Death of “Frankenfood”
Is the GMO debate growing up in Europe just as it devolves in the United States?
Again, though, Europe’s scientists have started to take a more vocal role in the public arena. In December of last year, the European Commission named Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover as the first-ever European chief scientific adviser reporting directly to the EU president. Glover, who has worked with GM technology for most of her career, has indicated in multiple interviews that she would try to push Europe toward a more science-based approach on GMOs. In a February interview with PublicServiceEurope.com, she said that North America has been conducting “an experiment on our behalf for the last 15 years by growing and eating GM crops—and I don't see over that period of time what negative impact it has had.” Glover went on to say that European politicians had sought to represent the anti-GMO views of an electorate that wasn’t expressing informed opinions. “If you ask people on the street, they would be against GM. But if you ask them what the risks are, there is this awful silence."
Compare Glover’s remarks to the discussion around labels in the United States. One of the earliest boosters of labels was Dr. Oz. In 2010, he aired an anti-GMO scare-segment, giving equal credence to anti-GMO claims based on faulty (or nonexistent) science and the science-based arguments of professor Ronald. “Instead of waiting for data to arrive at your decision, you’re going to have to decide to see if this food is for your family on your own,” Oz concluded. “Those labels do exist on some products. Choose them for now.”
More recently, the May issue of Oprah’s magazine O ran an article wondering how GM foods “affect your health” and using discredited science to warn of risks. O also published a sidebar on “5 ways to lessen your exposure to GMOs.”
Ronald compares the campaign of her Dr. Oz counter-debater, Jeffrey Smith, to Michele Bachmann’s spurious and ridiculous claims during the GOP primary that HPV vaccines might cause mental retardation. “That type of statement from politically active people can really frighten people,” Ronald said. “It’s really important for consumers to understand the concept of scientific consensus versus internet chatter.”
While public debates in the European Union and United States may be switching sides, their respective public policies have not yet shifted. Last year the FDA approved a new genetically modified alfalfa plant despite opposition from anti-GMO activists. In Europe, meanwhile, no new GM crop has been approved in the two years since the European Commission controversially approved a GM potato, which was not even approved for human consumption but for industrial use.
While one of the historic issues that have kept GMOs out of the European Union has been protectionist concerns about large American corporations like Monsanto over-running European markets, the de facto (and sometimes explicit) bans on GM crops have actually created an environment that has stifled Europeans from developing their own competitive versions of GM products. In addition to denying farmers use of potentially cost-saving crops, the previous anti-GMO climate has produced a “brain drain” of scientists working on biotechnology in Europe.
“By turning our backs on the evidence, there is a question over whether we are still going to be as competitive,” Glover said in February. “We need to seriously look at GM crops when we tackle the global problem of climate change and being able to feed the population of the world.”
Before they start voting with their ballots and then their pocketbooks, California consumers may be wise to pay attention to that advice.
Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.
Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.