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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