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 genetically engineered foods are safe (a generally accepted notion in the U.S. since so many foods contain them, but this is not the case in Europe), why do they want to keep others from identifying them? Is this solely a financial argument? Since corn and soybeans are the predominant ingredients found in genetically engineered foods (93 percent of the US soybean crop and 88 percent of the corn crop are genetically engineered), they should explain how and why they were engineered and why consumers should embrace them. What is the advantage of these compared to normal grains? Are they healthier and more nutritious? Easier and/or cheaper to grow? Make the case that genetically engineered foods are safe for consumption and/or available for a lower cost. Cite solid, reliable studies so that people can readily check them out. Discuss the life-saving rationale behind the development of golden rice, which was engineered to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A (which is not normally found in rice). This grain was developed to help prevent vitamin A deficiencies that have been estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five worldwide every year. Anti-GMO activists recently destroyed a test plot of golden rice in the Philippines in an effort to slow down its development.
For both the For and Against groups: If you have scientific articles that you wish to cite backing your position and those papers are located behind a paywall (meaning consumers would need to pay to read them), figure out a way to share this information with the public in a way that won’t cost them anything.
The entire situation has strong parallels with the organic foods marketplace. Here labeling clearly takes place, but people worried about food safety apparently lost the labeling war years ago. You don’t see food on grocery shelves bearing labels that read “Grown with Herbicides and Pesticides” or “This Meat is from Animals Treated with Steroids and Antibiotics.” Instead, specially grown food items are labeled as organic, a term that is strictly legally defined and requires certification from regulatory authorities in the U.S., the E.U., and many other countries. Rather than labeling foods as potentially being unsafe for humans (or production of which would be harmful to animals), select producers label foods as not being prepared in a certain way in order to attract consumers. The best example of this is milk. Almost all of the brands for sale in the large grocery stores in my area have labels indicating that they are rBST free i.e. the cows were not treated with recombinant (genetically engineered) bovine somatotropin to increase their milk output. I’ve never seen a label on milk from rBST treated cows trumpeting that fact, a clear indication of who won the labeling battle for this particular product. Having said that, I’ve seen claims that products made from milk (e.g. cheese, yogurt, butter) are often made from milk from rBST treated cows, although a number of dairy producers (e.g. Safeway, Cabot Cheese, Stonyfield Farms, Tillamook) state that their milk-derived products are made solely from milk obtained from non-treated cows.
BIO, the biotechnology industry’s trade group, has (not surprisingly) come out against 522, citing a report by the Washington Research Council that finds the Initiative “costly, flawed, and ill-conceived.” This result was hardly surprising given that the report was commissioned by the “No on 522” campaign. I read the 29-page WRC report and found it pretty informative, although the primary focus is once again on the economics, not the science. According to the report, “there are existing voluntary labeling standards that already provide consumers with options to purchase foods made without [genetically engineered] GE ingredients, if that is what they prefer.” I stopped by my local health food co-op to check this out and confirmed that it was true. Many of the food items are simply labeled organic, but a number of them bore a label on the front of the box saying “Non GMO Project Verified.” According to their Website, this non-profit organization “is the only organization offering independent verification of testing and GMO controls for products in the U.S. and Canada.” Their threshold matches the laws in the E.U., where any product containing more than 0.9 percent GMO ingredients must be labeled.
It’s a sad situation these days (and it’s not restricted to this issue) that subtlety, nuance, and detail (and very often the facts) are lost in the public debate on important issues. I haven’t seen any scientifically reliable data demonstrating that genetically engineered foods are unsafe, but I understand that many people are concerned about this issue. I’m also keeping an open mind that such data may be produced in the future. A key question for me is whether we are better off labeling the foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, labeling the ones that don’t, or not labeling at all. Colorado State University’s Extension has produced a useful fact sheet that further dives into the details of what labeling could and should look like and with a good description of the pros and cons. Since there already is an established mechanism for labeling non-GE foods, and these foods make up a minority of items available in most grocery stores, I think the decision has already been made. Consumers can assume that while there may be exceptions, foods that are not labeled either “Non GMO Project Verified” or organic are likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients, and they should act accordingly. As the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan once said, “It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”