A Policymaker's Guide to the GMO Controversies

February 23, 2015
Unfounded fears surrounding GMOs distorts policy decision making.

Crops and foods improved through biotechnology, popularly known as “GMOs” (for “genetically modified organisms”) remain at the center of a maelstrom of conflicting claims and assertions. This is evident throughout all media, but especially on the Internet. It is difficult for a layperson to make sense of it all, and this becomes even more important when the layperson is a government official in a position to make or influence policy decisions. Because bad information makes for bad policy choices we have prepared this report to provide some factual information, with abundant citations from independent third party authorities.

It always helps to consult the data, so we do that in order to examine several key questions that have been repeatedly visible in media of late. These include the economic benefits of GMOs, the U.S. rate of adoption of GMOs, the level of success of the labeling movement, the role of GMOs in affecting weeds and human health, and the sustainability of GMO-based agriculture. In all six cases we find overwhelming evidence for the economic, agricultural, environmental, and health benefits of GMOs.

Anyone who follows the news could be forgiven for believing that there is a genuine debate over the merits and safety of crops and foods derived through modern biotechnology. There is not. Scientists and farmers are virtually unanimous on the safety and desirability/effectiveness of crops improved through biotechnology. There is, however, definitely a controversy, one largely manufactured by a small handful of committed, anti-innovation advocacy groups using tried-and-true propaganda techniques to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about this important technology, aided by media coverage that is too often uninformed about science and agriculture. As with any campaign wanting to hold back technological innovation, the anti-GMO campaign is based both on ideology and vested interests. The ideological protestors simply reject modern technology in foods and want the world to return to a pre-industrial, pastoral system where farmers plowed with horses and reaped with scythes. In recent years, these professional protest industry’s opposition campaigns have been heavily aided by interests: in this case the organic food industry, a segment of which has openly adopted a strategy of spreading unjustified fears and disparagement of their competition. For if extremist elements of the organic industry can (despite all evidence) persuade consumers that GMO foods are harmful, the price of foods will not fall as much, providing less competition for high-priced organics. It is, therefore, worthwhile to dig a little deeper into some of the key issues of the controversy that have been featured prominently over the last year or so.