A major new CAST study purports to be the ‘final word’ on whether we have to keep arguing over genetic engineering. But its recommendations need to go in the exact opposite direction.

There are plenty of hotly contested issues facing animal agriculture. But of all the polarizing debates over animal welfare, food safety or vegetarian diets, none seem to evoke more confusion among consumers than GMO labeling.

Some of the most sensible, otherwise intelligent people I know have a blind spot big enough to drive a Peterbilt through when it comes to the genetic engineering of food crops.

Activists have managed to stoke that confusion and generate genuine fear over GMOs based on three perceived problems (in ascending order): 

  • The fallout from repeated use of Roundup- or pother herbicide-resistant varieties of food crops, ie, “super weeds” are going to destroy farming;
  • The impact of ingesting “foreign” proteins in foods made with GMO ingredients, ie, GMOs are going to kill you; and
  • The rise of corporate control over the seeds essential to maintain agricultural productivity, ie, Monsanto is the new Dow Chemical.

That last bullet point is what stokes the visceral hatred toward GMOs and drives the fundraising essential to conducting the (so far failed) state referenda that would mandate labeling. What fires up activists and a heck of a lot of other folks is less about nebulous effects of genetically engineered crops on the environment, or even on one’s health, and more about fear and loathing over the potential of Big Ag to control who grows which crops and what kind of foods people will be allowed to eat.

Why rational arguments don’t work

Enter CAST, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, with a new position paper purporting to represent the final word on the validity on genetic engineering.

Nice try.

Don’t get me wrong: CAST is a highly respected, thoroughly professional group of some of the top researchers, scientists and academicians in the country. However, making the “scientific “argument to support a complex technology few people outside of the biotech community truly understand is the equivalent of pointing out that getting killed in a car crash is a lot more likely than dying in an airliner explosion — then expecting everyone to just chill out on terrorism.

Likewise, if the esteemed CAST panelists really believe their analysis to be the final word on GMOs, they’re kidding themselves. For proof, here are the report’s key summary statements:

  1. There is no scientific reason to single out GE foods and feed for mandatory process-based labeling.
  2. Mandatory GMO labeling [would] abandon the traditional U.S. practice of providing for consumer food preferences through voluntary product differentiation and labeling.
  3. Market-driven voluntary labeling measures are already providing consumers with non-GE choices.

The implication of these “pronouncements” is that distinguished scientists have examined the research, reviewed the technology and concluded that the debate should now cease. The case is closed and no further arguments are needed about the validity of genetic engineering.

Of course, that’s not remotely the situation on the ground, so let’s address those bullet points in order.

Statement No. 1: Yes, it’s true that the science doesn’t support mandatory GMO labeling. But how many diehard anti-GMO activists are scientists themselves? More to the point, how many activists and media people actually understand how biotechnology works? And even if they did, no matter how persuasive the CAST panel believes its arguments to be, do they really think that millions of Frankenfood-phobes are suddenly going to start saying, “You know, after reading that report on ‘The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods,’ I’m now convinced that GMOs are totally safe, and we don’t need to bother with any costly labeling laws. Thank you, CAST members!”

Even in a parallel universe, that’s never going to happen.

Statement No. 2: Are you serious? When was that magical era when food labeling was “traditionally” done only by the manufacturer, on a voluntary basis, as they saw fit? Anyone heard of COOL? Or nutrition labeling? They weren’t part of any “voluntary product differentiation” process.

Statement No. 3: Incorrect and backwards. Yes, there are a few isolated product lines whose marketers have begun to experiment with voluntary “non-GMO” labeling. However, it’s hardly universal, nor do those scattered non-GMO brands represent real consumer choice.

But here’s the larger point. If the food industry (and CAST) has the goal of eventually convincing a majority of Americans that genetic engineering represents sound science being applied to foster genuine consumer benefits, then every package of non-GMO-labeled product that’s chosen by those same consumers represents a vote against safe, scientifically supported food production technology.

When shoppers decide that, all things being equal, they’d prefer a food product not manufactured with GMO ingredients, that isn’t a signal to insist there’s no need for mandatory labeling. Such a hollow argument not only doesn’t sway people to view biotechnology more favorably, it’s proof that, in fact, they do not consider GMOs to be safe.

There’s only one way to convince consumers that genetic engineering is merely the application to food production of the same high-tech and sound science we heartily embrace in telecomm or computing developments, and it's a two-pronged strategy.

First, the scientific community, public-sector research institutions and nonprofit funding sources need to devote significant resources to the prompt and substantive development of GE crops that actually benefit consumers, ie, offering better nutrition, more flavor or added convenience. Golden Rice is a start, and plenty of people are favorably disposed to the idea that children in the developing world might be spared the ravages of severe nutritional deficiencies through genetic engineering.

But that’s the Third World, not the world in which Americans live.

Unless and until the biotech community and the major food processors introduce GE foods that can be marketed as better for you and better for the environment, the “Frankenfoods” fantasy will continue to thrive.

And second, the food industry needs to begin voluntary pro-GMO labeling. Instead of “genetically engineered,” GE needs to mean “genetically enhanced.”

If genetic engineering is safe (and it is); if it’s needed as a tool to enhance agricultural productivity (and it is); and if the technology is ever going to be accorded mainstream acceptance — which is the only way to end the campaigning for mandatory labeling — then food manufacturers need to put their packaging where their principles are.

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