An anti-scientific cult has way too much control over non-GMO food labels

There’s a cheerful-looking picture proliferating on packages at the grocery store. An orange butterfly perches on a blade of grass forming a green check mark next to the words “NON-GMO Project.”

This innocuous little label is the emblem of the Non-GMO Project, an organization intent on misleading consumers with the end goal of limiting the number of agricultural innovations accomplished with the use of genetic engineering.

Remarkably, the government agencies that consumers trust to regulate nutritional information — the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture — have so far done nothing about it.

The Non-GMO Project earns a pretty penny licensing “GMO-Free” labels to companies, which appear on more than 50,000 foods and grocery products potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars.

The labels play off the false idea that genetically modified organisms pose a risk to human health and the environment, when in reality, all of the credible accepted scientific evidence shows that the reverse is true. Approved GMOs are not only as safe as their nonengineered and organic counterparts, but in many ways they are even more beneficial. The science showing this has been evaluated and accepted by government consumer and health protection agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration under administrations of both parties.

International organizations such as the World Health Organization, and science and health associations such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association have also embraced scientific findings that weigh in favor of GMO products. There are more than 400 peer-reviewed reports that detail the health benefits of biotech plants and foods and as of 2017, 67 countries have formally adopted 20 biotech crops for food, feed, and cultivation.

Fundamentally, the business of selling “GMO-Free” labels depends entirely on fostering needless consumer fears over nonexistent health and environmental risks. Once these fears are stoked, consumers then put pressure on food makers to make their products GMO-free, which then leads to greater demand for the Non-GMO Project’s services.

This tactic is a neat illustration of the phenomenon known as “ Zohnerism,” the “use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion.” Nathan Zohner was a 14-year-old who distributed an alarming report on the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide to classmates, and then asked what should be done about the substance, if anything. He listed risks as causing excessive sweating and urination or severe burns in gaseous form.

What is dihydrogen monoxide? Just a complicated chemical name for water. Rather than ask teachers about it or do any of their own investigation, 86 percent of the kids he surveyed voted to ban dihydrogen monoxide for “causing too many deaths.”

So while it may be true a particular product lacks GMOs, the insinuation that they are something to avoid leads the public to a false conclusion.

Stigmatizing GMOs is just as absurd as scaring people about the risks of water. One might even call it a bit kooky, which begins to make sense given the origins of the Non-GMO Project: an anti-science cult in Fairfield, Iowa, made up of the followers of the late Maharshi Mahesh Yogi.

Some will remember the Maharishi as the promoter of transcendental meditation and rejected guru of the early Beatles. Others may recall his followers’ claims that they levitate and fly powered by transcendental meditation. But his followers also include anti-science and technology zealots who are intent on undermining modern agriculture based on a belief that removing bioengineered crops will help bring about world peace and “invincibility” for all mankind.

Despite its professed commitment to transparency and consumer protection, the Non-GMO Project is conspicuously silent about the role Maharishi followers play in its history and ideology. And why is that?

The Non-GMO Project’s marketing department understands that selling its labels to mass market food producers like General Mills and Nabisco, and to consumers in general, could be a lot less profitable if the public fully understood it as part of a larger plan to replace safe, scientifically based, affordable, and successful American farming technologies with something called “Vedic” agriculture.

In a 2010 video interview, John Fagan, a founding partner, former board member, and longtime advisor to the Non-GMO Project, spelled out in detail how Vedic agriculture would replace modern farming using the “sounds of nature to enliven the full value of consciousness in the food” and thereby align crops with the “fluxuating fields of the universe” — the same forces, presumably, powering Maharishi followers to fly.

Should an anti-scientific cult be permitted to call all the shots where consumer safety and health is concerned?

There are some encouraging signs that the feds are beginning to focus attention on the perfidy. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb took to Twitter earlier this month expressing a renewed commitment to review labeling claims for the benefit of consumer understanding. This attention could not come soon enough.

As attorney and professor of law Dean McGrath wrote in The Hill, “The law is clear that food claims made on websites come under FDA’s labeling guidelines. It is also clear that the assertions the [Non-GMO] Project makes on its website should be captured under FTC’s equally strict laws against misleading advertising.”

A little FDA enforcement can go a long way toward improving the health and well-being of American consumers who deserve accuracy and transparency in the labeling of their food products.

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. who writes for several national publications.

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