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5 Points Against GMO Labeling

March 22, 2014
By: John Dillard, Farm Journal Columnist
 
 

There is significant debate about whether food containing genetic­ally modified organ­ism (GMO)John Dillard ingre­dients should be labeled. The conflict pits farmers, food processors and seed suppliers against a collection of grassroots consumer organizations, anti-corporatists and organic food interests. 

GMO labeling proponents have not succeeded at changing the status quo, so they are turning to state measures. After expensive educational campaigns on both sides, ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling in California (2012) and Washington (2013) narrowly failed. Maine and Connecticut technically have GMO labeling laws, but their laws only become effective if a critical mass of neighboring states also jump on board. At press time, several state GMO labeling bills were being considered across the country.

Proponents of GMO labeling say it is about transparency and consumers’ "right to know." At first, these reasons appear persuasive. However, there are many arguments against mandatory GMO labeling. When consumers and voters see both sides of the issue, "just label it" is much less compelling.

1. GMOs are safe. Despite inferences or accusations by labeling proponents implying that GMO foods are unsafe, there is no scientific proof that foods containing GMO ingredients are less healthy than their conventional counterparts. 

This is the position of the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, and it is backed by hundreds of independently funded research studies. GMO traits undergo an extensive testing process. If a health risk, such as an allergen, is identified, which has happened, these products do not go to market.

2. Labels stigmatize GMOs. Consider the products we label. Cigarettes, alcohol and pharmaceuticals are labeled to disclose potential health hazards. Nutrition labels inform customers about the ingredients in their food, as well as its nutritional content. To the average consumer, a GMO label says the product is less safe than a non-GMO product. Make no mistake about it—the goal of GMO labeling proponents is to stigmatize the use of GMOs. 

For instance, when Whole Foods said it would require GMO labeling in its stores by 2018, its suppliers did not simply decide to start labeling products before the deadline. Instead, they are scrambling to find new non-GMO ingredients and formulations. 

Many countries in the developed world require GMO labeling, but it is hard to find GMO products on grocery shelves in these countries. It’s very telling that the primary sources of funding behind the "Just Label It!" campaign, which supports state labeling initiatives, are organic food manufacturers that are in the best position to profit by the GMO stigmatization.

3. GMOs have a multitude of benefits. Although GMO crops are not a cure-all, it is undeniable that GMO crops are a great tool for pest management. Roundup Ready technology has reduced the use of risky herbicides and increased the adoption of no-till and conservation tillage—redu­cing soil erosion and improving greenhouse gas retention.

In addition, GMOs hold substantial promise for improving yields, drought resistance and consumer-centric traits, such as high-oleic soybeans or apples that resist browning.

4. Mandatory labeling is likely unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects against arbitrary mandatory labeling. Labels are limited to health or safety notices. Since FDA recognizes GMOs do not pose a health or safety hazard, it would be hard to show that labels improve consumer health.

Also, the Constitution’s Commerce Clause prevents states from passing laws that burden interstate commerce without a legitimate justification, such as health or safety regulation. State laws that require GMO labeling will burden out-of-state food manufacturers that would have to segregate and separately label products. With no legi­timate health justification, a federal court would likely invalidate a state labeling law.

5. It should be a federal issue. This debate will continue until the federal government develops a national standard that preempts state labeling laws. Our food industry cannot efficiently function with a patchwork of state labeling laws. FDA should enact a policy against requiring mandatory GMO labeling and provide clear standards for the voluntary labeling of both GMO and non-GMO foods.


This column is not a substitute for legal advice. 

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2014
RELATED TOPICS: Columns, Farm Journal, GMOs

 
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COMMENTS (4 Comments)

Etiquete - Santa Cruz, CA
In response to your questions, please go to the following link to a public statement, which includes signatures and references from the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. At the end of this link are several references to the literature on animal studies to test the effects of GMOs.

http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/

It may be possible to insert a transgene and have a plant express a certain trait, such as drought resistance, but it is orders of magnitude more difficult - perhaps impossible - to be sure that this plant is safe to eat. Once the genome is disrupted the plant might produce allergens, toxins, or carcinogens. The transgene or other parts of the genome could become unstable and the expression of a harmful gene may occur after all short term safety tests are completed, or an unintended gene may be turned on later by the interaction of the plant with its environment. If a carcinogen is involved it may be many years before a cancer develops. A harmful gene may transfer to bacteria in the gut and then be expressed by these bacteria. It is impossible to overstate the complexity of living organisms and their interactions with each other. Humans, plants, and bacteria have evolved together for many millions of years.

If an organism is genetically engineered to produce a specific protein - for example insulin - we only use the protein. Any unintended modifications to the genome of the organism will not affect us. That is a safe and appropriate application of this technology. Genetic engineering of our food supply is different, because we are ingesting the genetically engineered organism with all the unknown side effects to its genome. If there are already widespread health effects from GMOs, we would have no way of knowing or proving it without epidemiological studies.

One further point: suppose we set aside our differences about safety for the sake of argument. Even so, we still require mandatory labeling so that consumers have the information they need for making informed decisions in a free market economy. Voluntary labeling does not appear to be working: I have never seen an item for sale in the United States with the label: "Produced using GMOs."

If GMOs are safe, then there is no need to fear the free market. Even if there is an irrational stigma attached to a product with a GMO label, the manufacturer need only reduce the price slightly and most consumers will rapidly return to reason and buy the cheaper product. If all the miracles that we hear about GMOs are true, for example reducing use of pesticides, eliminating of world hunger, and improving nutritional value, then the manufacturer will eventually be able to charge a premium for products with the GMO label.

When GMO advocates spend millions to defeat mandatory labeling laws in California and Washington, they do themselves a great disservice in the long run, because these actions generate widespread suspicion about GMO products. Indeed, the lobbying by GMO advocates against mandatory labeling appears senseless and self-defeating, unless, of course, we allow the possibility that GMOs are not safe.

11:52 PM Mar 30th
 
joeydesh - Corvallis, OR
@Etiquete

Are you considering that there are reputable sources that claim GMOs are unsafe, because I can assure you there isn't one. Not only does the scientific community back up that GMOs have proven safe in 20 years Americans have been eating them. It is very unprofessional to make claims such as "Many molecular geneticists have spoken out about...". The process is very precise and understood very well, so to say that it isn't is very disheartening. The tricky part of Genetic Engineering isn't the engineering, but understanding what can come from events such as recombination and alternative splicing, which we clearly know enough about to safely and soundly produce GMOs safe for consumption.

Labeling is not supported by 90% or more of the public and has failed in many state ballots.

@Jackalope

Salt, protein and calcium do not have mandatory labeling laws, nor should they. Furthermore, salt and protein are VERY broad terms, so I'm sure if people really wanted to know what is really in their food they would also request labels that could specifically describe these in detail and maybe how the preservatives found in 80% of packaged food are synthesized. Whether or not you trust the FDA, I would say GMOs relation to public safety is the least of our concerns.
6:00 AM Mar 24th
 
Etiquete - Santa Cruz, CA
The writer lists five arguments against labeling, but each of these arguments follows from his initial premise: that GMOs are safe. This premise is false. Today there are plenty of published studies that demonstrate that GMOs are harmful. Many of these studies are conveniently referenced in the book "Genetic Roulette" by Jeffrey Smith.

Many molecular geneticists have spoken out about the multitude of serious risks associated with using genetic engineering for agriculture, but their warnings have gone unheeded by the FDA and the AMA. Inserting a transgene into the DNA of a plant is not a clean or precise technique by any stretch of the imagination. For practical purposes it is probably impossible to test for all the conditions that could go wrong with this technology when it is applied to our food supply. Genetic engineering is appropriate for producing pharmaceuticals, where a specific protein is purified in the end, but it is inappropriate for agriculture, where the genetically modified organism itself is ingested.

Mandatory GMO labeling is supported by at least 90% of the American public, and GMO labeling is already mandatory in 64 countries. It is unethical to secretly introduce GM products into our diets by refusing to label.
10:21 PM Mar 23rd
 
Jackalope - IL
Nice try. Many ingredients such as salt, protein and calcium are considered to be safe and even beneficial. They are clearly labeled so that consumers have the information they need and want to help them make decisions about the products they purchase.
1:30 AM Mar 23rd
 



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