Could labeling GMOs do harm?

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on August 27, 2013 

It's hard to appreciate scientific facts. Part of the reason is that science evolves, that experiments and studies build upon each other and often refute each other. Sometimes, it seems everyone has a right to their own tenable scientific position.

Throw emotion and/or politics into the debate, and science is not going to win. Consider how compelling was the assertion that vaccines caused autism, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence. Think about how vehement are global-warming deniers, who will point to one good March snowstorm to dispel years of carefully developed, sound science about incremental, global temperature changes best measured by the decade and not week to week.

This fall, as already examined in this blog, Washington voters will decide whether genetically engineered food will get a label. I've rooted around, looking for solid scientific evidence that the label will provide meaningful information. I came up empty, except for a group of scientists in the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, who claim "there is ample evidence of probable harm" caused by genetically modified organisms.

But again, this could be a case of the science sounding right because it sounds good.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science in October 2012 took a firm position: GMOs have been thoroughly tested, and they are as safe as their genetically unperturbed food equivalents.

From the AAAS position paper:

"Contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny."

In a recent issue, the editors of Scientific American said labeling GMOs was a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which was that it would set back our understanding of the true risks and benefits of GMOs.

Excerpted from the editorial:

"Antagonism toward GMO foods ... strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits to people in developing countries and promises far more. Recently published data from a seven-year study of Indian farmers show that those growing a genetically modified crop increased their yield per acre by 24 percent and boosted profits by 50 percent. These farmers were able to buy more food—and food of greater nutritional value—for their families.

"To curb vitamin A deficiency—which blinds as many as 500,000 children worldwide every year and kills half of them—researchers have engineered Golden Rice, which produces beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Approximately three quarters of a cup of Golden Rice provides the recommended daily amount of vitamin A; several tests have concluded that the product is safe. Yet Greenpeace and other anti-GMO organizations have used misinformation and hysteria to delay the introduction of Golden Rice to the Philippines, India and China."

The major claim put forward by the No on I-522 group is that the initiative would put an unnecessary burden on farmers and grocers, who would pass any added cost to the consumer. While this could be true and might be an argument that appeals to local pro-business groups, what strikes me as most significant is the bad-rap that the initiative gives to efforts such as golden rice.

Golden rice is painted with the same brush as Monsanto-led genetic engineering, even though the product is put out by a nonprofit seeking to help the 50 percent of the world population whose diet consists primarily of rice. (Bad timing: the link in this paragraph isn't available as I type this because the New York Times website is apparently the victim of a "malicious external attack.") Stay tuned for the New York Times GMO story link to be revived -- it's worth reading.

Maybe a label in the Fairhaven Haggen saying a food is genetically engineered doesn't have much to do with a special rice grown in the Philippines. Or maybe it does, if a victory in Washington in November spurs wealthier societies like ours to a broader organized effort to bring such experiments in better nutrition to a halt.

P.S. I know I'll be accused of taking a bald political stand here, as I was when I asserted in this space that global warming is real. But as in that case, what I'm talking about here is science, not politics -- fact as it is best understood by the scientific community, not feeling.

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