A Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29, contains a blockbuster: In sharp contrast to public skepticism about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.
That overwhelming consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who believe global warming is the result of human activity. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on climate change.
Some 57 percent of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don’t understand the science behind GMOs. Scientists blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.
The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a marginal pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”
A huge literacy gap between scientists and the public on biotechnology is one of the many disturbing nuggets that emerged from the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted in cooperation with the AAAS, the world’s largest independent general scientific society. The full study, released on January 29, is available here.
The eye opening take-away: The American population in general borders on scientific illiteracy. The gap between what scientists believe, grounded on empirical evidence, often sharply differs from what the general public thinks is true. The differences are sharpest over biomedical research, including GMOs.
- 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while only 37% of the public believes that’s true—a 51-percentage point gap
- 68% of scientists say it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared with 28% of citizens—a 40% gap.
- A 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research—89% of scientists favor it, while only 47% of the public backs the idea.
Last Wednesday the Massachusetts House defeated a bill to require the labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients. It should have been a crushing defeat. Instead, it was a rather narrow one — only 23 votes. On an issue that is not remotely a close call, 162 House members voted on the side unsupported by any evidence.
One of House Bill 660’s stated goals was to “(e)nable consumers to avoid the potential risks associated with genetically engineered foods…” What risks?
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” The World Health Organization has concluded. “In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration applies the same safety standards to all foods, whether genetically modified or not. The FDA is so unconcerned about GMO foods that its official position is that labeling is unnecessary. It supports voluntary, not mandatory, labeling.
Supporters say labels would give consumers more information
Jan 22, 2014
CONCORD, N.H. —Massachusetts’s House killed a bill Wednesday that would have required genetically modified foods to be labeled.
The House voted 185-162 to kill the bill, despite supporters’ argument that it’s time for states such as Massachusetts to lead on the issue regardless of the federal government’s position.
Supporters argued Massachusetts residents have a right to know whether their food is produced with genetic engineering, but critics said the federal Food and Drug Administration has not mandated the labeling because it determined the foods are safe.
“The reality is most of us are living every day with the benefits of genetic engineering,” said Rep. Linda Lauer, D-Bath.
She said for example, insulin has been genetically engineered since 1982. Prior to that, insulin was taken from the pancreas of farm animals, she said.
Lauer said the labeling required under the bill would not tell consumers what was in the food, only that it had been genetically engineered. She said the label wouldn’t provide accurate information about the foods. For example, genetically engineered beets are used to produce sugar, which is a pure chemical compound. Despite its purity, any foods containing the sugar would have to be labeled, she said.
But Rep. Peter Bixby, D-Dover, said people have a right to know if genetic engineering modified the foods.
“People are responsible for their own decisions, but to make those decisions, they need information,” he said.
But opponents said wary consumers could buy organic foods or foods labeled as not being genetically modified. They said the industry is beginning to respond to consumers’ wishes for genetically engineered foods to be labeled.
“The market will solve this problem. It moves a little slow, but it will solve the problem,” said Rep. Robert Haefner, R-Hudson.
We are members of the Environment & Agriculture Committee that studied House Bill 660, the bill to require the labeling of genetically modified foods, this past year. After 19 meetings during which we investigated every aspect of the bill in exhaustive detail, both of us voted against the mandatory labeling of foods made with genetic engineering. We’d like to share with you the reasons why.
First, there has been no credible scientific study that proves that there is any material difference between GMO and non-GMO foods. No nutritional difference. No health safety difference. In fact, we have all been eating foods made with genetic engineering for more than 20 years. To that end, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations state that requiring the labeling of foods that are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods would mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist.
Second, many legal experts tell us that this labeling bill is unconstitutional. Requiring food companies to label their products when there is no health or safety reason to do so fails the state interest test, undermines commercial free speech and violates interstate commerce. The court challenges that would likely follow passage of a GMO labeling bill would prove a backbreaking financial burden to our inadequate state general fund. When we were sworn in as state representatives, we took an oath to uphold the Constitution. We would be breaking that oath were we to vote for this unconstitutional bill.
Third, the bill is unenforceable. Our over-extended Health and Human Services Department, which will be charged with the administration and enforcement of this bill, has no experience in food labeling and estimates the costs to enact the bill will be anywhere from $125,000 to $550,000 per year. Once again, who is going to pay for this?
And finally, product labeling is a federal — not a state — responsibility. The FDA determines what information needs to be present on our food labels, not to satisfy consumer curiosity, but for our health and safety. They, along with the American Medical Association, the National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization and other trusted scientific organizations have all come out in support of foods made with genetic engineering, stating that foods made with this process are as healthy and nutritious as their conventional counterparts
Over the past year, voters in California and Washington have defeated GMO labeling bills. Let your representatives know that you think Massachusetts should do the same.
Rep. Tara Sad, D-Walpole, is chairman of the House Environment & Agriculture Committee. Rep. Bob Haefner, R-Hudson, is ranking minority member of the committee.
Science, politics clash over GMOs
Science isn’t perfect, but studying the universe and reaching conclusions based on facts, observation and experiments is one of our best tools for fighting ignorance.
To its credit, science usually seems to get things right in the long run.
If we let it.
Unfortunately, factions in the political arena too often attempt to bend science to their collective will.
For instance, there is a strong scientific consensus that human activity has caused global warming, which has serious long-term consequences for the planet. Liberals scoff when skeptics question whether climate change is real and respond with something akin to, “It’s the science, stupid.”
That’s fair enough, but if they’re going to cite science when the facts line up to support their viewpoints, it seems only reasonable that they be obligated to do the same when the research trends in the opposite direction on other issues.
In that light, it’s understandable why some scientists, in a recent New York Times article, expressed frustration with their traditional liberal allies over the issue of genetically modified food.
The best research to date has found that such food isn’t harmful to people and that genetically modified crops have saved millions from starving in third-world nations. That, however, hasn’t stopped those who oppose GMOs from using scare tactics and horror stories, and pegging any scientist who says GMOs are safe as being a shill for food manufacturers.
In rejecting the science that says GMOs are not harmful, supporters of GMO labeling are guilty of the same things for which they criticize those who reject scientific evidence of climate change. It’s the old, “don’t confuse me with facts, I’ve already made up my mind,” approach that permeates so much of politics today.
That debate has been ringing in Massachusetts for the past several months, and now the Massachusetts House is scheduled to consider a bill this week that would require any food sold in the state that contains a generically modified element – and that’s about 75 percent of them – to carry a GMO label.
The recommendation coming out of committee is to kill the labeling bill. Those in the majority believe it would be too expensive, unenforceable and would unfairly attach a stigma to any product that carried the GMO label.
Proponents of labeling say, in effect, that the public has a right to know if GMO poisons are in their food. We’d agree with that, perhaps, if there was some actual scientific proof that GMOs are harmful.
Instead, the labeling argument rests on the assumption that genetically modified food may be harmful and consumers, therefore, should be warned off from buying any product that is so modified.
The problem is, “may” is far too weak a standard for making such sweeping public policy decisions.
We don’t trust industrial food giants like Monsanto not to maximize profit at the expense of public safety, and we don’t particularly trust the Food and Drug Administration to properly regulate the food supply, either, located as it is at the nexus of science and politics.
Clearly, the issue of genetic engineering – especially to our food supply – is one that warrants ongoing scrutiny, but dismissing the technology out of hand, and out of ignorance, is shortsighted when it has the potential to do so much good in an underfed world.
Times are tight for a lot of people in Massachusetts, especially at this time of year. But a bill before the Massachusetts Statehouse (HB 660) will make it harder for struggling families to make ends meet because it will directly impact the cost of food, at the grocery store and in restaurants.
HB 660 will force food manufacturers and restaurants to label their products if they contain genetically engineered, or modified, organisms (GMOs). You may have heard of GMOs, because there’s a vocal group of people who are concerned about the effects of GMOs, even though their concerns are completely unfounded. Hundreds of exhaustive scientific studies have been done and the data proves GMOs pose no health risks. That’s why the FDA, the American Medical Society, and the World Health Organization, just to name a few, all support GMOs.
If HB 660 passes, it will be impossible for restaurants to comply with the labeling requirements. As any chef will tell you, restaurants are at the mercy of the supply chain with regard to raw products and ingredients they buy. For most of our members, menu items are made by hand, and many times a dish is customized at the customer’s request. Naturally, this leads to huge variation in the ingredients and make-up of any particular dish listed on a menu. For example, imagine a restaurant on a busy night – the chef starts the night working with non-GMO tomatoes, but in the middle of dinner service he runs out of those tomatoes. He’s forced to switch to tomatoes that have GMOs. He may have intended to serve non-GMO tomatoes all night, but he is at the mercy of his produce company, which only had GMO tomatoes available. Are we now asking the chef to halt his dinner service and reprint his menus to comply with this new proposed regulation? I know most customers get very upset if their food takes a little too long to be served on a busy night – imagine the backlash if dinner service stopped until the menus are reprinted.
The House Environment and Agriculture Committee has recommended that legislators not approve a bill (House Bill 660) to require the labeling of food that contains genetic modifications. Common sense prevailed in the committee, and it should in the House.
Supporters of labeling claim that it is about informing the public. That is not so. It is about pressuring producers into dropping GM foods. And that movement is driven not by science, but by hysteria.
The committee saw that the bill had numerous flaws. It would have made food more expensive and harmed local retailers. And it would not have provided reliable information for consumers.
A label reading “Genetically Engineered” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” would have been required for any food made with (but not necessarily still containing) any portion of a genetically engineered ingredient. What does that tell the consumer? Next to nothing. A fruit containing the genes of another variety of the same fruit would get the same label as a vegetable containing animal genes or genes from, say, a nut. But no one would know which is which. Some help.
The real goal was not to alert people to allergens or animal genes. It was to frighten people into thinking their food was unsafe. The committee was right to vote against this fear-mongering.
Read Full Article . . .
On Nov. 6, the Massachusetts House Committee on Environment and Agriculture dealt a blow to an effort in Massachusetts to require the labeling of genetically modified foods or foods that contain GMOs.
To read more click here
On November 7, 2013, the Massachusetts House Environment and Agriculture Committee voted down HB 660, a bill requiring foods sold in Massachusetts derived from genetically modified ingredients to be labeled. The committee voted 12-8 against “Ought To Pass” on an amended version of HB 660 and 13-7 against “Ought To Pass” on the original version of HB 660. The original bill now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives with “Inexpedient To Legislate (ITL)” recommendation by the Committee where the chamber is expected to consider HB 660 and any possible amendments in early January 2014. For more information about HB 660, please click here.
Here is an article from the Monitor describing what happened on November 7th.
Divided N.H. House panel recommends rejecting GMO labeling bill
By BEN LEUBSDORF
Thursday, November 7, 2013
(Published in print: Friday, November 8, 2013)
A House committee yesterday dealt a blow to the effort to require special labels on food sold in Massachusetts if it’s the product of genetic engineering.
On a 12-8 vote, the House Environment and Agriculture Committee recommended the full House kill a bill that would require food products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to be labeled as such.
Critics said the bill could be expensive to enforce, might be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional and addresses an issue that’s more properly handled by the federal government.
Some committee members also said claims by GMO skeptics that such products carry significant health risks may be overblown.
“I think that for Massachusetts to mandate labeling at this point in time is a rush to judgement. . . . Scientists will tell you that there has been no hard, fast evidence that genetically engineered products are causing the diseases and allergies and cancers that we’re afraid of,” said Rep. Jane Johnson, a Swanzey Republican. “I’m not in support of this bill. I think that we need to trust the consumer to be educated and make their own choices.”
GMO labels fail to convince voters
A raucous, pummeling campaign over labels for GMO foods failed to impress voters in most Washington counties.
Seattle Times Editorial
SCARY talk about genetically engineered food failed to convince Washington voters.
The labeling of selective food products at the heart of Initiative 522 was never just about Washington. After losses in California and Oregon, there was intense interest in a win.
Putting what amounts to a warning on the front of packaging about genetically modified organisms is a movement without much movement. Two states in New England passed labeling laws, but they are contingent upon their neighbors following suit.
The language of Washington’s initiative sought to conspicuously label, starting in July 2015, raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, seeds and seed stocks as genetically engineered.
Indeed the campaign about GMOs was about processes, not science, health, quality or nutrition.
The campaign for labeling regulations defied the reality that these products exist and are deemed healthy by regulatory authorities, scientists and scholars.
As a September editorial in Scientific American noted, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not.”
Conventional crops often require more water and pesticides than GMOs do, the article noted. These are conditions that increase the price of non-GMO foods, for a dubious gain.
Initiative 522 was an emotional muddle, with no clear sense of the message conveyed, or the breadth of consequences to follow. What was presented to voters would be launched in 2015, with labeling strictures increased again in 2019.
It was an idea, a concept that was not well-defined or explained, especially regarding the potential cost to shoppers and their food budgets.