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A Careful Consideration of GMOs

In my food and agriculture class, we’ve been working through a rather controversial GMO paper by de Vendemois. It is technically dense, to say the least — the abstract of this paper mentions MON 810, False Discovery Rate, Principal Component Analysis, isogenic, Bt, detoxifying, hepatorenal, and on and on. Yet at its core, this paper is quite simple. It compares rats fed GMO corn to control rats fed non-GMO corn. The authors claim that the liver and kidney function of rats fed GM corn differ, as compared to control rats fed non-GMO corn.  We are taking a couple weeks in class to work through this one paper.

In teaching technical material like this, I like to illustrate the core concepts with simple demonstrations. Thus, in our first class on the de Vendemois paper, I brought to class an armload of props, including a straw hat full of garbanzo and kidney beans, a bottle of fake maple syrup, a map of the world, an annual report from Hewlett-Packard, a pair of calipers and a quarter, and a toy crossbow made out of a pen, pencil and rubber band (which I shot in class, being careful to avoid a tort in my class, something very different from a torts class).

In the Starlink corn and In Re Genetically Modified Rice Litigation legal cases, non-GMO grain was contaminated with GMO grain. (I use the passive voice here deliberately.) Both resulted in multi-million dollar settlements. Critically, the damages arose because GMO grain sells for less (because consumers prefer non-GMO foods), not because the plaintiffs demonstrated in court any adverse health consequences from consuming GMO grain. These very substantial damage awards are rooted in economic markets, not human health.

This brings us back to the de Vendemois paper. If he really did find adverse health effects of GMOs, this quite likely would significantly alter the legal landscape. So what did he find? What should we believe?

All of this important to consider, especially in Vermont, where for the third time in three years, a bill has been introduced in the legislature regarding GMO labeling.

Craig Pease
Professor of Science and Law

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