Energy & Environment

Why labeling of GMOs is actually bad for people and the environment

David Zilberman

On November 6th, California voters will be asked to vote on a proposition about labeling of genetically modified (GM) products. On the surface this seems quite reasonable: people should have information about what they consume. In my view, labeling requirements are appropriate when there is undisputed scientific evidence that a food component is damaging, which, for example, is the reason for warning labels on cigarettes. But with GMOs this is not the case. For example, a recent NRC report states that GMOs are as safe if not more safe than conventional food which is also consistent with most of the published research.

Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat are already modified as they have been generated through techniques such as selective breeding and hybridization of crops among others. The discovery of DNA and advances in modern molecular biology allow us to develop more refined and precise crop breeding techniques where we slightly modify existing varieties by adding a specific trait. Obviously, genetic engineering is in its infancy, and has already led to major developments in medicine. Even though it has been underutilized in agriculture, existing GMOs have had significant impact. The most popular traits address pest control (Bt varieties) and tolerance to herbicides (Round-up ready varieties). These traits have been adopted with corn and soybeans in the US, Brazil, and Argentina among others and also in cotton in India, China, and some developing countries. Studies show that GM varieties of cotton and corn in developing countries increased in per acre yield by more than 50%, and GMOs contributed significantly to the more than doubling of the production of soybeans.

The importance of GMOs has to be viewed within a global context. Population and income growth have led to increased demand for food and especially meat. Meat production is feed intensive. This and the introduction of biofuel has resulted in increased prices of agricultural commodities. When food becomes scarce (and expensive), it is the global poor that suffers most. Our calculations suggest that the magnitude of the impact of GMOs on reducing food commodity prices was the same or even bigger than biofuels had on increases of these prices (15-30% reduction in the price of corn and soybeans overall). Furthermore, the prices of cotton did not rise with the prices of other commodities in 2008 due to increased supply from the adoption of GMOs. If African nations and Europe would have adopted GMOs, current prices of food would have decreased significantly, and much of the suffering associated with the food shortages could have been avoided. Thus even in its early stages GMOs have made significant contributions to reducing food shortages and saving lives.

Adoption of GMOs is not only good for food commodity prices and the well being of the poor, it is also good for the environment. Adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties enabled transition to minimal tillage techniques, which reduced the GHG effect of agriculture equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars annually. GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land. There is evidence that by replacing toxic chemicals in India and China, adoption of GMOs directly saved many lives. Reduction of exposure to pesticides and the resulting health effects has been a major cause for adoption in the US.

But what about Monsanto? This company has a monopoly on crucial patents and has made a lot of money from GMOs. This is undisputed. However, studies show that the economic gain from GMOs was divided between consumers, farmers, and seed manufacturers without anyone gaining the lion’s share. Apple also makes a lot of money and no one complains. Of course there is room for increasing access to intellectual property, especially products that are of value to the poor, but labeling GMOs is not the optimal way to achieve this goal.

Now, what about emergence of resistance to GMOs? This is an unavoidable consequence because of evolution. This means that we need to have continuous research in the life sciences to find solutions for potential problems. I believe sustainability is different than Nirvana; we cannot find final solutions that do not give rise to new problems. GMO is a technology that allows us to better adapt to new diseases and climate change. Genetic tools will improve our adaptive capacities to climate change.

The public is divided among individuals who believe that GMOs are bad, others who think they are valuable, and many who are basically indifferent. The last group may not see the damage of requiring labeling of GMOs since they do not see the big loss. However, labels make a difference. A labeling requirement creates a stigma effect that will reduce the demand for GM products and may reduce investment in new GM traits. The net effect will be to slow the development of agricultural biotechnology, and this in turn may negatively affect health, the economy, and the environment. It is actually counter-productive to the many environmental and social goals that we cherish. Therefore, labeling of GMOs will be a step in the wrong direction.

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Comments to "Why labeling of GMOs is actually bad for people and the environment":
    • T.Davis

      Dear: Monsanto
      From: Hu~mans
      If you are not at all worried of your new richness that you have accumulated through the production of GMO’s,inform the public. Honor your great new invention, and label all GMO’s products. Free your mind and others. Your family is important, just as much as the poor family has their wealth in living too. Is not life stressful enough? Rich and poor will all go down the same way when death is calling.If humans are hungry they will eat.

      [Report abuse]

    • Tammy Busche

      For those who oppose the above commentary by David Zilberman, please cite at least ONE of your supposed studies discussing how GMO’s are unsafe. And it had better be from a reputable journal, not from some celebrity’s website written by people that don’t know or understand science.

      Newsflash: Genetically Modified Organisms have existed for as long as mankind has been harvesting plants and raising livestock. Farmers grow crops, look at see which plants grow more heartily, save those seeds, and then use them for the next generation of crops.

      Or do you not believe in evolution of any type?

      And in case you’re under the impression that most scientists are somehow in corporate pockets, explain why it is that at best most professors are upper middle class?

      In science, there’s something called “Peer Review”. If you make an observation and/or a particular phenomenon is observed, you publish it, and others attempt to reproduce and make the same observation. If that observation is not reproducible, it’s not valid.

      American and European scientists aren’t trying to pull a fast one on you. Scientific journals aren’t published with the intention of conspiracy. They’re published with the presumption that ANYONE reading an article would be able to research and reach the same conclusions themselves. Scientists have nothing to gain from pointing out the truth (save reputation), and in fact the ignorant comments I’ve read concerning this commentary show that they’ll more likely receive rant from people that might as well be leading a witch hunt. And if for some reason GMO’s are unsafe, then please begin a study putting forth data and evidence so that other people can check and see if it’s valid.

      The same thing has happened with blaming vaccination on autism. In the few years that have followed since that movement, where parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated, there are still as many autistic children now than were before but meanwhile whooping cough, mumps, measles and polio are making a huge comeback.

      I can understand wanting to have potentially unsafe consumables labeled, but the proposal of labeling GMO’s would be a huge waste of time, money, and effort. And if you’re still not alright with foods not being labeled, grow your own. That would solve your problem right there.

      See this paper: “Plant Genetics, Sustainable Agriculture and Global Food Security

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    • Zoe McLoughlin

      “Published studies” show GMOs are safe. Many studies that present evidence to the contary are repressed and hidden from the public.

      Yes, genetic engineering has brought about great advances in medicine, but stay the hell away from my food.

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    • dawn

      Regardless it is my right to know what is in my food … How dare anyone say we don’t have a right to know what we eat. I say label it and then try to educate everyone on how good they are. Or better yet, prove to us they are not harmful… Ill decide for myself if I’m going to be the guinea pig.

      The truth is no one can prove they are safe, just like you say no one can prove they are not. I’ll error on the side of safe. Thank You

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    • Marisa Rodriguez

      Big money is trying to prevent the labeling of GMO foods because their bottom line will be negatively affected. Believe me, I for one would avoid GMO products at all costs. They are shooting for full control of all the food supply…period! They have never cared for the well being and safety of the consumer.

      We have been their lab rats and they have fought successfully to make sure that GMO labeling requirements didn’t pass in a blue state like California! They flooded their cause with tons of money to ensure that didn’t happen! They have a problem though, we are getting more informed and are working very hard to avoid GMOs.

      I for one will not believe false statements about this issue never again! Your comments on this issue are incorrect and subjective!

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    • Brenda

      If these liberals are so worried about global warming, then why are they against GMO’s?

      If we reduced the population, pollution and global warming would be reduced also.

      Studies have shown that the third generation–the grand children of rodents fed GMOs–are mostly sterile. What a humane form of birth control. Feed the hungry AND reduce their numbers.

      Jonathan Swift, in A Modest Proposal, proposed that the rich develop a taste for newborn babies in order to wipe out poverty. That would work too but Monsanto has a much kinder and better idea.

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    • jon

      Rebecca…falacy 1…so you think all farmers are fooled, and they get no increase in yield ?

      falacy 2….like it or not, labeling implies a hazard…if you say the average consumer just wants to be informed..that is a falacy…the average consumer has the attention span of a rock when it comes to risk assesments. Look to the EU…the result of their labeling has been the dramatic reduction in gmo, and the consumer is no more informed than before. There are US initiatives to label cell phones too…do you think the average consumer would be more informed about electromagnetic wave risk after the labeling…I sure don’t.

      Brandon, that you think anyone with a different opinion on gmo risk is paid by corporations shows what a sheltered life you live. consider the million plus scientists and risk regulators around the world and their consensus before you make such and uninformed statement.

      SteveO (aussie ? ) so you think billions if not trillions of gmo exposures each year, that in your mind would give rise to health issues…will go un notices by global health organizations….is that really your final answer ? Also consider that if a food contains corn or soybean (in the US), it likely has GMO….and you can’t figure that out without it being on a label….well, now you can. about 70 % of US foods will directly contain a gmo crop, or is derived from a gmo crop. You can get global health trend data from a number of sources, and do you own comparison of the health trends, by country.

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    • Rebecca

      Fallacy 1: Slippery Slope
      “GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land.” This statement could lead the reader into believing that if a farmer is not using GMOs then he or she will inevitably convert wild land into agriculture land.

      Fallacy 2: Straw Man
      “Of course there is room for increasing access to intellectual property, especially products that are of value to the poor, but labeling GMOs is not the optimal way to achieve this goal.” Proponents of labeling GMOs want to raise the awareness of all people about their use. They do not argue that the labels will increase access to intellectual property.

      Fallacy 3: Non Sequitur
      “But what about Monsanto? This company has a monopoly on crucial patents and has made a lot of money from GMOs.“ “Apple also makes a lot of money and no one complains.” In the same paragraph, the author compares Monsanto to Apple. The products the two companies make are completely unrelated, yet the author implies that if you are buying Apple products then you should have no problem buying Monsanto products. The difference is that the products that Monsanto is producing are for human consumption and have not had thorough testing to determine long term safety for humans and the environment. The author even admits in the article that genetic engineering is in its infancy.

      My opinion of this article is that it is one big fallacy! I saw no evidence in it to prove, as the title states, labeling of GMOs are bad for people and the environment. When I chose to read this article I had high hopes that a professor of agriculture and resource economics, who is writing in a UC Berkeley blog, would have valuable information persuading me to see the point of the article title. I was sadly disappointed to see that this author must have forgotten that his audience is looking for scholarly opinions based on evidence and sound judgment. Needless to say I, along with many of the commenters, was not persuaded by the argument presented in this article.

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    • country boy

      answer to fallacy #1: you can believe whatever you want, but our organic neighbor has bought up lots of land around us. so we are in the middle of converting woodland to farmland in order to survive as farmers.

      answer to fallacy #3: there is no long-term research to prove I phones are not bad for you, even though they are not ingested. you know, two waves and such. I think the comparison fits.

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    • Karen

      You’re arguing that we shouldn’t label GMO food because people are too stupid to realize that GMO is actually good for them, and so they’ll be spooked by a GMO label.

      Don’t try to protect people from information about what they’re putting in their bodies just because you think they’re all idiots. It’s condescending, it’s insulting, and it’s dangerous.

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    • Jawariah

      The author probably works for Monsanto. WHat a load of bullsh*t!!! How could anyone deny all of the harming affects of GMOs? I cant believe ppl like you exist in this world, David Zilberman! Our economy is going down the drain, our society is going down the drain, and the government just wants to take control. Horrible!

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    • Saravanan

      The processed foods that are manufactured in the US and exported to other countries (like Australia) are labelled for GM and GMOs! Why not label these foods in the US as well?

      The points raised here do not make sense..

      My 2 cents..

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    • Kyle F

      You are assuming a lot of facts here, most of which are not substantiated. If GMOs are so wonderful, why do people who create them and others who advocate for them (including President Obama and Monsanto’s board) only eat organic? That is a level of hypocrisy I cannot tolerate. It is like the chef who won’t eat his/her own concoction. The government states that foods made with GMOs are ‘substantially equivalent’ to food made from non-GMOs, so there should be no reason for this hypocrisy; we should all be basking in the GMO sea, yes? Your argument certainly make it sound like we should. But, we’re not…correction: the rich and well-to-do are not. That alone tells me something is not quite right with GMOs. In this respect, the fight over GMOs (such as it exists) is really a class warfare problem. It is the biggest case of demand subterfuge that has quite possibly ever existed (the rich demand something that only the non-rich consume, discounting for the discussion the use of GMOs in non-ingestible capacities). This makes it a clear market failure. Ordinarily, one of government’s major roles is correcting market failures. In this case, I hardly see how that can even come close to occurring.

      Having said this, I would not trust labeling from a government that has demonstrated time and again how pro-GMO it is — the Obama administration and others before it have been virtual Monsanto subsidiaries. Labeling will likely foster even greater complacency among the American public, not to mention the manipulations in labeling that will no doubt occur. There are ways to stay away from GMOs without labeling, consumers need to have some degree of confidence in this — it is possible to do. Consumers simply need to get their act together and start telling everyone they know about GMOs, their pervasiveness, and the elitist argument therein (how President Obama and other high-profile politicians and celebrities eat organic but advocate you eat GMOs because they stand to benefit from your uninformed consumption). Consumers have the power to change this; the question of whether they will is undetermined.

      Also, your inclusion of Apple in a discussion of product labeling is entirely irrelevant and quite possibly, misleading. Apple makes a product that people are aware of and use. Are you advocating against some kind of labeling with Apple products? If so, I was not aware of a labeling debate with Apple. If not, the inclusion interferes in the discussion. Apple has nothing to hide from, necessarily. Apple created its wealth from products that actual people have demanded and used. (Their labor practices are questionable as are the prices they charge, but that is not the topic at hand). Monsanto makes a product that not many people know about, even though they consume them just about as much as they use Apple’s products, if not more. I see no comparison and think your argument grows even weaker by including it.

      Point is: in a capitalistic market, every producer should have to satisfy the demand equation of production. Currently, Monsanto has hidden from that demand because of an ignorant public and a greedy political system. However, socialist intervention via labeling is probably not appropriate. We are (for better or worse) a true capitalist society and capitalists have a hard time implementing effective socialist policies; they become band-aids that eventually wither away only to reveal the underlying problem once again. Europeans have an easier time implementing labeling and other restrictions – perhaps that is why they do not have a giant like Monsanto within their borders in the first place. Having said that, Monsanto and the biotech firms (and likely some politicians) will be very sorry someday that they did not advocate for labeling when consumers finally get their heads on straight and the market starts to talk back to them in a very negative way. In other words, market correction is the best way to go on this issue. Unfortunately, it can be painfully slow (especially with a biased government) and unpredictable along the way, but it is the only truly effective solution available. Continue to spread the word….

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    • SteveO

      Without labeling we won’t know if there are problems, or it will take longer to figure out if GMO is a problem to our health. And that’s exactly what the GMO companies want…no traceability. A simple “Contains GM products” is sufficient.

      L-Tryptophan manufactured by GMO bacteria killed many people due to the higher levels and increased numbers of contaminates produced by the GM modification. It took years to find it and several people died or suffered needlessly because it was not properly labelled. Same goes for GMO foods: if something toxic enters the food chain and has slow or similar symptoms to other allergenic diseases, then we may never find out the culprit. All of our current epidemic diseases of today could easily be caused by GMO contamination.

      Proper labeling would at least provide a chance to eliminate the GMO issue and see if it is the cause. Without labeling this is extremely difficult.

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    • Lucia B.

      Remember ! Being HEALTHY and live a long, healthy life is the most important!! …priority # 1 !!! GMO is a disaster for all of us and our future generations!! Be aware and choose wisely as there is no way back…

      [Report abuse]

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