Science: The Missing Ingredient in the GMO Food Labeling Debate

10/8/13

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.”

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • tina juarez

    Initially I read your story about the reversal of start up retro taxing ..thank you!

    But then saw “GMO” … Just got back from Apimondia where there was quite a lot of GMO topic research read. I missed a great deal of it as conference rooms were switched or not noted in the schedule, but the conclusions did not favor the GMO at all. Basically, bees can’t digest the unfamiliar protein in GMO pollen, that and sub lethal doses of Round-up, bt Toxin,and pesticides weaken bee immunity to gut bacteria and other parasites as the toxins are spread and built up in the wax, propolis and even the honey. Since bees share over 93% of human genome, this is all very interesting to me. They are the sentinels of the environment, human environment as well!
    I’ve been saying , unscientifically, for years, that GMO pollen is like Mac Donalds for bees; no nutrition and no digestion.. This is now being found to be the case in scientific studies. Beekeepers will have to test all hive products to learn local levels of contamination. Perhaps you can find more GMO science in specific applications such as in the beekeeping, livestock & seed industries.

  • Parking Meter

    Stewart,

    All that’s being asked for in 522 is to label GMOs so consumers can make informed decisions. No removing GMO products from shelves, no restrictions, no loss of “freedom” for GMO producers to sell their products. Unless GMO producers are afraid consumers don’t want GMOs in their food?

    This is NOT a science issue at all.

    It is a simple issue of informed consumers. In fact, scientific inquiry and logic would lead one to naturally want to know (to be educated) about the ingredients in your food. Since it is scientific fact that we are what we eat/consume on a cellular and molecular level.

    This is a simple issue of informed choice – the best practice of science by the consumer.

    • RobertWager

      You are right. this is nothing to do with science and everything to do with fear marketing.
      So why is all breeding methods not called for? Wouldn’t you like to know which foods were made with ionizing radiation mutagenesis? seems those pushing the GM labeling don’t think you have a right to know their food might be made with chemical mutagenesis or ionizing radiation mutagenesis. Why do you think that is?

      • Parking Meter

        Robert,

        Who is fear marketing here?

        Knowing the ingredients in your food and the processes applied to produce it (like county of origin, ingredients list by content amount, additives, calorie content, etc.) just inform the consumer. Nothing more or less.

        Is this something to be afraid of?

        • Loren Eaton

          GM is not an ingredient, it is a method.

          • Rick

            Exactly. The food is not GMO. In fact, it would not be in the economic self interest of seed companies to put onto the market a new wheat variety, nor would it be in the self interest of producers to grow the variety for sale to markets that use wheat, that produced wheat of an inferior quality regardless of the methodology used.
            If you were to achieve a wheat plant that acquires a resistance to a devastating wheat rust by crossbreeding wheat with a wild relative, which would require several generations of backcrossing to eliminate the undesirable collateral genetic information that results from the initial cross, the final product is still wheat – it would have the same nutritional composition and milling properties of the original wheat. Even though this method carries far more risk, we have no regulatory system that requires the developer of that seed to prove that the food product has not been altered in any material way — even though we have a number (though still extremely rare) of examples of how non-ge genetic changes have in fact resulted in harmful effects, we do not require regulatory approval or labeling.
            If you achieve the same end result by directly placing the gene into the wheat genome, and you can confirm that only the desired changes in the genetic informationof the plant result through tools available for that purpose, and the wheat seeds themselves are analyzed to confirm that they do not differ in any material way from the unmodified wheat, and even though we don’t have a single example of an adverse health outcome, for some reason we are supposed to be frightened and label it out of existence.
            When labeling no longer serves the purpose of conveying neutral nutritional information and is instead coopted as a medium for ideological indoctrination, then it is no longer useful.

    • Loren Eaton

      C’mon man!!!
      ‘No removing GMO products from shelves, no restrictions, no loss of “freedom” for GMO producers to sell their products.’ I think we all know that’s the end game, here. You think GP won’t start to threaten retailers who carry labeled GM products? I think they’ve demonstrated they’re not so against vandalism, either (see Golden Rice vandalism).
      ‘This is NOT a science issue at all.’ WRONG!!! For the GOVERNMENT (i.e. the FDA) to require labeling, there has to be a demonstrated difference in composition and/or safety. That can only be determined with scientific testing and HAS BEEN DONE to the FDA’s satisfaction.

      • Parking Meter

        Loren,

        Talk about fear marketing.

        Loren has simple labeling ever caused mass vandalism of store shelves?

        No. It has simply allowed consumers to make informed choices.

        If you are afraid of this, then good luck hoping that other drivers follow road signs when you drive your car.

        • Loren Eaton

          ‘Loren has simple labeling ever caused mass vandalism of store shelves?’ You have no data points for that scenario.

          ‘It has simply allowed consumers to make informed choices.’ Not so much. When a package says ‘processed wheat flour’, can you tell me what’s in the flour? If you buy a can of tomato paste can you tell me what varieties were used and point out any chemical differences? If it says GMO can you tell me what gene or genes were used?

    • cynicwithtaste

      The issue is that requiring labeling implicitly assumes some meaningful difference in the product. Should the precise hybrid varieties of corn – few if any of which grown today are truly “natural” * – be identified in every product? Should you know that the corn in a product was grown in some specific county in Illinois or Iowa?

      The point is that any such labeling requirement necessarily involves a cost to track the information involved. If it is being mandated by government, there should therefore be a rationale for doing so that justifies the additional cost.

      * Meaning that, even prior to GMO, virtually all seed varieties had been modified through directed plant breeding.

  • All Hat, No Cattle

    Clarifying article in the Times this morning about the below OECD average performance of American adults in literacy, numeracy and problem solving. Your proposed science-centric discussion is compelling within our peer group, but not for a wider citizen audience. The best approach for making decisions in our society is an emotional appeal to a self-assembled mythology (as witnessed in our Federal affairs). Decision-making with a foundation in science will have to wait for a future in which education and analytical thinking are uniformly valued attributes of citizenship.

    • Jean Mayer

      Every person is entitled to a choice in this matter, and owes no one an explanation for their position. I think the ordinary people have about had enough of all the self-important, arrogant “smart”, Science types who have forgotten this is about individual choice, not who has the best scientific data. . You sound like the sputtering physicians trying to explain the “scientific” value in theTuskegee syphilis experiment, once the truth was revealed.

  • Dan Eramian

    This is the first intelligent story I have seen about this “issue” around here. It is hard for people though to make a scientific decision when they don’t understand the science.

  • Tokin Smowls

    I can site lots of reason they are not safe.

    Most GM crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant”―they deadly weed killer. Monsanto, for example, sells Roundup Ready crops, designed to survive applications of their Roundup herbicide.

    Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Overuse of Roundup results in “superweeds,

    Study shows pig health hurt by GMO feed

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/11/us-gmo-pigs-study-idUSBRE95A14K20130611

    I could go on if you do even a tiny bit of research you’ll see there are som serious problems with the technology. European counties have out right banned the sale of GMO products.

    • RobertWager

      The EU highest court recently struck down the ban for complete lack of evidence of harm.

    • Loren Eaton

      ‘Most GM crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant”―they deadly weed killer.’ Round Up is deadly?? What are you tokin’ Tokin??

  • mkassowitz

    Here’s a science-based set of arguments for labeling: http://organicconnectmag.com/pro-science-argument-gmo-labeling/

    • Jeff Leonard

      Anything that references either the study by Judy Carman or Seralini cannot be termed ‘science-based’. In the words of the European Food Safety Authority “Considering that the study as reported in the Séralini et al. (2012) publication is of inadequate design, analysis and reporting, EFSA finds that it is of insufficient scientific quality for safety
      assessment”. Don’t believe me? Punch in the title of Seralinis study
      “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize” in Pubmed, the national database of scientific papers and look at the list of published comments, all exposing the flaws of the study. Having looked at 100′s if not 1000′s of entries in Pubmed, I have never seen any entry with the attendant criticism. And for all those who would claim that all those many agencies and independent scientists leveling the criticism were bought off by Monsanto…..well, I can sell you some tinfoil.

  • Life Sciences Foundation

    Interesting article. The Life Sciences Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to capturing the history of biotechnology. We recently published an article on the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) epidemic that broke out in the mid-1950s and again in 1992. The virus had nearly wiped out the state’s
    papaya industry. A recovery began in 1998 with the introduction of transgenic, virus-resistant
    papaya varieties called SunUp and Rainbow. Growers were rescued; an economic
    disaster was averted.Still controversy lingered. Here’s the story: http://lifesciencesfoundation.org/magazine-the_fate_of_a_fruit_transgenic_papaya.html

  • RobertWager

    Here is the science in a nutshell:

    “The GM products that are currently on the international market
    have all passed risk assessments conducted by national authorities.
    These different assessments in general follow the same basic principles,
    including an assessment of environmental and human health risk. These
    assessments are thorough, they have not indicated any risk to human
    health” WHO 2013

    • Parking Meter

      Robert,

      Here is informed consumer choice in a nutshell.

      A GMO label.

    • Parking Meter

      Robert,

      As for your 100% trust in the “risk assessments” by various government agencies. well please proceed.

      I prefer informed consumer choice.

      After all if there is ZERO risk as you state, then what’s to fear about consumer choice on a label?

      • Loren Eaton

        ‘After all if there is ZERO risk as you state, then what’s to fear about consumer choice on a label?’ Strawman alert. He did not say that. Zero risk is not possible with any food.

    • Politic Goal

      These are based on “substantial equivalence”. This means new, novel, never before consumed by humans products only have to have the same Protein, carbs, fats, etc. as non GE counterparts. These are not safety studies. By this rubric a cow infected with BSE(mad cow disease) is “substantially equivalent” to it’s healthy counterpart, but definitely NOT SAFE!
      The FDA has never performed or required a single independent safety study of GE foods, despite the recommendation of their own science team. That is Why they should be labeled(one reason).

      • Loren Eaton

        ‘By this rubric a cow infected with BSE(mad cow disease) is “substantially equivalent” to it’s healthy counterpart, but definitely NOT SAFE!’ Oh stop!! BSE is a disease not an ingredient.
        And the proteins, carbs, oils etc. do not have to be the same but within an acceptable range, as these things differ from variety to variety regardless of GM. Hence the word substantial.

  • telecom1500

    It might be a good time to remember the case of Starlink gmo corn back in the late 90′s. This was a gmo corn. The FDA approved it for use only as animal feed because of its scientifically assessed risk to allergic reactions in humans. But the corn found its way into consumer food products like taco shells and there was a huge recall. Please read the story Starlink Corn: A Risk Analysis
    by Luca Bucchini and Lynn R. Goldman.
    This case illustrates two important aspects of GMO. One, that GMO foods can cause allergic reactions in humans. Two that we can’t control the spread of GMO’s into the human food chain even with the FDA. We need restrictions on GMO. We need labelling. Labelling will spawn more credible testing because the companies that make GMO products will have an incentive to proove, scientifically that they are safe. Without labelling large corporations that rely on GMO technology and governments indebted to those corporations will continue to approve and propagate inadequately tested products.
    This is especially important now because large corporations are on the brink of introducing genetically modified animals like salmon and pigs into the marketplace and into our environment. We have to get a handle on this NOW!

    • Loren Eaton

      ‘One, that GMO foods can cause allergic reactions in humans.’ Starlink turned out NOT to be allergenic. It fit ONE of the characteristics for being an allergen, not the rest. There a lot more non-GMO allergenic foods out there. Are you going to outlaw them?

      • telecom1500

        There have been various retroactive reports on the starlink case. But Starlink was never tested to prove whether or not it caused allergic reactions. The massive recall pulled it out of the market before very many humans got ahold of it. Tests on the limited number of humans that ingested starlink suggested that none experienced allergic reactions based on starlink. Nevertheless it was still concluded that there was enough scientific data to conclude that starlink posed a potential threat to humans and therefore was never approved for human consumption.

  • http://geneticallyengineeredfoodnews.com Ella Baker

    GMO food will not bring any good to food consumers.