WASHINGTON -- It's pretty rare that members of Congress and all the witnesses they've called will declare out loud that Americans are just too ignorant to be given a piece of information, but that was a key conclusion of a session of the House Agriculture Committee this week.
The issue was genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they're often known in the food industry. And members of the subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture, as well as their four experts, agreed that the genetic engineering of food crops has been a thorough success responsible for feeding the hungry, improving nutrition and reducing the use of pesticides.
People who oppose GMOs or want them labeled so that consumers can know what they're eating are alarmists who thrive on fear and ignorance, the panel agreed. Labeling GMO foods would only stoke those fears, and harm a beneficial thing, so it should not be allowed, the lawmakers and witnesses agreed.
"I really worry that labeling does more harm than good, that it leads too many people away from it and it diminishes the market for GMOs that are the solution to a lot of the problems we face," said David Just, a professor at Cornell University and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) agreed with Just and asked him, "What is the biggest drawback? Is it the ignorance of what the product is, just from a lack of education?"
"It is ignorance of the product, and it's a general skepticism of anything they eat that is too processed or treated in some way that they don't quite understand," Just said.
"Even using long scientific-sounding words make it sound like it's been grown in a test tube, and people get scared of it," Just added.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) agreed with another witness, Calestous Juma, an international development professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, that political leaders had been cowed by misinformed populaces into bending on GMOs, especially in the European Union, where Juma said hundreds of millions of euros have been spent on studies that have found GMOs safe.
"It's obvious that while the science in the EU in incontrovertible about the health and safety benefits of genetically modified hybrid crops, that because of politics, people are afraid to lead, and inform consumers," Schrader said.
Certainly, there is misinformation about GMOs, as highlighted in a New York Times feature on a Hawaiian ban of most GMOs. But entirely missing from the hearing was any suggestion that there are real concerns about the impact of genetically engineered food, such as the growth of pesticide-resistant "super weeds," over-reliance on single-crop factory farming, decreased biodiversity, and a lack of a consistent approval process. (Read more pros and cons here.)
The issue may soon gain fresh relevance on Capitol Hill, where a measure backed by Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) to stop states from requiring GMO labeling could get marked up as early as September. The bill also would allow genetically engineered food to be labeled "100 percent natural."
The idea of the bill brought Ben and Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield to Capitol Hill Thursday to push back, along with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who backs labeling.
Greenfield told HuffPost that labeling is a simple, inexpensive matter of letting people know what's in their food, and letting them decide what they want to support and eat.
"This idea that consumers will be scared away -- the label will be a very simple thing, a few words on a container saying something like 'may be produced with genetic engineering.' It's not scary," Greenfield said.
Watch the video above to see experts and members of Congress conclude Americans should be denied GMO labels because they are too ignorant, as well as Greenfield's reaction.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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