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On the Pseudo-Science of the Organic Food Movement

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I should premise this entire post on food safety profiles of organic and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), by stating that you will find no heroes here nor any side to root for. Both the organic industry and the GMO industry have evolved substantial villains – some of whom are identifiable and some of whom are essentially nameless. In fact, increasingly, the organic and GMO industry – at least when it comes to processed foods – are owned by the same companies. Since the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) first instituted organic certification regulations, companies such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, and others have embedded themselves within the organic market and consolidated it through mergers, acquisitions and other business arrangements. Meaning most processed organic food is brought to us by the same companies that deliver GMO. Likewise, organic farming is no longer limited to small independent farms, but has become the focus of major commercial farming operations.
But this post isn’t about the owners of the organic food market, but rather about the proponents of the organic industry and the increasingly pseudo-scientific and ideological strains in their advocacy. Recently, proponents of the industry such as Vani Hari – whose The Food Babe website is behind recent campaigns that targeted Subway over azodicarbonamide in their bread and Anheuser-Busch over ingredient labeling of beer – have found success utilizing spurious arguments, factually inaccurate assertions, and fear-mongering to attack major food producers. For good measure, Hari also dabbles in anti-vaccination advocacy whilst displaying a truly horrific understanding of how vaccination works, the safety profiles of vaccines, and the ingredients therein. While Hari has become a particularly visible face in this regard, she is far from alone (see: Adams, Mike).  While I don’t intend to refute these arguments here, I would be remiss if I didn’t point to the flaws summarized by others (azodicarbonamide, beer and vaccine, GMO study).
Hari and Adams have tapped into a collective fear about the way our food is being grown. Their websites and brands are virtually devoid of any legitimate science and built only through feeding these fears with exaggerated claims, flashy headlines and quite brilliant marketing. Hari in particular acts under the guise of a transparency advocate and a perverted understanding of skepticism. They represent much of what is wrong with anti-GMO advocacy today. Indeed, there are substantial reasons to be fearful of the growing demagoguery within the anti-GMO movement. The methods and manner of argument used by Hari and other outspoken proponents are similar to those in the anti-vaccination movement. Yet – as with the anti-vaccination movement – this is being done despite the absence of credible evidence indicating that GMO food is any less safe than organic food. Indeed, essentially every study that has been conducted on GMO food has found no indication of a safety risk. A systematic review of long-term or multigenerational animal case-control studies from 2012 found the following:

Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance. […] The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.

While such reviews are valuable,they should not be overgeneralized. They are not conclusive evidence that GMO food is safe for long-term use in humans. Animal studies are not a perfect analogue for human studies. Indeed, in drug development, animal studies are utilized to develop indicative evidence for further human studies and not to develop conclusive evidence. While it would be overzealous to expect clinical trial level human studies, there are substantive reasons (multiple modes of food preparation, interference with gut bacterial reproduction, human lifespan) to believe that we should have human in vivo studies demonstrating safety before declaring all GMOs safe. The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) report on the roll of animal feeding studies in GMO safety does a thorough job of canvasing the issue.
That is all a long way of saying that we will be better off when human studies can be conducted in an ethical manner – ideally utilizing mechanisms such as organs on a chip.
However, it is a hallmark of a rational movement to be able to effectively engage with the state of the science rather than resort to fear-mongering and hyperbolic assertions without a basis in science. While claims of GMO safety in the human diet are being overstated in terms of what the science has actually shown, claims that organic food is healthier also cannot be substantiated at present. If one is worried about the pesticides used in GMO agriculture, the same level of concern should be applied to organic pesticides. Pesticide use in organic farming – particularly after the transition to large commercial organic farms – has been increasing and the chemicals approved for organic farming have their own safety profile concerns. The point of pesticides, whether synthetic or natural, is to be toxic – that’s what they do. If the concern is nutrition, animal studies on the bio-availability of the nutrients in GMO and organic food have not shown any significant difference.
So, what is at stake here? Turning the pro-organics movement into an ideological battle built on a false-dichotomy between organics and GMOs may play well over the short term but will likely undermine the cause in the long run. Regardless of whether the science is sufficiently rigorous at present to conclusively establish the safety of GMO food, there is no evidence that organics are healthier.
Certainly, I believe as stated above that we would all benefit from more and better science being conducted on GMOs and all pesticides approved for use, whether synthetic or natural. Ideally, these would consist of long-term studies conducted involving people and organs on a chip rather than animal studies where the animals have primarily been rats. Those studies, however, are some time away and in the meantime, it is important to keep a check on the ideological fringes in the movement. If the anti-GMO movement digs in and commits itself to pseudo-scientific rhetoric in order to win a symbolic victory on food labeling, it will become nearly impossible to undo the damage if future human studies confirm what we suspect from the animal trials – that GMO food is safe and nutritious. The appropriate analogue to this is the anti-vaccination movement (with which there’s substantial over-lap). The anti-vaccination movement has become impenetrable to reason, science, and discussion. Indeed, a recent study showed that providing accurate vaccination messages relating to the safety and efficacy of vaccines to individuals with existing anti-vaccination beliefs was more likely to entrench anti-vaccination beliefs further rather than lead to any common ground or changing of minds.
And what do we lose then? Polls suggest that GMOs are not particularly popular at present. If labeling of GMO food is mandated as many are advocating, it is likely that these views will become further entrenched. Yet GMOs offer much promise in the form of  more nutritious food, higher crop yields, better insect resistance, drought-resistance, and even salvaging species from epidemics. It would be tragic if we politically surrender the future potential of GMO food based solely on unsubstantiated fears and the poor behavior on the part of certain companies within the GMO industry such as Monsanto.
Anti-science is anti-science whether it is in the service of a movement one supports or one despises. And the test of whether one is dealing in the realm of science or ideology is whether a person can clearly state what evidence would have to be presented to change one’s mind on a topic. Scientists do this on a regular basis. It is – in fact – the very basis of the scientific method. Ideologues do not.

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  • Claudio Schuftan says:

    Hi Brian,
    Do you have any conflict of interest to declare?
    Was just interested.
    Cordially, Claudio

    • Brian Honermann says:

      Dear Claudio,
      I have no conflicts of interest to declare. I have never received any funding from the food industry (GMO or organic) and have never worked for either industry. I do not own individual stock in any company associated with either industry.

  • Zafrullah Chowdhury says:

    Thank you.It is good to know that you have no conflict of interest

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