GMO Food Labeling. Go For It, Food Companies. Your Fear of Fear May Be Excessive.

Companies fear, and GMO opponents hope, that labels on food will scare consumers away. But more and more research indicates that isn't what happens.

There are a lot of pros and cons about agricultural biotechnology, AKA GMOs. Factual pros and cons about human safety (the vast majority of studies find no harm to humans) and environmental impacts (most hybrids, GMO or otherwise, do cause shifts in the ecosystems in which they grow)…and values-based pros and cons, about commercial monoagriculture and big companies profiting from modern technologies. Those are all conversations society needs to have. But one thing is getting in the way, at least in the U.S.. The fight over labeling.

GMO opponents want labels; to give consumers choice, they say, but actually to scare consumers away and kill the whole technology of manipulating genes to create plant and animal varieties with new traits. Companies that make foods resist such labels, fearful that they WILL scare consumers away.

There are many pros and cons to the labeling question alone, but one BIG question, probably the biggest of all, is; would GMO labels scare people away? Is the corporate ‘fear of fear’ (as Peter Sandman has put it), warranted? More and more evidence suggests it may not be.

1. Agricultural economist Professor Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University asked Might Consumers Interpret GMO Labels as a Warning Label  and basically, the answer was no. Lusk and colleague Marco Constanigro of Colorado State showed one group of subjects apples labeled either “Contains GE” or “does not contain GE”, and they found;

    There was no consistent statistically significant difference in the average level of concern for GMOs expressed by people shown different labels. That is, the mere presence of the GMO label did not lead to a greater level of concern about GMOs.

    They showed a separate group of subjects two cereal boxes (Cheerios), one with no GMO label, and one with a label on the bottom of the front of the box stating “partially produced with genetic engineering”. And they found;

    There was no statistically significant difference in the level of concern for GMOs expressed among people shown the box with the GMO label vs. the group shown the box without the GMO label.

    2. But that was a ‘pretend’ study. Research by Phillip Aerni studied conditions in the real world, Switzerland, and found pretty much the same thing. Sort of.

    Three types of bread were sold a street food markets across the country, labeled as made with ‘organic corn’, ‘genetically modified corn’, or ‘conventional corn’.  (The recipe was the same except for the corn. The baker was the same for all of it.)

    And this was in Switzerland, where the majority of the public dislikes the idea of genetically modified food, and where voters in 2005 opted to ban GMO crops from Swiss agriculture for 5 years. So you’d think, given people’s stated views, that the GMO labeled bread (one of the few foods with GM ingredients legal to sell in Switzerland, as long as it’s labeled) would scare them away.  But as always, what people say in opinion surveys and what they do in the real world are different. Aerni found;

    The overall response to the sales experiment suggests that the mere presence of labeled GM food is not perceived as a negative externality by Swiss consumers.

    Well, sort of. When the bread was all the same price, 20% of the bread that sold was labeled “genetically modified corn”. 31% was "conventional corn". 49% had the “organic” label. Sounds like the GMO label scared shoppers away. But when the GMO labeled bread was priced 30% cheaper than the organic, the number of buyers went up to 26%. And even when the price was the same, one in four of the shoppers who bought either the organic of conventional bread also bought a loaf of the GMO bread.  

    The researchers varied things one other way too. First they sold only conventional and ‘organic’ corn bread. Average sales per location was 84 loaves. When they added the GMO labeled bread, and all 3 kinds of bread were the same price, average total sales rose to 125, including a bunch of GMO bread, a sales increase of 47%. The authors suggest that "when provided choice", consumers seem ready to buy GMO labeled food, which is consistent with the research on the psychology of risk perception, which has found that any risk we take voluntarily worries us less than if the risk feels imposed (i.e. NO label).

    And remember that public vote to ban GMO crops? The Swiss experiment asked the bread buyers, with a questionnaire they were handed after their purchase, how they had voted on the ban. A quarter of those who voted to ban GMO crops, bought the GMO bread. In other words, what people said at the polls and what they did with their money as consumers, didn’t entirely match. Again, the behavior of consumers seems to match what the risk perception literature suggests. As Aerni put it;

    The results of our field study show that the Swiss are neither scared nor upset by the presence of GM food as long as they have freedom of choice and are properly informed.

    There are many caveats to these pieces of evidence. The wording of the label matters, the product and brand and price matter...even the fact that the products in Switzerland were on sale at street markets, not in regular grocery stores, matters. But these aren’t the only studies to suggest that food companies' understandable Fear of Fear may be excessive. (Not the biotech seed companies, or the farmers who grow the GM crops, but the businesses that sell the finished product to consumers that would have to bear the labels.)

    In future essays, I’ll offer a few more examples, including one in which experiments sold GMO-labeled cherries (they sold quite well) in New Zealand and five European countries, and one involving the sale of GMO-labeled cooking oil in China, where the government and biotech scientists and journalists all think the public is freaked out about GM foods, but where the GMO-labeled oil has been selling just fine since 2002


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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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