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.

13 Comments

  1. Chuck Niwrad

    As you say, a reasonable compromise in political terms, but a bit like saying a 65-32 vote that the sky is not green would also represent a reasonable compromise. That this is the best they can muster when the facts are so clear is just more evidence of how polarized Congress really is.

    Reply
  2. Wolfgang Nellen

    I am just concerned that a lable would be understood as a health or diatary label (like alkohol, allergens, high sodium etc.).
    It is in fact rather like a religious or ideological label (like halal or kosher). To my knowledge, no Jew or Moslem claims that non-kosher or haram is a health hazard but the anti-GMO movement tries to imply this.

    Reply
  3. Bluebell

    All they have to say on the existing label of the product is “This product contains GMO’s) That would give the customer, the right to choose to buy. Pretty simple. Some big Corporations are already doing it.

    If GMO’s are so great…Label it.

    Reply
    1. Chuck Niwrad

      Thanks to years of misinformation promulgated by anti-GMO interests, consumers have been conditioned to associate GMO with something bad. Consumers should have the truth, not just slogans and lies, so maybe QR codes can help lead consumers to the truth that Big Organic doesn’t want them to know.

    2. Charles Rader

      Bluebell, please answer a question for me. If a consumer has an interest in whether a product contains a GMO ingredient, isn’t it likely that this interest is based on a reason? Will that reason necessarily apply to all GMO foods? If not, shouldn’t a label at least tell the consumer what ingredient prompted the label?

      Let’s consider some possible reasons. I’m not saying that a reason has to be based on actual facts. It can be based on anything.

      A possible reason is that the consumer does not approve of the business practices of the company that developed the GMO crop. But not all GMOs are developed by the same company, or even by any company. Without knowing the ingredient, the consumer doesn’t know enough to make a decision based on his own reason.

      A possible reason is that the consumer is worried about a herbicide used with the crop for weed control. But there are GMO varieties which are not grown using this practice and some which actually result in less use of agricultural chemicals. Without knowing the ingredient, the consumer doesn’t know enough to make a decision based on his own reason.

      A possible reason is that the consumer believes that living things should not be patented. But some GMO foods are past the date of patent validity. In a few cases, the patent exists solely to prevent somebody else from trying to restrict its use. Without knowing the ingredient, the consumer doesn’t know enough to make a decision based on his own reason.

      A possible reason is that the consumer believes, incorrectly, that novel genes in the food can do him harm. But a large majority of foods which the anti-GMO people want to be labeled have no genes at all, just ingredients derived from a GMO plant but not retaining any DNA, e.g. sugars, oils, starch, etc. Without knowing the ingredient, how can the consumer tell whether it contains the genes that he is worried about?

      Try as I may, I can’t understand why anyone, except a determined propagandist, would object to a labeling scheme that gives the consumer more useful information.

    3. Ashok Chowgule

      I personally think that the points made by Charles Rader are convoluted. Take the case of a company’s business practices. A car may have a component made by an ancillary whose business practices may not be the best. However, does the buyer have a list of all the ancillaries that have supplied components in a car?

      There are systems in place in many democratic societies to control the business practices of a company. For example, if a company is indulging in money laundering, there are controls set by the government.

      Furthermore, there is an assumption made that the consumer has perfect information. But, as we know, many of the arguments made by the anti-GMO activists have near zero basis and logic. At the same time, these activists are indulging in scare mongering, as has been the case that the green MPs in Europe have done, sowing a plant eating a human being.

      There are safety procedures in place, that many products have to pass through. At the same time, please see:
      http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13746682

      This is a 2011 article which has reported of deaths and serious illness caused by eating organic bean sprouts in Germany,

      Namaste.
      Ashok Chowgule
      Goa, India,

    4. Chuck Niwrad

      Charles,

      That’s the point, GMO labeling does not provide useful information. In fact, thanks to anti-GMO propagandists, it is more likely to convey misinformation.

      Not much different than USDA Organic label, which says something about how a food item was grown, but virtually nothing about its nutritional value or safety. No different than Fair Trade labels. If one wants to support a particular social construct or ideology, and if a producer wants to voluntarily label a product to attract that support, then fine, but that is not what we are talking about here, we are talking about mandatory government labeling that is supposed to say something substantive about a product, like nutritional value or presence of allergens, not just appeal to an ideology.

    5. Wolfgang Nellen

      I agree with Mark: what information is in a label? The problem is that food is labelled with lots of useless items. With a strong lobby, additional labels may be added. When consumers have the right to choose, why not label “prepared in metallic containers”, “prepared using energy from fossil energy sources”, “grown from bio-dynamic, energized seeds”, “contains levitated water”, “contains inorganic chemicals” and more. Consumers get confused when essential information is right next to useless ideological labels (contains lactose, contains GMO chymosin). Lactose can cause health problems, GMO chymosin not. In the contrary “natural chymosin substitutes” from plants or molds can have negative effects on taste – should that be labelled? Should we label the exact content of alkaloids and phytohormones in all vegetables? This would have been useful in the case of the Lenape potato. Will we need, in the end, a special training to go shopping just in order to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information?

    6. Clyde Davies

      I’ve got a GREAT IDEA. Why don’t we design labels that tell the consumer what THEY want to know as opposed to what Greenpeace and people like YOU want them to know?

      QR codes would allow people like me, who want to avoid proven harmful adulterants like trans fats, to do so. I don’t give a toss about GMOs in my food because I believe they aren’t harmful.

      So, Bluebell, let’s TRULY put the power in the hands of the consumer and allow them to make up their own mind. Or isn’t that stigmatising enough for you?

    7. Clyde Davies

      If ethnic minorities are so great, why not label them? You know, by say sewing a little yellow star on their clothing? What possible harm could that do?

  4. Eric Bjerregaard

    Nope, Gotta disagree. One doesn’t compromise with evil. One opposes it. Also, a allowing the gov’t to compel speech without a fact based justification would be establishing a bad precedent.

    Reply
  5. Ashok Chowgule

    Vermont’s decision to exclude cheese from the GMO labelling requirement clearly shows that the state is afraid of the impact on the cheese sales that the state is famous for. As Chuck Nirwad has said above, the huge anti-GMO campaign, based on scare mongering and anti-science, has created a fear in the minds of the people about the technology.

    The purpose of labelling is to provide information that has a potential to harm the person buying the product. So, we have labelling on cigarette packets. And there is labelling like a product contains nuts to which some people are allergic.

    GMO technology has zero health risks.

    Namaste.
    Ashok Chowgule
    Goa, India.

    Reply
  6. Jon W

    Just to be clear, the food industry in the UK never did oppose GM labelling and introduced it voluntarily in the 1990s before it became a legal requirement.

    Reply

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