Despite recent renewed efforts, the food industry does not appear to be winning hearts and minds when it comes to persuading the public of the merits of GM crops, or why mandatory labeling of ingredients derived from them would be a bad idea.
Indeed, as Mark Lynas, a vocal critic-turned advocate of GM crops recently noted, the PR strategy of fighting labeling (which he summarizes as ‘experts’ have decided you don’t need to know) has spectacularly backfired as it just plays into the hands of those arguing the industry has something to hide.
The pro-labeling lobby may be peddling “bad science”, claimed Lynas. “But it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food?”
Mark Lynas: It may be bad science, but it is good politics
And while I am not persuaded that GMO labels offer any meaningful consumer benefit (more on this later) and may well be interpreted by some as a health warning, I have also sometimes wondered whether large food companies should throw in the towel, voluntarily 'just label it' and see what - if anything - happens at the checkout.
Much would depend on the wording, but the likely scenario is that people who care deeply about this will continue buying organic/non-GMO; the bulk of consumers will keep calm and carry on as before; and some shoppers may be alarmed by the labels and buy more organic/non-GMO products - if they can afford it.
In reality of course, mandatory GMO labels probably won’t appear on foods any time soon, as any state-level GMO labeling initiatives will likely face legal challenges that will take months if not years to resolve.
But in the meantime, if food manufacturers start to lose the argument at the checkout and in the court of public opinion, they will feel compelled to respond, whether they are forced to label GE foods or not, and we could conceivably even see a gradual shift away from GM crops in the US, something which would have seemed unthinkable even a couple of years ago.
The food industry has had 20 years to explain GM to the public
Now cynics might argue that it serves the food industry right that it finds itself in this position.
After all, food marketers have been pandering to ‘consumer concerns’ about everything from aspartame to lean finely textured beef (aka ‘pink slime’) for years, regardless of the science, so they can hardly be surprised that shoppers aren’t listening the one time they do decide to wheel out the men in white coats.
Meanwhile, as Dr Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus of Food Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pointed out last week : "The food industry has had 20 years to explain GM to the public.
“Its intransigence and avoidance of the issue has been a big contributor to the ability of a few well-financed and highly skilled information terrorists to trash the image of GM foods.”
If food industry loses GM debate, it won’t be a victory for consumers
But if the food industry doesn’t win the GMO debate and the tide turns against agricultural biotechnology, it won’t be a victory for consumers.
And I’m not saying this because, as one reader recently alleged, I am “in the pocket of Monsanto”. (If only this were true, I’m sure it has very deep pockets). Meanwhile, FoodNavigator-USA has reported extensively on both sides of this debate, and welcomes comments from all parties on the site.
I’m saying this because having listened to arguments from both sides, I am simply not persuaded that the global food supply would be safer or more sustainable without genetically engineered crops (as a recent report from GMO Inside alleged ), just as I don’t believe biotech crops are a panacea that will solve global hunger.
Don’t throw out the GM baby with the bathwater
Now this doesn’t mean that everything is hunky dory when it comes to GM crops, of course.
As one of the founding fathers of agricultural biotechnology, Dr Robert Beachy, pointed out in a recent interview, there are indisputable economic and environmental benefits to growing GM crops (lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced pesticide use, better yields) - if there were no real benefits, farmers wouldn't keep growing them.
However, the issue of weeds developing resistance to the herbicide glyphosate is a problem, albeit one Monsanto is working hard to address given that it is clearly in its commercial interests to do so.
But let's not forget that exactly the same problems arise in conventional agriculture, stressed Dr Beachy. “Farmers need to be responsible, rotate crops and agrichemicals. You also have to recognize that agriculture per se is a complex biological system and there are no magic bullets that have unending benefits.”
As plant geneticist Dr Wayne Parrott recently observed , “Ever since there has been agriculture, farmers have had an arms race with weeds.”
As for crops genetically engineered to contain their own insecticidal proteins because they contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), said Dr Beachy: “One problem has been that farmers didn’t always follow instructions to build refuges around the crops, so we now have insects that can overcome at least one of the proteins.”
But once again, that doesn’t mean we should throw out the GM baby with the bathwater, he added.
“With hindsight, we should have introduced crops with two or three proteins with different modes of action from the start, which is what is happening now, but in part the regulatory system was to blame. The refuges were recommended but weren’t enforced."
What purpose would labeling really serve?
As for GMO labels, if they could be worded in such a way that they don’t look like a health warning, I‘m coming around to the idea that this might be the only way the food industry can address transparency concerns, even if there is no material/meaningful difference between labeled and unlabeled products.
That said, I can’t really see the value for shoppers if four out of five products suddenly come with a ‘may contains’ label. (Consumers that want to be sure foods are non-GMO or organic can already look for such labels on pack.)
Meanwhile, as specialists in the field have argued very eloquently, what matters from a safety perspective, surely, is not the technology per se, but whether the food crops it generates have unique characteristics and attributes that may present risks, such as create new allergens, for example.
And there is no inherent reason why a crop that has been produced via GM technology would automatically present greater risks than a crop produced using techniques routinely employed in ‘conventional’ (non-GM) plant breeding, from radiation and chemical mutagenesis to induce mutations in plant DNA, to ‘wide cross’ hybridization.
Moreover, as Henry I. Miller, Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution pointed out in a recent article in Forbes (click here ), the term ‘genetically engineered’ itself is misleading, as none of the plants we eat today have occurred ‘naturally’, they have all been extensively genetically modified.
GE foods are not in any way a meaningful category
And this makes deciding whether and how to label ‘GE foods’ very challenging, he added: “GE foods are not in any way a meaningful category, which makes any choice of what to include wholly arbitrary.”
For a start, many foods produced using GE ingredients/processing aids are exempted from GMO labeling initiatives such as I-522 (cheeses made with a GE clotting agent, beer fermented with GE yeasts, food sold in restaurants, meat and milk from animals fed GE feed).
Meanwhile, products such as caramel color from GE corn, or oil from GE soybeans, which contain no detectable DNA from the original plants, and so are technically GM-free (and chemically identical to their non-GMO counterparts) - would require a mandatory GE label, which doesn’t make much sense.
We have a right to know what’s in our food - even where it isn’t actually in our food, it seems.
(Although to be fair, this is also how things work in the EU, where for example, glucose syrup has to be labeled as GM if it is from a GM crop, regardless of the presence of any GM material in the final product; while cheese produced with GM enzymes does not have to be labeled.)
Whether such inconsistencies render labeling less valuable is a matter of opinion, but in Miller's view they merely reinforce his belief that lawyers, not consumers, are the only group that really stands to benefit from initiatives such as I-522.
“I-522 is a trial lawyer’s dream”, says Miller. “It specifies that the court may award (at the expense of manufacturers) attorneys’ fees not only for prosecuting the case, but for the entire investigation.”
Click here to hear from the Yes to I-522 campaign.
Click here to hear from the No to I-522 campaign.
FoodNavigator-USA welcomes comments on the issues raised in this article (but encourages everyone to remain civil as we won't publish libelous or abusive comments).