Costco ‘Teaches the Controversy’ over GMOs

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Admittedly, I’m not a big shopper. My wife, however, can spend hours in a single department store at the mall. One of her favorite places is Costco, a store that she might successfully drag me to once every five years. Somehow, she manages to go every week. If any of our neighbors ever runs out of cereal or toilet paper, we’ve definitely got them covered.

Last week, just days after I wrote a very critical article skewering Whole Foods for lying to all of its customers about the benefits of organic food, my wife brought me a magazine that Costco was giving away in its pharamcy. She saw an article on GMOs that I just had to read. She probably knew my rising blood pressure would cause my eyeballs to explode, and she wanted to be there when it happened.

The article, titled “Food: The Next Generation,” starts like this: “[W]hile some say agricultural biotechnology can save our species, others fear we’re unwittingly sowing death and destruction.” There’s nothing quite like an apocalyptic whopper to kick off a fair and balanced debate. Buckle up! Costco is going to teach the controversy.

Costco first gives us a short, and inaccurate, history of agriculture:

For decades, farmers have tinkered with plant biology in a quest for better crops. At first, they bred plants together to enhance some traits…

For decades? More like millennia. Ever since humans began agriculture some 12,000 years ago, we have been tinkering with plant biology. Through selective breeding, we have generated many of the crops that we use to this very day. Compare, for instance, what corn looks like compared to its ancestor (teosinte). They look nothing at all alike. This transformation was due to human artificial selection, and amazingly, the differences between these two plants result from variations in only about five regions of the genome.

The Costco article then describes the benefits of GMOs. To its credit, it does a very good job. It explains that GMOs help control weeds, resist insects, add nutrients, and improve yield. But, in its effort to teach the controversy, it quickly goes off the rails:

[A]ctivists against the technology have one major fear: the unknown.

So what? “The unknown” is not a particularly good reason to reject a technology. Your laptop or smartphone might explode. But I doubt this “unknown” prevents you from using them. A far more relevant consideration is risk. What are the risks of implementing the technology? What are the risks of not implementing the technology? Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential harms? The answer to those questions should decide GMO policy, not fear of the unknown.

Remember, every single innovation ventures into the unknown. Science confronts the unknown, and technology conquers it. That’s the story of human existence.

For example, some experts warn, genetic engineering could unintentionally create toxic compounds that, once ingested, may have negative health effects.

Who are these supposed experts? (Dr. Oz, Joseph Mercola, Greenpeace, and the Union of Concerned Scientists don’t count.) Scientists do not transfer genes into plants that they do not understand. GMO scientists use well-studied genes, whose functions are known. The crops are then tested for toxicity.

There’s also a concern that transferring genes from one plant to another might trigger allergies…

Again, not true. Scientists do not use genes that encode known allergens, and GMOs are safety tested for potential allergenicity.

If you’d like to steer clear of the most common bioengineered crops… check food labels for cottonseed, rapeseed, or canola oil; soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate, and isoflavone; and cornmeal, corn flour, sugar, gluten, and corn syrup.

Good luck with that. Some 75% of the food in the grocery store contains at least one genetically modified ingredient. That includes the food at Costco. They probably should have thought of that before frightening all of their customers.