Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 movie stated, “It is a huge mistake to theorize before one has data. Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit to theories instead of theories to suit facts.” When one forms theories before having the data, one grows attached to one’s “dearies” and increases risk of confirmation bias.
The March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine features an article with an ostensible intent to help consumers “sift through the facts” about the purported health and environmental effects of genetically modified organism (GMOs). Unfortunately, the article cites theories that lack supporting facts and in the end only adds to the fog surrounding modern biotechnology.
For instance, Consumers Union opines that, “the jury is still out on the health impact of GMOs.” The jury of public opinion may be out, but the overwhelming conclusion of scientific experts is clear: Every major scientific body in the United States and around the world has reviewed independent research and concluded that genetically engineered crops and food are as safe as those developed by conventional methods.
Consumers Union claims that animal studies “have suggested that GMOs might cause damage to the immune system, liver, and kidneys,” but they fail to support their allegation with a single study. I endeavor to read every study that is touted as showing GMO risk. I have yet to find a single one that indicates a risk different than with conventionally bred varieties.
The column describes recent attempts by U.S. states to require GMO labeling and repeats a misleading mantra, "shoppers have a right to know what’s in their food.” GMO labeling reveals nothing about what is in a food. Genetic engineering is a breeding method not an end product. Rather, to the degree that people believe GMO labeling reveals something about what is in their food, GMO labeling is misleading.
The article did point out an interesting twist to the labeling debate. The food companies strongly opposed to mandatory GMO labeling also produce non-GMO products. Consumer Reports seems so surprised that companies would produce what people are willing to pay for that they missed the importance of the fact — people already have the choice to buy GMO or non-GMO. Consumers can buy organic (which cannot contain GMOs) or products with voluntary “Non-GMO" labeling.
The article concludes that mandatory GMO labeling schemes would add “less than a penny a day” to most grocery bills. This conclusion is based on an assumption that food producers would simply add “GMO” to existing labels with no change in product formulation. This is a naïve assumption considering the expected negative consumer reaction. Many misperceive mandatory GMO labeling as validation of theories about risk. When it is assumed many products will be reformulated to avoid GMO ingredients, other studies put the estimated cost increase for a family of four at $400 to $800 per year.
The Consumer Reports' economic analysis is also superficial because it ignores how the details of a GMO labeling law would affect the costs. For example, a GMO-labeling exemption for organically produced foods could magnify the increase in food costs to consumers. In typical recently proposed GMO-labeling laws, organic food would be exempt from GMO labeling if it contains inadvertent GMO content. Whereas with nonorganic, non-GMO labeled products, companies would face legal repercussions if testing reveals misbranding even if due to inadvertent content. This would likely drive up the cost of non-GMO labeled food because food companies would choose more expensive organic ingredients to avoid potential liabilities (Van Eenennaam). Oh, and this would also benefit organic growers, who are major sponsors of these laws. But I am sure that is just a coincidence.