by Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute

Mark Kastel

A commentary in the December 29 edition of the Wall Street Journal, by Julie Kelly, a prolific defender of the biotechnology industry and a self-identified suburban mom, cooking instructor, and accidental activist, claimed that in 2015 genetically engineered food made great progress despite “fear mongering” from the “culinary elite.”

Since the vast majority of U.S. citizens support informational labeling on food regarding its GMO (genetically modified organism) status, that’s a pretty sizable percentage of the population to refer to as the “elite.” Nonetheless, Kelly’s winning examples actually make a pretty compelling case for why consumers are uneasy with the technology and want the ability to choose:

  • Kelly lauds a newly approved chicken producing medicinal eggs, and transgenic goats and rabbits on the drawing board, whose genome will be altered to create “farmaceuticals.” These examples are pretty scary considering that a myriad of genetically altered crops, not approved for human consumption, have found their way into American diets. Will we be getting unintentional doses of drugs by eating breakfast? What will the health impacts be?
  • Kelly champions the recently approved genetically engineered salmon as well, with transgenic growth hormones spliced into its genome. Although this will not benefit consumers in terms of flavor or nutrition, the potential for inadvertent releases of these wild genetic mutants could, permanently, destroy the natural inventory of salmon when unintentional mating occurs. With that narrowing of the gene pool, it is not impossible that some catastrophic disease could collapse the entire fishery. GMO opponents accuse the industry of “playing God.”
  • Kelly also references the “Arctic Apple,” a new variety of fruit that will not bruise or turn brown when sliced. Although this apple is a great advance for the processed and food service industries, most consumers want to know when they are eating “old/degraded food.” We have evolved as a species to recognize off-flavors, off-smells, and off-colors in food to prevent ingesting spoiled and unhealthy plants and animals or those with less than optimum nutrition. She also touts similar genetic modifications in potatoes that will disguise bruising and browning as well.
  • And Kelly touts genetic modification that will resist respiratory disease in hogs or avian flu in poultry flocks. Outbreaks of these maladies, which have cost the livestock industry millions, are almost exclusively limited to giant, industrial-scale “factory farms” that confine thousands, or even millions, of animals on a single operation. Disease is the natural byproduct of the abhorrent living conditions these animals are subjected to while under constant stress. Just like the brown apples, these “advances” will allow us to eat sick animals that are being artificially kept alive — a taboo for most cultures dating back to pre-industrialized times.

At the end of her commentary,  Kelly shifts to a demagogic attack citing recent foodborne illnesses tied to the Chipotle restaurant chain. Although Chipotle has found success in the marketplace by being sensitive to their customers’ wishes for organic, GMO-free food, with a minimum of synthetic additives, any pathogenic contamination at their restaurants has nothing to do with, for example, whether the corn in their tortillas was genetically engineered. What a twisted and opportunistic argument: kicking a successful company while it’s down (neither Chipotle nor the FDA, to date, has been able to track the source of the contamination).

With no human health testing of GMOs, according to Dr. Michael Hansen at Consumers Union, and with most laboratory animal and livestock research not including lifelong analysis, there’s a good reason for consumers to practice the “precautionary principle,” as regulators in Europe do, by opting for food that has not been genetically engineered.

If Kelly and other proponents of genetic engineering feel there are societal benefits to applying the technology to our food supply, they should applaud those of us who seek to allow the free market to fully function with consumers weighing the pros and cons of labeled foods in grocery store aisles.

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