It was May 8, 2014, when the state of Vermont launched a war with the food industry that would ultimately spill onto the floor of the U.S. Senate. The Vermont Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act requires that by July 2016 all food and beverages sold in the state – including bread, cereal, snack chips, soy milk, and more – containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, carry a label that reads “produced with” or “partially produced with” genetic engineering. The law also prohibits such food from being labeled “natural” and sets out statutory damages of “not more than $1,000.00 per day, per product.” Last week, Congress failed to pass a measure that would have created a voluntary national standard for food labeling – and also would have preempted Vermont’s law.
For years, the anti-GMO crowd has been framing this issue as between Little Consumers – who have been “kept in the dark about whether foods we feed or families contain GMOs” – and Big Food. “Transparency is our right,” the website Just Label It declares. “Yet a handful of companies, such as Monsanto, Kraft, Kellogg’s and General Mills, have gotten away with hiding important information about our food for nearly two decades.”
The media has overwhelmingly embraced this narrative, and its response to the “victory” in Vermont has been predictable. After the measure in the Senate failed, NPR ran a story entitled “How Little Vermont Got Big Food Companies to Label GMOs.” Politico, similarly, published a piece entitled “How Vermont beat Big Food.”
We have previously written about the problem with mandatory GMO labeling. The actual science behind GMOs points to a clear, unambiguous conclusion (one reached by every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world): genetic engineering is safe for human consumption. And because of this, labelling GM foods is unnecessary and intentionally misleading. Or, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has noted, “When we require a label on something, we’re either warning there’s a potential safety problem or we’re giving nutritional information. GMO labeling doesn’t fit. There’s not a safety issue, and it doesn’t affect nutrition.”
But if there’s no safety issue, what is behind the push to label GM foods? And why do two-thirds of Americans support GMO labeling?
As is usually the case in politics, the answer has to do a lot with money. Specifically, the money of a $39 billion industry that has been growing by double-digits since the 1990s.
But can you guess what industry?
Hint: It’s not Monsanto, Kraft, Kellogg’s or General Mills.
I’m talking, of course, about . . . Big Organic.
Yes, that’s right. However well-intentioned, the same people that are fighting against the capitalist regimes of Big Food are themselves being taken advantage of by the capitalist regimes of Big Organic. And they don’t even realize it.
It’s easy to sympathize with opponents of GM foods. But the push for GM labeling, and the rise of the organic industry, preys upon our tendency to embrace the Naturalistic Fallacy, the notion that nature is a bounty of potential health benefits, and all of nature is good or, at least, good for us. After all, we synthesize most of our pharmaceuticals from compounds in plants and animals, and some of the most nutritious foods come right off the vine. But nature, it seems, is not always better.
We can quickly point to the compounds which exist in nature – for example, inorganic arsenic, chlorine gas, and mercury – that are unmistakably deadly in the right concentrations. These examples may seem facetious, but they demonstrate that being natural is not a reliable indicator of safety or nutrition. You could never eat a “natural” cashew, for example, as they are covered with a similar resin as its relative poison ivy.
But still you protest. This isn’t about arsenic, chlorine gas, or mercury, you say. What about organic vegetables?
Spoiler alert: there is little scientific evidence to support any health benefits for organic products. In fact, there is growing evidence that, compared with non-organic alternatives, organic foods are not any healthier for you than conventional foods.
“There’s a definite lack of evidence,” says researcher Crystal Smith-Spangler from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
In 2012, Smith-Spangler and her colleagues collected 200 peer-review studies that examined differences between organic and conventional food, or the people who eat it. Smith-Spangler found that consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but concluded that “[t]he published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
This result is consistent with previous studies – including a 2009 meta-analysis – finding that the nutritional quality of organic food is lacking. But even so, it came as a surprise to Smith-Spangler and her colleagues. The reason for the result, however, was clear and convincing: When it comes to their nutritional quality, foods vary enormously, and that’s true whether they are organic or conventional. One carrot at a grocery store, for example, may have two or three times more beta carotene than its neighbor. But the dividing line between them isn’t whether or not they are organic. “You can’t use organic as your sole criteria for judging nutritional quality,” says Smith-Spangler.
But even if there’s no nutritional benefit, surely organic foods are better for the environment, right?
No. Here, again, the scientific evidence demonstrates that organic products are not any better for the environment. Actually, they may be worse.
First, though, a caveat: Organic animal farming is without a doubt more ethical. It offers better life conditions for the animals, and organic principles and regulations are designed to ensure that animals are treated as humanely as possible. But when it comes to vegetables, the situation is quite different.
The most common justification for purchasing organic produce is that they don’t have any chemical pesticides. When asked why they bought organic rather than conventional vegetables, for example, 95% of consumers in the UK said their top reason was to avoid pesticides.
In many ways, this reflects a profound lack of scientific understanding on behalf of the public.
It’s important here not to let the term “pesticide” confuse you. While we are used to thinking of pesticides as the stuff we spray on plants around our house, the term “pesticide” is much broader than that: it’s any substance that gets rid of or repels a pest. The term encompasses many different -cides: herbicides (to get rid of plants), fungicide (to get rid of fungi), and insecticides (to get rid of insects), to name a few.
Our food is full of natural pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and a variety of toxins. In 1990, Bruce Ames published a paper entitled “Dietary Pesticides (99.99% All Natural).” In it, he and his coauthors found that we eat an estimated 1.5 grams of natural pesticide a day, “which is about 10,000 times more” than the amount of synthetic pesticide residues we consume. As an example, Ames provided a list of 49 different natural pesticides found in cabbage alone. The concentrations of these pesticides are in parts per thousand or parts per million, whereas the amount of synthetic pesticides we find on our food are in the parts per billion range.
The list of natural pesticides is very, very long. For example:
- Nicotine: The stimulant drug found in cigarette’s, but also one of the very first agricultural pesticides developed, particularly because it is “toxic to most herbivores.” Nicotine was phased out of farming in the US as of 2014.
- Capsaicin: What makes peppers hot is also a natural pesticide. The first pesticide containing Capsaicin was registered with the EPA in 1962. If you’ve ever gotten it in your eyes, your well aware that Capsaicin is an irritant, but it can also repel or kill insects.
- Tetradecanoic Acid: Found in nutmeg, Tetradecanoic acid has been tested as a potential larvicide against the yellow fever mosquito.
- Carvacrol: Found in oregano and thyme, Carvacrol has antibacterial properties by making the cell membrane of bacteria permeable, including E. coli.
These pesticides, according to evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox, “pose the same health risks as non-organic ones” when it comes to human safety.
The same is not true, however, when it comes to the environment.
In fact, a 2010 study concluded that some “organic” pesticides can actually have worse environmental impacts than conventional ones. When compared to synthetic pesticides, the study found that organic pesticides were found to be far less efficient, requiring much larger doses that often resulted in harm to pests that are beneficial to crops. This finding was replicated in 2012, when an analysis led by scientists at Oxford University revealed that “whilst organic farming almost always supports more biodiversity and generally has a positive wider environmental impact per unit of land, it does not necessarily have a positive impact per unit of production.”
Practically, this means that organic farming needs much more land than conventional methods to produce the exact same yield. How much more? A lot more: organic farms are only about 80 percent productive as conventional ones. The ecological cost of organic farming, thus, is devastating. Decreased productivity is not merely a space issue; it has real environmental consequences. For example, organic milk, cereals, and pork generate higher greenhouse gas emissions per product than conventional ones.
The bottom line is that the notion of organic farming is an idyllic fallacy. “People need to realize that an ‘organic’ label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product.”
What the term “organic” does guarantee, however, is higher prices. On average, organic foods are 47 percent more expensive than non-organic foods.
Where does that money go? Straight into the hands of Big Organic.
Of course, I’m being a bit facetious here. There is no such thing as Big Organic. Or Big Food. Or even Big Pharma, for that matter. These names are overly simplistic, and they are designed to confuse rather than promote anything remotely similar to a substantive policy discussion.
But this debate should be a nuanced discussion, and our policy should be driven by science. When it comes to food labeling, we should base our decisions on fact, not fear. Consumers certainly have a right to know what’s in their food. But they shouldn’t be misinformed about what’s safe.
Featured Image Credit: The U.S. FDA on Flickr (United States government work)