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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Genetic Modification–A Bad California Proposition to Label Foods

California is set to vote on Proposition 37 which would make it compulsory for food companies to label their products accordingly if they are genetically-modified (GM) in any way.  The reason why the labeling issue come up at all, of course, is that many environmentalists feel that GM foods are harmful, both for the consumer and for the environment.  The label will not be a smoking-type warning, e.g. “GM Foods Are Bad For You” because there is not enough science to back the claim, just an indication that the foods have been altered.  Although this would seem like an innocuous, value-neutral act, it is not at all.  The simple fact of including the information on food packaging would send an unequivocal message – Don’t buy this product.

Proponents of the measure disingenuously claim that it is ‘simple’ information, no different from the list of Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) already displayed on most foods; yet it is not an RDA which are indeed value neutral and scientifically sound. While there is no doubt some political motivation behind RDAs, particularly to address the growing problems of obesity and hypertension (calories, fat, and salt); and to encourage foods rich in the vitamins and minerals listed, none of the listings are dubious, contentious, or misleading.

The current listing – as factual as it is - already presents as many problems as it purportedly solves, and a new, doubtful claim would set off another round of food-panic in already nutritionally-confused customers.  “What exactly are trans-fats anyway?…I have heard that pounding zinc is a good way to beat off a new cold, so why isn’t zinc on the label, and does that mean the FDA discounts the claim? …What if I eat a tree full of oranges one day?  Can I ignore Vitamin C  for a week?… I thought Vitamin D came from the sun, so why is it on the label?…  Hmmmm… 15 percent sodium doesn’t sound like much”.  Of course this last careful shopper fails to take into consideration that her husband already empties half the salt shaker on his meat every night.  Twenty percent of anything doesn’t sound like a lot.  Who needs Vitamin B1 anyway?

The point is, while some consumers would ignore the labeling, many would be as perplexed by it and reject the food on the basis of befuddlement; and still others would pass it up because of the hysterical reports about ‘Frankenfoods’, that they will turn babies into monsters, forever damage the ‘natural’ world, and only serve to enrich fat-cat corporate executives who live off the backs of the poor.

Even if food companies were required to give the GM label to foods, what actually would that entail?  Only the modification of the food itself?  Or the products that go into growing them? Sugar is an all-too-common ingredient in processed foods and it usually comes from corn.  If the corn has been genetically modified, then the corn syrup from the plants is genetically modified, then does the can of peas which have not been modified, have to be labeled GM?

In short, labeling foods as GM is not by any means neutral, and is a not very subtle attempt to play on consumer ignorance or confusion or growing bias against GM foods.  Worse, without scientific evidence, it is prejudicial to private corporations which have for years insisted that GM foods not only do no harm to the consumer are a positive force of good for the environment.  They eliminate the need for pesticides and fertilizer.  New fast-growing varieties reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation.  High yielding varieties can reduce the acreage needed for a given production target.

What does the science say.  Sarah Zhang in Mother Jones (6.19.12) has compiled the results of many recent international research efforts designed to determine possible negative effects of GM foods.  She provides hyperlinks to all these studies.  Of particular interest are conclusions made by the EU to reject calls for bans on GM foods.

[A recent study done by the EU] drew its conclusions from the work of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research involving more than 500 independent research groups. Its most important conclusion was “that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies. (A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research 2000-2010)

In conclusion, the EFSA GMO Panel considers that, based on the documentation submitted by France, there is no specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment, that would support the notification of an emergency measure under Article 34 of Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 and that would invalidate its previous risk assessments of maize MON 810 (European Food Safety Authority, 2012)

The National Academies Press produced Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods – Assessing the Health Risks (2004) and found:

Genetic engineering is one of the newer technologies available to produce desirable traits in plants and animals used for food, but it poses no unique health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other genetic alteration methods.

Not only is evidence growing to dispel claims of GM harm, more evidence is emerging about unexpected benefits to the environment.  Not only to GM foods obviate the necessity of pesticides, fertilizers, etc. but they have other benefits as well:

A massive 20-year study just published in the journal Nature found that using GM cotton in China to control cotton bollworms closely tracked with a rebound in natural enemy populations, which in turn keep out secondary pests like aphids that usually proliferate when chemical insecticides kill the bollworms (Zhang).

There are hundreds of similar citations mentioned in the Zhang article and through an even cursory search on the Web; and yet despite the evidence that GM foods do no harm and are in fact have a positive effect on the environment, the hysteria to remove them (and labeling is one way of putting pressure on GM producers) is increasing.

Some observers, again disingenuously, say that Proposition 37 is not about banning GM foods.  It is a ‘Right to Know’ legal provision; but because it is government-mandated and –identified, and will go alongside FDA requirements, it is a de facto warning, based on little scientific evidence, and prejudicial to producers.  It should be defeated.

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