Are GMOs Natural?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) describes itself as America’s “most effective environmental health research and advocacy organization.”

Like many green groups (and health-conscious foodies), EWG has an organic fetish. Michael Specter has a great chapter on this syndrome in his 2009 book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives. The organic fetish is particularly interesting in the context of the GMO debate. For example, here’s EWG President Ken Cook today: 

The link takes you to an EWG press release, which warns that

the food industry wants FDA to allow foods that have been engineered at the genetic level to be called ‘natural.’

Hmm, can someone tell me which part of agriculture is ‘natural’?  Is the corn we eat today natural? Anyway, EWG is worried that consumers will be misled if the U.S. government allows genetically modified foods to be termed as natural:

This will only sow even more consumer confusion, leading shoppers to believe that products made with synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients are better for the environment even when they are not.

Yup, nothing like sowing confusion about a crop breeding process and the true facts about it. For some insight into the Environmental Working Group’s news release, I turn to an iconic source.



24 Responses to “Are GMOs Natural?”

  1. Andrew J. Balmer says:

    In a way it is a bit of a silly question. Humans (and plants) are bound by natural law in the same way the rest of the world is. The idea that man (a natural creature and as such bound by the laws of nature) could create something outside the realms of nature doesn’t really make sense to me.

    A more interesting question is surely just whether the food is actually harmful. Which to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence to suggest it is.

  2. Buddy199 says:

    Mr. Natural sums it up nicely. All current cultivated plant or animal food sources bear only the slightest resemblance to their pre-modern, “natural” ancestors. We’ve been making them un-natural with selective breeding to modify their genomes for 10,000 years. BTW, cobra venom and ricin are completely natural and organic and are arguably more unhealthy than GMO corn chips.

  3. Robert Ford says:

    anyone have an IQ breakdown of anti-GMO people vs pro? i think i could guess what it’d look like:)

  4. mem_somerville says:

    There was a very telling line in the LA Times today–by Kathleen Merrigan, former USDA now a “consultant” to the organic industry, says:

    Natural foods are eroding the organic market space, despite the lack of
    any clear-cut standard for what the term means or federal oversight.

    You don’t say.,0,1685530.story#axzz2nxrPmKIv

  5. jh says:

    Well, I’m a GMO supporter, but I find the idea of referring to GM foods as “natural” is bizarre.

    There actually is a significant distinction between conventional breeding and GM “breeding”. In the conventional breeding process, you can’t cross an ant with an orange. The species or varieties that you cross have to be reasonably close to one another – close enough that they could be generated under “natural” conditions. I suppose this is also true for some GM products, but not all of them.

    I would be on board with allowing conventionally-bred foods to be called “natural” – or, perhaps, “naturally-bred” – and disallowing that label for GM foods.

    But how about this: GM growers could use the label “naturally grown” for GM products grown in a conventional setting! There you go! But of course that couldn’t be applied to lab meat. Lab meat producers will need their own earthy-sounding label too. How about this: “chemically grown from all natural elements”…nah, that word “chemical” is no good…this one’s a tough one…how about “natural element-based”…or…”made of all-natural elements”. Jeez, that’s about the best I can do.

  6. Buddy199 says:

    How about scientifically proven to be harmless, healthy and nutricious vs. not.

  7. TeeBone says:

    My IQ is 165 and I am against GMO.

    How about you?

  8. jh says:

    The “Scientifically Proven Harmless” brand is a sure loser. If you see a company called Scientifically Proven Harmless Foods Inc, short the stock. It must taste bad or feel gross or smell gross or look gross, because if it didn’t they wouldn’t have to put that on the label and make such a big deal of it. I think it goes right up there with the “Safe to Eat Food” brand and the “There’s-Nothing-Wrong-With-This-Food-So-Why-Not-Try-It” brand. Good Jayzuz, you’d be better off calling it “Lab Generated Genetically Modified Food”. At least then people will know what’s “wrong” with it.

    But, you know, maybe if you start with a kids cereal first and, say, put a cartoon spaceman on the front of the box, you could destigmatize it for future generations…

  9. jh says:

    Just goes to show you why people laugh at that old Far Side cartoon with the kid pushing on the door at the School for the Gifted. They know it’s the simple things that some gifted people just can’t grasp.

  10. Guest says:

    Just out of curiosity, can you use the word “grown” for something that’s “grown” chemically? It seems like a bit of a stretch even though it’s common chemical lingo to say, for example, you “grew” salt crystal. I really wanted to put “grown” in with the lab meat, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

    Now what about this: could you say your lab meat was “raised” – I mean, if you grew it in a room with glass walls, could you say it was “raised with natural sunshine”?

  11. jh says:

    Hey, I got it!!!

    We could turn the GMO label into a marketing coup! How about a kid’s cereal with a happy and fun looking scientist on the front of the box called “GM-Os”!

    Or what about some kind of manly-man food – you know, some kind of chunky man-soup in a can – with a hot babe on the label called “GM-Ohhhhs”?

    Dude, this is the ticket: “Tired of lacking the spark when you need it? Conventional foods often leave men feeling worn out. Not GM Ohhhhs. Scientifically proven to be Healthy and Invigorating, High Performance GM Ohhhhhs will give you all the spark you need whenever you need it. She knows what we’re talking about.”

  12. jh says:

    Here you go:

  13. Rob Hooft says:

    And they call it genetically modifying, or in this case “engineering at the genetic level”. Are opponents of GMO trying to imply normal breeding practice does not change anything at the genetic level?

    Actually: normal breeding changes a gazillion things in the genomes at once, for most changes we do not understand what the effects could be. What we call “genetically modifying” is a precision action for which the direct consequences are fairly well predictable.

  14. J M says:

    I don’t know if the breastworks facing me are completely natural but they definitely have the desired effect 😉

  15. jh says:

    engineered for performance, no doubt. 🙂

  16. Loren Eaton says:

    Well, to the best of my knowledge (and I’ve been doing this for 25 years), we work with A T G C, 20 amino acids, polypeptides and proteins. The METHOD is different, not the building blocks. And let’s face it, conventional breeding utilizes tools that result in plant varieties that would NEVER appear on their own. Maize would still be teosinte, for example, if left to its own devices. And in terms of safety, some of the most toxic things on the planet are perfectly natural–aflatoxin, fumonisin, ricin cyanide. Getting hung up on a word that people tend to interpret differently is total waste of time.

  17. Loren Eaton says:

    Well struck, sir!! Spoken like a true smart-^&*!!

  18. bertinanth764 says:

    my Aunty Addison got an awesome blue
    Mercedes M-Class ML63 AMG by working part-time online. published here

  19. Robert Ford says:

    “My IQ is 165…”

    no it’s not, you liar.

  20. jh says:

    ask and ye shall receive….

  21. jh says:

    “Maize would still be teosinte, for example, if left to its own devices.”

    That’s probably true, but in most cases each individual cross would be possible in the wild if the species involved had overlapping ranges. Conventional breeding is basically a human, as opposed to natural, selection process. Humans choose what to breed, “nature” does the work.

    You could make the argument that everything that humans make is natural because humans are natural, and that’s fine if that’s what your definition is, but you could also make the argument that everything humans make is organic because humans are organic. So why do we have an “organic” label?

    IMO, it’s perfectly reasonable for conventional growers to find a way to distinguish their product, even if it’s just finding a way to exclude other products by what they can’t say about themselves.

  22. Matthew Slyfield says:

    You forgot arsenic.

  23. Loren Eaton says:

    ….apparently I forgot strychnine and colchicine as well.

  24. Brian Schmidt says:

    The problem with Keith’s argument, to the extent he has an argument, is that he starts with his intuition and works backwards. A better way would be to define “natural”, which he didn’t do, and/or to dispute the regulatory definition.

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