Walk through a grocery store – especially a health food store – and you’ll see all kinds of labeling which is mostly about marketing. A label appeals to people so that they will buy the product. Fine. A company wants to sell its products. I get that. But what’s going on now is creating misinformation and flat-out ignorance of actual reality. False ideas and impressions are created and magnified. And as a society, we are stupider for it. Here are my top three examples.
Somehow some people thought it was really creepy to change the genes of an organism in a laboratory, and that practice was so not “natural” that the result would be a dangerous open Pandora’s box. Frankenfood!! That point of view spread like a virus especially among liberal environmental activists (of which I have a history). Turns out, after decades of producing GMOs and studying the results, the world’s scientific community has a strong consensus that GMOs are as safe as anything else we could eat. See here for example.
Yet people are freaking out, thinking that eating GMOs will make us all get allergies, get sick, kill us, and it’s all a plot from Monsanto who has bought and paid for the US government, and on and on. That’s complete conspiracy theory rubbish for which there is no evidence. Check this out for example. Some countries, fueled by well-intentioned liberal environmentalists (like me), have banned GMOs. And most everywhere in the world, there is a movement to label them, in spite of excellent reasons not to (see this).
So, along comes the Non-GMO Verified Project. What a pain in the butt this well-intentioned, but totally misinformed organization is turning out to be. They’re slapping their label on everything possible and everything imaginable. What many people don’t realize is that to date only a few crops have been genetically engineered. Those include cotton, papaya, corn, soy, zucchini, alfalfa, canola, sugar beets. So the Non-GMO Verified Project will slap their label on peanut butter and coconut oil and lots of products that literally have no GE versions on the entire planet.
Given that there is no GMO peanut anywhere on Earth, why does a jar of peanut butter need the Non-GMO Verified Project seal of approval on it? Answer: The whole point of labeling GMOs is to jack up the fear so high in the minds of the public, that GMOs will get banned everywhere. Fear is jacked up by implying the false impression that there is a GE version of every single food on Earth (and since they are dangerous, those are to be avoided). That’s why a product with no GE version is labeled non-GMO. False impressions abound; and that’s nothing but ignorance. And it’s ignorance that keeps the fear hype jacked up.
The labeling activity of the Non-GMO Verified Project is downright irresponsible. It’s fueling a movement against a technology which has scientific support on par with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and greatly contributed to by humans. If you go into a health food store, it’s hard to find anything – even foods that are not organic – that don’t have the Non-GMO Verified Project label on it. This is pseudoscience, fear-mongering, and ignorance creating bullshit.
Gluten Free Foods
The second worse labeling craze that is getting out of hand is the gluten free movement. Yes, there is a tiny percentage of the population with a very real condition called celiac’s disease. Yet millions of people are avoiding gluten when there is no reason to do so. And, gluten is only found in grains such as wheat (including spelt, kamut, triticale), barley, and rye.
So, here comes the labeling. You can walk into a grocery store and see gluten free marked on dairy products! And there’s gluten free potato chips! By labeling everything possible that is gluten free as gluten free, there is a false impression created that gluten is something to avoid. For the overwhelming vast majority of people, avoiding gluten will make you feel better no more so than any sort of placebo.
If pasta is typically made with wheat, then fine, label pasta made with rice or quinoa as gluten free. But please, don’t label a can of pinto beans or a tub of sour cream as gluten free. Could we have some education please?
Just what does it mean if a food has the organic label on it? Lots of people will say that the food was produced without pesticides. Wrong. Start here with the Wikipedia article. Organic farming uses “natural” pesticides rather than synthetic pesticides. “Natural” is not necessarily less toxic. Here and here are articles about organic pesticide use. Scientists looking into this have found that the natural pesticides are often less effective than the synthetic ones, and then they have to be used in greater amounts. Shockingly – and I’ve been a consumer of organic food for decades – it’s not even clear that organic foods are healthier, tastier, or better for the environment. Here is a myth busting article. I, for one among millions, have been under the impression that an organic label means pesticide free, more nutritious, and better for the environment than conventional food. With more education, I now say: not necessarily.
I don’t even mean to bash organic here. Organic farming has some good attributes, e.g. crop rotations and other practices (which actually could be done by any farmer). But because of what the public believes about organic (which is full of false impressions), the label therefore will do nothing more than perpetuate the false impressions. Everything organic does isn’t necessarily the best, and some things organic isn’t allowed to do could very well be better environmentally.
All of us want healthy, tasty food that was produced with the lowest environmental impact possible. Let’s educate ourselves about how our food is produced and where it comes from. The job of feeding 7+ billion people in a world (projected to be 9 billion by 2050) with climate change will not be done without pesticides. Period. And the best way to do something will vary by the geographic location and the crop. ALL of our available tools need to be used – organic, conventional, GMO – depending on the crop and the place and the conditions. Tools could and perhaps should be combined for a particular situation.
There’s no reason that organic couldn’t include using GMOs. Conventional farmers could use some organic practices but use a more benign synthetic pesticide. GMOs have actually reduced land use and reduced pesticide use among other benefits according to this meta-analysis. This is an achievement.
Food production is a very complex thing. It is not served by black-and-white, overly simplistic, and (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading tactics, chief among which is labeling. Check out what the people who really know what they’re talking about – scientists and farmers – have to say. Putting organic up on an underserved pedestal and trashing GMOs are not helping the cause of being responsible planetary citizens.