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Food Fright 2.0

June 21, 2016
Flush with success in passing a Vermont food labeling law that she hopes will single out GMO agricultural ingredients for consumer avoidance, Stacy Malkan of U.S. Right to Know now takes an opening shot in the next campaign against biotechnology-derived food ingredients. Ms. Malkan’s essay on Huffington Post focuses first on tearing down “the notion that technology can save us.” Next, she seeks to convince readers – primarily through repetition, rather than evidence – that the foods they eat are not regulated in any way. Consumers ought to understand the rhetoric of the organic food industry’s fight for market share as they evaluate new anti-GMO food labels.

Ms. Malkan opens her essay with the factual statement, “On June 1, U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for EverSweet with a ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) designation.” Despite this direct evidence of regulatory oversight, she repeats the mantra throughout the essay that “there are no safety standards and no testing requirements for foods developed with synthetic biology.” The fact is that synthetic biology is – as Ms. Malkan recognizes – “a new form of genetic engineering” subject to the same regulatory oversight as other genetic engineering processes. Products developed with the technology have been approved under the same rules as other biotechnology products.

Ms. Malkan also wants to convince readers that biotechnology products have not benefited consumers. She attempts this by repeating the phrase, “The marketing promises have failed to materialize.” Many benefits of biotechnology products have materialized, but have failed to gain widespread recognition or consumer awareness. Jason Kelly, chief executive of Ginkgo Bioworks, wrote an eye-opening piece in the New York Times last month, extolling some of the virtues – including vitamin fortification of many foods.

Ms. Malkan’s overall goal is to ensure that “battle lines get drawn on the new food frontier.” Which is another way of saying that the organic food industry wants to capture a growing market among wealthy “consumers in Western markets who are shying away from the mainstream food brands.” And the primary weapon in the battle that the organic industry will use is to promote consumer fear and dread of “food products created with strange-sounding lab techniques.”

I doubt that consumers evaluating new marketing campaigns for “GMO-free” products will first stop to ask themselves whether or not they believe technology can save them. But they should become aware that the battle lines being drawn are for a battle over market share.