Food industry is misleading the public about GMOs ion food

Letter to the Food Industry from a Frustrated Registered Dietitian

Using fear to sell food isn’t right and it may hurt you more than your customers in the long run

Dear food industry,

We have been working together for years – decades actually – and I have not felt the need to write to you until now. Even though our relationship hasn’t always been easy, I think we both realize we get the best results when we work together. That has generally meant I educate the public about food and nutrition for good health and you provide food choices to meet their needs. Deliberately misleading consumers was never part of the arrangement. So my question is this: Why are you using non-GMO claims as a marketing ploy?

We both know that GMO, or genetically modified organism for those who don’t, refers to crops developed through genetic engineering. Farmers think of it as another form of plant breeding, and that’s what I tell consumers it is. I also tell them it helps farmers get the best yields on the smallest amount of land using the fewest inputs (fertilizer, weed and pest control, water, etc.) so they can grow enough food to feed us all. And since we’re relying on just 2% of the entire U.S. population to grow all of our food, it makes sense to let those hard working farmers use all of the tools in their tool shed.

Farmers need to use every tool in their tool shed

Farmers have always relied on plant breeding to improve their crops

We both also know genetic engineering is a safe, thoroughly tested technology that has been used in food crops for over 20 years, but did you know it was used to make drugs before it was used for food? Genetically modified bacteria first produced insulin in 1976 and has been saving lives ever since. The first genetically modified foods didn’t come on the market in the U.S. until 1995.

What I can’t understand is why you would want to make GMOs look like something that should be avoided when you proudly sell so many other wholesome foods that are made with GMO crops?  It sends a mixed message to consumers when they see foods with GMO-free claims on their grocery store shelves right next to other foods without those claims. Even worse is when you pay to put a Non-GMO Project Verified seal on foods that couldn’t contain GMOs in the first place since they aren’t made with any of the eight GMO plants that humans eat (apples, canola, corn, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets). That means putting GMO-free claims on foods like canned tomatoes, wheat pasta, and olive oil is simply deceptive since all tomatoes, wheat and olive oil are GMO-free. And putting the claim on products that don’t even have genetic material, like salt and water, is absurd.

I hope you can see how this makes my job more difficult.

Fortunately, it looks like the Food and Drug Administration is going to take a closer look at the misuse of these claims. If they take action that will stop you from falsely suggesting that products with a GMO-free claim are safer, more nutritious, or are otherwise better than comparable products without the claim, and it will certainly ease my burden.  Plus it will save consumers all the money they now pay for the inflated prices you charge for these products.

There are no GMO oranges even though some brands of orange juice say they are GMO-free

Oranges are being wiped out by a bacterial disease that could be controlled by genetic engineering

There is one more reason why you may want to rethink your misuse of these claims. Food manufacturers might actually need GMO crops one day to continue making some of their bestselling brands. Isn’t it short-sighted to sabotage that possibility? I’m sure you’re familiar with the crisis Florida orange growers are facing due to a widespread bacterial disease that causes Citrus Greening. The use of biotechnology could save the orange juice industry, but that will present a problem for the companies with non-GMO claims all over their OJ (even though GMO oranges do not exist). If the only option available for them to stay in business is to use disease-resistant oranges made from genetically modified trees, they will have to drop the non-GMO claims on their juice. I can only imagine how confused their loyal customers will be when that happens.

Now that I’ve brought this issue to your attention I hope you will make amends so we can resume the cooperative working relationship we’ve had for so long. We certainly wouldn’t want to have to modify that.

 

science communications

Talking Science with Alan Alda to Feed the World

Many of us who grew up watching network television in the 1970s regularly tuned to the hit series, M*A*S*H. It was a witty, romantic “comedy-drama” set in a US Army Mobile Surgical Hospital in South Korea during the Korean War. Since we had no way to record the weekly episodes, we had to build our lives around watching it when it aired so we wouldn’t miss a zany moment in the lives of the beloved characters the show brought into our lives. One of them was Surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce played by actor Alan Alda in all 256 episodes that spanned 11 seasons. You’d think you‘d really get to know a guy after spending that much time together for so many years, but what I didn’t know until last week is that Alan Alda’s television surgeon was actually a science nerd in real life.

On July 31, 2019, I attended a program sponsored by the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) about agriculture and food security issues around the world. The event was titled, “Justice, Evidence, Urgency: GMOs in a Changing World” and Alan Alda gave the opening remarks. While the topic was certainly of interest to me, hearing what Hawkeye had to say was also an incentive to attend.

Alda told us that after M*A*S*H ended he went on to host the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, where he got to interview some of the most interesting scientists in the world. In that format, he said scientists spoke about their work the same way a novelist writes a great story. They would describe a protagonist and antagonist in their work or a hero and some obstacles, and that’s what made the show so engaging. That is also when he realized the reason most people don’t love science the way he does is because most people don’t understand what scientists are talking about. The solution, he decided, was to make scientists better communicators. So he established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in 2009.

The Alda Center “empowers scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and others outside their own discipline.”  Located at Stony Brook University on Long Island, the workshops offered at the Center have trained thousands of scientists and doctors in improvisational techniques, known as The Alda Method®, with the goal of helping trainees connect with their audiences in a more personal way. Sound too good to be true? There’s more.

science communications

Justice. Evidence. Urgency. Inspiring a Climate for Change

A similar and equally innovative program developed at CALS is the Alliance for Science – a global initiative for science-based communications.  Started with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the objective of the Alliance is to change the conversation around crop biotechnology. One way they do that is through their Global Leadership Fellows program. It offers 12 weeks of intensive training to international “fellows” on the Cornell University Ithaca campus to empower them with the tools and skills they need to defend science and improve access to scientific innovation in their home countries.

The director of the Alliance for Science, Dr. Sarah Evanega, started the story-telling portion of the evening by sharing what inspired her to leave the lab at Cornell where she was conducting research for her doctorate in plant biology, and lead the fellows program. Like Alda, she said she felt what she was doing didn’t matter to most people because they couldn’t understand the science. Working on science communications became her passion.

International science fellows talk science

Alliance for Science international global leadership fellows

Evanega then introduced the three guest speakers on the program, all from Africa and recipients of   science communications training at Cornell. Each told her very personal and impassioned story about how their farms, their livelihoods, and their families have been impacted by problems that good science can solve. Whether it is drought, lack of pesticides, poor soil, or plant disease, low yields leave them without enough food to feed their children or make enough money to send them to school. All they want, each said, is social justice for smallholder farmers in the developing world and access to innovations that can bring them food security.

Their stories were very powerful and very effectively explained the science that stood between them and their prosperity. I can only hope they will be heard loud and clear beyond the confines of that room.