Time for a compromise on GMO labelling

It is not often, in these polarised political times, that the US Senate comes up with a reasonable compromise. But this looks likely to happen on one of the most divisive and contested issues of all- GMO labelling – that is if Congress can move forward quickly enough to enact legislation proposed in the Senate this week.

On July 6, the Senate voted 65-32 to move forward with a “national bioengineered food disclosure standard,” a piece of bipartisan legislation proposed by Senators Pat Roberts (Republican-Kansas) and Debbie Stabenow (Democrat-Michigan). The bill mandates either a text disclosure or a QR code that consumers will be able to scan to access information about the bioengineered content of foods. The USDA has two years to decide on the details. soupandygmostudy

A final Senate vote could take place within days (correction – actually it was passed on 7 July by 63-30), allowing the House to also vote on the bill before July recess at the end of this week. The clock is ticking for the food industry because Vermont has already introduced a mandatory GMO labelling law on July 1. Vermont’s law is helpful only to the extent that it has spurred Congress into further action. Seemingly drafted to single out and demonize foods produced from genetically engineered crops, Vermont’s approach should not become the de facto basis for national standards.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in transparency in the food system. However, information must be meaningful to be useful. A straight “GMO” label tells you nothing. It doesn’t tell you whether a crop was grown with more or fewer pesticides. It doesn’t tell you whether or not it is safe to consume — though it likely implies the opposite for many worried consumers. And it doesn’t tell you what trait the bioengineered crop had, and why farmers used it.

That is why keeping open the option of QR codes or some other electronic scanning approach looks promising. People care about GMOs because they are concerned about the healthfulness of their food, and the environmental sustainability of farming. Establishing this, however, requires more than a GMO/non-GMO label.

A fuller disclosure might tell you that the crop had an insect-resistance trait that allowed fewer insecticides to be sprayed than would otherwise be the case. It might tell you that a fruit — the Rainbow papaya grown in Hawaii being a good example — is genetically modified to enable it to resist a devastating virus that was wiping out family farms. Or it may tell you that a herbicide-tolerant crop was grown using glyphosate, and spell out the pluses and minuses of such an approach.

The problem with a straight “GMO” label is that it appears to many as a health warning, yet we know beyond reasonable doubt that there are no health concerns about GMO technology. The scientific consensus is clear: if you vaccinate your children and believe in human-made climate change, you should not be scared of GMO foods. The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a weighty report once again reconfirming this basic truth.

So why have a label at all? Many scientists are opposed to it on the basis that it is illogical to require labelling for techniques with no material impact on the resulting foodstuff. They are correct technically, but wrong politically: labeling is important to give people the sense that they have a choice. The most potent argument that the anti-GMO activists ever came up with is the “public right to know,” because, in opposing it, the food industry looked as if it had something to hide.

Defusing this issue means putting as much information as possible into the public domain. Telling people that experts say their food is safe does not help any longer in today’s cynical world. People will only feel intuitively that their food is safe when they are able to choose what they eat. That is why Campbell’s moves towards voluntary labelling across its whole product range are so important and pioneering in pushing the rest of the industry forwards.

The proposed legislation is carefully worded. It defines bioengineering as food “that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques.” To my mind, that means food that contains an actual transgene — excluding derivatives such as sugar from genetically-modified beets, or cheese using enzymes produced by genetically-modified micro-organisms. It also excludes meat from animals fed GMO corn.

Anti-GMO activists are not satisfied with this bill because it removes their strongest argument – that on ‘right to know’, while also not allowing them to use mandatory labels as if they were warnings about food safety. That is another reason to support it in my book. If there were no GMO controversy, there would be no need for labelling. But there is, and we need to deal with it as quickly and transparently as possible.

© Mark Lynas
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