Commentary: Kissing GMOs goodbye

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If you’re a typical American adult consumer, you’re bombarded with a slew of commercial messages each and every day.

Anyone care to guess how many?

According to a marketing study—one completed several years ago, by the way—from the Harvard University School of Business, the number exceeds 3,000.

That’s right. Three thousand times a day we’re exposed to advertisements, signage, slogans, jingles, songs, commercials, PSAs, billboards, sales pitches, pop-ups, website links, email offers, online messaging and PR “news”—not to mention all the traditional ads on radio, TV and in print.

We tell ourselves that as efficient, modern denizens of the Digital World (or the post-Information Age or however you want to label the 21st century) that we know how to filter out the chaff and respond only to the wheat. That we can navigate skillfully across the sea of information upon which we daily travel, that we’re not merely treading water, so to speak.

But a critical by-product of this relentless and unprecedented bombardment of information is the increasing difficulty we all have have in separating “good” data from “bad.” Legitimate, factual information from its evil twin misinformation.

Here’s a typical example. Skim through any of the activist posting and papers condemning agricultural applications of biotechnology and you’ll notice a disturbing trend: Most of the non-scientific types posting the propaganda are beginning to refer to “GMOs” as if they were actual microorganisms, like bacteria.

From the Environmental Working Group: “GMOs are finding their way into 70% of popular processed food, like breakfast cereal, cookies, chips, soda and frozen meals.”

What, they’re like enemy agents infiltrating our food supply?

Or from Natural “GMOs turn pig stomach into mush!” This non-story suggests that “feeding pigs GMO corn and soy caused a 26% increase in stomach inflammation,” as if the effect is caused by pathogenic “bugs” attacking the poor animals.

Or how about the tagline for a new group called GMO-Free Canada: “Say no to GMOs!” Which makes it seem as if GMOs are some sort of contaminant.

Solving the problem

Granted, the acronym GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms.” But that appellation has been cleverly twisted by activists and their media apologists to emphasize “organism,” rather than “genetic modification.”

Part of the problem surrounding the failure of the food-buying public to understand genetic engineering is the previously mentioned sea of information upon which we all travel daily. There’s just so little time—or cognitive reserves—to dig down into technical or scientific topics for a deeper understanding or a more reasoned perspective of what are complex, nuanced controversies.

But an equally critical factor is the terminology itself. For everyone who grows genetically engineered crops, who feeds livestock with those crops or who is involved in processing and marketing food products using ingredients from those plants, it’s time to stop using the term “GMOs”—now and forever.

GMOs aren’t entities, or “creatures,” as so many people imagine. GMOs don’t’ “make their way” into foods, and they don’t exist as living organisms in the environment, the way pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or salmonella do.

It’s past time for industry to collectively refer to “biotechnology” as a legitimate scientific endeavor that has many, many applications other than food crops, such as in medicine and manufacturing, that the majority of Americans do not want to abandon. And for the improved strains of crops developed with biotechnology, it’s time to refer to “genetic modification” as a process, not a pathogen.

There will always be plenty of anti-industry operatives who will continue to savagely attack biotech, as if the scientific applications it has spawned are some sort of plague on humanity.

But those involved in animal agriculture and food production need to stop enabling them by getting sucked into the game of using the term GMOs.

They want to ban the science altogether.

I think we only need to ban the label.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Daniel Smith    
Boston MA  |  June, 20, 2013 at 05:00 PM

GMO's are a contaminant. They are a mutated gene in a dna sequence that is there even after the organism the gene was in has died. People don't want this mutated gene in their food because of the serious health consequences that come along with mutated dna. Get with the program and just feed your pigs grass like God intended.

June, 21, 2013 at 10:44 AM

I assume you don't use a car but instead walk every where you go, as God intended.

June, 21, 2013 at 09:15 AM

I agree, lets call them what they are - Petro-chemical Industrial Agriculture whose failures are trying to be resolved through Transgenic laboratory modification of common foodstuffs which have supported humanity for thousands of years prior to Industrial Farming. The entire model is unsustainable, environmentally degrading, and unethical. I refuse to offer any financial support to those who encourage this failed system: from the Bio-tech industry, it's corporate farmers, to the corporate food giants who peddle this inferior 'food like product' to the masses they try so hard to continue to keep in the dark about the state of their food supply.

Oklahoma  |  June, 21, 2013 at 09:22 AM

Daniel, do really think pigs are herbivores? You have to be more educated than to think that.

SD  |  June, 21, 2013 at 09:33 AM

I believe we should go back to farming practices of 1960 when the world population was 3 billion. At today's 7 billion population, I'm sure that will work just fine. Hogs aren't ruminants and don't utilize grass.

Nebraska  |  June, 21, 2013 at 10:15 AM

With over 70% of the US population taking some sort of prescription drug we have a problem somewhere. WE are NOT a healthy people, instead of masking and treating symptoms we need to find the root cause - it's either the food or the water as those two things we all consume. Most of these health problems have started since the 70's and 80's just when highly processed foods became the norm. Now with health problem accelerating it is time to figure this out and let the chips fall where they fall. If it's gmo's then so be it. We need independent testing not company that is selling the product or government testing as the government simply cannot be trusted. Personally I have stopped buying High Fructose Corn Syrup products and do my best to avoid gmo's - I am one of the 30% that take nothing- 54 YO Male. Last time I was injured and went to hospital the nurses thought I was lying when I said I take no meds.

AZ rancher    
AZ, duh  |  June, 21, 2013 at 10:18 AM

what a disingenuous article. there is a lot of ignorance about agriculture and science in this country, but I haven't ever come across anybody who thinks GMO = some kind of creature or organism like an illness-producing bacteria. if you want to educate people about your technology be honest about it and explain things. and in fairness you need to listen to peoples' legitimate concerns and even their irrational fears. the real questions to me are: just because we CAN do something, does that mean we should? can we produce large quantities of relatively healthy food in a mostly sustainable way without doing things that alarm and frighten our customers? do we care enough about them to listen? and always: who stands to gain the most from what we are thinking about doing to our environment/agricultural systems? is it the consumer? the producers? or is it a few large corporations that are gaining a stranglehold on the world's food supplies? should we begin to think about what that really means?

Spokane  |  June, 21, 2013 at 10:47 AM

And that is supposed to make the poisoning of the world ok? Because we drive cars? The data and research, world-wide, is overwhelming: farmers and the chemical giants have traded our health and our lives for their "piece of the pie." You don't want to agree? One simple reason: you are also profiting from the destruction of the lives of billions. Nice work murderer.

in a drought  |  June, 21, 2013 at 10:51 AM

Amen AZ rancher, preach on!!

Bob Milligan    
Minnesota  |  June, 21, 2013 at 02:29 PM

Martin, I agree with your point about the poor health of Americans. Let me suggest that it is not the food that is available to us, but rather the unhealthy choices we make and our failure to exercise. The greatest disservice that the Baby Boomer generation, of which I am a member, has done is to create an attitude that every problem is someone else's fault.

Tx rancher    
TX  |  June, 21, 2013 at 03:09 PM


Tx rancher    
TX  |  June, 21, 2013 at 03:10 PM


kansas  |  June, 21, 2013 at 04:48 PM

3 Cheers for avatar! Thanks for heaping righteous scorn and ridicule on the idiocy of these reasoning-free accolytes of the Luddite-Left Gaia Cult. You've properly chosen to address them as they are, rather than wasting your time trying to teach the willfully ignorant, i.e., those who refuse to learn. Again, good for you avatar & keep up the fine work!

montana  |  June, 21, 2013 at 08:08 PM

Genetically modified crops which are treated with glyphosate, can be critically short of crucial minerals like iron, maganese, zinc, and copper. Glyphosate chelates a number of important minerals when it is applied to crops and soils, making those minerals unavailable for crops, and unavailable in the animals who are raised eating those crops, and unavailable for the humans eating those animals. Mineral-deficient foods for humans create health issues also, such as arthritis, heart problems, brain deficiencies, and reproduction problems like infertility. People want food that nourishes them, that keeps them and their livestock in good health. Crops that are deficient in crucial minerals do neither. We need to LABEL our foods, and allow the market to decide which type of crops they want. Genetically modified, poison treated crops, or clean crops that have a high nutrient density for healthy plants, livestock, and humans-- which foods would you choose? If genetically modified crops are no different than open pollinated crops, why are the creators of GMO crops lobbying so hard to have the information about the identity of plant ingredients hidden from the public??

SD  |  June, 22, 2013 at 05:08 PM

It is so convenient for people to have a 'bogey-man- to blame or all health ills. That saves them from admitting the part that themselves choosing poorly in what they ingest, whether it's excess food, alcohol, 'recreational' drugs, sugary sodas, even too many 'healthful' treats. Or ignore the facts that what we do, or do not do, in the area of necessary exercise, care to avoid dangerous sports without proper training, and life style choices which can cause illnesses can have a great impact on our health. It is just so simple and comforting to have 'evil' corporations, scientists, rich people, and more to blame for our ills, rather than taking any personal responsiblity for our lives.

Ohio  |  June, 24, 2013 at 06:48 AM

Mr. Smith swine are omnivores and have a digestive system very similar to humans. I am sure you know how eating grass would go for you and shows how well most people really know about what they are eating. They are just repeating what they heard from someone else that sounds reasonably true. Do we need to be diligently careful with the biotechnology that is developed and put into production? Of course! But crops have been modified for over a century now. Anytime you cross a plant with another plant even of the same species you are changing the genetic makeup and producing a new line of plants. All biotechnology does is allow us to speed up this process by choosing desired traits verses taking decades to achieve the same results. Biotechnology is no different then when penicillin and different vaccines were developed people had the same feelings. But today are very accepted by most. If you lived in in any third world country and were starving and biotech crops enabled you to produce food on submarginal dry land then I think you would have a completely different view of them. This is why Bill and Melinda Gates and some Mexican billionaire tycoon are opening a research center exclusively for the development of new biotech crops in Mexico. Biotechnology will continue to have many adversaries but will continue to grow in popularity like many controversial things over the years. The benefits are endless.

VA  |  June, 24, 2013 at 08:42 AM

Dan, you lost your credibility on your fixation on Climate Change. How can you be trusted as a reasonable guy on a subject where our health is concerned?

Tx Rancher    
TX  |  June, 24, 2013 at 11:10 AM

MC: I agree with you about the swine comment. Your comparing and leading the readers to believe they are the same thing is ludicrous and simply NOT TRUE. Genetic modification and natural crossbreeding for specific traits are TOTALLY DIFFERENT. At least be truthful when you post a comment.

Ohio  |  June, 24, 2013 at 11:57 AM

What does it matter how you get there if the end result is the same. Roundup and such crops could be produced by crossbreeding but would take significantly more time.

manhattan, ks  |  June, 25, 2013 at 02:07 PM

Jenny- Please read the following report: Glyphosate Effects on Plant Mineral Nutrition, Crop Rhizosphere Microbiota, and Plant Disease in Glyphosate-Resistant Crops. It explains why you incorrect about your assumption and goes very far in depth especially on the chemistry. Our cereal grain crops (wheat, rice, barley, oats) are also self-pollinated not open pollinated, that really not applies to corn and sorghum.

manhattan, ks  |  June, 25, 2013 at 02:16 PM

The 70% figure is in one county not across the US. I also don't use meds and no one in my immediate family except for my mother and grandmother. On June 19, 2013, a Mayo Clinic study found that roughly 70% of the U.S. population takes some kind of prescription drug. This figure was estimated based on a study of drug prescription records from Olmsted County, Minnesota during the year 2009. Investigators were interested in calculating prescription rates due to recent increases in prescription drug use and medication-related hospitalizations in the United States. The findings were published online in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. There were 142,377 patients included in the analysis, 68.1% of which were prescribed at least 1 drug. Researchers noted that 51.6% of patients were prescribed 2 or more drugs, and 21.2% of individuals were prescribed 5 or more drugs. The study found a higher percentage of females received at least 1 prescription medication compared to males (72.5% vs 63.2%, respectively), though gender of patients was roughly even in the sample overall. Antibiotics were the most commonly prescribed medications in the study (17%), followed by antidepressants (13%), opioid analgesics (12%), lipid-lowering agents (11%), and vaccines or toxoids (11%). Investigators noted rates of drug prescriptions varied by sex and age, and that older patients and female patients were prescribed more medications than other groups.

SD  |  June, 30, 2013 at 06:47 PM

The sky is falling, the sky is falling.......oh, wait, that was discredited long ago! Does anyone fail to understand that many more medications are prescribed today due simply to the fact that the same old illnesses did not have medications available in years past? Who ever heard of taking medications for Rosacea, or knew that many people even had it not many years ago. It was just considered a nuisance some people suffered through. Now, my husband uses two prescriptions for it. Nor, were we treated for slightly high blood pressure not many years ago. And this could go on and on. Fact is, we do live longer, and my guess is it would be MUCH longer if so many were not abusing alcohol, sugar, illegal recreational drugs, and spending too much time on their computers when they should be getting some exercise! It is so easy, and for some folks, so much fun, for others, it makes them feel self-rightous, to 'warn' others of the dangers of traditionally produced foods. Luddites do exist even today, so many years after they began their fearmongering!

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