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":
    • David Thomson

      Argentina grows soy, soy is an important part of their diet. Glyphosate spraying is causing birth defects in new born children. Birth defects, sterility, neurotoxicity!!! Of course they have something to hide, why spend more than a hundred million dollars to convince the people of California that Frankenstein food is safe and labelling is not necessary. Before long Monsanto will have control of all the world seed crops and you will have no choice. Stop them now.

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    • PL

      Maybe you should address the root causes of the stigmas about GMOs. Like the fact that GMO advocates are afraid of transparency. The public doesn’t trust people who appear to have something to hide.

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    • Jack Weber

      I agree. If there is nothing wrong with GMOs why not just label them to satisfy the majority of Americans who want labeling?! I mean it’s only about 90% of the country that wants GMOs labeled.

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    • Debra

      This is America, people have the right to know what they are consuming, so we can make a choice, not have it slid under the radar without our knowledge. I would never eat GMOs intentionally. That is why big business does not want us to know!

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    • Gail

      I just don’t understand why you cannot see the elephant in the room? GM crops are genetically designed to withstand the arsenal of pesticides that are sprayed on them throughout their growing cycle… it’s not so much the issue of the seeds being genetically modified, it’s more so the toxicity of the end product that ends up in our food.
      And for the two groups of individuals that are either in favor of or could care less about GM labelling, they will buy the product anyway. A slight increase in price is not going to stop them.
      No thank you, but I’ll pass.

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    • robin

      David, as you can see there is a need for public education but I think scientists are too impatient, so we might have to roll with the public, and let them sort out their own hype. That is already happening around claims of “natural” so I assume they will get a grip sooner or later. Also if labels are required, maybe they will be allowed to say “produced from GE products that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by X%”, “reduced pesticide use by X” or something like that, so people will begin to associate the benefits with the product, other than lower cost. I am guessing that lower cost may keep these things in the market of the less “discriminating” consumers.

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    • KB, Concerned Citizen

      The genetic splicing that Monsanto does is far more invasive and questionable than the selective-breeding and hybridization that you try to compare it to in this article. As you mention, the technology is in its infancy. With no labeling, and no way to tell the difference between GMO and non-GMO, we are all being used as lab-rats in a long-term experiment.

      Comparing GMO-labeling to cigarette labeling is another weak argument, because as mentioned, with a cigarette you know what you’re getting, but when you pick up an apple, you don’t (currently). The cigarette comparison would only hold up if there were two kinds of them, healthy and unhealthy, with no outer way to tell them apart.

      If GMO’s are so good, their results should speak for themselves. If they are not at the moment, then keep testing them. That reduces profits, but this is our food supply that we’re talking about. For goodness’ sake, don’t turn our basic livelihood into a giant experiment. If… IF… you want to do some grand experiment with our food and our livelihood, be ethical enough to actually tell us that you’re doing it, and tell us which product is which.

      If the benefits are negligible enough that a so-called ‘stigma effect’ can shut it down, it doesn’t need to be out there yet. Do some more testing. Solidify all the gains, then present your new superfood. You should be proud to label something that’s truly superior. If you’re not, then something fishy is going on

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    • Deborah Corsetti

      I don’t see what the problem is to adding a few more characters of type to the labels we already have on products. People should have the option of making their own informed decision.

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    • Walt

      This is a ridiculously absurd argument. Much of this is outright lies. There hasn’t been a single study or survey showing that GMOs have produced a higher yield. In fact china banned GMOs and burned the crops because they created more problems than they were worth. Indian farmers actually assaulted a Monsanto employee because the crops were sold as “drought resistant” even though no drought resistant strains have been engineered yet. The Monsanto employee denied responsibility and thus was the effect from the unhappy Indian farmers that have witnessed thousands of suicide specifically as a result of the GMO cotton crop failure. Japan only used GMO canola for a year back in the 90s and still is unable to eradicate GMO contamination from their canola supply. More than 100 countries have banned GMOs because many studies show they are dangerous.

      This is a very crude science, which is NOTHING like hybridizing. Inserting genes via bacteria, and then using an anti biotic resistant gene just to be able to know if the plants are recombining with the new variant of DNA is about as crude of science as we get. We still don’t understand how plants turn on and off their genes in sequences and what the effect will be on humans. Monsanto’s own studies show it created birth defects in cows. The crops do not yield more and in fact usually yield less.. and are sustained only by US tax dollars by subsidization. Without subsidization, farmers would be losing money on every bushel because of the insane prices GM designers charge.

      Now add in the fact that science can’t keep up with evolution as we see more and more every day, and you create a very dangerous situation by eliminating crop diversity. More study is needed but using science that you even say yourself is in it’s infancy is a dangerous practice.. just look at our early uses of radiation and how safe and good for people we thought it was. To suggest this is going to solve world problems is naive at best and corrupt at worst. Not to mention the risk assessment evaluations are not being done by the companies who create them themselves.

      Then there’s the issue of the illegal patents on mother nature which the supreme court overturned with the breast cancer case. Monsanto argues that their creations could happen naturally which in turn would invalidate all of their patents.. yet this is their very argument as they try to push to be able to label their GMO products as organic saying they are not substantially different.. you know except for the fact that they are inserting genes that would have a 4 quadrillion (conservatively) to 1 chance of ever being able to happen. Not to mention a terminator gene which is built in that is a chemically activated process created by an FDA scientist.

      The last points (although I could go on all day) is that you say they are using less pesticides and saving the land from impacting the soil. These crops are designed to produce 1000x plus the level of toxins found normally in nature, and the amount that organic crops would be using. Round up by design bonds to the nutrients in the ground so that plants are unable to take them into their roots unless they are Round up resistant. This is the function.. which essentially ruins the soil for any Non GMO and specifically Round up resistant plants. In fact Monsanto sells special extermely potent nutrients because even their Round up resistant plants have trouble growing in it. That is, until they become resistant, in which case Monsanto has payed farmers to spray at least 2 other competitors herbicides on their fields as well to try to curb the resistant strains (or more so just hide the problem so they can keep selling their failing, dangerous seeds). So they are in fact actually spraying more chemicals than ever before under the guise of spraying less.

      Okay I lied.. 2 more points.. Monsanto also saw that the largest bee research center was showing that their crops and chemicals were at least partly responsible for bee colony collapse syndrome. So what’s the solution.. buy the research center and change the research being done. France bans GMO maize and what happens.. they are threatened by sanctions if they don’t accept it.

      This doesn’t even take into account all the studies showing how dangerous these crops are as a food.. and how it actually changes the human gut bacteria fundamentally. Look into how gut bacteria can affect how people behave and how the brain functions and you will see why this is a very dangerous game to be playing. We deserve labels.. and I sincerely hope you think about what you are saying as a scientist you have an obligation to look for the truth. Please reconsider your position.

      Sincerely
      Walt

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    • Seafoodie

      I think you are drinking the kool aid!! How anyone with any kind of intelligence can say that it is bad to label GMOs is following the lead and need to hide something. If they are so “safe and beneficial” then what is the problem, except they aren’t. All those “scientific” tests that “say” GMOs are safe aren’t even GOLD standard tests, if tests at all. Monsanto never tested it’s GMOs to see if they were safe — and as far as the developing resistance goes, you are obviously not a farmer. Drenching the ground with more and more chemicals is NOT the answer to food production. And while you are sighting all these glowing reports of how it has increased production, you need to look at how old that information is. Increased production is NO longer the case, as a matter of fact it is now causing farming collapse in India.

      Sorry, but your information in one sided and out of date and you are being made a fool by big agribusiness. If you want to continue to eat the GMO poison (and what else would you call a plant that carries it’s own inserted herbicide) then go ahead. But the rest of us would like to know when we are being poisoned. After all, if we have an allergy to one of the inserted chemicals, we should have the right to avoid making ourselves sick. But that would be common sense, something sorely lacking these days.

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    • Tina Clark

      In Iowa farmers that I personally know are paid to NOT plant crops. We have ENOUGH land. There IS research that shows harmful effects of GM crops. The organic industry is at risk with GMO crops taking over. DO the research yourself. Not the research from the very companies that are producing these crops…..But unbiased indepenent research? The most concerning is the devastation in India….. (See this link to the mass suicide because of GM crops.)

      LABEL IT. IF it is safe….LABEL it. For our future and our health.

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    • fedelvalle Hurtado

      Let me tell you that I don’t care about supplying the demand of a growing world with more buying power. And that the processes already done to fruits and vegetables are not an excuse for continuing to expand the genetic modification of foods. What I truly care about is listening to my body, which functions better when nourished with organic foods. I care about avoiding all the debilitating food allergies I have developed due to all the additives and manipulation of foods. I demand to know if a product I am buying with my hard-earned money is going to cause me a painful and debilitating autoimmune response which would leave me incapacitated to work, as it has happened before. It is true that I buy mostly organic food, but organic foods are not available all the time, so I am forced to buy non-organic many times. Therefore, when I buy non-organic foods I demand to know if they are genetically modified or not. I have the right to be given the information I need to know in order to make a decision on the kind of products I buy. Informed consent is required in many areas of our lives, why not in this very important area which is nutrition?

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    • Mary Boote

      Thank you for your excellent comments regarding the proposals to require labeling of food products that contain GMO ingredients. I especially appreciate the concern raised about a potential slow-down in the development of agricultural technology and the negative impact that will be expreienced by the environment, our health and social well-being. It is imperative that farmers around the world have access to the tools they need to maximize their productivity in a sustainable manner. Agricultural biotechnology is one of those tools. A slow down in its development will impact all of us.

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    • jo

      If they are sooooooo proud of the products they produce,…. JUST LABEL IT and let the public decide. WHAT ARE THEY SOOOOOOOO afraid of???? the public actually knowing that they are playing GOD with the food chain! Give me a break!

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    • Jack Weber

      Exactly, if GMOs are so great, then labeling them should only be good advertising for biotech.

      But the truth is they know their products are unsafe, and they know that America knows this too. So, that’s why they don;t want them labeled!

      It’s not like the labels are going to say this produces cancer. If a product has vinegar or sugar in it, it’s in the ingredients. If people don;t want to eat these things, they choose not to. If a product has GMOs people will have that same informed choice. And if the truth is that GMOs are so great, then people will be guided to purchase them by their labels and biotech will be the beneficiary.

      Heck, if I had a product so wonderful as GMO, I’d want everyone to know about it so they would buy it!

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    • really?!

      There are two different issues here and some really weak comparisons (“apple makes a lot of money and no one complains”, um, they had some serious human resource violations abroad and are working to improve them due to increased pressure to change and is a different type of issue than that of Monsanto).

      Biotechnology is one thing, having a monopoly on the food supply and genetically modifying and patenting food without labeling it does not allow consumers to make informed choices. The prevalence of GMOs in foods (and I mean the kind we have yet to truly know the consequences of, not simply grafting of trees or picking the best fruits/vegetables as farmer’s have for years) is beyond what most people can really grasp. The only way around it is to try and buy local/organic whenever possible and avoid processed foods with all of the scary corn/soy GMO in those.

      It’s not clear why you would think it is wrong to label, but it actually makes no sense to my why anyone as educated with you would side with a corporation that clearly does not have the interests of consumers or small family farmers at heart. GMOs help to eliminate heirloom vegetables that are unique and provide important biodiversity. GMOs also displace small farmers. We also do not have a true sense of the larger impact of our manipulations of our food supply in the longer term as it enters into the food chain. GMOs are still conventionally farmed fruits, vegetables and grains and pesticides are not good for us either.

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    • Tony Osborne

      So, let me understand you Mr Zilberman – labelling that food is GM creates a stigma, but every other reason for labelling is fine?

      So, if Rabbi Dovid Zilberman relies on Kosher labelling, and Imam Davoud Zilbammoun relies on Halal, they have a right to expect it to be done – bearing in mind there’s no actual health risk, even though there’s some controversy over the way they are produced. But labelling GM is not to be expected when you yourself admit that the study is still in its infancy and the absolute effects of its use are far from clear – and most people actually believe it’s the right thing to do – and actually don’t want it. The Rabbi and Imam can have their choice, but the public at large cannot?

      What you are effectively suggesting is the same as saying that all babies must be fed only on government approved food, in conjunction with Biotech companies. Who would accept that?

      Mother Nature has fed and watered life since time began and will continue to do so, no matter how large the population – if allowed to do so – which is the real crux of the Third World argument. We corrupt it at our peril. Like any good Mother protecting her children, Nature will, if so treated, fight back an always win – and you won’t like the consequences. You cannot suppress a truth like that! The ever growing, thinking public will not sit by and allow it.

      In any case, GM will eventually destroy itself. At the very very least, GM products must be treated in the same way as Nuclear – kept behind thick doors. Why do you think people hate it so much? You know exactly that they hate the way it’s made to contaminate all around it. Please prove me wrong – and I say ‘prove’ – if you can! I don’t have to ‘prove’ you wrong – you’ll do that all by yourselves.

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    • Lori Morrison

      What about all the farmers in India committing suicide due to failed gmo crops? What about the cheater gene and all the pesticides being sprayed across America? Evidence has shown pesticides in the umbilical cords of pregnant women in Quebec. Think about the future of the children. GMO labelling should happen so we can protect our children and the environment from lethal destruction. Organic farming can feed the world. Stop the factory chemical farming!

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    • jeff sonderman

      I respectfully disagree with your excessively optimistic position that the proliferation of GMO crops will produce benign future consequences because you (and Monsanto as well as our policy makers) completely ignore a proper understanding of biology. This short-sighted view to what is agreed are real problems reflects a pattern in industrialized societies that sees nature (or for that matter our own human physiology) as a relatively passive system when science and the profit motive are engaged. It’s one thing for industry standardization in computer operating systems to achieve economic monopoly status, but quite another when it comes the domestication and management of food supply.

      The drive to deny nature’s inevitability by controlling food production at the molecular level plays havoc with universal notions of biodiversity which is the critical force underlying the future success and reproduction of any living system at mirco and macro levels.

      I recommend you open up your perspective and inform yourself with a more critical biology understanding of the dimensions of this problem before you posture any further on the subject.

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    • Donn Gross

      Dear Sir:
      I am appalled by your supposition there is a possible downside from labeling GMO foods. The same way ingredients are listed as well as where something is grown or produced- GMO or Non GMO is our right to know and the duty of the manufacturer to list.

      It is has been fought for all these years because it is well known GMO foods will be rejected. At this point in our national history, we should have learned the lesson well: short cuts lead to disaster..and corporations are not to be trusted beyond a certain point. I am afraid you have bitten too deeply into the GMO foods to speak or think in a measured or balanced manner.

      I respect you as an individual but completely disagree with your stance on the labeling GMO’s matter.

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    • Mary Anne Revolinski

      I could not disagree more! All consumers have the right to know what they are consuming. Period. Your opinion is that the only appropriate labeling is when there is “undisputed scientific evidence that a food component is damaging, which, for example, is the reason for warning labels on cigarettes.”

      According to your logic, there wouldn’t be any information on food labels….is protein good or bad, what about fat or carbohydrates???

      Furthermore, to compare labeling GMO ingredients to cigarette warnings is illogical. The correct analogy would be to labeling white flour to whole wheat flour. It is a product DESCRIPTION – not a warning label. If GMO’s aren’t bad, then the public will decide that at the cash register and continue to buy products that contain them.

      To deny our right to know because of a perceived loss of profit because of accurate labeling is WRONG! Who from Monsanto ghost wrote your blog today or paid for your latest grant?

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    • Jack Weber

      Mary Anne, great critical thinking! I love your comment: “The correct analogy would be to labeling white flour to whole wheat flour. It is a product DESCRIPTION – not a warning label. ”

      I think the author made a slip, comparing GMO to cigarettes, perhaps revealing his true knowledge: GMO are akin to cigarettes!…even though the label would not be akin to the definitive harm that cigarettes cause.

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    • Connie

      We have a right to know what we put in our bodies
      Does it create a stigma to label the food? I dare say not, it is the lack of proof that GMO products will do no harm that has created the stigma.
      When I hear a new crop has been added to the ever growing list of GMO products, I just stop eating that, because I can’t be sure I can avoid GMOs – corn, off my diet – soy, off my diet, etc
      So NOT labeling the products containing GMOs harms everyone.
      It is so sad that we are force fed franken food.

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    • Betsy Brewer

      I find it interesting that people (perhaps like you) assume because something has a “label” that it is automatically negative. The label does nothing more than provide information so that consumers may make an educated decision about whether they choose to consume that food product or not. If GMOs were so good for us, you would think that Monsanto would want to label everything so everyone would know how great this new food “product” is.

      However, we all know that is not the case. Monsanto doesn’t want to label the food because they know that no one who bothers to do any research and is remotely concerned with their health will buy such a product. It sounds to me like you and perhaps your entire department at Berkley have been well funded by Monsanto. Seriously, no intelligent person would ever conclude that GMOs are safe without a big paycheck to help you form your opinion.

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    • Lawrence

      This man is totally off base. It is simply our right to know what we are purchasing and consume. The ONLY reason for any company not to label contents of any product is that they don’t want us to know something.

      There are many innocent products that people have allergies to, that have been grandfathered and never truly approved, and simply there things that some simply choose not to eat. What about, so-called safe red food colourings. I’m quite sure that most have seen kids that go hyper after eating red food dye.

      Not all GMOs are bad, not all are good, but it should be TOTALLY our choice to consume whatever. Creating a stygma is a cop-out statement and is truly irrelevant.
      What truly should be stopped is the ownership/patents on any form of life and seeds and plants are lifeforms — i.e. Monsanto and their sinful practices.

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    • NIck

      You can always follow the money if you want to find out who’s snowing who. Most of the “published research” is provided by none other than the companies that profit from and produce GMO crops. Do you honestly think your house of cards will fool us. Days are numbered for unlabeled GMO products.

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    • Cjames

      Educated consumers know that labeling of GMOs Is not only wise but crucial to our ability to choose foods that promote health rather than compromise it. Tinkering with the natural order and structure of foods can in no way be called good for the environment. We are already seeing ill effects from the unexpected results of modifying foods. Wake up before it is too late.

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    • k oneil

      i want to know what i’m eating…not let some government body tell me that it is safe for me and find out 20 years down the line i’ve been poisoning myself!!!
      it’s as simple as that!!! we all know how persuaded government can be by special interest groups…i’ve been living in Ireland for the last 2.5 years and have come to appreciate the taste of real food!!!

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    • mitch

      Your arguments are obviously biased.

      There have been studies showing possible dangers on consuming gmo foods.

      If we’re going to be sold it, we have a right to know what’s in it.

      Period. If monsanto wants to convince us it’s safe, they have more than enough money to conduct long-term clinical studies. Independent ones.

      Let us decide what we want to eat.

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    • Patricia de la Garza

      Well, I would like to know what I’m eating. Maybe nerdy but I do read labels and calculate nutritional content. it’s just fair to inform the consumer. If time proves that GMO’s are safe, the labeling will be just info of the wonderful technology. If on the other hand they prove themselves not to be safe, the consumer has at least a fighting chance of avoiding them, or avoid giving them to sensitive populations.

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    • Juliette Mondot

      Hybrids and selective breeding are not transviralizing DNA, which introduces cross species genes. The net effect of GMOs on global food production over time is not known. What is known is the high rate of suicide among farmers already tethered to Monsanto’s protocols and you are worried about “stigmatizing?” Labeling GMOs is a step in the wrong direction for who? Not for the consumers, who should have choice and don’t when there is not transparency in our food sources.

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    • Jack Weber

      Exactly, Juliette…the junk should not even be on the market. Labeling is the bare minimum that should be done, and in my opinion is still as criminal as the fact that cigarettes are still legal, even though we know second-hand smoke causes cancer.

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    • Sammy

      David are you serious? As a professor of Agriculture & Economic you would think one would know better?!

      Obviously you have some gain in this $$$ & are backing the Evil Monsanto company!

      GMO & GMO resistant crops is having a huge effect on the environment..FACT! Why is it now banned in many of counties? ..10 year ban even. & many more are now bringing in the ban on GMs….so why would they be doing this David ha?

      Millions are backing non GMO products & GM labelling…. so of course if they are labelled people will not want to buy them, no brainer really!

      So it is obvious you have your hand in the pie somewhere to even write this type of article! But you are backing the wrong side!

      GM food & backing of GM technology is complete short sightedness & is just for HUGE profit & control of resources & final to attempt to control people. As once you control the food supply you control the masses..this is what Monsanto is about & THAT IS ALL IT IS ABOUT, FACT!!

      ..Any other stories or research they put out to the public is complete fluff & nonsense!

      The long term risks are HUGE & will cause more disease & disharmony in nature & to our health & children’s health.

      Sorry to say but their plan will NOT work..& those that back it will inevitably fail.

      You only discredit your own name to write such an article PLEASE DO NOT insult peoples intelligence!

      Peace!

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    • Jill Grams

      If GMO’s are so great I would think that companies that use them would be proud to list ingredients that contain them as such.
      I don’t want them in my food, and support labeling. Let the people decide if they want them or not. It is our right.

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    • Amy Harmon

      Hi Dr. Zilberman,

      I’m a reporter with the New York Times and recently wrote about the California labeling initiative with my colleague Andy Pollack:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/science/dispute-over-labeling-of-genetically-modified-food.html?_r=1&ref=amyharmon

      Hundreds of readers commented on the story and it has sparked an ongoing conversation on Twitter about many of the issues you address here. Because the debate over labeling and GMO’s in general is so polarized I think it’s especially important to see the data for the assertions made on both sides. Would you be able to provide links or citations for the research you mention?

      Specifically:

      “studies show that the economic gain from GMOs was divided between consumers, farmers, and seed manufacturers without anyone gaining the lion’s share.”

      “For example, a recent NRC report states that GMOs are as safe if not more safe than conventional food”

      “There is evidence that by replacing toxic chemicals in India and China, adoption of GMOs directly saved many lives.”

      “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).”

      thanks a lot
      Amy

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    • Stacy Malkan

      Dear Professor Zilberman,
      Since when are labeling requirements appropriate only “when there is undisputed scientific evidence that a food component is damaging”? I’m looking at a box of cereal right now; it has information about what’s in it, where it’s made, how it’s made and plenty of nutritional information that may or may not be harmful or desirable. These are things people want to know about the food they buy. People also want to know if their food is genetically engineered, and they have a right to know, and to choose for themselves what they eat and feed their families. That’s what the California Right to Know initiative is all about.

      Stacy Malkan

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    • Steve B

      This post makes some good points in defense of GMOs, but even if it is correct, it ignores a fundamental problem with the argument: lots of people simply do not trust scientists to be objective about this kind of thing and their mistrust is largely warranted. The scientific establishment needs to acknowledge that it is widely seen as corrupted by corporate interests and begin to take action to restore public trust. Also, it is not true that people “do not complain” about how Apple makes money. Lots of people complain about how workers in Apple’s Fox Con factories are treated and the Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org) has been fighting for the abolition of software patents for decades now. If GMOs really are of such value to the general public, then this research should be entirely funded by the government and placed in the public domain. Defending Monsanto’s sleazy business practices (and criticizing transparency!) is not going to persuade anyone to change their mind.

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    • John

      “GMOs are as safe if not more safe than conventional food… labels make a difference. A labeling requirement creates a stigma effect…” — That is one possibility, and I agree that labeling of inherently safe products should not be mandatory, but if GMOs are safer than conventional food, and if labels make a difference, labeling, could also work the other way round: If people are informed and educated they may choose to buy GMO food because they know that on average it may have less insecticides, less harmful herbicides and less carcinogenic fungi in it, apart from the benefits for the environment and their own food expenditure.

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    • william

      Genetic engineering is an infant and potentially dangerous technology, certainly not at the depth required to justify the mass proliferation of GE seeds that we’ve witnessed over the past 15 years. Moreover, since GE seeds do not currently comprise components for reversibility or containment, we should be doubly cautious; as it stands, genetic contamination, when it occurs, may be forever.

      We should also recognize that plant biology is not the only science – there is also social science. I refer the author to a speech given by Gordon Conway (then President of the Rockefeller Foundation) to Monsanto, June 24, 1999:

      “Food and environmental safety (labeling). Consumers have a right to choose whether to eat GM foods or not. There are certainly logistic problems in separating crops all the way from field to retail sale but this technology will not be accepted unless consumers feel they have a choice. If consumers wish to be informed whether they are eating GM foods, they have a right to know. Monsanto should come out immediately and strongly in favor of labeling.”

      In short, if you want The People to accept food composed of genetically engineered ingredients, you need to label the food and give the People a choice. If you do not support this freedom of choice, then you are doing the advance of biotechnology a great disservice.

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    • Pat Zambryski

      Hi David

      I like what you wrote. What I would like to suggest is that we label how our non GMO foods are produced, with 5X application of herbicides, 5X applications of pesticides, and 5X of other harmful chemicals, etc etc. The public is blind to the toxicities in agriculture. They need to be educated and see all the facts so that then they might better understand GMOs too.
      My 2 cents.

      Best wishes to you!
      pat

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    • Jack Weber

      Pat, have you ever heard of “organic?” No poisons.

      Aslo, non-GMo conventional food, to my knowledge, is not produced with less herbicide and pesticide than GMO. In fact, what I have read is that the Bt-toxin GE plants produce the pesticide systemically, meaning that it cannot be removed by washing, and that it is thousands times stronger than the the natural bt-toxin produced by b. thurengensis (the bacterium, my spelling is likely wrong on this).

      I think you might be more blind than the public you are accusing of being so. Your comment demonstrates that you don;t know the basics of organic and GMO production. I invite you to do some research and come back more in the know.

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      • Peter Myers

        Full disclosure: I’m a student of David’s.

        California is blessed by our climate; there are few pests, and it makes organic farming practical. David is focused less specifically on California growers and more on world food supply, which cannot support the growing world population without the use of pesticides and GMOs. A farmer in Senegal will still not have it easy with GM seeds, but he’ll have an even harder time if he has to spend his money on pesticides throughout the season and still have a lower yield with non-GM seeds. You can talk about Indian farmers commiting suicide because of a crop failure, but you have to remember that millions of Indians wouldn’t be alive if their grandfathers hadn’t begun using GM seeds in the 1960s, because without the contribution of GMOs to the Green Revolution, the country would have starved.

        Knowing David, I am tempted to jump even more fully to his defense, but it would be beside the point. What matters is that he knows the biology of GMOs and every step of decades of world policy regarding them. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, I’ll say that he embraces the science behind GMOs and sees them as the only sustainable way to feed 7 billion people. While we live in a priveleged state, both in terms of agriculture and general economic status, living in California keeps us insulated from the international reality of small farms. I think that seeing that GMOs are vital for the world, David doesn’t want to see their name needlessly sullied in yet another venue. That is why he opposes instituting a potentially expensive monitoring system that would probably not make our food choices any safer. If he says No on 37, I’m voting with him.

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    • gerd wunderlich

      Zilberman obviously comes from the “grower”world, not farmer world. It’s a shame that teachers like him remain so ignorant of all the benefits of modern non-chemical garming. He needs to read Acres mag to start enlightening any students he may have.

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    • Tony

      wow, what blatant biotech propaganda. Tell me, mr. zilberman, how much money is monsanto giving for your next “research” effort? you of all people should know that a lack of evidence does not equal a lack of harm. Just because the loose regulation by the FDA has allowed GMOs to be approved with little to no independent safety testing does not mean they are safe for our consumption. It simply means nobody bothered to look.

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    • Kerry Smith

      Rejecting some attributes as “bad” information for consumers because we can expect that revealing them would have negative impacts on product development is paternalism and a slippery slope. Who decides when the overall market incentives for innovation outweigh the decisions people would make because they worry about a product attribute? How much does the risk of having a bad effect have to be for us to leave it to ordinary folks?

      Rejecting consumer sovereignty raises lots of questions. Requiring labeling could induce a different response — more effort on producers’ part to present convincing evidence of safety and to be especially diligent to gain confidence of consumers — instead of saying “trust me, I know more than you”.

      [Report abuse]

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