The argument over labelling GM foods in the US is developing very differently from elsewhere in the world – and the debate is not as simple as it might first seem
Europeans and many other countries scratch their heads over why there is such a big controversy in the US over the labelling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Sixty-four nations around the world have enacted mandatory labelling laws.
“GM foods are not proven safe. Why not just label them and let the consumer decide?” is a common thread on food blogs. “Governments must be kowtowing to the GMO lobby.”
That’s the liberal position: prioritising the consumer’s right to know. Many activist groups lobbying for labelling cite a New York Times poll that 93% of Americans support it.
So why do the leading independent science organisations in the US and the top liberal news publications oppose mandatory labelling?
The US Department of Agriculture maintains that mandatory labelling of GM foods would be “inherently misleading”, on the grounds that there is no substantial difference between GM foods and conventional or organic food.
That’s the strict scientific position. Genetic modification is a process. There is no detectable difference between, say, sugar made from GM or organic sugar beets. The seeds of the GM variety are engineered to contain Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a common bacterium that is not biologically active in humans but toxic to insects. Bt is so harmless that organic farmers use it extensively.
The pressure for labelling is coming from legislatures in liberal states such as New York, California, Oregon and Massachusetts, where pressure from anti-GMO groups has escalated. Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state to require any genetically modified foods to carry a label, although it is being challenged in court. It probably won't be the last state. Oregon voters will decide on a similar measure in November and about 25 other states have proposed mandatory labelling legislation this year.
But a curious thing is happening. The most enlightened liberal thinkers and the progressive publications in key states are joining with the science establishment to oppose mandatory labelling.
The pro-labelling arguments, they say, boil down to two deceptive talking points: GMOs may be unsafe and are untested – the Frankenfood argument; and GMOs are part of a corporate plot to monopolise the food system – the Monsanto argument.
Neither is supported by the evidence. “A labelling requirement would only serve to confuse consumers,” said the Boston Globe in an editorial on 30 July, becoming the latest progressive publication to oppose a statewide measure. “Advocates say it would alert those who may object to genetically modified foods to choose other options. But the mere fact of a label would contribute to the stigmatisation of food that is actually perfectly healthy. Besides, there’s already an easy solution for the GMO-wary buyer: Labels that tout foods that are not genetically modified.”
The most strident opposition to labelling is on science grounds. As the Washington Post wrote in June, “there is no mainstream scientific evidence showing that foods containing GMOs are any more or less harmful for people to consume than anything else in the supermarket, despite decades of development and use”.
The New York Times notes: “There is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers.”
The US Congress has so far rebuffed calls for mandatory national labelling in part because every major science organisation in the world, from the World Health Organisation to the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, citing hundreds of independent studies, with many overseen by the European Union, have issued statements reassuring the public about the safety of GM foods and the independence of the global food supply.
While conventional breeding swaps giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another, genetic engineering is far more precise, is less likely to produce an unexpected result, and is pre-tested and monitored after release. Many of the organisations that have publicly stated the dangers of global warming have noted that GM foods are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.
They are also more sustainable in many cases because they require fewer “inputs”– some GM crops, such as Bt sugar beets, are engineered to use natural bacteria to repel pests, and all but eliminate the use of toxic insecticides – and result in higher yields. About-to-be-introduced nutritionally enhanced or toxicity reduced GM foods such as cassava, rice and potatoes will offer consumers clear nutritional benefits.
More harm than good
Scientific American, long regarded as one of the most independent science sources in the world, in its editorial headlined “Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea”, made the case that labelling will spread scientifically inaccurate information that could harm human health and slow the development of agricultural biotechnology – which while not a silver bullet could play a key role in increasing the global food supply as population pressures escalate in coming decades. Activists have presented no evidence to support their familiar complaint that there is a “global plot” to take over the highly diversified world food seed, farming and production system.
“Antagonism toward GMO foods also strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits to people in developing countries and promises far more,” Scientific American wrote. “Ultimately, we are deciding whether we will continue to develop an immensely beneficial technology or shun it based on unfounded fears.”
None of these arguments is apt to sway committed opponents of biotechnology. Just do it, they say; it’s as simple as printing a label, and it has worked in Europe.
But has it?
Scientists, and increasingly independent liberal thinkers, are opposed to mandatory labels precisely because scientists don’t want to replicate what’s happened in Europe: a lack of choice of foods, consistently higher food prices, and an increase in the use of more toxic pesticides, all because GMO foods are shunned.
The stigma encouraged by opponents of biotechnology comes at a high price, say some independent researchers. A recent joint study by epidemiologists and economists examining the costs of not deploying this technology in Indian estimated that it has cost billions of dollars and 1.4 million life years over the past decade in that country alone.
The boycott lobby
The most prominent labelling supporters in the US – all backed by the large and growing organic food lobby, who know that the driver of consumer sales is the unsupported belief that organic foods are safer and more nutritious – have made it quite clear that the consumer choice is not top of their consumer rights wish list.
“If we have it labelled, then we can organise people not to buy it,” says Andrew Kimbrell, head of the Center for Food Safety.
“GM foods must be banned entirely, but labelling is the most efficient way to achieve this,” says Joseph Mercola, a wildly popular web-based natural products entrepreneur whose income depends on selling alternative health products.
What about that poll that shows that more than nine in 10 consumers want labelling? It might not be exactly what meets the eye. When American consumers are asked a less loaded question – whether there is any additional information they would like on their labels that’s not there now – only 4% say they support GMO labelling.
Are there tradeoffs in adopting crop biotechnology or large-scale agriculture? Of course, particularly that it encourages the consumption of processed foods, which uses commodity grains such as maize and soybeans that are linked to obesity. There are also environmental concerns that industrial-sized farms are less apt to use integrated pest management techniques, leading to monocultural farming and emergence of pesticide resistant weeds.
There is clearly room for healthy dialogue. But make no mistake: food safety and transparency are not on the pro-label groups’ agenda in the US.
Jon Entine is senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and director of the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University.agriculture GM Crops GMO US food