GMO: What do you know?

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on August 14, 2013 

Genetically modified organisms. Why should we care?

This question will be pressed upon conscientious voters this fall as they consider Initiative 522. If it passes, it will require labeling of raw agricultural products as "genetically engineered." Processed foods with such ingredients would also be labeled. There are certain exemptions, which opponents criticize as arbitrary. I only post that link for the convenience of its information, not the side it takes. The pro website doesn't have a similarly easy-to-read chart of exemptions.

In fact, the Yes on I-522 people could have done better elsewhere on its FAQ page. After all, we're talking about some thorny science here when it comes to a debate on whether genetically modified food is any better or worse for you than good old fashioned genetically undisturbed food.

I was looking forward to the answer to one frequently asked question:

"I've heard that there are studies that show there are no effects of genetically engineered foods on humans, then why do we need special GE/GMO labels?"

This is good. Approach the critics' No. 1 position statement head-on, and tell people exactly why to vote yes on I-522.

The answer, however, is unsatisfying. Here it is, in part:

"Just like you have the right to know the nutritional content of your breakfast cereal or favorite candy bar, Yes on 522 allows shoppers to have more control over their grocery shopping decisions.

"A 'yes' vote on 522 allows Washington shoppers to make informed decisions when buying food for themselves and their families."

But informed how? We're talking about genes here, not iron or calcium.

* * *

There's a good overview of these early days in the I-522 campaigns here, with light shed from the perspective of the similar, and failed, Proposition 37 in California.

In two sentences, the article from summarizes the two sides' strategies:

"The 'Yes' campaign is stressing the public’s right to know what is in their food, while generally staying away from claims that GMOs are unsafe to eat. The 'No' campaign will tell Evergreen State voters such labeling will just food costs without any benefit basis (sic)."

This brings me back to the "informed decision" / "right to know" problem. What part of "genetic engineering" don't voters understand? All of it, probably. A label with those two words doesn't deliver information to the average shopper.

PCC Natural Markets also has a page on I-522 and asks the crucial question, "Why do we need a mandatory labeling system?"

Yes, please, tell me.

"Growers using genetically engineered seed, and manufacturers using the products grown from those seeds, have an obligation to share that information with consumers," PCC says. The grocer helped write I-522 and gather signatures.

This doesn't help. I am one of those reporters who didn't study genetics in college, so mandatory labels aren't sharing anything with me.

OK, so let me do what reporters do. Let's dig.

What does the American Medical Association think about GMOs?

It took a stand a year ago, calling for "mandatory pre-market safety testing" but not mandatory labels.

This was a half-measure. The Chicago Tribune article linked above suggested the AMA didn't go so far as to recommend labels because "it considers (GMOs) not to be materially different from other kinds of food."

Still, mandatory, independent pre-market testing by the Food and Drug Administration is a higher bar than the testing manufacturers commission for themselves. What the AMA said at the time indicated it was responding more to public concern than to scientific information:

"Recognizing the public’s interest in the safety of bioengineered foods, the new policy also supports mandatory FDA pre-market systemic safety assessments of these foods as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public. We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods."

So the AMA doesn't believe GMOs are harmful. Then again, scientists in a new field rarely are all in agreement, and sure enough, you can find a body of medical experts who do believe GMOs are bad for you.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine asserts, "GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption, and ... there is ample evidence of probable harm." (Check out the link above for the Academy's full argument.)

The AAEM calls for not just labeling but a moratorium on genetically engineered foods, until the risks are better understood.

One sentence in an Aug. 10 article on I-522 in The Seattle Times gets to the nut of it:

"People who oppose GMOs want labeling because they say genetically engineered crops have not been studied or regulated enough to know whether they are harmful."

Fair enough.

* * *

The National Academy of Sciences says there is no evidence of harmful effects from GMOs. So, The New Yorker asks, are genetically engineered foods a victim of human psychology, our tendency to irrationally associate the "negative-seeming attribute" of not being natural with an unproven attribute such as000 being bad for you?

From The New Yorker blog post, dated Aug. 8:

"When it comes to new, unknown technologies, data always loses out to emotion. For instance, people judge the risks of radiation from nuclear power plants to be much higher than those from medical X-rays—a conclusion that is not backed up by the data and is at odds with the advice of most risk experts—simply because nuclear power plants seem more foreign and inspire greater dread. What’s more, when we’re in a state of heightened emotion, we don’t weigh risks and benefits equally—risks take on an outsized impact and benefits begin to pale in comparison.

"Once an initial opinion is formed ... it is very difficult to shift it with new evidence."

That's a lot to chew on between now and November.







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