By Matt Bogard
My recent discussion about labeling biotech foods may have led some to believe that I'm against informing the consumer about what's in their food. I'm not. Let's pose a hypothetical. Let's label biotech foods on the premise (supported by evidence or not) that recombinant DNA technology presents uncertainty about food safety.
What kind of label then should we put on conventional foods? Most research indicates that non-biotech foods pose nearly identical if not other more certain risks. In fact biotech ('GMO' if you must) crops actually reduce some of these risks. What about exposure to chemical weed killers? Roundup Ready biotech crops have lead to a substitution away from much more toxic and environmentally persistent chemistries toward much safer options. Biotech corn with the Bt trait actually reduces the ear mold toxin fumonisin which is known to be carcinogenic and related to throat cancer. The Bt trait in general has greatly reduced or eliminated the use of many very toxic chemical pesticides.
Researchers in the journal of Ecological Economics have found that "Bt cotton has reduced pesticide applications by 50%, with the largest reductions of 70% occurring in the most toxic types of chemicals." And that " Bt cotton now helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year."
In the journal Nature Biotechnology, Henry Miller and Gregory Conko go so far as to say that companies that purposefully exclude biotech ingredients could be liable for increasing consumers exposure to these types of risks.
This is a case where government interventions that require labeling could actually do more harm than good. Labels help consumers concerned about fat and sodium make healthy choices, however sensational 'GMO' labels could be misguiding and lead consumers to actually make choices that are either worse for them, the health of producers, or the environment.
Consumers certainly have a right to know about what's in their food. They also have a right to not be misguided by the improper application of food labels. Our farmers and educators are in the best position to inform consumers about the very specific and complicated processes and technologies involved in food production as opposed to some blunt uninformative term on a label that could easily be manipulated for political ends or sensationalized by media.
Comparison of Fumonisin Concentrations in Kernels of Transgenic Bt Maize Hybrids and Nontransgenic Hybrids. Munkvold, G.P. et al . Plant Disease 83, 130-138 1999.
Indirect Reduction of Ear Molds and Associated Mycotoxins in Bacillus thuringiensis Corn Under Controlled and Open Field Conditions: Utility and Limitations. Dowd, J. Economic Entomology. 93 1669-1679 2000.
"Why Spurning Biotech Food Has Become a Liability.'' Miller, Henry I, Conko, Gregory, & Drew L. Kershe. Nature Biotechnology Volume 24 Number 9 September 2006.
Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide Use? Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2000