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Diverse Views On Labeling GMOs

July 9, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 28

I usually find myself in good agreement with Rudy Baum’s opinions, but with his editorial “Labeling GMO Foods,” I find myself on the other side of the fence concerning genetically modified organisms (C&EN, June 4, page 3). I must admit I have always been taken aback by the finality of many chemists’ opinions. If we have learned anything, it is that we do not know all the answers, because life structures are very complex. In addition, our thinking has become increasingly short term. How many times in the past 10 years alone have we reversed our original position?

Here is but one example of many I can cite: A diet high in wheat has been linked to obesity, digestive diseases, arthritis, diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. How is it possible for a healthy grain that we have been told is good for us to all of a sudden be so bad? It has been found by researchers that eating two slices of whole-wheat bread increases blood sugar more than pure sugar does. Mayo Clinic and University of Iowa studies have verified the contribution of modern wheat to obesity.

It turns out decades of selective breeding and hybridization by the food industry to increase yield and confer baking and aesthetic characteristics have created new proteins in wheat that the human body is incapable of using correctly. The gluten protein in modern wheat is different in structure from the gluten in older forms of wheat.

The field of protein chemistry surely has intensified in the past decade, but do we know all the answers? I think not. This information and more on the subject can be obtained from William Davis, a cardiologist from Fox Point, Wis. The bottom line is that we need to know and have a right to know what is being done to our food.

By Thomas E. Beesley
Towaco, N.J.

“Just silly,” says Baum, “that beef fed genetically modified corn could somehow be a threat to human health.” Furthermore, “I know enough about molecular biology and the human digestive system to be completely comfortable eating corn carrying the Bt gene.”

Here is what is silly: that we take the word of corporations that have been known to subvert test results when the data do not fit their economic interests. Is it enough that the corporate tests find no evidence of harm? Even if there were no questions or concerns about the testing results, should one not have reservations (in the same way that Baum has reservations about eating genetically modified salmon that grows twice as fast as normal salmon) about the safety of that food supply?

Except for the advent of GM food, most of our food supply has had life testing for about 10,000 years. The GM food has not undergone long-term studies for safety in children, pregnant women, or any adult. Food is what we eat every day, all our life, for many years. We deserve to be heard and taken seriously.

By Lou Rigali
Oakland, Calif.

Perhaps Baum is correct that digestion makes all sources of food equivalent. But he might appreciate another perspective on GMO crops.

This retired chemist-turned-gardener worries that those of us who enjoy the challenge of organic gardening will suffer when the pests we currently battle with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) develop resistance. And since weeding is rarely our favorite task, we do not look forward to the development of “superweeds.” I believe these consequences of the use of GMO crops have been observed and should perhaps be discussed in Baum’s editorials.

To paraphrase one of his final thoughts, perhaps communicating public interests to science is difficult.

By Doug Dorman

Baum’s ambivalence about labeling GMOs is something I share after my dissertation work on how people reason about genetically engineered food. I find it difficult to decide how to vote on California’s ballot measure on labeling.

Consumers should have the choice to avoid certain GMOs if their potential health or environmental risks appear to outweigh their benefits. Yet it is disturbing that many recurring anti-GMO arguments are erroneous:

1. Genetic engineering has led to corporate control of agriculture because farmers must now buy seed. False. Farmers may choose to buy seed from companies to increase yield, and this practice long predates the advent of genetically engineered crops.

2. Crossbreeding doesn’t produce dangerous crops. False. Dangerous varieties regularly arise from conventional breeding (for example, tomato and potato crops with elevated glycoalkaloids).

3. Organic farmers don’t apply “chemicals” to their crops. False. The Department of Agriculture maintains a list of substances that can be used for organic farming, and some have known toxic effects.

More problematic than these kinds of misconceptions, which could be addressed through an information campaign, are common shortcomings in critical reasoning skills. For example, when I asked individuals to consider the claim that Bt corn pollen could be harmful to monarch butterflies, even people with a science background rarely asked the key question: How does the risk compare with the risk of pesticides applied to conventionally grown or organically grown crops?

The risks and benefits of a technology only make sense when compared with the risks and benefits of the alternative technologies. Putting things in an appropriate context is just one of the habits of mind necessary for good critical reasoning. Precollege and college educators must strive to help students develop these skills, because even the best science journalism cannot give people everything they need to analyze and synthesize complex scientific issues. I used the GMO issue and other scientific controversies to illustrate 20 of these habits of mind in my book “Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to sort through the noise around global warming, the latest health claims, and other scientific controversies” (FT Press, 2009).

As an aside, Baum did not mention the most amusing aspect of the New York Times article he discussed—the accompanying photo of the food that required the “Warning May Contain GMOs” label to inform consumers’ health decisions. It was frosted cereal.

By Sherry Seethaler
La Jolla, Calif.

Baum’s editorial bears out my years-old contention that it should be mandatory for everyone to have a minimum of one semester or one year of chemistry, biology, and physics in high school (admittedly an impossibility). Then, perhaps, people would understand that GM food has been under development for many hundreds of years. The difference is that, instead of taking 25, 50, or more years to produce a more appealing variety of corn, tomatoes, or whatever through manually crossbreeding the genes in two varieties, we can now do it over a much shorter timescale.

I wonder if Cynthia LaPier (or any of the New York Times reporters) would be satisfied to eat the only corn that was available hundreds of years ago. None of them has the background to understand that much of the food we eat has been genetically modified, through natural processes, to be far removed from its origins.

There are any number of instances where agricultural researchers for food suppliers have bred crops toward maximizing a particular trait, such as juice content, size, color, insect resistance, and so on. All of this was done through genetic modification. Then there are the flower changes for color, size, cold resistance, etc. When a new color of rose was developed, there was applause, not condemnation. I wonder if LaPier likes having red, yellow, white, and orange rosebushes available for her garden.

And none of the foregoing includes the gene mutations that occur naturally.

By Bob Weiner
Northbrook, Ill.


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