Monthly Archives: October 2014

Some Problems GMOs Won’t Solve, and Some that it Will.

The latest article widely shared by the ‘anti-label’ community seeks to simplify the debate and steer it away from the real issue. The one key issue that GMO labels will absolutely address is transparency. There is a reason food producers are obliged to list ingredients and nutrition information on packaging. The consumer needs this information in order to make informed choices, if that is what they wish. Of course, there are plenty of shoppers who look at price tags and ignore ingredients, and they will likely continue to do so. The principle of “Informed Consent” means that withholding information is wrong, even if you believe on the available (however limited) evidence that there is probably no harm in long-term human consumption of a diet high in genetically engineered foods.

The safety issue is a red herring. The pro-GMO lobby often try to trip people up by saying there is no proof of harm when in truth, the types of research that would answer questions of safety with respect to long-term human consumption have not been undertaken. Nor does anyone expect that sort of study to be undertaken by the GMO promoters, as they have nothing to gain by it, but everything to lose in a simple cost/benefit analysis. With respect to the four arguments raised by Nathanael Johnson in Grist;

1. Too much technology in my food

The author correctly raises questions about the process of mutagenesis, in which chemicals or radiation is used to trigger mutations in the target organism. Changes to the genome that emerge from this process are unpredictable and may affect any part of the genome, so why isn’t mutagenesis among the genetic engineering processes that we demand labels for? Good question, and I thank Kevin Folta at the University of Florida who first brought this issue to my attention.

In my opinion, telling us whether or not our food should be labelled is not the job of science. The role of scientists should properly be to help inform policymakers and the public of the differences between various types of genetic engineering and to be clear about what existing research does and does not tell us about the possible repercussions with respect to human health. When considering a hundred billion cows that ate GMO feed for 90-120 days and were still healthy at the end of that period, just before they were slaughtered for food, we cannot draw the conclusion that feeding RoundupReady or BT corn and soy to human children year after year will have no affect on their health. Thus recent headlines asserting that the “GMO Debate is Over” were demonstrably false, and Forbes and/or Jon Entine should have changed that article’s title accordingly. Even if labels don’t reduce the amount of ‘technology’ in the food supply they are essential to uphold the principle of “informed consent” that underlies existing labelling laws.

2. Pesticides

I’m not wading into the whole complex pesticide issue except to say this. I think it would be awesome to know what chemicals are applied to the food in the produce aisle and/or what chemical residues remain on/in the food and in what concentrations. A girl can dream. Even though problems associated with pesticide use won’t be solved by labels, labels are still a good idea.

3. Corporate Control

The premise that this problem won’t be solved by labels is not a valid argument against labeling. The problem of corporate control of food is somewhat overshadowed by corporate control of everything else on this planet including our post-democratic governments. People who came out in droves to protest inaction on climate change are starting to catch on that the solution involves taking back control of the government and regulatory agencies from the corporations that successfully bought them. The revolving door between regulatory agencies and industry needs to be policed to curtail corruption. Regulatory capture has accelerated the capitalist processes of deregulation that have been gathering steam since the 80’s and this trend needs to be reversed. Even though they won’t solve the problem of corporate control, labels are still a good idea.

4. Patents

I can’t think of any impact food labels will have on any issues around patents.  If I’m missing something, I’m sure somebody will tell me in the comments, but once again, no matter what you think of patents on GE technology, indicating the use of such technology in the food we buy is still a good idea.

The conclusion Nathanael Johnson reaches is this:

I don’t buy the idea that if we throw lots of information — in the form of labels — on our products, we’ll be able to shop our way out of our problems. Rather than banking on this tenuous market solution, we could be addressing these issues directly.

This is true. Fortunately we are not forced into an either/or situation. The idea that “every problem has a solution” is a truism, but it may be more helpful to notice that most problems have several possible solutions and that we don’t have to pick just one. Labels can’t solve all the problems, but they are still a really good idea.