Actress Gwyneth Paltrow joined the food fight exploding on Capitol Hill, announcing her support on Wednesday for the mandatory labeling of foods that are made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs).
She delivered a petition with more than 200,000 signatures asking President Obama to reject the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act — dubbed the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" (DARK) Act by critics such as Paltrow.
What no one mentioned — not the politicians who escorted Paltrow and certainly not Paltrow herself — is the strong science behind the value of labeling GMO foods. That's because there is no value.
Paltrow was joined by her mother, actress Blythe Danner, and escorted by Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Barbara Boxer of California, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, among others.
The group struck a commonsense tone, evoking a right to know, the intuition of mothers, and the unsavory idea of big food companies trying to hide the facts from the American people. They also touted a new bill — the Genetically Engineered Right to Know Act — that would require all GMO products be labeled as such.
What they did not acknowledge was that GMO labels won’t tell you what you want to know, not about pesticides or toxins. It won’t tell you about the wages and working conditions of the farm workers who harvested the food. It won’t tell you about the size of the company that grew the food, or the treatment of the livestock that ate the food as feed.
All GMO labels do is stigmatize foods made with GMOs. But here’s a snack-sized fact for you: There is no good evidence — none, zero, zilch — that GMO foods are a health risk of any kind.
The closer one looks, in fact, the more the GMO labeling push looks like an irresponsible marketing gimmick, one that undermines the market for GMOs at a time when we need more genetically-enhanced food, not less.
Let’s review the facts as they stand: Paltrow is a talented actress who has said that water has feelings, vaginas benefit from $50 steam baths, and, if given a choice, she would pick death and crack cocaine over Cup-a-Soup and cheese from a can. She’s far from the only celebrity with a history of pious baloney, but she might be the only one whose scientific misdeeds have inspired a new book: “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything”?
None of this makes Paltrow wrong about GMOs. But she’s right to say that she’s no expert either. She joins Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jordana Brewster and other celebrity moms who have come out in favor of GMO labeling. Neil Young and Pharrell Williams are also backers, and the wider movement is already hugely popular.
In Vermont, the first of three states to pass such a law, the labels are scheduled to appear by next summer. And he Congressional effort to block that measure and others has lit a flame beneath culinary crusaders, organized by a group called “Just Label It.”
Huge majorities of Americans support the call for GMO labels, according to a recent poll by The New York Times. Most of them believe GMO foods are “generally unsafe,” as a Pew Research Center study found last year.
But the problem is, most scientists disagree. That same Pew poll, produced in association with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asked experts for their thoughts on a number of areas. More agreed that GMOs are safe to eat (88%) than agreed that climate change is human caused (87%).
It’s no wonder that the scientific consensus would be this strong. More than a trillion meals made with GMOs have been eaten in this country in the last two decades, all without negative health effects. There have been thousands of studies of these foods, none turning up a clear and present danger.
And that’s why virtually every mainstream science organization is satisfied: The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the World Health Organization, and the FDA. All have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat.
So why don’t more people believe the science on GMOs? Neal Carter is the founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the inventor of a new FDA approved apple that’s been genetically modified not to go brown when it’s sliced. He thinks the problem is a basic lack of knowledge of the process.
“We’ve been breeding plants and selecting plants for a long time, 10,000 years, as long as humans have been walking the face of the earth,” he recently told msnbc. “What genetic engineering has done is help is make the process much more precise.”
Some of the earliest known beneficiaries of biotechnology were the Babylonians, who added a fungus to grain about 5,000 years ago, and produced beer. One of the most recent beneficiaries is Paltrow herself, whose dog Daffodil is a toy-sized joy thanks to selective breeding.
Bio-engineered agriculture took off about three decades ago, not because of a corporate plot, but because farmers were looking for a new weapon against bugs and weeds. GMOs helped farmers conquer both.
The details vary from plant to plant, but the outcomes were consistent. With the right genes, crops could produce an enzyme that killed bugs, and survive a pesticide shower that killed weeds. The result, according to a 2014 meta-study, was a 22% increase in crop yields, a 37% decline in pesticide use, and 68% increase in farmer profits.
The real engine behind the GMO labeling movement is the fact that most Americans are spooked by the idea of genetic game-playing. It feels wrong to “engineer” a living thing in a lab, at least when you put it that way. It feels like a cosmic power, a tool for God not man.
But Gwyneth Paltrow is fueling a broader opposition to science, one that delays our response to climate change and gives long-dormant diseases the chance to feed on newly unvaccinated kids. By stigmatizing GMOs, she’s also standing in the way of crop innovations that could fight world hunger and combat nutrient deficiencies.
“We are confident the Senate will stand with science,” said Claire Parker, spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a group that represents the food industry. “Scientific consensus will win out over media spectacle.”
Let’s hope so.