GMOs: I'm not judging; I'm just saying

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on August 28, 2013 

The communications director for Yes on I-522 called me Tuesday afternoon after reading our latest post about genetically modified organisms and the initiative that would require food with GMOs to be labeled.

The director, Elizabeth Larter, said her organization's position wasn't well represented on the Politics Blog. Well that's a problem, I thought immediately. So we set up a phone interview for this morning. I am here to report what came out of that conversation.

I had three questions for Larter, and we were able to talk them all out:

1) Why are GMO labels important?

2) Don't labels create an unwarranted stigma against GMO foods, if you accept the claim by scientists that they are safe?

3) What about golden rice, the yellow-tinged grain that has been genetically modified to contain beta carotene, or vitamin A? Won't rules stigmatizing GMOs impede momentum toward food that could improve nutrition for millions of children worldwide?

The Yes on I-522 campaign's pitch is all about informing shoppers.

"Giving your shoppers at the grocery store a choice whether they want to buy those or not. … giving more information," Larter said in answer to question (1). It's just "another couple words of information" to go along with sodium content, sugar, fat, and natural or artificial flavors.

Larter in the interview didn't weigh in on the science of the risks or the value of GMOs. That wasn't the initiative's point, she said.

"This is just another couple words of information. I can do the research myself or make my own choice. We’re not saying they’re good or bad. We’re just saying Washington shoppers have the right to know."

On golden rice, Larter was willing to say it might be a good thing. She mentioned the Gates Foundation, which is working on genetically modified food, including golden rice, to improve global nutrition.

"We’re really not making a judgment on GMOs. We're not saying GMOs are bad. There are things that could be great about them in the long run. It remains to be seen in the long run. ... There are groups like the Gates Foundation that are doing a lot of research to solve our world health issues. That’s really important," Larter said.

If the campaign staff isn't saying GMOs are bad, the language in the initiative itself is saying as much.

Section 1, (4): "... The genetic engineering of plants and animals is an imprecise process and often causes unintended consequences. Mixing plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes in combinations that cannot occur in nature produces results that are not always predictable or controllable, and can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences."

Section 1, (5): "United States government scientists have stated that the artificial insertion of genetic material into plants, a technique unique to genetic engineering, can cause a variety of significant problems with plant foods. Such genetic engineering can increase the levels of known toxicants in foods and introduce new toxicants and health concerns."

Section 1, (13): "The cultivation of genetically engineered crops can cause serious impacts to the environment. For example, most genetically engineered crops are designed to withstand weed killing herbicides. As a result, genetically engineered crops have caused hundreds of millions of pounds of additional herbicides to be applied to the nation’s farmland. The massive increase in use of these herbicides has caused emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, which have infested farm fields and roadsides, complicating weed control for farmers and encouraging use of increasingly toxic and more dangerous herbicides. These toxic herbicides damage the vitality of the soil, contaminate drinking water supplies, and pose health risks to consumers and farmworkers."

Let's be clear: Initiative 522 does take a position on GMOs, despite Larter's assertion otherwise. The label, if voters approve it, is almost certain to stigmatize a category of food the risks of which are up for debate (putting it generously).

If scientists are indeed debating the risks of GMOs, the ones warning about GMO dangers might be on the fringes, just like the global-warming-denying scientists, said Natalie McClendon, a Democrat who has gone around to local party organizations to lobby against endorsing I-522. The various party groups have for the most part gone against her advice and supported the initiative, she said.

"It's not about informing the public," McClendon said of the Yes on I-522 campaign. "It's a scare tactic."

McClendon suggested two alternatives to the front-facing food label, which will read, "Genetically engineered," "partially produced with genetic engineering," or something similar, depending on the food.

McClendon's alternatives:

(1) Designate specific ingredients as "genetically engineered" within the ingredient list on the side of the box. That way, a consumer will understand that a can of spaghetti sauce has GM soybean oil, not GM tomatoes. Otherwise, how is the consumer to know? "It actually achieves more of what they claim," McClendon said of this option.

(2) Follow the model established by the organic industry. Label non-GMO foods, not the GMO foods. "Why not this approach vs. the punitive, regulatory route?" McClendon said.

I like both options, but option (2) is especially elegant. Organics are labeled as such, giving consumers the information they have a "right" to, as the Yes on I-522 people would put it. And it does so without putting a stigma on the wide swath of products, especially those with corn, soy or beet sugar, that likely are modified.

McClendon provides a number of links with information about GMOs, including this two-page item which suggests a couple strong points: Do those who oppose GMOs pay enough attention to the goal of the genetic engineering (the "golden rice" point again)? And, while there's no proven threat from GMOs, there are known health risks from pesticides on food. Why isn't there a call for labeling foods tainted with pesticides?



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