The Spin on Frankenfoods – Are GMOs a boon, a danger, or is it a PR problem? Are GMOs a boon, a danger, or is it a PR problem?

Bring up the phrase “genetically modified organism” and emotions run high. “GMO” means “frankenfood” to many people: It’s yet another scary thing that science and technology have foisted upon us, in this case making us consume fish genes that somehow have been jimmied into our
haricots verts
. It isn’t right. It isn’t natural.

Or so runs the popular belief.

man smiling

Professor Fred Caporaso, Ph.D.

Yet it’s a truth only randomly acknowledged that many so-called “natural” foods are not in the pristine, primitive form our ancestors knew. Even if you shop at your local natural foods grocer, you can’t escape foods that have been manipulated by man since the dawn of agriculture.

Food and dairy animals have been selectively bred and hybridized for many centuries to be plumper, heavier, give more milk, yield more meat. The same goes for food crops. The apples in grocery stores today are much larger and sweeter than the little tart cider apples of old Europe and colonial America. As recently as the 1960s, common wheat was crossbred by Norman Borlaug to achieve the shorter stalks, heavier seedheads and hardier constitution of modern bread wheat. (Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize and was known as “the man who saved a billion lives” for this contribution to the world food supply.)

But now there are genetically modified organisms, and suddenly we’ve moved from farmers cross-pollinating the best apples to scientists in labs injecting genes into foods. The newness of it – GM foods burst into the public consciousness only in the 1990s – disconcerted people, and the media attention frightened much of the public. Was that early negativity justified, and does it continue to be? Should we continue to be wary of all GMO foods? Or are GMO foods the best hope to save the planet’s food-starved population, much as Borlaug did in the mid-20

Science professionals have varying opinions. Many scientists say that GMO foods are the most obvious option to feed an increasingly hungry world beset by overpopulation and worsening climate change.


“I talk about this in my classes a lot,” says Fred Caporaso, Ph.D., professor of food science at Chapman University. “The world doesn’t really have a choice – we have 7 billion people on the planet now; we’ll have 9 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100. We have to feed them all somehow. There is a huge demand for food already, in increasingly challenging growing conditions around the globe, and it’s only looming larger. We
to pursue the study and development of GMO foods.”


How They’re Made: Genes from one species’ DNA are artificially inserted into the genes of another animal or plant. In food crops often the aim is to create better resistance to pests, diseases or environmental conditions, reduce spoilage or add nutritional value.

Introduced into the Food Supply: In the mid-1990s.

In Today’s Crops: 93% of soybeans, 90% of corn, 82% of cotton.

 Impact on Yield: The Union of Concerned Scientists reviewed 12 academic studies covering 20 years and found an increased yield for only one GMO crop, Bt corn.

 Consumer Reception: 57% of Americans say they are less likely to buy foods labeled “GMO.”

 Six Companies Predominate: Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow Agrosciences, Pioneer (DuPont).

All the key scientific organizations support the safety of GMO foods, Caporaso said, listing the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration among them.

“The objections from the press and public to GMO foods are mostly emotional – they have nothing to do with science,” Caporaso said. “The safety record of these foods is very good.”

Chapman food science professor Lilian Were, Ph.D., agrees, although she also recognizes the emotional impetus behind people’s mistrust of GMOs, food additives, preservatives and other non-“natural” ingredients.

“People tend to be suspicious of anything with a long scientific name or that science has developed,” she said. “A lot of this is driven by the popular journalists and bloggers people follow, even though they are usually not scientists.”

How can scientists compete? Go where the conversations are, to engage people in the blogosphere, on social media, Were said.

“But there are a lot more followers of the fear-mongers than of the scientists,” she acknowledges.

Health communications expert Lisa Sparks, Ph.D., chair of Chapman’s Department of Communication Studies, says that a lack of transparency in large corporations and even in the government contributes to the public’s feelings of mistrust. People are becoming more discerning about what they read and believe, she added.


“The reason for a lot of the discomfort is that people feel their food decisions are being made for them, by big companies,” she said. “People mistrust Big Agribusiness, its ties to the government and its internecine dealings. They read things like the fact that Philip Morris, the tobacco company, once owned a big chunk of Kraft, for example.”

woman smiling

Professor Lilian Were, Ph.D.

Sparks says the recent run of popular documentary films about Big Food –
Forks Over Knives
Supersize Me
, etc. – is an indication of how concerned people are. “I wouldn’t say these are grounded in research; they’re advocacy films, guided by the directors’ intent. But they’re a response to the public’s level of discomfort and the kind of mistrust we’re seeing.”

Adding to the level of fear, said Were, is the on-again, off-again demonizing of foods and ingredients, a game media outlets play with glee as they report each new study “proving” that coffee is bad for you … no, scratch that, coffee is good for you! Eggs are the villains in your diet … but no, now they’re the heroes!

“Trans fats were once touted as the healthy alternative to butter,” Were said. “Except as of last summer, they are no longer considered safe. All of that scares people. There’s a feeling that every day could be April Fool’s Day with nutrition.”

Were agrees that the mistrust of institutions plays into the public’s fears. “People don’t trust government, they don’t trust the FDA, they don’t trust scientists. In the case of food additives and GMOs, they wonder who exactly is benefiting most: the consumers or Big Food?”

The big factor contributing to the public’s mistrust is media coverage, said Caporaso. “To me, the word ‘balanced’ – as in ‘balanced story’ – is a problem. The media always want to ‘balance’ the scientific view with opposing views, even if that means it’s uninformed activists vs. scientists. There is no ‘balance’ on scientific issues, and the media need to realize that.”

The debate is not going away, said Sparks, who believes that all the media and Internet coverage is a good thing. People are more informed on these issues than ever before and will vote with their pocketbooks, she added. “Consumers are becoming a lot more mindful, a lot more critical in their consumption of food – and of information.”

Mary Platt

Mary Platt is director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University


  • GMO’s might be more accepted if companies like Monsanto weren’t tied to and in charge of the production and mass distribution of them; e.g., Monsanto produces a herbicide called Roundup. Roundup is sprayed on Roundup Ready crops that are genetically modified to resist the herbicide.

    Monsanto’s Roundup was labeled cancer causing by California in September, 2015.

    • Glyphosate is categorized as a Group 2A, probably carcinogenic. Ethanol is a Group 1, known to be carcinogenic in humans. California is wine country and doles out known carcinogens to its citizens and the world regularly. I see no one raising the alarm over it.

      • So you are defending the use of a carcinogen because you erroneously claim that a state “doles” out wine (if only)

        And the Monsanto conspiracy theory nutters are supposed to be won over by this? lol *slow clap*

        • I’m not defending anything. I’m pointing out the obvious discrepancy of condemning a material that is probably carcinogenic while making money allowing the sale and consumption of a known carcinogen.

          • Nope. It is not a discrepancy. You are responding to a comment about round-up, not a comment about every known carcinogen.

            What you are doing is called deflection.

          • How is it deflection? It’s a question of why a known carcinogen (alcohol) is legal and its consumption is encouraged, yet a material that is “probably” carcinogenic is banned. It’s illogical.

          • While yes this is deflection, the statement does have relevance to the discussion because the first argument simply an “appeal to authority” argument, in this case governing bodies (which we all trust for scientific decision making-that’s supposed to be sarcasm), and is equally invalid to make a case for or against the use of glyphosate.
            What no-one seems to be saying is that the carcinogen classification for glyphosate was given for people with occupational level agricultural exposure and had nothing to do with exposure in food consumption or handling, which currently has no evidence that glyphosate provides a carcinogenic risk to humans.
            Furthermore, the discussion of glyphosate is actually a deflection argument that ignores the growing diversity of GMO crops. Glyphosate really has little to do with the safety of GMO’s themselves. BT corn is not roundup ready. They Hawaiian papaya, innate potato, flavor savor tomato and arctic apple are not glyphosate resistant crops. By bringing up glyphosate, you can only discussion the production methods of one type of GMO crops (currently the largest subset, but that is changing), pro’s and con’s of glyphosate as a herbicide, but not GMO’s themselves.

    • Mass distribution? Dude, they’re a company. They make a product. People buy the product because they want it. In this case, farmers buy the seeds because they want that type of seed. That’s no more “mass distribution” than any company selling its product.

    • Glyphosphate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, and is sprayed on all types of crops. Roundup Ready crops are resistant, meaning they will get a higher yield (less crop lost to weed control) for the same amount of herbicide sprayed.

    • Yep. The pro-GMO people will not fess up to the atrocities committed by Monsanto and then wonder why people feel like there is a conspiracy.

    • The EU just did an extensive reexamination of glyphosate and also reviewed the conclusions of the IARC that gave glyphosate the probable carcinogen label. California bases many of their carcinogenic labels based on IARC reports. The EFSA discuss why they decided that glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans in this report for non-specialists.

  • I’ve read some compelling evidence that micro-RNA from GMOs survives the digestive tract, which can alter cell function, ultimately leading to cancer. Also, Americans have some of the highest rates of Irritable Bowel and other digestive issues. I can’t help but believe that tinkering with Gaia will only lead to more problems.

    • Can you provide links to scientific studies that show this? Do they demonstrate why micro-RNA from GMOs would somehow be more likely to pass through digestion than micro-RNA from non-GMOs? Do you have links to statistics which show that Americans have a higher instance of irritable bowel?

  • Not only is there mounting evidence against GMO crops, there is also the issue of patenting DNA/life and corporate giants like Monsanto suing small, organic farmers for finding GM DNA in their crops. GMO crops are clearly not the solution for world-wide food distribution, especially considering 26 nations have banned them altogether.

    If we want to discuss REAL ways that we can grow enough food for the world, why don’t we talk about putting an end to the meat and dairy industries? These are clearly extremely wasteful. All of those resources and farmland could go to feed the world many times over. We can feed over 56 billion farm animals that are slaughtered each year, but putting food on the table for a mere 7 billion humans is impossible without GM technology? Let’s put it simple: there are more than enough natural resources to make feeding the world possible. But when you put greed and profit into it, there’s suddenly not enough . . .

      • Why not start with the Seralini study?

        Or are the only credible studies those backed by the same scientists/lobbyists who want to prove that GM food is a safe and viable alternative to the real problem at hand (which remains unaddressed in your reply).

        We could go back and forth all night comparing studies, but the more interesting questions are why companies like Monsanto threatened to sue CBS for inviting Bernie Sanders on to speak out against GMO foods? Why has Monsanto invested so much money in preventing Americans from having food labels that indicate whether or not food is GMO? Clearly there is something much deeper stake, and that is our birth right to clean, natural foods that have not been altered by GM science.

        Answer this: how can we feed 56 billion land animals — who eat FAR more than the average human daily — but we can’t feed our population? The solution isn’t GM technology. The solution is to fix a broken food system.

        • VALID? Really. The article is 100% against GMOs. No valid scientific study would be that bias.
          One of the topics listed is “Myth: GM foods are safe to eat – Truth: Studies show that GM foods can be toxic or allergenic”

          Yes… but then again so are certified organic strawberries, tomatoes, or any type of food. It is all toxic and/or an allergen to someone, somewhere. So that statement has no “scientific” meaning whatsoever.

          In fact most of the arguments here in this blog are more about how one major company controls this market. Yes, that maybe a valid point, but it must be separated from the product(s) it produces.

          That’s like saying because Apple and Samsung control most of the smart phone market, smart phones are all bad. No.

          • Actually, no it’s not the same. First, you don’t have to eat Apple and Samsung. With GMO’s, if you consume any processed foods at all, you are more than likely consuming them without your knowledge or consent. Even if you try to avoid eating them by buying organic, you are still likely consuming them, since many organic crops are contaminated with GMOs due to cross-pollination and gene drift. And control of the entire food supply is far more sinister and worrisome than controlling the smart phone market. The agricultural biotech industry would like all food to be controlled by them, and unfortunately they are succeeding rapidly through aggressive patent prosecutions, the regulation of seeds, preemption of local and democratically desired bans on GMO cultivation, and other short-sighted legal mechanisms that favor them. As two scientists recently opined in the NYT: the agricultural biotech industry is becoming “too big to fail” — and one day we may all deeply regret letting that industry run amok with very little meaningful regulation or oversight.

  • I fail to understand the argument about how we need GMOs to “feed the world”? Specifically, I do not understand how creating organisms that are Roundup Ready herbicide resistant or pest resistant (arguably, since superbugs and superweeds have developed in response) help to feed the world? It’s a false argument/false morally superior defense, and fails to explain why Americans, who are not starving, need to be fed GMOs without their knowledge or consent in order to help support feeding the world?

    Big Ag refuses to label their products, and the FDA refuses to require them to do so (claiming that there’s no difference between GMO foods and regular foods and thus no need to label them in order to not be misleading. Interesting, however, that GMOs are different enough from non-GMOs to enjoy patent protection!). If there’s nothing to hide — why the expensive, aggressive tactics to resist labeling when surveys show that roughly 90% of Americans are in favor of labeling? The answer is clear: Big Ag knows that many won’t buy their products if they knew they contained genetic engineering.

    It also really bothers me when academics/scientists try to undermine the arguments against GMOs by claiming that those views are “unscientific” — there are plenty of scientists with relevant expertise who do not believe that GMOs have been found to be safe for consumption or for the environment — and who believe it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. See Angelika Hillbeck et. al.’s article in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe: “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” I am disappointed with this article and the pro-biotech slant.

  • Just as the term ‘cancer’ covers a myriad of diseases, so ‘GM foods’ covers a host of issues, some scientific, while others are economic and social. Tell me that ‘Roundup-ready’ crops are good for “feeding the world” and “safe for humans”, then I have no data to refute your assertion. But I will tell you that spraying Roundup, or whatever, from aircraft negatively impacts other fauna and flora that are beneficial to mankind and the community. Similarly, the aggressive marketing policies of seed companies with regards to ‘seed saving’ does a disservice to a farm’s business and also genetic diversity.

    As a scientist, I don’t want to be ‘force fed’ a product of agribusiness’ choosing. Label food as ‘GMO’ or ‘non-GMO’ and I will make the choice based on personal preference. For example, I already make such a choice with dairy products, even though Agribusiness lobbied the government to make packaging state that rBSH does not alter the nature of the milk product. While this may be true,in my view it does alter the quality of life for the animals involved and I would prefer not to choose it.

    The biggest danger, in my view, is lack of genetic diversity in the food supply, and how will seed companies respond when insects evolve (as is already happening with corn borers) to circumvent the human benefits of GMO food?