Follow Up Thoughts on The Death Throes of the Anti-GMO Movement


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Marc BrazeauMarc Brazeau | Editor | Food and Farm Discussion Lab | @eatcookwrite

[This is an addendum to a series of 5 predictions for what to watch in 2108]

A friend wrote to me in response to The Death Throes of the Anti-GMO Movement with concerns that echoed other push back against the case I made.

Your recent article was very well written (as always) and made many very good points. I just wish I could be as optimistic.

I see the broad produce industry acquiescence to the non-GMO label as a huge issue. It feeds into the pathologically warped modern food ethos that has convinced most consumers that “you should buy your food for what it is not.” Think “gluten-free” or “fat free” or “zero antibiotics” (which I have recently learned means more dead animals in the production system). We are a sick society

You have clearly documented why consumers should reject the non-GMO thing, but where is the evidence that they are getting that message? Why would they get that when they see support for non-GMO in the store from the very industries that could most benefit from biotech (e.g. citrus, olives, grapes, potatoes……) In the stores in the affluent area where I live, I am often hard-pressed to be able to buy food that isn’t organic or non-GMO labeled. My rich neighbors have no idea what they are being induced to buy by companies profiting off of indistinct “fear” that has been created in their minds.

I think the basic issue is that label claims are so far from truth-telling and any sort of regulatory oversight that consumers are defenseless, particularly in the internet age when “information” overwhelms “knowledge.” That is what I call the “Dark Ages 2.0”

Again, I’d love to share your optimism. I really hope your vision of the future is more accurate than mine

This was my response fleshed out a bit more.

I’m making a more narrow argument in that piece – actors like Kimbrell, Jeffry Smith, Seralini, Vandana Shiva, Gary Ruskin are going to have increasing difficulty passing themselves off as legitimate voices that need to be included in “balanced” reporting on the issues.


Protesting Vandana Shiva at Willamette University Salem, OR in 2016. Nobody was protesting her appearances five years ago. We got her again in 2017 in Eugene at Lane Community College.

Major voices toppled from respectable platforms

One thing that got cut for space was the ouster of ideologues from mainstream platforms. Douglas Gurian-Sherman is out as the senior staff scientist for Food and Environment at Union of Concerned Scientists. Worked briefly for the Center for Food Safety, an organization with far less stature and clearly seen as anti-GMO by journalists looking for a quote, while the Union of Concerned Scientists is seen as much more as an honest broker on contentious issues (opinions differ on whether that reputation is warranted, but that’s another matter). These days, Gurian-Sherman seems to be without a platform, with byline bios referring to him as an independent consultant. Margaret Mellon, the anti-GMO founder and director of their Food and Environment program left around the same time and also appears to be without a platform. Likewise Carey Gilliam, whose slanted reporting on Monsanto and RoundUp was a black eye for Reuters for years, was finally shown the door and is now working for US Right to Know rather than passing here propaganda off as legitimate reporting for Reuters. Her replacement, Kate Kelland has delivered two major bombshells on manipulation of the IARC report on glyphosate.

Non-GMO Label: A threat to progress or passing fad?

I agree that the explosion of No GMOs labels over the last year has been disheartening, I think they are more salient and irritating to biotech advocates then they are actually impactful. That is, “our side” is paying attention to them in the grocery store a lot more than the consumers choosing them.   I see that “achievement” as the anti-GMO movement’s swan song. What moves do they have left? They are running out of political footballs.

While I hate seeing those labels added to the jumble of hazy, misleading health labels, I don’t see them as embodying any real anti-GMO sentiment in most consumers who gravitate towards them. They are a mile wide and an inch deep fad. It’s just the latest label people are reaching for to vaguely symbolize quality/authentic/natural than any animus or real fear over biotech.

And they are cheap for the companies, especially those that self-certify. One stat I saw, and I’ve lost the link but it rings true – is that half of Non-GMO labels are on organic products – which is redundant, both in the information it signals and as a marketing tool. And another 25% is for products that don’t have an GE counterpart. Of the 25% that actually represents a shift in production practices, a good chunk of that comes from farmers who are not using GE seeds because they have low pest pressures and don’t need them or are using BASF’s Clearfield seed/herbicide combo in a rotation with RoundUp Ready, so they sell into the non-GMO market if the premium is decent. So the amount of cropping/pest management impacts is minimal, a small sliver of a small market.

UPDATE: The 50% number comes from this report.

The market abhors a vacuum. Maybe more than nature.

More importantly, and more to the point of my piece, I don’t see a channel where that vague consumer drift towards a non-GMO label converts into impacting lobbying efforts around the regulatory approval process. Instead, what I’m seeing and described in the piece, though should have made more explicit, is that the the capacity of the anti-GMO movement to affect the public debate or muster grassroots lobbying is waning, not growing – while the capacity of our side has grown by leaps and bounds.

What IS troubling to me is the continued lack of some legitimate evidence and metrics based eco/conservation label. I think as long as that vacuum exists, someone will fill it with something and consumers don’t necessarily care what it is. Advocates of modern farming need to put forward an aspirational vision – and label – of reform and environmental excellence so consumers wanting to vote with the dollars for healthier, environmentally friendly food have somewhere to go.

But my feeling is that the No GMOs label is a fad that will fade, especially as we get more Innate potatoes, Arctic Apples, synbio aspects into plant meats and dairy on the market, and mainstream coverage of synbio and gene editing continue to be upbeat and downplay controversy. I really do think was are entering a turning point. Whether it will be more fully realized by the end of this year … we’ll have check back in a year.

[The full series of 5 predictions of what to watch in 2018 can be found here. ]

 [Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. Or make a one time donation via PayPal. ]


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