The New York State Parent Teacher Association (PTA) has proposed a measure that will require all New York state schools to serve meals free of genetically modified ingredients (or GMOs).
While I applaud parents for taking more interest in their children’s nutritional development and becoming more aware of the types of meals being served at school, the bad information being promoted by these parents and endorsed by the state’s PTA is staggering and potentially harmful to families—particularly those with modest incomes.
The resolution being pushed in New York State is riddled with inaccurate and unscientific statements. For instance, the resolution boldly states that GMO technology “creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.” Yet, zero scientific evidence exists to show any “instability” in GM foods. As for traditional cross breeding methods, well, those methods have resulted in quite a few—to use the resolution’s phrase— “combinations” that also “don’t occur in nature.” In fact, without the manipulation of traditional breeding, school kids wouldn’t be eating such lunchroom staples as watermelon, corn, cauliflower, bananas and cabbage, just to name a few. Thanks to traditional breeding, kids all over the country can enjoy healthy and quite “unnatural” fruits and vegetables. Does the New York State PTA want to ban these foods as well?
Next, the resolution states that “some laboratory research is demonstrating a link between pesticide dependent GMOs and GE foods to negative health consequences.” That might sound convincing, except for the tiny fact that no such reputable study exists. Of course, there are (to use the term extremely charitably) “studies” that claim to show a link between GMOs and certain terrifying diseases, but those studies have been widely discredited, either because the study was produced by an anti-GMO activist organization, it was distributed by a predatory publisher (fake scientific journals that publish for a fee—in other words, they’ll publish anything—even a script from a television show—for enough money), or because the study used questionable methods or can’t be replicated, which is one of the principles of the scientific method.
The resolution next suggests “more transparent and conclusive studies need to be conducted before GMOs are assumed to be safe for human and animal consumption.” This claim is particularly galling considering that over two thousand studies have been conducted on GM technology, the latest of which reviewed 29 years of livestock data on roughly 100 billion animals that were fed GM corn and other crops. What did this landmark study find? No harm or uncommon health trends have ever emerged from feeding animals GM feed. In addition to this study, the New York PTA might be interested to know that a few organizations support GM technology and have certified that’s it’s safe for human and animal consumption. Those organizations include:
• the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
• the U.S. Department of Agriculture
• the American Association for the Advancement of Science
• the American Medical Association
• the National Academy of Sciences
• the World Health Organization
• the French Academy of Science
• the Food Standards Agency of Australia/New Zealand
• the Union of German Academics of Sciences and Humanities
• the European Commission
• the Royal Society of Medicine
• the academies of science in Brazil, China, India, and Mexico.
Now, I know those organizations listed above don’t match the scientific heft of the New York PTA, but hopefully this information will reassure one or two moms out there.
The PTA’s real hubris appears when they say that school lunches should use “science based nutrition standards” while failing, yet again, to mention that the U.S. government’s own nutrition standards say nothing about banning GMOs. Nor does Michelle Obama’s own school lunch reform bill, passed by Congress in 2009, vilify GM ingredients. The PTA resolution ends by weakly pointing out that a “growing number of major food companies [are] voluntarily labeling their food products containing GMOs.” Yes, that would be convincing if major food companies didn’t have a habit of caving to even the mildest of wacky food demands by anti-science activist front groups.
Some people might dismiss this story as just the silliness of a bunch of privileged moms with too much time on their hands. Certainly, for people of my generation, many of whom remember (fondly) surviving on school meals that consisted mainly of generic-brand cheese curls and mystery meat sandwiches, these stories elicit little more than an eye roll.
But these resolutions, if adopted, will have significant costs. First, it will mean higher costs to New York’s school lunch program, which will face fewer food choices and force school lunch directors to source items that are much more expensive. Second, it will send a strong and thoroughly false message to poor parents that non-GMO food is healthier, which will likely result in them spending their scarce resources to help the organic and “natural” foods sector without any nutritional payoff for their children.
In fact, a new study by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research showed this precise situation is happening with consumers who live at or under the poverty line. According to the research, fear-based food tactics used by food and nutrition activists and some organic food companies create so much worry about affordable produce that some consumers—specifically, the poor—are actually choosing not to buy these healthier items. One of the lead researchers, Britt Burton-Freeman, expressed shock at the results in an interview with Food Safety News, saying, “The concern is that depending on the structure of the communication about pesticides and fruits and vegetables this could turn people away from wanting to purchase any fresh produce.”
Food Safety News also reported on a similar study conducted by John Hopkins University, which found consumers often face conflicting health and safety messages about fresh produce, which ends up having a negative impact on consumers.
The New York State PTA should do better. As a respected community organization, the PTA owes it to all parents to provide and follow science- and evidence-based information, and to resist efforts by a small yet vocal and very privileged group of parents to promote dubious science about nutritious food.
We need not complicate child nutrition or require people to shop only at Whole Foods and MOM’s Organic Market. The National PTA Organization should take note of this state-level chapter’s rogue behavior and correct it immediately. And, perhaps more importantly, the national PTA should take steps to prevent this nonsense from spreading nationwide by reminding all state chapters that they don’t just represent the interests of the privileged and wealthy (and scientifically-illiterate) few, but parents of all economic levels.