Humanity needs an innovative food system to not only survive, but to thrive. In 2050, nearly 10 billion people will populate the Earth. Future generations will be dealing with not only greater numbers of neighbors and denser population centers, but also a food system likely to face the negative impacts of climate change, including more bugs with the potential to damage crops, and adverse farming conditions brought on by mass drought.
The conditions that will befall our food system require innovative solutions like those offered by biotechnology to ensure food security for the billions of Earth’s inhabitants.
That’s why it’s troubling to see the growing trend of food companies using meaningless terms and confusing assertions in their labeling efforts (many of which fear monger against biotechnology). While they may be generating greater profit, they are exploiting consumer unease, thereby making it more difficult to foster public support for badly-needed investments in an innovative food system that will help our grandchildren live in a better world.
A recent study found that approximately 45 percent of U.S. citizens thought that GMOs should be prohibited no matter the benefits associated with the technique. This is concerning because the vast majority of scientists say that GMOs are safe. However, large food companies are taking advantage of consumers’ fears and adding meaningless absence claims to their front-of-package labeling. In fact, they are slapping GMO-free labels on products that never contained GMOs to begin with: milk, pink rock salt, etc.
These meaningless labels come at the expense of farmers who rely on biotechnology to make a living and produce the food you eat in a more environmentally sustainable manner.
To rebut the exploitation of consumer concern being deployed by food manufacturers, we must understand how innovative agriculture is already benefiting us. Citrus greening is a disease spread by an insect that limits the nutrient uptake of citrus trees and causes the fruit to be misshapen, bitter, and drop from the tree before the fruit is ripe. Eventually, the disease results in tree mortality, but in the meantime, farmers are faced with increased production costs coupled with lower income because they can’t sell citrus products.
The USDA takes the threat of citrus greening seriously and is studying whether GMO citrus could save the industry, similar to the introduction of GMO papaya in Hawaii. While scientists may be able to provide a GMO solution that could save an industry, if consumers are regularly stoked to fear the technology, will they buy it?
How can we fight back against food companies decimating safe science through fear mongering marketing? By utilizing a critical thinking framework that includes diligent clarification, slow thinking, and humble self-reflection.
When seeing a GMO-free label, ask yourself why the food might have been modified in the first place using a GMO solution. Generally speaking, there is no need to modify a food if farmers or consumers do not benefit in some way (for example, through reduced need for pesticide). Furthermore, the regulatory costs associated with a GMO solution indicate that the same solution could not be obtained using “conventional breeding techniques.”
Slow thinking aims to allow for appropriate inferences based on logic, probability, and evidence. When thinking about the trade-offs of a GMO solution for a particular food, if a GMO solution alternative even exists, think about the effects on sustainability of the entire food system. How does aversion to food technology affect farmers’ profits, the availability of food and prices paid by consumers, and the likely overall impact of consumption on the environment?
The choice landscape for food in rich countries is vast. This ubiquitous presence of food in our lives can make us confident that we understand the food supply. But only small fractions of populations in rich countries are employed by agriculture, meaning that most of us really know very few details about how food gets from farm to fork. This can be a recipe for what psychologists call overconfidence (being too certain about our beliefs) and knowledge illusion (thinking that we understand how things work, when really, we do not).
Humbly self-reflecting on what we know and do not know about food can help us recognize uncertainty and continue asking good questions. Critical thinkers are diligent in seeking the truth, do not jump to conclusions and are not overconfident in drawing conclusions. Some food companies are hoping consumers do not put forth the effort to understand the claims made by labels.
Next time you’re grocery shopping, do your due diligence. Critically reviewing food companies’ marketing schemes will not only help your pocketbook and family, but will help farmers and future generations who will realize the impacts of a more populated Earth and the adverse impacts of climate change. If we can take fear mongering out of innovative agriculture, we will all benefit.
Brandon McFadden is a University of Florida professor who focuses on consumer behavior and food production.