Three Arguments the Anti-GMO Crowd Should Stop Using

The aim of this post is not to try to silence opposition to GE tech, but to stop allowing the uninformed to frame the issue. If real criticism is to be heard, and real progress made, then the elimination of red herrings is a must.

In order to avoid setting up strawmen here, I’ve included example quotes taken from the comments to posts on our page. Indeed, these three arguments often make up the bulk of any GMO discussion seen anywhere that accepts comments. You will notice I include zero reference links. That is because these arguments are based on personal ideology instead of any real-world data. Obviously, there are many evidence-based arguments that have been thoroughly debunked and so should no longer be used either, but those are outside the scope of this post.

As skeptics, we should be willing to believe any claim if it is backed up with evidence. These arguments fail to provide not only evidence of harm, but even a theory as to how GE could be harmful. When someone is trying to persuade you to take an anti-GMO stance, none of the following arguments should be tolerated.

1) Appeal to nature

“Should we really be messing with mother nature?”

Sometimes this is straightforward as in “it’s unnatural!” Other times it is a little more subtle, taking a form something along the lines of “a fish would never breed with a tomato”, but it is always an argument without substance. Whenever we pursue these arguments we find that “natural” is a term that means different things to different people, but often boils down to “stuff that I am already comfortable with.”

Logically, this is best exposed by talking about artificial selection. However, in the real world, the anti-GMO crowd misconstrues mention of selective breeding as deceit. They say it is wrong to present genetic engineering and selective breeding as the same thing, and on this point they are correct. Selective breeding (which is achieved through the method of artificial selection) is different from genetic engineering in several significant ways, and to conflate them is irresponsible. So why do we bring up selective breeding? Because an argument which draws objection from the property “unnatural” fails to distinguish selective breeding from GE. Artificial selection, by definition, removes the hand of nature (natural selection). It is capable of preserving deleterious genetic traits such as deafness in dogs. It can also produce sterile hybrids like the banana. These are things that nature tends to select against.

So, generic appeals to nature ignore the fact that selective breeding is “unnatural” too, and produces outcomes with the very same properties that those using this appeal deem unnatural.

If the logic behind your objection can be equally applied to selective breeding, yet you are not against selective breeding, something is very wrong. You should construct arguments that actually criticize what you are against and be able to explain the principles behind your arguments in no uncertain terms. A generic appeal to nature simply isn’t good enough to hold up an anti-GMO position.

Also, remember, on the level of DNA, there is no such distinction as “fish” or “tomato”.  The source of the gene is of absolutely no consequence.   While the anti-GMO crowd worries about where genes come from, science worries about what they do. This is where we should focus – on the applications and results of GE tech and the possible consequences, not some arbitrary notion of what is natural.

So, when you encounter an appeal to nature argument, ask for a definition of “natural”. Ask why “natural” substances are automatically better. If all you get is a re-statement of the appeal, then you’ll know that the person is trying to convince you with an argument that they are unable to think through themselves.

2) Not enough tests

“We do not yet know if GMOs are safe. The only tests have been by Monsanto. I do not want to be experimented on by corporations!”

This gambit tends to ring false when it is used by those groups who support the destruction of test fields. Obviously, it is hypocritical to call for more testing and then stand in the way. But, to be fair, not all of those calling for testing do advocate destroying test fields. Also, if this is made as a sincere request outlining clear goals that can be reached, then it is not a red herring. However, everyone I have ever asked who uses this argument admits that, for them personally, no amount of testing would cause them to drop their aversion to GE foods. While this is not as obvious as those who trample crops, it is just as disingenuous because it still seeks to use the precautionary principle indefinitely. They have moved the goalposts so far that even they can not see them. Furthermore, if they can not define what sufficient testing would look like, how can they define what insufficient testing does look like? Which crops should be further tested? What more should we test for? What faults are to be found with the current tests? Where is the nuance?

This is also an indirect contradiction to the claim that GE foods cause harm. It cannot be true that we have not performed enough tests to assess safety and also know that they are unsafe. This suggests a double standard where evidence of harm is believed based on unscientific standards that accept rumors and speculation, but evidence of safety is held to standards so strict as to be unobtainable.

The bottom line is that independent testing is already being done, and no scientists are calling for an end to it.  All GE crops and foods should be individually tested for safety, and those results should be available for independent review and replication. Being anti-GMO is not a necessary precursor to being an advocate of rigorous safety standards.

So when you encounter this argument, ask them to tell you exactly, without being vague, what additional tests would be satisfactory to convince them to personally consume GE food. If the answer is that no test will remove their fear, then you’ll know they are trying to convince you with an argument they do not believe themselves.

3) The right to know. (What are they hiding?)

“Whether or not they are safe to consume, I do not really care, but I do have a right to know whether or not I am consuming them.”

On the surface, the right to know argument is perhaps the most compelling red herring on this list. Why should customers be denied the right to an informed decision? Why should corporations be able to keep secret exactly what they are doing to our food in their labs? The answer is of course that they shouldn’t, and this is another façade.

I think the first thing we should do is separate the right to know from the right to demand labeling. The unstated premise here is that labeling provides some pertinent information important to the consumer.  However, if labeling does not reflect any sort of safety or nutritional concern, then what exactly is being conveyed?  The single data point that a label would provide is that a product contains a genetically engineered ingredient.  If each individual crop is rigorously tested before it is approved for market and the results available for review, then why does it matter which products those crops end up in?  The only purpose for labeling is to mark the products for those already inclined to avoid them.  Since this aversion is not based on any demonstrable  safety,  environmental or health concern, it’s a result of personal ideology.   If we start labeling foods which violate personal ideology, then we’re going to have to label them non-kosher as well.  My personal ideology says to avoid crops harvested under a full moon.  I have no data to demonstrate that these crops should be avoided, but I’m going to need a label anyway.

So, labeling is not really about knowing anything of interest to anyone who isn’t anti-GMO.  It does nothing to help the average consumer make an informed choice, and is likely to confuse instead.  To argue the right to know is to argue for transparency, and what should be transparent is the research.  The research says GE crops on the market are of no more concern than conventional crops.  To ignore the research and focus only on a single data point is to disregard the very transparency you are asking for. Someone who is passionate about ‘knowing’ will have an interest in learning, and maybe even teaching. But what we see when we examine the anti-GMO rhetoric is that their interest in learning begins and ends with confirmation bias, and what they teach has very little basis in fact, seeking to influence rather than inform. To demand the right to know while remaining apathetic to knowledge is disingenuous.

I believe people have the right to boycott anything for any reason, but I object to the idea that this notion somehow supports mandatory labeling.  I also object to the accusation that if labeling is not present, some information is being hidden.  Your boycott is your problem unless you can demonstrate that it is a problem for everyone.  Citing the right to boycott does not tell us why we ought to do so, yet this notion dominates most public discussions about anti-gmo activism.  One can be completely for the notion of the public being as informed as possible about GE technology and products without needing to take an anti-GMO stance.

4) BONUS : Organic apples/tomatoes taste better.

And here is a bonus argument. It’s really nothing more than a pet peeve, but it is sure to make you look like a simpleton. I hear it all the time. “Organic apples/tomatoes just taste better than the GMO version.” It’s always apples or tomatoes for some reason. I am not sure where these people live since no GE tomatoes or apples are currently on the market, and never mind the fact that taste is not a measure of safety. When I see this statement, it tells me the speaker is not really interested in evidence or data or even with having a sincere discussion. They are willing to lie to sway others towards their opinion. Such people disqualify themselves from being worthy of attention.

Those opposed to GE food have every right to make their case and be heard, but those listening have a social responsibility to not be swayed by generic fear-mongering and specious reasoning . All parties should set their standards higher and rise above the petty manipulations employed by science deniers. If we are so easily swayed by broken logic and appeals to emotion, if we accept propaganda and forget to demand actual evidence, then we can be convinced of anything.


26 thoughts on “Three Arguments the Anti-GMO Crowd Should Stop Using

  1. organic produce DOES taste better than their conventional counterparts. organic peaches, blueberries, watermelon. what happened to watermelon? when i was a kid, all watermelons were good. now, i can’t buy a decent tasting one unless i fork over beaucoup bucks. and what the hell is wrong with reason #3? why not highlight what the anti-gmo movement should be highlighting instead of just putting them down for not being as brilliant as you seem to think you are.

    1. Organic products taste better than their conventional counterparts because farmers only label their very best produce as organic. Organic food that does not appear to be superior is simply thrown in with the conventional products. This way the myth of organic superiority is maintained. Supermarkets compound the deception by putting shorter shelf lives of organic goods so that the ones on the shelf are always fresh.

      What you are actually saying therefore is “I had good quality watermelon when I was younger and now I encounter both good and bad quality watermelon at different prices.”

      Perhaps you simply don’t remember the bad/mediocre watermelons you bought back then? It’s not exactly vital information.

    2. I’m numerous peer reviewed studies participants could not tell the difference between conventional and organic produce. They often thought the conventional produce tasted better! It’s all in your head. If you do more research, you’ll learn that organic produce is no safer than conventional produce as well. It’s all a marketing ploy.

    3. the problem with the taste is that it’s subjective – that translates to “thats my fucking opinion”. Maybe bring 1000 persons to double blind test the flavour of an “organic” vs a “genetically modified” and it may be more objective. And about #3, well, you said it yourself, you want evidence to support your claims. If it’s a fish protein that it’s being expressed to genetic modification, you will claim that fish proteins may cause allergies.

      1. ‘Maybe bring 1000 persons to double blind test the flavour of an “organic” vs a “genetically modified” and it may be more objective’

        Well, yeah. That’s how these things are normally studied, obviously there is no objective measure of taste, so you measure it subjectively, a lot.

    4. Please consider to possibility that the taste of watermelon hasn’t changed, but your state of mind has. As a child, your experience was heightened by the excitement you carried for watermelon. As an adult, you’re more emotionally stable, and you taste watermelon for what it really is. Overrated. You think organic watermelon tastes good because you are deluded. You spend that much money, so it has to be good right? Your perceptions are again controlled by your state of mind, not what your taste buds are actually trying to tell you.

    5. Yes, again, not a real argument. Taste is for the most part subjective. I have friends who will shout from the mountaintops that Velveeta tastes better than real cheese. You can’t make an objective argument about the safety of a product or the validity of a technology, or the value of a science or technique to civilization, based on the fact that one or even many individuals, have a subjective flavor preference for them.

      Some people like Pharrell Williams and some people like One Direction, some like one and dis like the other, so does that mean the would as a whole should prevent one or the other from making and selling music?

      AND to be clear the poorly chosen, adopted term, “Organic” refers to the farming method and means, not the genetic heritage of the produce (so even the author here make a poor argument here). So, though it is commonly commented, with a lot of anecdotal agreement that chemically fertilized, heavily watered, quickly and abundantly, factory farm grown produce has a weaker, milder or even no taste at all, it is not necessarily a reflection of whether or not it is the result of Genetic Engineering.

      I even disagree with the author that selective breeding or artificial selection is different than genetic engineering, as it is a form of genetic engineering, using a different method or tool set, the goal is the same, the intended results are the same, and in some cases genetic engineering is the less sloppy and dangerous means to the same end. (think of all the unwanted traits and deformities, and miserable progeny of selective breeding and hybridizing, that lead miserable lives or are destroyed or euthanized, while spending generations to develop or reinforce one or two traits)

      And actually argument 3 is very valid. Should we also put labels on food to say that it was packaged or handled by people of color, so that racists can more easily boycott them? Or should we make every thing that is edible state that it contains 0% poison? Stating on a label that a product has ingredients that may or may not contain elements that are the results of genetic engineering, does not actually say anything about the safety, nutrition, or value of the product, it just helps people who have an unjustified bias boycott products. Which I would argue they have every right to do, and for whatever reason.

      Though, if the GE ingredients added elements, chemicals, hormones, or allergens to the food, then of course THOSE elements or ingredients should be listed, and in fact must be by law. Basically, any GE ingredients or elements in that food, have been tested by the current standards and legal requirements and according to regulations and our best understanding and science (if the process is working as it should, and I personally agree it can’t be perfect and is ever improving) , and have been deemed edible, safe and non-threatening (and non-allergenic, unless otherwise labeled by law). So putting an additional label is unnecessary and pandering. As pointed out, where does it stop? Should we label where each ingredient was grown, just in case we’re not interested in supporting farmers from some region? Or how often the production and packaging lines are cleaned, just in case you’re more fastidious than the law requires in the food processing area? How big would labels have to be to accommodate everyone’s personal information biases?

      Products that want to reach a certain audience, or pander to certain fads, or cater to certain beliefs and biases can volunteer information to consumers, and that seems to be reasonable successful. Kosher products tend to label themselves as such to ensure their audience knows they can buy their product in good conscience. “Organic” products label themselves as such, voluntarily (though there are MANY different groups and boards who certify things as organic and have very different standards). And PLENTY of products list on their label they are GMO free, for whatever that means, and there are a variety of boards and organizations who set standards and certify them as such.

      People who wish to exercise the very valid right to boycott or simply avoid GMO or any other type of food product, are generally being well served by producers who offer them clearly marked choices and options, which help them be conscientious consumers, and adhere to their beliefs. And as new concerns arise the market generally moves quickly to service that sector of consumers.

      As stated, putting a little symbol on a product by law, that it may or may not contain elements that resulted from GE technology, does not add and useful information about the health effects or nutrition of the resulting product.

    6. Blind tests show, over and over again, that organic products does NOT taste better than their non-organic counterparts. In many cases, it’s the opposite.

    7. What’s the link ? The article says GMO, you talk organic…which refers to the cultivating method, not the genetic make-up. There are no GE apples out there, but plenty of selectively bred ones. In fact, you modify the organism a lot more through selective breeding (thousands of genes modified at a time) compared to GE (from one to a handful of carefully targeted ones).

    8. The fact that you personally think organic food tastes better is irrelevant. I don’t think it does, which also doesn’t matter as taste is relative. Blindfolded taste tests have shown that people can’t tell the difference. You only think it tastes better because someone told you so or you are going in with a bias you are looking to confirm.
      This is made clear with your ludicrous example of watermelons not being as good as they used to be. This is clearly nonsense, there is no way that watermelons are objectively worse in general than they used to be. You are just associating selective memories of good watermelons to some ridiculous notion of “how all watermelons used to be”.

      As for the labeling argument, the article made clear that we label food with what is in the food, not how the food was produced. The contents of the finished product are the same, doesn’t matter if it is GMO or organic.

    9. Whateves, your comment is precisely another fallacious argument. You argue that when you were younger, all watermelons tasted good, but now that you’re older, the majority don’t taste as good and that this is contributed to watermelons being genetically modified. This is the most subjective statement I’ve read in awhile, and out of the multiple other reasons for why watermelons might taste different to you, you assume that it is because they are genetically modified. This is what is known as a false premise and then inference-observation conclusion, or jumping to conclusions.

    10. This is not a result of genetic modification or conventional (non-organic) agriculture. It’s a result of the need to ship produce thousands of miles from where it’s grown. I live in an agricultural community and I can tell you that the conventional strawberries grown here in season are the best I’ve ever tasted. But they’re fragile and they can’t be shiped. I can’t expect that strawberries or any other produce from Mexico or the other side of North America will taste as good.

  2. Absolutely amazing article. You have put succiently and insightfully every meaningful retort to anti-GMO bullshit into a brief article. If more people read this, the world would be a better place and we could properly defend society from this fear-mongering. Your most insightful point is where you reduce and expose their appeals to nature as being a disguise for “what I’m personally comfortable with”.

  3. It would be helpful to note that there have been thousands of peer-reviewed studies on the safety of GE foods by both independent and corporate-funded organizations. The consensus is equal to that of anthropogenic climate change. The very notion that there have not been enough tests is false to begin with.

  4. A thoughtful Facebook friend posted a request for discussion of GMO foods recently. She included a video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson commenting on the subject. She said her respect for DeGrasse Tyson led her to question her own suspicion of GMOs. I commented that I thought DeGrasse Tyson was right, that GMO food itself is not inherently dangerous to health, that most of the food we eat is genetically engineered in some way. The main worry, as I understood it, is that a proprietary GMO food might displace a similar food to such an extent that there becomes a corporate monopoly on seed stocks of that food. She then asked whether someone with a peanut allergy had a right to know if a tomato contains a peanut gene or if an orthodox Jew had the right to know if that tomato contains a shellfish gene. I was so glad you addressed this issue when you wrote, “Also, remember, on the level of DNA, there is no such distinction as ‘fish’ or ‘tomato’. The source of the gene is of absolutely no consequence.” I couldn’t figure out a simple way to say this. Thank you. I experience the same frustration when someone tells me they don’t eat catfish because catfish eat nasty things. A catfish is no more what it eats than a cow is grass. A rose with a starfish gene is a rose is a rose.

  5. Emily-Rose, do you have an email where I can reach you? I read this article and the one posted on your FaceBook page today, and I’m interested in having a private discussion about more of the claims for and against GMOs. (I have some concerns other than the ones already discussed.) I am not a scientist, but I have taken a few science classes at university and thoroughly enjoyed them. I would greatly appreciate your time.

    Thank you,

  6. The Author is spot on, many people would only be comfortable eating food that was grown at night if they knew that the Sun’s Gamma rays (the same dangerous radiation given off by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan) could be causing a biological hazard on their organically grown crops. I vote for “Sunshine free’ labeling!
    4 out of 5 world renowned Chefs will agree Fruits and Vegetables grown at night will be the best they ever tasted!

  7. #3 = Horseshit. There ARE demonstrable health and safety concerns, both to an individual and to the environment at large. That’s what this is all about. Labels would help to bring those to light, the layman would start to ask questions, which would lead to understanding. If one were completely for the notion of an informed public, then he would indeed, unless he was FOR harming the planet and it’s inhabitants, have to be AGAINST certain GMO’s. The detriments of GMOs have been established. Do you want your kids toys to be labelled if they contain Lead? Or do you wish to relegate the concerned few, who are advocating for you and your children’s health, to stroke and pander the information to no real end.

  8. Although I’m pro-GMO, I used to be somewhat sympathetic to the request for labeling. But I think the comparison to Kosher foods is an apt one. Orthodox Jews assume that most foods are not kosher unless explicitly labeled “kosher”. It is not incumbent on the makers of bagels, pizza or anything else to add a label “Not kosher for Passover”, nor should it be. So I think the burden should be on the consumer with the particular preference: if a product is not labeled “GMO-free!!!” you should assume it contains GMOs.

  9. The discussion of these 3 arguments are well presented but it is a classic setup to ignore other, more important concerns….such as corporate ownership of our seed stock, crops, genetic material, etc. The elephant in the room here. What better example than Round-Up ready crops that encourage the enhanced use of pesticides?…pesticides and the crop DNA sequences all owned and patented by the same company! We need to find a way to use GMO crops in a more environmentally friendly way with an emphasis on yield and quality but not towards the corporate takeover of all agriculture. GMO should be used to enhance organic farming; they are NOT inherently any more incompatible than selective breeding.

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