’s another story (or actually a continuation of this one.) So is government- and I’m sure the scientists who signed the letter begging Truman not to use the Atomic Bomb (the greatest travesty in the history of humanity) would agree.

        I know there are a large group of scientists who love genetic modification but want companies like Monsanto and Bayer to be removed from the equation. I am one of them.

        Also, the issue of a “growing population” comes up often but all of these solutions are at best bandages. The only real solution is to stop the population from growing or to colonize the solar system. Humanity has already overpopulated the planet, and just like natural gas and fracking are no solution to climate change, (and actually make it worse, with the 5% methane leak and 500 fold increase in Mag 3-5 earthquakes as reported by the USGS), “feeding a growing population” isn’t a real solution (and neither is “cheaper” food when it fills the coffers of companies that shouldn’t be allowed to exist in the first place.) Humanity simply needs to learn to control its population better, for the sake of the entire ecosystem.

  4. It would be nice if we lived in a perfect world. However, if the large companies like Monsanto and Bayer are “removed from the equation” then the GM techniques might also be removed. Smaller companies and universities can’t afford to bring these products to the marketplace because of the expense of the regulatory process put in place to ease the fears created by the anti-GMO sentiments.

    As to controlling population, the call for zero population growth wasn’t heeded thirty to forty years ago. What makes you think people will listen now?

    You appear to want absolutes in a world where compromise is often the best we can do.

    1. But those companies just respond to whatever the consumers want, as a matter of fact, I’ve been reading reports of Monsanto going “organic.”  I dont think you can trust them to support science, just their bottom line.  What I’ve been trying to tell people is that it’s this very anti-GMO movement that is hurting an open and free market place where companies and non profits can actually give those large corrupt corporations a run for their money, the same way AMD did with Intel, or the way open source did with Microsoft- until the larger companies start buying up the smaller ones that is.  The only real solution to that issue you raised is for people to actually have an open dialog so they can understand the science, and know that science isn’t the enemy, corporatism is.  These smaller companies have a lot to offer, including GMO that do not require any pesticides whatsoever.  I still have hope that will happen.  Because I see it has with climate change, we know that companies like Exxon were trying to cover up what was going on for the past 40 years, but cover ups dont last.  Eventually people accepted what was going on and now want to move forward.  On that topic, because of the environmental damage fracking can cause (and adding methane to the mix, which is worse than CO2), I dont even accept Nat Gas as a “bridge fuel” we need to go nuclear- it’s much safer than it was 30 years ago- just as long as we dont build reactors near fault lines!  In addition to being much more efficient than any fossil fuel, nuclear completely removes any issues with climate change from the equation.

      ZPG is something that will never happen for various reasons (even if we lowered the birth rate, medical advances will still keep the population growing)- but the issue is that in some developing countries, population growth isn’t projected to slow down enough and those countries will run out of resources.  Based on UN projections that I’ve been reading about, this will happen in about 200 hundred years.  Not in our lifetimes, but it will happen.  I feel that colonization of space will be the only permanent solution.  Based on what I’ve been reading, it will take another 2 centuries or so for those colonies to become completely self-sufficient.  The history of all life on Earth is that eventually every species goes extinct.  I feel the only way to avoid that, to break the chain, is to eventually leave the planet and colonize space.  Again, it might not happen in our lifetimes, but I think it will happen- I think we’ve started taking the first steps already.

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