Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Survey Of The Graphics For The GMO Labeling Campaign

It is interesting to explore the pictures or graphics that accompany blogs, web pages and articles supporting the campaign for labeling of foods containing GMOs.  A great many of these images are seriously misleading.  This is ironic for a campaign that is spearheaded by a group called the "Truth In Labeling Coalition"

The Hypodermic Needle Theme
The most frequent theme in these graphics is that of a large hypodermic needle injecting a piece of fruit, a tomato, or some other produce item.  In an article about GMOs in "natural"  cereals, TG daily features an image with no less than 11 needles in five tomatoes.   Treehugger uses the same photo which is from Getty Images.  Organic life style also has a drawing of a tomato being injected. Eat Local has the image of someone in a lab coat injecting an apple. Grist features an "infographic" with a cluster of grapes being injected. uses the same image.

Why The Images Are Misleading

While clearly these images are effectively emotive, they are misleading in at least three ways.  First, The process of genetic engineering of plants does not involve a hypodermic needle in any way.  Second, the the process occurs at a single cell level, not with some massive amount of material being injected into a ready-to-eat food item. (A site called Ask Roger that sells herbal remedies sets the record here with an image of a huge hypodermic of purple liquid being injected into an orange). Finally, the foods most often pictured are not currently GMO crops, and most are unlikely ever to be genetically engineered for commercial production.

Non-GMO Crops Usually Pictured

The picturing of non-GMO crop examples is widespread.  Even the website for the Truth in Labeling Coalition itself has a side banner of food images which pictures several non-GMO crops.  The image on has a DNA gel in the background which is more relevant, but also pictures tomatoes.  There has not been a GMO tomato on the market for more than a decade.  The foods pictured on a site called Organic Its Worth pictures the non-GMO crops, radishes and lettuce.  Some sites actually picture crops that are actually genetically engineered on a commercial scale, but this is not that common.

Other Misleading Themes

The hypodermic is not the only example of a misleading graphic.  An "info-graphic" on Treehugger is typical of another common theme straight out of the old "what do you get if you cross a ... and a ..." jokes of childhood.   It pictures strawberry + fish = a sort of half strawberry fish.  That goes back to a long since abandoned effort to make a frost tolerant strawberry using an anti-freezing protein from a fish.  It was never commercial and in fact animal genes are not used in any current GMO crops.  Even if they were, they would not result in some strange chimera.  In an article titled, "Just Label It", actually leads with a picture of an actual GMO crop (field corn), but then follows with a depiction of  some strange orange squash with eyes and fangs. The Groundswell has an image of ears of corn, but one is a grenade.  A site interestingly called goes with the classic Frankenstein picture. goes with an image of a mock "Hungry Man Frozen Dinner" combining the Frankenstein combined with no less than three chimeras (a potato with eyes, a tomato with a fish tail and a broccoli/snail hybrid).  A link titled "Picture related to GMO" on features a bowl of strawberries, one of which is bright blue.

How Does Disinformation Fit With A Campaign About "Truth?"

The genre of emotive and largely misleading images to depict biotechnology is certainly not new, but it is problematic that it is being so widely used by those that support manditory labeling.  The labeling campaign is being positioned as a common sense argument about the need to give of consumers accurate information from which to make rational decisions.   If that is the goal, why do so many promoters of the idea employ misleading and emotional imagery?

GMO labeling may well need to be discussed, even 15 years into large scale use.  But such a discussion will only be helpful for consumers if it could be based on accurate information - and graphics.

p.s.  It is interesting that although these images are easily found by searching Google Images or Flickr, virtually none are available for free commercial use through something like Creative Commons.  Most of sites that use them make no reference to source with the one exception of Getty Images listed above.  

You are invited to comment here or to email me at  My website is Applied Mythology.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Food Price Spike Retreating Slowly

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 10/7/11)
I have been posting updates on the most recent, global food price spike since February 2011 - most recently inJune.  Today the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) released its most recent data on the prices of food in international trade.  As seen in the graph above, the overall index and its various components have declined slightly, but remain at very high levels.

People living in the developed world have seen some food price increases, but because we grow so much of our own food and spend a small part of our income on feeding ourselves, the impact is minor.  This has the greatest effect on the lives of poor people in import-dependent countries.
What is actually most unsettling about this phenomenon is that nothing like it has occurred for decades, and yet we are in a second such spike.   The first was in 2007/8, and the current spike has been in 2010/11.  In this post I want to compare these two spikes.

The graph above compares the two spikes on a month-by-month basis beginning in January of the starting year.  What we see is a later and/or slower decline in prices.  The earlier spike showed a steep decline after 19 months, while in 2010 the decline is just beginning at 21 months.  That is for the aggregate "food index," but a similar broadening of the spike appears to be occurring for the cereals-specific index (see below).  Similar trends are seen with the dairy and oils indices.

The most dramatic difference between the 2007-8 and 2010-11 spikes is the path of the meat price index (see graph below).  Meat prices in international trade showed only a minor bump in the first spike, but were the most changed category in the current round.  The index did drop 3% from August to September which may represent an earlier reversal than in 2008.

It would be best not to over-interpret these trends, but also unwise to ignore them completely. We know that basic food demand is rising between population growth and an increased standard of living in many populous regions of the world.  We know that energy prices are high.  It will take the benefit of years of hindsight to know whether climate change has been contributing to these unusual price patterns.  If the current spike is like the last one, it should be largely corrected by the end of 2011.  For now, I plan to update this series in January of 2011 with three more months of data.

Data from FAO, graphs by Steve Savage
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