Most of us accept that we live in a world where food is no longer just grown; it is engineered.
Even scarier, much of our food is bio-engineered and not grown, but bred.
Given this reality, it is reasonable for a consumer to want to know something about the engineering, which produces foods that are known as GMOs, an acronym for products that contain genetically modified organisms.
This is not an argument about GMOs, about whether they are safe for people or animals to ingest, whether they are environmentally safe or hazardous or whether they will cause unforeseen problems in years to come.
This is an argument in favor of labeling them.
Consumers are understandably suspicious when food producers and agribusinesses like locally based Monsanto wage a $21.95 million campaign in Washington state to defeat a GMO-labeling ballot measure.
If supporters of the proposition, known as Initiative 522, had an agenda other than helping consumers learn more about the food they buy, it was not apparent.
Sure there are hucksters and alternative-medicine gurus, even some reasonable doubters, who warn about alleged dangers caused by GMOs. Labeling could help silence their fear-mongering.
The incentive for opponents, which included such food industry giants as Pepsico, Nestlé, General Mills and Kellogg's, and agribusiness concerns DuPont Pioneer, Bayer Crop Science, Dow Agrisciences and BASF PlantScience, was more obvious.
As Monsanto put it in a position paper on the company’s website: “We oppose mandatory labeling of food and ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks, as it could be interpreted as a warning or imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”
Well, that’s one way of looking at it.
A better way was expressed by Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, who said: “It’s time for scientists and advocates to accept that label laws are inevitable — and will in fact disarm opponents.”
Mr. Fagin wrote in the journal Scientific American that he reluctantly opposes mandatory GMO labeling because in Europe and Asia, where it is used widely, it has done little to increase consumers’ knowledge. He said that in some cases it also pressured retailers to stop carrying GMO products and caused price hikes.
Despite the negatives, Mr. Fagin asserted that “fighting disclosure is not where the scientific community should be putting its energy.” He predicted that a pro-labeling tide will swamp North America. He cites a recent New York Times poll indicating that more than 90 percent of Americans already think that products containing GMOs should be labeled as such.
But the labels should contain useful information. Mandatory labeling is a waste of time if the data are meaningless. In the 60 countries that currently mandate labeling, studies show that the labels have done little to change the purchasing habits of consumers one way or the other.
Mr. Fagin says labeling should be reserved for information that is relevant to health. Government-sponsored assessments repeatedly have shown that GMOs are as safe and nutritious as their conventionally created counterparts.
At this point, the big problem with labeling is that consumers are nervous and suspicious about why companies are resistant to it, the “What are they hiding?” question.
Human nature assumes the worst, particularly when the topic is complicated and poorly understood. This is the case with the health and environmental impact of GMOs.
The Food and Drug Administration should take a pro-labeling stance and be consistent with it. There should be a nationwide labeling plan that includes GMOs and complements the ingredient and nutrition labels already in use. Consumers deserve as much information as possible about the products they buy.
Consider what can happen when regulators drag their feet. Blythe Bernhard in the Post-Dispatch reported Friday on the 50-year effort of 99-year-old Fred Kummerow, an emeritus professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois, to have trans fats outlawed because of the health risks they pose. It wasn’t until last week that the FDA acknowledged that trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe.”
In those 50 years, Americans could have been safer with more information.
Despite food industry fears, there is ample evidence that it shouldn’t be so information-phobic. Its products, as far as anyone knows, are safe. And even if they weren’t, information didn’t stop Americans from abusing tobacco, alcohol and unsafe food. Talk about a first-world problem.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.