GMO Labeling Moves Forward, Leaving Science Behind

CC: Daniel Goehring

It appears that the GMO labeling debate is nearing its end. GMOs altered through the process of transgenesis, the process of introducing an exogenesis gene into another organism, will soon become labeled on food packages across the nation. Some will be labeled because of new regulations, such as in Vermont. Others will be labeled because large food companies can’t guarantee that what they package with a non-GMO label will not end up in a state like Vermont that requires the GMO label.

Advocates of labeling like to claim that this is a victory for transparency. They claim that this allows the consumer to know what he or she is eating. They point to health risks from GMOs. They claim that this is a victory for the little guy against Big Ag, and its supporting industries such as the dreadful Monsanto.

All that is certain about this is that there is a big loser: science. Ignorance has scored another victory.

A case could be made for transparency if there was meaningful information being provided to the consumer. However, the labels are only going to state that the product is a “genetically modified” something or “produced from genetically modified” something.

This falls far short of other labeling requirements that the consumer has become familiar. Cigarettes don’t state that they contain just tobacco. They explicitly state the dangers of heart disease, cancer or dangers to pregnant women. Nutrition labeling identifies the amount of calories and specific nutrient content in a food. Even ingredient labeling provides helpful information by ranking the ingredients in decreasing order of volume.

GMO labeling fails in comparison. It doesn’t identify GMOs like golden rice from herbicide-resistant crops. Golden Rice takes the gene for beta-carotene from another plant and inserts it into rice to increase the availability of Vitamin A to prevent blindness and death among children in developing countries. Herbicide-resistant crops are developed so that they are resistant to products like Monsanto’s Roundup. This allows the herbicide to be used liberally among crops. Although no studies have found any health dangers in herbicide-resistant foods, there are legitimate concerns about the environmental effects from increased herbicide use. Golden rice and herbicide-resistant rice are far from the same thing, but in the scheme of GMO labeling, they are treated the same.

Far from providing informative guidance, GMO labeling deceives the reader into believing they know enough to make a judgment. It clumps that which is good or bad in biotechnology and throws it all under suspicion. While it doesn’t specifically identify herbicide-resistant GMOs, it also doesn’t specifically identify GMO crops that can be grown in otherwise non-agricultural soils or ones that are drought resistant or those that allow for the use of even fewer pesticides than non-GMO crops.

GMO labeling is not a door to transparency, but a mask that hinders the identification of less desirable GMOs from the more desirable ones. That isn’t just a misrepresentation of GMOs, but a disingenuous strategy that mocks the real nature of transparency, which is to provide openness, information and accountability. The argument for GMO labeling masks the critical debate needed on how the technology should be applied.

Labeling advocates argue that there are risks to GMOs, but decades of scientific studies have not identified a single health risk. Ask a labeling advocate what is the hazard to fear, and their specifics are silent. The only argument presented is a nebulous to be discovered health risk. This is not to deny that a GMO may pose a health risk at sometime, but that needs to be born out in studies the same way a new drug is introduced into the market. Blind fears of frankenfoods provide no factual evidence. When a health risk is found, it shouldn’t be labeled. It should be banned. First, we have to find the health risk.

The idea that transgenesis is dangerous because a gene could cause undesirable side effects is ridiculous when compared with how many genetic crop varieties have been developed since World War II through a process known as mutagenesis. While transgenesis is a highly selective process of identifying and sniping DNA to create a limited mutation, mutagenesis is a bit like rolling the dice on the DNA craps table. Mutagenesis involves the use of radiation or toxic chemicals to create mutations. While these agents are somewhat predictable in the effects that they have, other DNA is altered as well. What that will be is unpredictable. Yet, there are over 2,200 crops that have been developed from this process. No one is requiring labeling of those genetically modified organisms. People eat them without adverse health effects. Their seeds drift into the environment or mingle with non-mutagenetic crops on farms. Yet, there is no outrage over this.

Perhaps the most baffling part of the GMO labeling argument is that labeling advocates have little or no interest in labeling the pesticides used on a food. While demanding that there be GMO labels so that consumers may know what they are eating, there is no significant movement to inform the consumer of pesticide use on crops. We do know that exposure to pesticides causes health risks. However, nowhere is it a requirement that rice farmers, for example, list the pesticides used in growing it. Yet, if DNA is taken from a carrot to increase beta-carotene, then there are irrational health concerns.

A primary reason for the lack of interest in identifying pesticides on labels is that neither traditional nor organic farmers want this. We know that traditional agriculture uses lots of pesticides, but few people realize that organic growers are allowed to use about 20 pesticides in doses far exceeding the doses of synthetic pesticides as this Scientific American article in 2011 reports:

[It] turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971 1. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.

If you think that because these are “natural” pesticides, then it is okay, well, try some rattlesnake venom on your plate or roll your own filterless cigarette from a tobacco leaf. They are both as natural as can be and are dangerous to one’s health.

Then there is the political argument that always centers around Monsanto. For many on the left, Monsanto has become a bogeyman for all that is wrong in the food production chain. A common argument is that they want to develop herbicide-resistant crops so that they can sell more Roundup. They would probably like that, but so what? Monsanto is a corporate giant interested only in profits. So is Exxon, Walmart, Home Depot and every other corporation that Americans buys services and goods from on a daily basis. That is the nature of corporate giants. They need to make money to stay in business. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that since it leads to more efficiency and cheaper products. Of course, when that compromises the public health, environment or other concern, then it is a problem.

While Monsanto is a huge corporation, it is about the same size as Whole Foods, which is not the brunt of the corporate hatred that Monsanto endures. Whole Foods, like Monsanto, is a corporate giant also only interested in profits. The entire Monsanto bogeyman argument centers around political passions, not reason. For that, it shouldn’t even be considered as a reason to oppose GMOs.

GMO labeling isn’t going to make foods safer or the environment better. It is likely to do the opposite. It will tarnish all GMO foods as bad when there is no evidence that they are. Science will become restricted. Breakthroughs to feed a hungry world more economically will slow. The necessity to create crops to adjust to climate change as the world becomes warmer and drier will not be addressed as speedily. Less efficient crops will be used on less desirable land  that will stress the natural environment even further. A far better solution than GMO labeling would have been to create a movement where foods are voluntarily labeled as non-GMO, like Kosher foods. It wouldn’t provide any helpful information either, but those who want to know what is GMO free could make a choice as they desire. Instead, we are left with an assault on science for the same reason that science is always assaulted —  fear and ignorance.

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GMO Labeling: The Right to Know is to Know Nothing

(CC: Daniel Goerhing)

(CC: Daniel Goerhing)

Humans have been manipulating our food crops since the beginning of agriculture.  In the last few decades, those changes have intensified – and, it’s not only because of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Watermelons are seedless and strawberries are giant, but neither are done through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid techniques. Seedless watermelons are hybrids that have been around for 50 years, and strawberries are primarily enhanced by a cocktail of chemical and growing procedures. Neither of these is the subject of efforts to label their unnatural states.

No product has been modified more than corn over the millennia. It originally descended from a grass that Native Americans laboriously altered into a large and nutritious plant.  As modern society developed, people took to liking corn as a natural food. Then, GMOs came along. Today, 60-80% of the corn in the United States has been influenced by DNA alterations. Now, it is not considered natural. Yet, it never really was. Corn was the original frankenfood.

GMOs have become like climate change. It has become an ideological tug of war between political opposites who are more determined to win a battle of beliefs than live with the facts of science. In these cases, the gist of the arguments are not about science or what is right for the world, but about corporate giants in the case of GMOs and government intrusion in the case of climate change. If only public debate could start from a Tabula rasa…

At the heart of the current debate on GMOs is a bill by Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo. H.R.1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, known by its detractors as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act. It has passed the House of Representatives and awaits debate and vote in the Senate.

The bill would place uniform standards for GM and non-GM foods, require premarket notification to the FDA for GMOs and forbid states from setting up their own labeling laws (Maine, Connecticut and Vermont now have them). Opponents see this as a friendly bill to Big Ag and everyone’s corporate bogeyman Monsanto. The bill allows voluntary labeling of GM and non-GM foods. Nevertheless, with 90% of Americans wary of GM foods, no one with a grade school marketing degree is going to voluntarily label these foods.

Throughout the opposition’s stances on Pompeo’s bill hovers Monsanto. The chemical giant is like any other multinational corporation. Its goal is to maximize profits. For many on the left, Monsanto has become as synonymous with evil as the Koch brothers. However, for Monsanto or any other company to make profits is not a bad thing. That is as much a part of business for Monsanto as it is for a Mom and Pop grocery store.

Opponents like to claim that Big Food has their hands in the wallets of Pompeo and other politicians. It is not a shocking revelation that a special interest backs friendly politicians. Big Organic, which is not much different from Big Food, does the same. While there may be truth in charges of a corrupt political system, that doesn’t address the merits or criticisms of GMO labeling.

If GMO foods require labeling, then food makers will do what they did in Europe when labeling was required. GMO foods will be removed from packaged foods. That will lead to an increase in the cost of the finished product. It is estimated that a California family would pay $400 more a year. Higher prices will drive GMO products from the shelves and the farms. Is that really what we want?

GMOs are just another step at technologically managing agriculture. They aren’t going away, nor should they. For example, golden rice is a designed, bright yellow rice loaded with Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency leads to 500,000 children going blind and half that many dying every year around the world. Golden rice is the cure to this horrible affliction.

GMOs promise a cornucopia of benefits. They can be designed to be drought or salt tolerant in a thirsty world. They can create produce that is more plentiful and cheaper. GMOs can have better texture, flavor and nutritional value. They can have a longer shelf life and create a more sustainable agricultural environment.  Genetically modifying plants is the same lineal direction that agriculture has been heading since the beginning of civilization. It is only accelerated by technology.

Some people are worried about the health consequences. Yet, after extensive studies, GMOs have been rendered safe. Many opponents are concerned that DNA pesticides are being bred into plants, making them unsafe to eat. However, plants harbor a vast array of natural pesticides that people are already eating. When those levels are below human toxicity levels, then we eat them. When those levels are high, as in some mushrooms, we consider them poisonous and avoid them. Does anyone seriously think that farmers are going to grow poisonous foods and sell them in the marketplace? No one is selling death cap mushrooms in the supermarkets, and it isn’t going to happen with poisonous GMOs either.

Other critics raise the specter of Monsanto and that plants will have herbicide (specifically glyphosate) resistance. Glyphosate is the lead chemical in Roundup. Here is a legitimate concern. Studies have shown that since the use of GMOs the use of herbicides is up while other pesticides, primarily insecticides, are down. These critics argue that GMOs should be banned or greatly limited because of this threat. That is like banning the automobile because tanks are used to make war. If there is a problem with the over use of herbicides because of GMOs, then that concern should be addressed through legislation by regulating or banning that modification – not by abolishing the entire technology.

The desire to label GMO products does nothing to address these issues. If something is identified as a GMO product on the supermarket shelf, then what does it mean? Is it herbicide resistant or modified to use less water on dry farmland? People who want GMO labeling aren’t going to learn what’s in their food anymore than they are now. What’s in their food is simply the food’s DNA.

H.R. 1599 doesn’t do anything to prevent a company from labeling a non-GMO product as a non-GMO product. This is what organic farmers do to set themselves apart from conventional agriculture. Conventional agricultural products are not identified by what is sprayed on them. Instead, people look for organic products to buy. Non-GMO products should follow the same path. Those who don’t want to eat GMOs can make their decisions just as they do about organic.

The only time products are forced to place warning labels or labels the consumer will view negatively is with products that are proven to have unhealthy side effects, such as cigarettes or alcohol. It is not just unnecessary, but unprecedented that a technology in which no adverse health effects have been identified, must stigmatize itself. It’s time to start thinking smartly about GMOs and not be lead by the irrational fears of sciencephobes.

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