July 29, 2016
Earlier today, the president signed S. 764 into law: a Federal level law that stipulates that the Secretary of Agriculture is to decide on a mandatory nation wide standard by which all foods derived from sources which have been modified by in vitro recombinant DNA techniques will be labeled. Biotechnology advocates have largely opposed any Bill which unjustifiably singles out one particular breeding method for mandatory labeling (either Federally or at the State level).
Although this Bill was intended to be a compromise, the new Bill will not satisfy GE food opponents, simply because it won’t be conspicuous enough for them to easily construe them as warning labels.
They argue that the proposed labeling methods won’t convey any real information. They are actually correct about that, but not for the reasons they likely believe. The truth is that no policy of mandatory GMO labeling would convey any objectively relevant information. It’s really just a double standard which singles out one breeding method out of many on the basis of a manufactroversy propagated by anti-science activists and organic industry marketing, and further spread by unwitting consumers who’ve been duped by the hype.
I’ve outlined what I take to be the most important of the numerous flaws in the reasoning behind the mandatory GE food labeling movement here.
The Vermont labeling Bill has not had the effect that its proponents likely desired. It has resulted in fewer food choices for Vermont shoppers. This is an issue opponents of the law warned would be problematic if a patchwork of illogical and/or inconsistent State Level labeling laws were permitted to exist.
As readers of this blog are most likely aware, there is an international scientific consensus on GE foods which stipulates that
1). All the currently approved commercially available crops that have been brought about via modern molecular genetic engineering techniques are at least as safe to consume (and are at least as safe for the environment) as their corresponding non-GE counterparts.
2). There is nothing about the process of modern genetic engineering that makes unpredicted dangers any more intrinsically likely than would be the case with other methods of altering an organism’s genome (I.e. Selective breeding radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization).
Insofar as point one is concerned, there is a tremendous amount of evidence to corroborate that conclusion, and an international scientific consensus based on it (citations to many studies, reports and systematic reviews, as well as position statements from numerous credible scientific organizations are hyperlinked within).
Despite the science, many anti-GMO activists and organic industry front groups have pushed for a law which singles out GE for a mandatory label, despite the fact that has been shown to introduce the fewest off target DNA changes of any currently used method of altering a plant’s genome, and despite their end products being the most tested and heavily regulated category of foods in the entire food supply.
They’ve tried to demonize GE through a variety of tactics, including the use of emotive propaganda imagery, shedding doubt on the legitimacy of the science through the use of evidence-free conspiracy hypotheses, and have even resorted to attacking independent scientists and science communicators for conveying the state of the mainstream scientific position on the subject, and vandalizing both GE test crops and family farmers’ personal crops. They even produce bad studies, sometimes even fraudulent ones, under the pretense of “independent science” (often published pay-to-play predatory journals) which contradicts the thousands of other studies. In some cases these so-called “independent” studies are fraught with undisclosed conflicts of interest.
These are all common tactics employed in several areas of science denialism, from opponents of vaccine science, water fluoridation and GE foods, to AGW denial, evolution denial and young earth creationism.
Several GE food opponents have come to realize that pretending that GE foods are more dangerous than their non-GMO counterparts will be a losing battle so long as there are people in the world who can follow the science. So, instead they take a “right to know” approach to their argument. They ask “if GMOs are so safe, why won’t you label them?”
Framing the debate in this way allows mandatory labeling proponents to set up a useful catch-22. Before mandatory labeling laws, they get to ask loaded questions such as “If they’re so safe, why don’t you label them?” After the implementation of mandatory labeling laws, they get to ask “If they’re so safe, why did they need to be labeled?” The answer to the former question is because mandatory food labels are supposed to be for information pertinent to consumers making food choices conducive to health and nutrition. The answer to the latter question is that they DIDN’T need to be labeled.
We already have voluntary labeling, but we don’t generally make a label mandatory unless it has some kind of objectively defensible relevance to the consumer (I.e. Health, nutrition, safety etc). Genetic engineering is a process: not an ingredient, and from an objective scientific point of view, breeding method is irrelevant to health and safety. Consequently, considering how thoroughly biotech opponents have flooded the internet with propaganda misinformation against GE foods, mandatory labels could easily be misinterpreted as a warning. It would mislead people into thinking it denoted some kind of pertinent difference in safety and/or nutrition between GE foods, conventional, and organic foods, when that is simply not the case.
The bottom line is that singling out GE out of all the other breeding methods to push irrational labeling mandates is an ideological position, not an evidence based one. There is not even one single valid argument for forced labeling of GE foods that doesn’t equally pertain to non-GE crops.
Instead, my view is that we should take an approach with GMOs that perfectly parallels the way we handle Halal and Kosher foods. We permit retailers to use Kosher, Halal and GMO-Free as voluntary labels for marketing purposes, because all three are based on ideological belief systems, rather than any scientifically defensible bearing on health.
That way, the burden of cost is placed on the people who want something for ideological reasons, and that allows food companies to voluntarily target that niche market if they so choose instead of passing the extra costs of regulation on to customers who don’t want illogical policies driven by mob rule.
However, this current labeling Bill is a compromise. If nothing else, it will at least mitigate the problems with interstate commerce that would be created by having a patchwork of state-level labeling laws.