Boogeyman

12.19.15 5:01 AM ET

The Year the Food Industry Gave in to Anti-GMO Fear Mongering

Americans really don’t understand what GMOs are, but the food industry is giving into their fears anyway.

As this December inevitably came to pass, I made the usual pilgrimage to my office, where for probably the first time all year, I put my cell phone away, turned off the TV, and unplugged my computer. I sat. And I thought. What did I learn in 2015? What stories captivated me and made me think? Did anything in the past year possibly change my outlook on life?

After sitting and thinking for quite some time, I was shocked to learn that the answer to the last question was “yes.” Because in 2015, I learned that food companies can give in to popular sentiment and fear, irrespective of reason. Some of these reasons are admittedly based on solid science and logic, but others are based solely on fear.

I was shocked and pleased to learn in March that over the next two years, McDonald’s will stop buying chickens raised with antibiotics that are also used in humans These antibiotics are not used to treat disease in animals—rather, they are added to animal feed because they cause animals to grow more quickly using less feed.

Following McDonald’s lead, Costco, which sells 80 million rotisserie chickens per year, made the same announcement just a few days later. Then in April, Tyson Foods, one of McDonald’s major suppliers of chickens, announced they would phase out use of human antibiotics in its chickens by September 2017.

Chain Reaction, responding to growing public pressure, created a report card in September grading 25 restaurant chains on their policies of using meat from suppliers that use antibiotics. Only two restaurants, Chipotle and Panera, received an A. Chic-fil-A got a B, and McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts got C’s. Everyone else, including Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Starbuck’s, failed because they have not publicized any antibiotic policy.

Around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used not to treat diseases in humans, but to add to animal feed to promote growth. Overuse of antibiotics has without a doubt contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and eliminating them from routine use makes perfect sense.

However, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a different story. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that any GMO has ever harmed a human ever, there is undeniably an aura of fear surrounding these so-called “frankenfoods”—a thoroughly unearned nickname.

In April, I learned just how pervasive this fear was when Chipotle announced their “G-M-Over It” campaign, claiming, “When it comes to our food, genetically-modified ingredients don’t make the cut.” In doing so, they became the first national restaurant chain to go non-GMO—though they admit their soft drinks still contain high fructose corn syrup, which is nearly all made with GMO corn.

Chipotle’s rationale was clearly based not on any scientific validity that GMOs are somehow harmful, but rather on the public’s perception and fear that they are. Their website lists three reasons why they are removing GMOs from their food, including, “Scientists are still studying the long term implication of GMOs.”

However, those studies have been done in animals, and the results are startlingly clear. Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the University of California Davis, studied the health of over 100 billion animals who consumed well over a trillion (yes, a trillion) GMO meals over a 29-year period since GMOs were introduced into their feed. She and her team found no evidence of “unfavorable or perturbed trends in livestock health and productivity”

While Chipotle has been spending time and money eliminating harmless GMOs from their food, there was an outbreak of E. coli at their restaurants, which sickened more than 50 people—20 of whom required hospitalization—in nine states since October. And the chain is currently still dealing with an outbreak of norovirus in one of their Boston franchises, which caused over 140 people to become acutely ill.

Other companies have been almost as quick to jump on the anti-GMO bandwagon.  Whole Foods became the first national grocery store chain to require all GMO products to be labeled by 2018). Similac will offer a non-GMO baby formula, with their general manager Chris Calamari saying, “We listen to moms and dads, and they’ve told us they want a non-GMO option.” McDonald’s has said that they will not buy GMO potatoes for its French fries. And Trader Joe’s now states on their website that all their branded products are GMO-free.

Just last month, after 20 years of evaluation, the FDA approved the sale of the AquAdvantage salmon, the first genetically-modified animal approved for human consumption. The salmon was created by taking a growth gene from Chinook salmon and a gene promoter from an ocean pout and adding them to the Atlantic salmon. These genes allow the fish to grow much more quickly without changing any other traits, meaning potentially more food to feed hungry people faster. No other “foreign” DNA was used, the fish are all female and nearly 99 percent are sterile, and they will only be raised in land-based aquaculture farms, so mixing and reproducing with wild salmon will be nearly impossible.

Despite the decades of safety studies and mountains of evidence, Costco, Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi are among 60 supermarket chains that have all stated that they will not sell the AquAdvantage salmon.

Why is there so much fear? Is there any validity to the GMO backlash? In a word: no.

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A comprehensive review (PDF) of over 1,700 studies on GMOs, including those which examined the impact of GM crops on the environment as well as the interaction of GM crops on humans and animals, concluded quite convincingly that “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”

The World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Medicine, and the Academies of Science of France, Brazil, China, India, and Mexico, have all made unambiguous statements in support of the safety of GMOs.

The problem lies in both a host of misinformation as well as an unfortunate moniker.  When people hear “genetically modified”, it instantly conjures images of mad scientists in a lab, beakers bubbling, cooking up dangerous cocktails of DNA-enhanced frankenfoods.

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans believe GMOs are generally unsafe to eat. However, this simply is not the case.

Genetically modified foods offer nothing more than what mankind has been doing with selective breeding for thousands of years, albeit at a drastically increased pace, and none of the seeds created by selective breeding are required to undergo the years of safety testing to which GM seeds are subjected.  In an era where nearly 800 million people around the world go hungry on a daily basis, GM foods offer a realistic chance to change things for the better, if only people would take the time to understand the science.

But in 2015 I learned that too many people don’t care about the science, they only care about fear.  The fear of GMOs is identical to the boogeyman in the closet or the monster under the bed—many people are terrified of them, but the dangers simply don’t exist. I only hope that in 2016 people can learn to overcome that fear.