I-522’s labels are anything but neutral information

The News TribuneOctober 31, 2013 

Labels point out products verified to not contain genetically modified organisms at the Central Co-op in Seattle.

JASON REDMOND/REUTERS

It’s obvious from the text of Initiative 522 that the measure is an attempt by the organic food industry to stigmatize the competition.

There’s no other reason to single out genetically modified foods as uniquely requiring what amounts to a warning label on the front of the box. The initiative talks darkly of “potential health effects,” “adverse health or environmental consequences” and “levels of known intoxicants.”

Ignore the alarming language, many supporters now tell us — I-522 isn’t about science; it’s merely about informing consumers.

But science and information aren’t so neatly separated. Consumers can be misled even by true labels when the labels don’t tell the whole story.

Put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine this advisory on organic foods:

Organic products have been linked to thousands of cases of food poisoning from fecal matter and salmonella. Dozens have died after eating contaminated crops grown on organic farms.

That happens to be true.

In a single case, a 2011 outbreak of E. coli poisoning sickened 3,100 Europeans and killed 53. Public health investigators traced the bacteria to sprouts from an organic farm in Germany. Americans have been sickened by contaminated organic food, too, though not so catastrophically.

Lest the anti-522 campaign excerpt those three paragraphs for its own scary ads, let’s add an all-important caveat: There are no risk-free sources of food. Organic foods don’t appear to be any more dangerous than the rest of the items in the grocery aisles.

So a fright label on organics might be literally true yet also profoundly misleading. By I-522’s own logic, though, you could argue that it’s only about informing the shoppers.

Just like a claim that organic foods are disease-ridden, I-522’s labels would deliberately leave out key facts about genetically modified crops.

The technology is hardly sinister. Biologists typically introduce a single gene into a plant whose genome contains tens of thousands.

The technique is newfangled but no more unnatural than traditional hybridization. “Trans-species” DNA transfers occur haphazardly in nature through viruses and bacteria. Biotech scientists precisely target the genes and rigorously test the results.

Specific uses of the science — the creation of “Roundup ready” plants, for example — are fair game for intelligent criticism. But the fright campaign against the entire technology smacks of a superstitious witch hunt.

Edibles from genetically modified plants have been scrutinized by scientists in Europe as well as America (not just by Monsanto shills, as zealots claim). GM foods have gotten a clean bill of health from the scientific academies of Germany, France and Great Britain, as well as from U.S. health authorities.

I-522 is about a contrived GM panic, not innocent truth-in-packaging. Real information isn’t a purportedly neutral label attached to vague insinuations of peril. The public deserves the whole truth about biotechnology — and spooky innuendo doesn’t tell it.

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