First, let me just say I am not going to provide an opinion on whether I think GM Foods should be labeled or not. In November, California voters (of which I am one) will have a chance to decide this issue with Proposition 37 which will require food containing components produced by genetic engineering display a clear label noting this origin. Although, in response to previous articles I have posted on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), some readers seem to assume I have a position on this proposition, in fact, I have not made a decision how I will vote yet.
Ambivalence about GMO Labeling
This spring, I was surprised when the president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), Tom Watkins, ran down a list of the BIO’s activities and accomplishments during one of the presentations at the 2012 annual meeting in Boston. He happened to mention that the organization had been lobbying against GMO labels.
While it made sense to me that BIO would be pushing for legislation and policy changes to expedite drug approvals, help make funding easier for small business (which many biotechs are), and even reduce regulation on genetically modified crops, the efforts to prevent GMO labels seemed a bit out of place. Why worry about the label as long as it is accurate?
When I discussed the point with a couple colleagues I meant at the conference after the presentation, we all thought basically the same way: although none of us had a concern about buying and eating GM food, what's the problem with labeling it?
Don't Consumers Have a Right to Know If It's GMO?
Much of the information provided on food labels is driven by consumer demand. If there is real interest by a majority to have a specific label for food containing genetically modified organisms, perhaps it should be. Ideally, legislation wouldn't be necessary and companies would respond by providing this information. However, this seems unlikely since the expectation is that GMO labels would negatively impact sales. Possibly, this view is short sighted and a majority of consumers will not have a concern. Many might simply realize that they have been eating GM food for years, and continue to buy the same brands. At this point, though, it seems doubtful companies will do it with unless required by law.
Of course, there obviously has to be a practical limit to the information available about each food item. It is simply not reasonable to know where and when each item of food was grown or made, who packaged it, how and when it was shipped, where it was stored, etc. It is certainly impractical to track this detail for every ingredient in a can of soup. All this information may be of interest to somebody, but it cannot all be on the label. Is the GMO information really so important?
GMO on the Label Doesn't Really Mean Much
While I believe that consumers are entitled to have factual information available on what they are purchasing, it seems strange that one of the major concerns would be how the strain of corn, tomato, or pineapple was developed. Frankly, how the specific plant strains were produced is incidental.
Genetic engineering is a description of how a specific organism was developed, not an inherent trait of the organism. Once the genetic modification is done the organism is its own entity with its own characteristics and traits. Unless the same genes were used, GM apples and oranges have nothing more in common than regular apples and oranges. Each needs to be evaluated separately. Any risk with GM is linked to the specifics GM modification, not to the general technique.
Whether GM technology was used to make the a specific food item is really irrelevant to the quality of the item. Any number of factors, such as the taste, calories, fat content, nutritional value, additives, growth conditions, date of production, how does it look/feel, how long has it been in the store, etc. etc. contribute to the overall quality of the food. The fact that the strain was made using genetic engineering technology, however, doesn't tell you much at all about the actual item.
Why Pick on GMOs?
I don't believe most people consider the way broccolini, tangelos, pluots, seedless watermelon and countless other fruits and vegetables were developed to be an important factor of whether they like them or not. Plant breeding is a major industry and new varieties and hybrids popup in supermarkets frequently. Why single out the variants produced using GM technology and not worry about how all the strains were made and tested?
Maybe the heirloom tomato you pick produces higher levels of glycoalkaloid. While this toxin is normally produced at significant levels in the leaves and stem, it's possible that a tomato variant might have a genetic change that enables it to make it at higher levels in the fruit too. In the same way, a new apple variety might have a some small genetic change that allows it to produce cyanide in the fruit instead of just the seeds as is the case with most apples. Simple selective breeding could easily lead to these changes as side effects.
What about mutation breeding? My son loves the seedless Cutie oranges with the thin, easy peel skin. It turns out these mandarin orange variants were developed using radiation mutagenesis. Unlike genetic engineering, where a specific gene is inserted at a particular location in an organism's DNA, radiation mutagenesis introduces a lot of unknown genetic changes throughout the DNA. In the selected plants that display certain new traitsas a result of the mutations—such as loose peelable orange skin—many other DNA changes also occurred, some of which may affect the fruit unexpected negative but non-obvious ways.
To Label or Not
While the GMO label seems extraneous, it may alleviate much of the fear fueling anti-GM sentiment. At least some of this sentiment appears to stem from a perception that big industry, such as Monsanto and ConAgra, are pushing the products recklessly onto the public. While I believe these companies definitely act in their own interest to pursue their own agenda, I think this particular concern is overblown. However, since labeling would enable those very concerned about GM foods to easily avoid them, I hope it would diffuse much of this concern and leave room for a more reasonable discussion of the facts about this technology. Am I being too optimistic?