Don’t Panic About the New York PTA’s Proposal for GMO-Free Cafeterias

Corn has been genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides.

Corn has been genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides. Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest controversies in agriculture is over the use and labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially when it comes to food. GM foods are genetically altered so they can be more resistant to disease (though usually only one new gene is inserted). The products are rigorously tested to remove potential allergens and prevent genes from GM plants from getting into conventional crops. These items can also be sold for a lower price once they get to the grocery store shelf.

There is still quite a bit of consumer hand wringing about GM foods, thanks to supposed “studies” which showed these products caused cancer in rats—such theories have been thoroughly debunked, but are still having an impact on policy decisions about labeling genetically modified items.

The New York State PTA seemed to be feeding into this hysteria when it publicized a newly proposed measure that would require all of the state’s public schools to serve meals free of genetically modified ingredients.

But Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA, told the Observer that the organization would likely revise the resolution to educate people about the usage of GMOs—these modifications would likely deal with many of the issues that have been put forward.

This is good news, because the proposal as it reads now is full of unfounded fearmongering. The PTA’s first argument is that GMO technology “creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”

However, no less an authority than the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has determined that GM foods are “safe to eat, and the methods used to test their safety have been deemed appropriate”—and a 29-year Journal of Animal Science study of 100 billion animals who were fed GM corn and other crops found no adverse effects from using GM feed.

This statement also discounts the fact that many fruits and vegetables (such as corn and peaches) have been crossbred for centuries so that they contain more water and are resistant to pesticides. These foods may be healthy, but they’re not natural per se.

Next, the resolution states that “some laboratory research is demonstrating a link between pesticide dependent GMOs and GE foods to negative health consequences.” However, as noted above, many studies showing the ill effects of GMOs (such as the rat cancer one) have been discredited, and others were distributed by predatory publishers (fake scientific journals that publish anything for a fee, even a “study” in the form of a TV script). By contrast, the studies showing GMOs do not pose a health risk are from reputable journals or organizations like the UN.

The PTA’s current  solution to the supposed GMO problem is to implement so-called “science based nutrition standards.” The U.S. government, however, has already implemented standards for school meals based on “the latest nutrition science,” and these rules don’t include warnings about GMOs since the science shows such warnings aren’t necessary.

Imposing this impossible food safety standard wouldn’t just be scientifically problematic, however—it would also have an economic impact. Organic and natural foods can cost more than double what conventionally grown foods do, which would put a dent in school district budgets with no corresponding benefit to the students.

Families would also feel the pinch if this PTA proposal passed, because they would likely start buying natural foods for their children to eat at home. Given the high prices at stores like Whole Foods, however, many families (especially poor ones) could actually be discouraged from buying healthy food in any form.

This is not just conjecture—a new study by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research showed that consumers who live at or under the poverty line and were exposed to fear-based food tactics worried so much about the safety of their produce that they simply stopped buying it.

Belokopitsky said the final version of the GMO bill would be voted on by the state PTA next month.