GMO Labeling: The Case for Civil Discourse
22 Aug, 2013
Genetically engineered food is a divisive topic that can generate strong emotions. Some people have the ability to “agree to disagree” and be respectful of another person’s opinion. Others argue and resort to insults and personal attacks, which unfortunately is more common—on both sides.
Pro-GMO educational session
I was on the receiving end of the insults recently at the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) Expo held in Chicago. Bruce Chassy, an emeritus professor of food science from the University of Illinois, lost his cool and insulted me after I disputed a few points he made following his presentation at a GMO educational session.
In his presentation, Chassy attacked GMO opponents. He described how they had billions of dollars to smear GM technology, and called them “a bunch of liars.” He showed a photo of starving children in Africa with bloated stomachs, saying they are going hungry because of opposition to GMOs. He blasted initiatives to label GM foods, saying they violated the First Amendment and that many state labeling bills have “zero tolerance” standards for GMOs, meaning that a food would have to be labeled with just traces of GMOs. He showed a cartoon of two cavemen; one saying to the other “we exercise, eat organic and free-range food but we’re still dying at 30 years old.” Chassy also said that virtually all the soybeans grown in the world are GMO.
“I’m going to be rude to you”
Following his presentation, Chassy took questions from the audience. After a few questions, I went up to microphone, introduced myself as the editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report and politely disputed several of his points. I said there were no state GMO labeling bills that had a zero tolerance standard. Chassy got flustered and asked another speaker, Wayne Parrott, who said that California’s Proposition 37 had a zero tolerance requirement. It didn’t. I said that GMO labeling did not increase consumer food costs in Europe. Chassy responded that European consumer costs increased 10% – 15% and that “it’s in the scientific literature.” (I’m still looking for that. An analysis by the National Economic Research Associates for the government of the United Kingdom found that consumer food costs would increase by at most $4.00 per year with GMO labeling.) Regarding Chassy’s “virtually all soybeans are GMO” claim, I said that the US alone produces two million acres of food-grade non-GMO soybeans each year.
At this point Chassy became visibly frustrated and said: “I’m going to be rude to you.” And he was, telling me I was deluded among other insults. Then he waved his hand to dismiss me and said “Now let someone else ask a question.”
“On behalf of IFT, I want to apologize.”
Another person may have angrily returned the insults to Chassy. Instead, I sat down, shut down my laptop computer, and left the meeting. As I was leaving a woman from Kraft Foods approached me and said, “He was very rude. I’ve seen people on both sides act that way. There needs to be dialogue.” She then said: “On behalf of IFT, I want to apologize.”
Kirsten Berman, who has a website GlutenFreeGal, also attended the session. After Chassy’s tirade she yelled out how rude he was. “I was so appalled and disgusted by his behavior,” she said.
Chassy’s attack didn’t bother me. I was polite, and he was rude and intolerant. The audience saw that.
At another IFT educational session a few years ago, I saw another tirade, this time from a Monsanto representative in the audience. The speaker was an organic consultant who discussed organic certification. During the Q&A, the Monsanto rep, who was a few seats from me, stood up, pointed his finger, and yelled: “What is the organic industry going to do to prevent their genes from contaminating our genetically engineered crops?”
The outburst stunned the audience, but the speaker calmly responded to his question—quite a contrast to Chassy’s personal attack.
I agree with the woman from Kraft Foods. There needs to be respectful dialogue.
Unfortunately, people like Chassy have zero tolerance for different perspectives than their own.