I know many people avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but I'd never heard of this. Although I am a bioscientist, I was unaware I had to avoid GMOs in the name of health, food security, and proper agriculture. According to its sponsor, the Non-GMO Project, all of October is a chance to "raise awareness about ... choosing non-genetically modified foods."
Genetically-modified food has been around for decades, and has been served trillions of times. Ninety percent of our corn was GMO in 2014. Am I missing something?
It wasn't just my scientific curiosity that had been piqued: The laissez-faire capitalist in me wondered: Product labeling should be done by private entities, and not by the government. Is the Non-GMO project an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) for genetically-modified food?
UL is a private organization which tests the safety of electrical appliances before allowing manufacturers to mark them with its label. Just as the manufacture of appliances is an example of division of labor, so is testing them. But UL has an established reputation, has been around longer than the Non-GMO Project, and appliances bearing its mark haven't been bursting into flames lately. How do we know the Non-GMO Project is -- or is not -- worthy of our trust?
UL and the Non-GMO Project are examples of the intellectual division of labor. Everyone appreciates that we can't all be farmers or laborers, but the same principle applies to expertise. We can't know everything any more than we can do everything: We have to rely on experts. And, while we may not have their expertise, there are rational methods for non-experts to choose experts.
Consider how you would choose a new mechanic. You might look for reviews, seek recommendations, or check certifications. When you finally meet them, you may get a feel for the kind of person they are.
However, after making our choice, we still understand that our lives and those of our loved ones are on the line, so we pay attention for any sign of incompetence, dishonesty, or simple error.
This is easy with cars, a century-old technology. However, the same principle applies to genetically-engineered foods. And it doesn't require a PhD in Molecular Biology to hire a GMO-expert any more than it requires an ASE certification to hire mechanic.
Thousands of companies have met the Non-GMO Project's requirements and bought the right to display its seal. On the strength of that, I visited the web site, and found the following:
Despite biotech industry promises, there is no evidence that any of the GMOs currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.
Every single one of these claims is false.
Hawaii has a papaya crop only thanks to GMOs, after a virus wiped out its original cultivar. Drought-tolerant GMO corn has been available in the US for close to a decade. The Philippines recently approved Golden Rice, which provides beta carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. Arctic apples are on sale in the US and Canada. They don't brown with exposure to air, making them more likely to be eaten by children who might otherwise waste them.
And these whoppers are couched in insinuations and innuendo that GMOs aren't safe, as if decades of study mean nothing, and businessmen aren't aware that killing their customers might put a dent in their business.
Speaking of Golden Rice, Reason Magazine recently reported:
A study by German researchers in 2014 estimated that activist opposition to the deployment of Golden Rice has resulted in the loss of 1.4 million life-years in just India alone. Since 2005, an estimated 14 million children worldwide have died of Vitamin A deficiency and an estimated 3.5 million to 7 million are permanently blind.
Technically, Golden Rice isn't on the market, yet. But does the Non-GMO Project not know that or does it not care? No matter: It's all you need to know.
There is clearly a need for a public better educated about GMOs: One poll showed that 80% of Americans think food that contains DNA should have warning labels. Nearly all food, GMO or not, contains DNA. The solution is for the consumer to seek out and identify the best sources of information. The Non-GMO Project, I am disappointed to say, isn't one of them.