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Should Genetically Modified Food be Labeled?
November 7 Update on Proposition 37: When a vote is close, a lot of voters on the losing side are left feeling infuriated, perhaps even cheated. On Tuesday, November 6, California's Proposition 37 went down to a narrow defeat. According to Examiner.com, here's where things stood Wednesday morning:
Yes (for GE labeling): 4,194,793 (47%) No (against labeling): 4,723,681 (53%)
The 450,000 votes not yet counted were too few to change the outcome.
Supporters of this initiative have expressed their fury in many online articles. They blame their loss on the "media blitz" funded, to the tune of about $45 million, by multi-national corporations (including Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico, and many others). However, many who disagreed with the initiative's goals (including the scientists on this site's Advisory Board) simply believed that putting a GE label on 60-70% of the foods sold in today's grocery stores would be not only unnecessary but also troublesome and expensive. (See our article below.)
Googling "Proposition 37" will get you to a number of articles on this topic, both pro and con, many written before Election Day. My favorite article (aside, of course, from the one I posted below) is the fairly objective, lengthy piece that appeared in the Washington Post on November 3. It's a detailed, clear explanation of the arguments on both sides.
Those who fought hard for this initiative are not going to go away quietly. You and I will be hearing a lot more about GE labeling as efforts are made to pass similar initiatives in other states.
If you have a thirst to read more, click on these:
November 2, 2012
If you haven't yet heard of Proposition 37, rest assured, you will. It's going to be on the November ballot in California. It requires that all foods containing GM ingredients be so labeled. GM or not GM is a hot-button issue in the U.S. today, so millions of dollars are pouring in to oppose this proposition, and advocacy groups are working hard to get it passed. This California initiative may have been inspired by the supermarket appearance of Monsanto's GM sweet corn, another big news story this August. In the case of GM sweet corn, public pressure is not about labeling; it's urging stores not to carry it.
The initials GE, GM, and GMO are among the most controversial letters ever typed into a computer. They stand for "genetically engineered" and "genetically modified" (which describe the process) and "genetically modified organism" (the resulting product). These terms refer to the alteration of an organism's DNA for the purpose of improvement or correction of defects.
Who's on either side of the GM battle? Companies using GM ingredients (Monsanto, PepsiCo., DuPont, and several others) prefer to do so quietly, even invisibly, so they've donated big bucks (so far, some $25 million) to keep Proposition 37 from passing. Donations may double by November. Still, some say the proposition stands a good chance of passing. California is a trend-setting state, so what passes there is likely pass on ideas to other states.
Opposing Proposition 37 are advocacy groups--such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Credo Action--who have used email to encourage consumers to make their support of labeling and their opposition to GM corn heard by petitioning the government and big businesses. Supporters of labeling are convinced that GM products are harmful to human health and bad for the environment. Furthermore, they resent the fact that they are not told when these manipulated products are used in processed food.
"What's all the fuss about?" you may be wondering. "If it will make the worriers happy, why not just put GM on the label? Food packages are so crowded with tiny print, who will read it anyway?" Well, it's not that simple. If Proposition 37 passes, guess how many grocery products would need their labels altered to include GM. The answer is about 60-70%! GMOs are widely found in corn, soybeans, and canola oil. In most cases, GM on the label would refer to a small amount of GM plant material in a product with many ingredients.
The Labeling Issue
Labeling has this obvious benefit: it would enable those who wish to avoid GMO products to do so. Since organic products cannot contain GE ingredients, buying organic guarantees avoiding GE even without any required labeling. However, since organic products tend to be more expensive than others, one can understand why some consumers might want to know which nonorganic items are GM free.
How does the GM issue play outside the U.S.? According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 40 countries have some labeling requirements. GMOs are extremely unpopular in Europe, where there are strict labeling rules and bans on many GM products. Nevertheless, the American scientists I contacted for this article were either opposed to or lukewarm about labeling. Their comments below indicate why.
Dr. Karin Allen: “Where do you draw the line? Yes, you’d probably want to know whether the salmon you’re considering buying was altered so that it grew twice as fast as normal. But what about these cases—a taco shell or a piece of licorice that contains (among many other ingredients) some GMO corn syrup? I believe this gray area is the main reason there has been resistance to the idea of GE labeling.”
Consider, for example, the situation with cheese. Dr. Allen points this out: “Most of our cheese would have to be labeled because the rennet used to produce it is a GE product. At one time, the only source of rennet was from the stomach lining of milk-fed calves, and these animals were kept in miserable conditions in tiny cages until it was time to slaughter them. Animal welfare activists should applaud the creation of a bacterial GE product that has mostly replaced the rennet from calves, except in organic cheeses since organic foods cannot contain genetically altered ingredients.”
Dr. Catherine Cutter: “It’s a matter of consumer preference. But the organic label (on corn chips and so on) is enough to tell consumers that there are no GE ingredients in a product.”
Dr. Timothy Bowser: “Ingredients should be listed on the label with extra information if food safety is an issue. Personally, I don’t think food safety is an issue for GE ingredients. Some people have very compelling reasons why they want to know if GE ingredients are in their foods, and these cases should be researched by government (or an independent group) and recommendations made. Where the funding will come from to pay for these studies is a big question. Furthermore, it will cost plenty to find, verify, and make GE ingredient information available.”
Dr. Clair Hicks: “Certainly a number of people want these items labeled. However most regulators, governmental bodies, and educators see this as a continuing process. Where does one draw the line between GM and plant breeding or gene-selected traits? If enough consumers want a GM label, then the government will have to make some very clear definitions of what a GM food is. I think our definition of a GM food 15 years ago was different than it is today, and that definition will probably change in another 15 years. As technology changes, so do the techniques used to make a GM food.”
“Over 90% of the hard cheeses in the U.S. are produced using a GM enzyme (chymosin) that enables us to put a better cheese in the marketplace. To put a GM label on all cheese could really increase the cost.”
Dr. Joe Regenstein: “I don’t favor GE labeling. To answer various consumer questions, the information on labels could be increased endlessly, a horrendously expensive process.”
Alternatives to Labeling Products "GE" or "GM"
Food scientist Dr. J. Lynne Brown points out other ways to identify GE products for consumers besides putting this information on each package label:
- “It can be placed on company websites.
- Cell phone apps can be developed to access this information.
- Alternatively, a company can simply declare on its web page that all its corn, soybeans, etc. are sourced from GE varieties.
- If a complete list of foods with possible GE ingredients can be accessible via an app, the consumer could source that in the supermarket.
The Federal Government’s Position on GM foods
At present, the FDA does not require labels on genetically modified foods or foods with some genetically modified ingredient. However, it does have some regulations related to GE products. Here are some examples:
- If a GE food is significantly different from its original counterpart so that the common name for it doesn’t adequately describe the new food, the name must be changed.
- If a bioengineered food has significantly different nutritional properties, its label must reflect that difference.
- If the new food contains an allergen that consumers would not expect to be there, the presence of that allergen must be listed on the label.
So far, no products sold in the U.S. have fallen into any of these categories.
“The FDA has also approved voluntary GE labeling regulations. Companies can state voluntarily that a food contains GE ingredient x and can state why it was used,” says Dr. Brown.
GE: Benefits and Problems
Since the 1980s, GE corn and soybeans have been a part of the U.S. food system. Here are just a few examples of the contributions made by GE:
- GE has made possible the production of corn that’s pest-resistant (not damaged by insects).
- GE has made possible the development of soybeans that are herbicide-resistant (so that the soybeans are not killed by herbicides). Weeds can be killed easily, so less pesticide is needed.
- Golden rice (a GE product with added beta-carotene, which the human body can convert to Vitamin A) has the potential to save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children living in Southeast Asia and Africa. Many children in areas where a dietary deficiency of vitamin A exists eat rice as the major component of their diet. Golden rice would be an easier, less expensive way to provide vitamin A than supplying these children with vitamins in pill form or adding more produce and meat to their meals. Golden rice, which was developed as a humanitarian tool, is still fighting regulatory hurdles.
- Drought-resistant GMOs could provide big savings for farmers, processors, and consumers.
Long-term, GE could help solve the problem of how to feed an ever-expanding world population. However, there remain some scientific, economic, and environmental problems and ethical concerns related to altering the genetic make-up of plants and animals. Dealing with these extensively is beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few mentioned by Dr. Brown:
- The extensive use of the herbicide RoundUp with crops that were genetically engineered to resist this herbicide has generated many types of RoundUp-resistant weeds. Farmers are now applying other pesticides to handle these resistant weeds, increasing the pesticide burden on these crops. Originally, RoundUp-ready seeds were to help reduce the pesticide burden.
- Crops genetically engineered to express bacillus thuringiensis (bt) have also produced bt- resistant insects, making the use of these GE seeds useless in some areas.
- Pollen drift from GE crops is threatening the GE free status of organic farmers.
The Safety Question
It’s been jokingly called “Frankenfood,” but what is it really? Food and Nutrition (a web magazine for the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals) contains a definition and a defense of GE. Here’s the definition: “Genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified (GM) foods contain an ingredient whose DNA has been altered via recombinant DNA technology.” The article goes on to say this: “The World Health Organization asserts that there’s no likely health risk associated with consuming genetically engineered foods.”
However, that answer—no likely health risk—leaves room for doubt and worry. We asked Dr. Lynne Brown to expand upon this point, and here’s her response: “Some research suggests that genetic engineering may have some harmful effects upon the plants themselves. But most U.S. scientists discount research that suggests any harm to humans or animals because it is often done in countries where, in the opinion of U.S. scientists, the standards of research are not as high as in the U.S. There is little research done in the U.S. on this question because it would be very hard to find funding for it. Many scientists who sit on grant review boards have concluded there is no harm to humans, so such research is not high priority for funding. In addition, experiments to monitor long-term, low-dose effects would be done using animals, and there are always problems transferring results from animals to humans. Thus, the question of the safety of long-term consumption is still not answered.”
So how scared should we be about eating GE foods? Cheese expert Dr. Clair. Hicks, is not the least bit afraid. Here’s what he says: “I eat GM cheese daily. I am sure I eat GM corn daily along with food that contains GM soy products. Does it bother me? Not at all. If I like the product, I eat it.”
For more details about the safety or possible risks of consuming GM foods, click here:
Note: Be patient; the above link is sometimes slow to open. Scroll down to the links to specific QAs.
To read the following article, “Will Genetically Engineered Salmon Be Coming to Your Dinner Table ?”, click here: http://shelflifeadvice.com/content/will-genetically-engineered-salmon-be-coming-your-dinner-table
To read more about the GM corn issue, click here: http://shelflifeadvice.com/content/gm-corn-would-you-should-you-buy-it-where
To read a recent New York Times article on this controversial matter, click here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/science/dispute-over-labeling-of-genetically-modified-food.html?_r=1&emc=eta1
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences
Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science
J. Lynne Brown, Ph.D., R.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science; nutrition specialist for the PSU Cooperative Extension system
A Consumer Guide to Genetically Engineered Salmon by J. Lynne Brown, Ph.D., R.D, Penn State, College of Agricultural Sciences
Chicago Tribune "Big Food Fight" August 22, 2012.
Foodandnutritionmagazine.com “Labeling Laws for GM Foods"
goldenrice.org “Vitamin A Deficiency-Related Disorders (VADD)
action.ewg.org “Tell the FDA to label genetically engineered foods!
credoaction.com “Tell Walmart: Reject Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn”