Refuting the Organic Consumer Association’s “13 Lies GMO Labeling Opponents are Recycling in Washington State”

The Organic Consumers Association recently published an article containing a list of “13 Lies GMO Labeling Opponents are Recycling in Washington State”.

This post will investigate each of the thirteen “lies” for accuracy.

#1 – The OCA claims that labeling does not increase food prices. As evidence they cite an “empirical study” from a Joanna M. Shepherd Bailey. This report gave a rather optimistic figure of a one-time $1.27 cost for food labeling, but the report is flawed to a certain degree. The report assumes that sellers are unwilling to raise prices, and that administrative time to raise prices would cost too much to raise the prices in the first place. Yet the very same report also assumes that the administrative time to implement labeling is negligible.

The report also turns a blind eye to how food producers would be forced to use a far greater amount of non-GM or organic ingredients in order to avoid the stigma associated with the label.

Here’s a good source on what substitution costs would look like: http://files.vkk.me/text/8a39e65d3fc7f5738937bc889c2523a1ef1cb776.pdf

Another crucial point is that the OCA ignores how factual reporting of GM content would require detailed tracking and isolation of bulk food, something which the industry is not equipped to do. Their arguments suggest labeling could help consumers avoid GM products, but the actual labeling does not guarantee any GM content will be present in the product. The proposed labels are not required to specify what ingredients may be GM, nor the extent to which they may be present. In addition, the law does not require testing for the presence of GM components. So this isn’t a “GM labeling bill”, it’s a “might contain GM labeling bill”.

The EU is brought up, but again, crucial information is omitted – like how GM foods mostly vanished from the EU after labeling was put into effect.

The OCA then digs their grave deeper by claiming that companies hawking non-GM products label them as GMO-free for “free” – but of course how these companies don’t offer you any choice and charge you more for the privilege of eating their “premium” food isn’t mentioned either!

#2 – Americans are estimated to eat out an average of 5 times a week and spend as much as $142 billion on fast food alone. Yet this industry is completely exempt? Has the OCA already forgotten their tired old propaganda taglines about how consumers deserve the “right to know” what’s in their food?

#3 – This is literally the definition of a straw man argument. The OCA spent their entire paragraph attacking something completely unrelated to the point supposably being refuted. The marketing term “natural” has absolutely nothing to do with the USDA certification known as “organic”, something which this organization has in its NAME.

#4 – Connecticut and Maine’s laws both have minimum thresholds before the laws go into effect, and Alaska’s laws are severely limited to only a tiny segment of the food industry. If I-522 was passed, Washington would become the first state to have mandatory GM labeling on supermarket-sold food. So yes, it is actually the first and the only.

#5 – From I-522:

( 3) An action to enjoin a violation of this chapter may be brought in any court of competent jurisdiction by any person in the public interest if the action is commenced more than sixty days after the person has given notice of the alleged violation to the department, the attorney general, and to the alleged violator.

(4) The court may award to prevailing plaintiff reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees incurred in investigating and prosecuting an action to enforce this chapter.

By allowing lawsuits from the general public, I-522 has made it possible for anyone to sue any company considered to be in violation. These types of lawsuits are frivolous and unnecessary. Why is this language in the bill in the first place? Why does the general public need to sue companies when the state is already supposed to deal with violators?

#6 – As mentioned in #1, their arguments suggest labeling could help consumers avoid GM products, but the actual labeling does not guarantee any GM content will be present in the product, and they have ignored how the most viable route of action for the companies will be switching to non-GM ingredients solely because of the stigma attached to this label.

Government oversight is part of I-522. The government will have to foot the enforcement bill.

#7 – The claim that genetically modified crops haven’t been proven safe is a blatant lie. Over six hundred studies have been conducted on GM crops, and the scientific consensus is that GM crops are safe and no more dangerous than conventionally-grown crops.

Pre-market safety studies are quite definitely required! In addition to the FDA, the EPA and USDA frequently review new biotech crops. A very high level of testing is required for each new biotech crop – something that is not required of any other type of crops.

The next claim is false on two fronts. First of all, that was not the only long-term animal feeding study involving GM crops (more on this in a minute). Secondly, the study cited here (“Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize”) is an excellent example of junk science being used to push an agenda. You can read a full write-up on the issues with the study, Seralini’s connections to activist groups and the natural/organic foods industry, and other interesting details over at RationalWiki.

As for those other long-term feeding studies – here’s a meta-review of 24 long-term and multigenerational feeding studies.

The OCA then cites an except from the heavily biased report “GMO Myths and Truths”, which does a fine job of cherry-picking junk science from academic journals, but means very little in reality. I could waste time linking to refutation for every study in that list, but it would not be productive to do so. The simple lack of a biological mechanism for genetically engineered foods to cause many of these claimed effects is a major red flag.

#8 – The OCA as we noticed previously, the OCA is good at cherry-picking junk science. If you take their results at face value, you might think that organic food is more nutritious. But a meta-review of two hundred and forty assorted studies on organic food and nutritional content concluded that “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods”.

The “De Dell” report actually came from the marketing material of a company called “ProfitPro Ag”. It’s not from a scientific journal, and would likely never manage to make it into one, since the data is bogus. When the seed company got called out for this they pulled the marketing material PDF from their site and refused to reveal the source of their data.

#9 – Once again, the OCA fails to understand the pre-market testing mechanism used in the United States. This isn’t exactly a surprise, considering their willingness to pretend marketing material is a reputable source. What is surprising is that they ignored how the NAP report is based on hypothetical concerns and stressed that “greater scrutiny should be given to foods containing new compounds or unusual amounts of naturally occurring substances, regardless of the method used to create them.”

The linked list is composed mainly of political, quack, and environmental groups. There are only a few actually reputable/notable organizations in the linked list/mentioned in the article, and none of the reputable organizations appear to have the stance that GE foods are dangerous (which is supposably the point of this “lie”).

#10 – The Union of Concerned Scientist’ report on yield has many major flaws, detailed in the below refutations:

http://www.biofortified.org/2009/04/union-of-concerned-scientists-ge-crops-have-not-decreased-yields/
http://files.vkk.me/text/44be51cbe7487b62d837c9dfb7a20028160734d4.pdf
http://files.vkk.me/text/1e67a14f199469727f709f59dd46d9f35f69802b.pdf

The article “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest” has similar issues, but for slightly different reasons. Heinemann appears to have intentionally obscured the data by using misleading years in the report, and misrepresents the data in at least one other major way. Various other criticisms of his paper include his decision to cite the advocacy scientist Benbrook’s flawed paper (and rely heavily on this flawed data for his paper), differing environments in Europe vs the US, and complete omission of any discussion of the beneficial yield variability effects caused by GM crops.

#11 – Ironically, transgenic crops are anything but unnatural. Here’s some examples of this happening in “nature”: A quarter of the cow genome came from snakes, a segment of SPIN genes is present in seven different animal genomes, a virus infiltrates DNA, a fruit fly had the entire genome of a bacteria in it, aphids stole genes from fungi, sheep’s fescue borrowed a gene from a meadow grass, wasps use genes stolen from ancient viruses to make biological weapons, and gonorrhea borrowed human DNA.

Of course, horizontal gene transfer isn’t the only option. Have you ever heard of triticale? It’s an interesting grain frequently marketed as “natural” when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye – something that, unlike HGT, actually wouldn’t happen in nature. The first triticale hybrids were sterile, and it took breeders quite some time to figure out how to allow this plant to breed. And yet for some reason there’s no massive outrage over this.

And what could be more natural than spraying a plant with sodium azide in order to induce completely random mutations in the plant’s genome? If you get bored of that you can always switch to the other popular option, which is putting your plants next to a gamma ray source (such as cobalt-60). Over 3200 crops have been produced via these mutagenic breeding methods, yet none of these crops have had any safety testing or environmental testing performed on them (unlike GM crops, which have to pass a battery of tests before being approved).

Why exactly is GM considered unnatural when HGT is a rare but normal part of nature? And why is there no concern over crops produced by bombarding them with radiation or soaking them in toxic chemicals? Perhaps the basic issue is one of scientific literacy – which explains why prominent anti-biotech “scientist” Seralini is attempting to dumb down high school biology classes in France.

#12 – Food and Water watch is not a scientific source. The PDF is mostly fluff (graphics, useless text), and seems to mainly be rehashing Benbrook’s flawed data (addressed below). The usual junk science is cited, as well as the typical scare piece about “superweeds”. A good article on glyphosate use, weed resistance, and why the term “superweed” is so misleading can be found here: http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2013/05/superweed/

Next up we’ve got Charles Benbrook’s “study“.

Andrew Kniss, Assistant Professor, Weed Biology & Ecology at the University of Wyoming, ruthlessly tore apart Benbrook’s work over at his blog. I’ll summarize his findings here.

Basically, Benbrook did not have NASS data for cotton in the years 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2011; for soybeans he had nothing past 2006; and for corn he had nothing for the years 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2011. Instead of contacting private companies that track this sort of data and purchasing their data, he decided to “forecast” the data for these years.

To his credit, his data for cotton appears to be fairly accurate, as you can see below.

For corn, Benbrook estimates that herbicide use is increasing, despite the data showing a decline.

Last but definitely not least is the soybean data, where Benbrook forecasted five years of data based on only 11 years of observed data. I’ll let the graph speak for itself.

But Kniss’s investigation is by no means the only one. Anastasia Bodnar criticized his previous 2009 study (almost identical to his 2012 one) for Biofortified, and found some rather interesting things.

Benbrook failed to distinguish between herbicide tolerant and insect resistant plants, lumping them together under the generalized and highly misleading label of “GE Crops”. Benbrook also used the term GE crops multiple times when he should have referred to herbicide resistant crops.

Benbrook also completely ignored the relative environmental toxicity of glyphosate, which is far lower than many alternatives.

Benbrook also ignored the non-biotech herbicide resistant crops, despite how they’re just as relevant to herbicide use with resistant crops.

PG Economics also released a report on the study, where the study was criticized for a variety of reasons, including for overstating herbicide use by 63.4 million pounds (not exactly a small error!). Further criticisms included the failure to acknowledge environmental benefits from the herbicide resistant crops, a weak approach, and the already mentioned misleading use of NASS usage data.

Last but definitely not least, claiming an increase of pounds without reporting the changing market share of herbicide resistant crops is extremely misleading.

#13 – Biodiversity is a bit of a red herring in that it’s not unique to GM crops. You might as well be railing against conventional or even organic crops for reducing field diversity. Is it an issue? To some extent maybe, but it’s not a looming apocalypse, and GM crops are no more at fault than any other type of crop.

Super bugs are merely pesticide resistant insects. Pesticide resistance, like herbicide resistance, is unavoidable. However, good management practices can delay resistance for quite some time. The main tactic in place to slow or stop resistance is refuge areas – areas within a field filled with non-Bt seed, which makes resistance more difficult to develop. Only a few cases of resistant bugs have ever been reported. A good article on this subject can be found here.

An article on why superweeds aren’t so scary can be found here: http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2013/05/superweed/

The honey bee point is (yet another) straw man since neonicotinoids are not related to GM crops. The evidence that they’re at fault for CCD is also a bit flimsy, but this isn’t the article for that discussion.

Likewise, the frogs point is also a strawman – atrazine isn’t related to GM crops. The EPA concluded that conclusions could not be drawn from Hayes’ data, as well as the data from numerous other studies. The EPA then had Syngenta conduct a rigorous study on Atrazine, which was scrutinized by the EPA and declared sound. The study concluded that “long-term exposure of larval X. laevis to atrazine at concentrations ranging from 0.01 to 100 microg/l does not affect growth, larval development, or sexual differentiation”. Following their review of Syngenta’s study, the EPA concluded that atrazine does not adversely affect amphibian gonadal development, and no longer requires additional testing of atrazine on amphibians. Syngenta also released an extensive archive of emails from Tyrone Hayes received from a period going back to 2002, which contained obscene and ridiculous content. Here’s an article, as well as the emails, and a formal ethics complaint sent to UC Berkeley. Hayes appears to have also refused to share his data with the EPA, which is (obviously) a red flag. Independent research on Atrazine and amphibians had similar conclusions.

Birds and fish seem to be similar in that they’re straw man arguments. The OCA is holding up examples of various pesticides and pretending they apply to GM crops.

The Monarch point is actually relevant, but the science is flimsy and the loss of milkweed is a byproduct of agriculture.

The last point about Hawaii seems to be more fear than fact. Additionally, “theorganicprepper.ca” isn’t a reliable source.

Perhaps this article should be renamed “13 Truths GMO Labeling Opponents are Recycling in Washington State”. At least then it’d be accurate.

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