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Oblivious To Science

by Rudy M. Baum
May 12, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 19

People opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as food or in food products are the left-leaning cousins of right-leaning deniers of global climate change. They’re not quite as angry as climate-change deniers and don’t tend to demonize those who disagree with them, but opponents of GMOs are just as immune to facts and science.

A recent paper from the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology (CAST) examines the potential impacts of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food in the U.S. Opponents of GMOs in food are passionate about labeling such food as a “right to know” issue, and 25 states have considered laws mandating such labels.

An interesting point made early in the CAST paper concerns just what to call the foods in question. The authors point out that genetically engineered foods go by a variety of names, including genetically modified (GM) and GMO. However, they write, “Given that traditional breeding techniques also result in genetic modifications,” the terms GM and GMO are not specific for foods produced through the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. The paper’s authors use the more precise term “genetically engineered” or GE.

The CAST paper starts with the premise that GE foods are safe because hundreds of independent studies have shown that this is the case. The fact is that almost everyone in the U.S. has eaten GE food in the past decade. The paper points out that in 2013, 93% of the soybeans and 85% of the corn grown in the U.S. was genetically engineered to be tolerant to herbicides.

In fact, many genetically engineered crops have been approved in the U.S., although not all of them are being grown commercially. In addition to soybeans and corn, the paper notes, GE alfalfa, canola, chicory, cotton, flax, melon, papaya, plum, potato, rice, squash, sugar beet, tomato, and wheat have been approved. The paper points out that it “has been estimated that 70% of the processed food items in the supermarket contain at least one ingredient derived from a GE crop.”

Proponents of labeling GE foods make a number of arguments, but their most fundamental one boils down to the argument that people have a right to know what is in the food they eat, and they cite mandated caloric and nutritional content labels on packaged foods as examples. The CAST paper has an interesting and subtle take on this argument. “The right to know what is in food is different from the right to know how it was produced,” the paper’s authors write. “Furthermore, this uniquely singles out GE technology—not other production methods and processes—for right to know.”

At the heart of the matter is the contention that GE foods are just plain different from other food. Opponents often use the term “Frankenfood” to draw an analogy to the Frankenstein monster. The CAST paper notes that “advocates of mandatory labeling have argued that GE foods are by definition altered in composition by virtue of the presence of genetic material introduced through rDNA methods.” The science, however, just doesn’t support that contention.

Essentially all foods have been genetically modified by human intervention, the paper notes, and to date, “no material differences in composition or safety of commercialized GE crops have been identified that would justify a label on the basis of the GE nature of the product. Although this conclusion will not satisfy those who consider the insertion or manipulation of genes in the laboratory a material difference per se, the science of food safety does not support mandatory process-based labeling of GE food.”

The CAST paper goes on at some length on a variety of other matters related to mandatory labeling, including the Commerce and Supremacy Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and free speech and economic issues and concludes that labeling is an all-around bad idea. None of these arguments are likely to matter to the advocates of labeling, however, who, like their climate-change brethren, are pretty much immune to rational thinking.

Thanks for reading.

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