Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A boring post with quiet opinions about GMOs

Here is a forlorn too-boring-to-notice list of quiet positions on recent Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) controversies.

1. I never say "GMOs are safe."

Not all GMO traits are safe. The most widely-used GMO trait in American agriculture is the "Roundup Ready" or "glyphosate-resistance" trait, which allows farmers to apply the pesticide glyphosate to corn and soybeans. This pesticide is generally thought to be safer than many others. Yet, GMO technology has encouraged such rapid increases in its use that there are strong concerns about environmental consequences (pesticide resistance) and less settled but still relevant concerns about health consequences (cancer risk).

Indeed, any revolution in food and agriculture technology has good and bad consequences. The central Green Revolution technologies for corn, rice, and wheat were developed with conventional non-GMO science. They saved the world from famine. Yet, just like the new GMO "glyphosate-resistance" trait, the non-GMO Green Revolution technologies encouraged increased use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which have environmental and health consequences. If it were up to me, I would support the Green Revolution again, but let's be honest: no revolution in food and agriculture ever is "safe."

2. I never say "GMOs are dangerous."

The fact that a technology is GMO does not make it dangerous. For example, a second major GMO trait is the "Bt" trait, which allows crops to produce the Bt toxin. Bt is widely thought to be harmless for vertebrates, and so natural that it is permitted in "organic" production. You may choose to worry or not worry about Bt. If you do worry, you should avoid both GMO food and organic food.

Other GMO traits have nothing to do with pesticides at all. If a new technology confers drought resistance or increased content of a precursor to vitamin A, my judgment of safety is pretty much indifferent to whether the technology is GMO or non-GMO.

3. I do not support mandatory GMO labels.

The "Just Label It" campaign and other anti-GMO organizations seldom emphasize the mandatory character of their labeling proposals. A mandatory labeling proposal is not just about meeting the needs of curious consumers. It also is about using the government's own authority to stand behind the value of distinguishing between GMO and non-GMO foods.

In the earlier examples, a mandatory GMO label was useless for helping consumers avoid the environmental and health consequences of pesticide overuse, because some GMO technologies (such as drought resistance) have little to do with pesticides and some non-GMO technologies (such as Green Revolution varieties) very much encourage increased pesticide use. Similarly, the GMO label cannot help consumers identify the products of the industrialized food system, because non-GMO foods are almost as likely as GMO foods to come from modern industrial-scale agricultural production.

Many consumers are confused on this point, believing that the non-GMO label distinctly identifies better safety, environmental, and economic qualities. You may think me undemocratic for saying that government policy should not enforce a mandatory GMO label merely because it is popular with a slight majority of citizens in our divided nation. It would be a more profound practice of representative democracy to directly strengthen food policies that provide safe and environmentally sustainable food. The mandatory GMO label will just undermine this endeavor, provoking an inevitable backlash three years down the road as people catch on to how useless it is for achieving their real goals.

4. I do not support stripping states of labeling authority.

Congress should not pass a law, which critics have called the "DARK" act, to strip states of the authority to pass a mandatory GMO label. The proposed law really is undemocratic, and its sponsors corroborate every wild claim ever made by GMO critics. For example, the DARK act's supporters repeat endlessly the claim that GMOs are safe (see #1 above). The "Just Label It" campaign wishes to frame the debate not as a question of government enforcement of a dubious distinction, but instead as a question of our "right to know what is in our food." There is no better way to justify that framing than to try to take away state rights to inform people about what is in their food.

The current state of argument over GMOs in the United States is like a hurricane, blowing first one way and then the other, yielding nothing but destruction. I recognize that the only way to be heard above the storm would be to shout and scream. Yet, here I sit in the storm shelter, reading a day-old newspaper and quietly muttering to myself, "Really, I do think we should be able to talk more sensibly about GMOs."


Mary M said...

Totally agree with you on the uselessness of the label for the public's concerns. The complaints I usually hear from people about GMOs are: monoculture, herbicides, and patents. And not one of those goes away with GMO labels, because they are not unique to GMOs.

Definitely the folks marketing their label-it strategy aren't explaining that to supporters. However, there's a reason for that. The label is useful to them as an anti-marketing device. To drive organic sales. And to be used as a target for ongoing shouting by activists to get companies to remove GMOs.

And there was a point I tried to make the other day about getting that label, but twitter is too short to explain this. If they got a label, the politicians would run away from this for a decade. They'd consider it done and dusted, and nobody would want to look at it again for a long time. So if you wanted to get labels to touch on the things that might actually matter, there's no chance someone will want to carry that along after seeing what the GMO piece was like.

That's actually why the non-GMO label is such a better idea. Like Kosher, the community that sets the rules can be far more flexible and fast than the government can.

Michael Barnes said...

Funny, we just standardized marriage laws in this country at the federal level and removed the state's ability to decide whether people of the same sex could marry. Was that undemocratic? Removing the crazy quilt of various contradictory state laws sure seemed like a good idea to me.

I am big fan of the historical uses of the commerce clause. Food often crosses state (and national) boundaries and it's better to have it regulated at the federal level than to develop a new crazy quilt of contradictory state laws governing labeling.

I'm fine with a voluntary labeling system. It works for kosher and halal foods, for organic foods, and it's already working for non-GMO foods. I would not support mandatory labeling of non-kosher or non-organic foods in my home state, and I'm be fine with a federal law that prevented that from occurring. So I'm fine with a federal ban on mandatory GMO labeling.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the DARK act is precisely the federal government's job. It is clearly a matter of interstate commerce. This is the problem of having a patchwork of local labeling initiatives. Products produced in one state should be easily marketable in neighboring states.

usfoodpolicy said...

Great points about the advantages of voluntary non-GMO labeling over mandatory GMO labeling, about consistency across states, and interstate commerce. Much to consider!

Julie Mac said...

Thanks for your quiet but important thoughts, Parke! I believe that each newly-developed crop variety should be judged on its own merit, whether genetically engineered or conventionally bred. Some GE crops are distinctly NOT harmful to the environment or human health (such as virus-resistant papaya). Some non-GE crops come with serious environmental & health concerns (such as certain pesticide-laden conventionally-grown fruits). Often, the manner of cultivation matters more than the genetics. So I absolutely agree with you that a yea-or-nay type GMO label does not tell the consumer what they really want to know.

Although I do not support mandatory GMO labeling, I would love to know more about the foods I purchase. Ideally, I'd be able to use my phone to scan a QR code on any product and see the entire history of the food/ingredients. Country/state/county of origin; when it was picked/processed and how far it traveled; a list of every chemical used; specific GE traits; full nutrition panel; weight/volume of each ingredient; etc. etc. I'd rather have more information than less. But I'm realistic about the cost of such a program...

Unknown said...

Thank you for your insightful points in your blog! I disagree with #4, however. At the risk of seeming a Federalist, I believe the notion of individual States (eg: VT) passing legislation requiring GMO-labelling is a poor idea. Essentially, this perpetuates the message that GMOs are bad, and as you mentioned in your blog...the verdict is still out on that. The USDA has its collective hands full with crafting a consistent, evidence (science) based message regarding the foods we eat. I believe that these pop-media topics just 'muddy the waters', and as you mentioned...don't achieve their real purpose.