Science: The Missing Ingredient in the GMO Food Labeling Debate
Residents of Washington State are currently being buried in an avalanche of ads regarding a citizen’s initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered foods sold in grocery stores. Estimates for the percentage of items that contain genetically engineered ingredients in a grocery store range from 60 percent to 70 percent (most of those that don’t are fruits and vegetables). These foods are also often referred to as containing genetically modified organisms (GMO foods). Thoughtful editorials have been written both For and Against Initiative 522, with each side making good points in support of their positions. Money is pouring in from out of state, most of it from deep-pocketed groups with a substantial stake in the outcome. Agribusiness is the biggest contributor to the Against campaign; they have raised more money to date ($17.2M as of Oct. 1st) than any other campaign in state history aimed at defeating an Initiative. Several “natural product” companies have been big contributors to the For viewpoint, but their fundraising efforts have been dwarfed by a wide margin (over 3:1) by the Against forces. Very little of the money contributed on either side appears to be coming from your average Joe, suggesting that the issue is not a great concern to large numbers of people.
Most of the rhetoric floating around the initiative is concentrated on economic arguments. Proponents say enactment won’t raise food prices, whereas those opposed say costs will go up by hundreds of dollars per family per year. Ads for the For campaign contain vague references to health issues, while the Against supporters are highly focused on claims that the law is so poorly written that consumers will still be unable to tell which foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, and which don’t. A detailed analysis of the commercials run by both sides revealed that each side’s claims were highly misleading, hardly unexpected in political advertisements.
Considering that the initiative is focused on genetic engineering, I find it interesting that neither side seems interested in discussing the scientific issues involved.
Absent from the arguments I’ve been seeing is any safety or nutritional data on genetically engineered foods. Shouldn’t we be hearing about this if people are truly concerned? Those promoting 522 should share their concerns about why people should be apprehensive about eating genetically engineered foods (otherwise, there’s no reason to label them). These could relate to worries about safety e.g. “genetically engineered foods are harmful or less nutritious,” ethical concerns, “we don’t like people playing God with our foods,” or some other issue. However, I have yet to see these worries being voiced, at least in the TV commercials. If people promoting 522 have solid, reliable data showing that these foods are less nutritious, associated with negative health outcomes, or create economic problems, they should cite it. I find it a bit disingenuous that the Yes on 522 people claim not to be against genetically engineered foods; they say they only want to inform consumers. If foods labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients are largely rejected by consumers (leading to greatly decreased sales), then this would force food manufacturers to switch to other kinds of ingredients that aren’t genetically modified. Such a switch would be problematic at present because such a very high percentage of certain crops are already genetically engineered, as detailed below.
Those who are opposed to food labeling have not clearly enunciated their rationales either. Even if they believe that … Next Page »