The bill that passed Congress last week requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods is a step toward better consumer information.
Or it’s a gift to the food industry because it does not require clear information on the label. Food companies could use icons or a barcode that would require scanning to get the information.
In truth, though, neither of those views makes sense because the whole idea of labeling GMO foods is simply illogical, unless and until information comes to light that indicates the food is in any way dangerous to human health.
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Requiring labels on food has a philosophy behind it: Giving consumers information that affects human health, in terms of nutrition and safety. That’s why you’ll find calorie counts, nutrient measurements and warnings about potential allergens such as peanuts.
If GMO foods aren’t dangerous, why would we plaster the information on the label?
In the absence of evidence that the foods are inherently harmful, GMO opponents complain that they encourage heavy herbicide use. That’s true for the biggies – corn, soy, rapeseed (the source of canola oil). But loads of non-GMO foods are also grown with pesticides and herbicides, and no one’s getting worked up about labeling those.
While we’re at it, why not demand that foods be labeled for hormones, antibiotics, the exact chemicals used for fertilization and pest control, how much room the dairy cattle were given and how many male chicks were killed to produce that carton of eggs?
We all have things we’d like to know about our food, but there’s only so much room on labels, most of which people don’t read, anyway, studies have found.
And GMO food is about more than enabling herbicide use. The papaya-growing industry in Hawaii was saved by the engineering of a papaya with resistance to a virus. Scientists have been developing rice imbued with nutrients to prevent malnutrition in developing countries and trying for citrus that might resist the greening disease that threatens the crop.
If the concern is pesticides, label for pesticides, which means it’s out of place to lump the other GMO foods in with them. Of course, the pesticide argument is a misdirection, a magician’s trick to draw attention from the real but unsubstantiated reason – the techno-fear that no matter what studies find, GMO foods are inherently dangerous because of the gene-tinkering. After all, the people who are that worried about pesticides are buying organic.
Guess what? Agriculture has been doing unnatural things to plant genes for millennia to produce more attractive foods. The ancient Mayans cross-bred corn to produce a palatable and productive form of it. Some 80 years ago, farmers claimed that it was unnatural and potentially harmful to bring hybridization to corn-growing.
Do you think the pluot (a plum-apricot hybrid) is a natural food? Or that supposedly “heirloom” tomatoes resemble the little berries that grew on the original, wild tomato plants? Food scientists also irradiate seeds or expose them to toxic chemicals to bring about mutations that they hope will prove desirable. Where are the cries for labeling those?
That’s why, in fact, the acronym GMO itself is imprecise, standing for genetically modified organism. Practically all our food is from genetically modified organisms.
If we want to rethink the purpose and amount of food labeling, fine. But let’s do it logically, from an overarching philosophy about which aspects of food need to be labeled, instead of picking off a single technology that happens to have set off people’s primal fears.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.