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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