Friday, May 16, 2014

Ignorance Wins in Vermont

Vermont became the first state to mandate that genetically modified foods be labeled as such.

Genetically modified foods—or “GMO” or “GM” foods—are foods that are made, in whole or in part, from genetically modified plants through genetic engineering, or biotechnology. Genetically modified plants refers to plants whose genetic structure has been altered to achieve new plant characteristics, such as increased nutrition, resistance to pests, or increased crop yields. Genetic engineering is a new technology applied to a practice that has been going on for thousands of years through a process called “selective breeding,” and more recently through “mutation breeding.” Genetic engineering is basically a more precise, more scientific method of achieving what traditional plant breeding has done for millennia.

Supporters of mandated GMO labeling claim a “right” to know whether the foods on grocery shelves are genetically modified. But there is no right to force food companies to label their products. Consumers only have the right to investigate on their own, such as by consulting private “watchdog” agencies that research foods. Consumers can also contact the food companies directly to gather information they consider relevant, and food companies are generally very forthcoming in providing consumer information, based on the self-interested motive of building trust in the market.

I know this from personal experience. My granddaughter was afflicted with a severe dairy allergy for the first 5 years of her life. My daughter and wife regularly contacted food companies to gather relevant information pertaining to information not available through labeling, such as whether foods labeled as non-dairy were processed on equipment also used to process foods containing dairy products. (My granddaughter could not tolerate even minute traces of dairy, such as might be present in “non-dairy” foods due to “cross-contamination” caused by residual dairy ingredients on the machinery used to process dairy-containing products.) My wife would often call food companies’ consumer information number while standing in the grocery isle, packaged food in hand. We found it exceedingly rare for food companies not to be helpful, and in that rare event, consumers can simply not buy that company’s products.

While the government has no business mandating food labeling, companies are of course free to voluntarily label their foods. In the absence of labeling mandates, consumer demand for information would undoubtedly lead companies to do just that. Of course, we don’t have a free market, and food labeling is mandated. But, even by statist standards, GMO labeling is not necessary. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes on its website that

the use or absence of use of bioengineering in the production of a food or ingredient does not, in and of itself, mean that there is a material difference in the food.

[F]oods . . . developed by the new methods of genetic modification are regulated within
the existing framework of . . . FDA regulations, and current practice, utilizing an approach identical in principle to that applied to foods developed by traditional plant breeding. The method by which food is produced or developed may in some cases help to understand the safety or nutritional characteristics of the finished food. However, the key factors in reviewing safety concerns should be the characteristics of the food product, rather than the fact that the new methods are used.

Crucially, the FDA notes that “[E]ssentially all food crops have been genetically modified and . . . bioengineering technology is only one of a number of technologies used to genetically modify crops.”

This gets to the heart of the GMO labeling controversy. Although most Americans polled favor GMO labeling, most don’t understand the issues, particularly the threat to their future health and well-being (in terms of foregone benefits of GM foods) that the anti-GMO agenda embodies. The small anti-GMO cabal is motivated by an anti-science agenda, not any concern for safe food, and their rhetoric bears this out.

For example, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) challenged FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg’s statement that “We have not found evidence of [GMO] safety risks,” not by citing any evidence to the contrary, but by

call[ing] on FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to acknowledge the growing body of scientific evidence that GMOs, and the chemicals required to grow GMO crops, are potentially damaging to human health.

What is “evidence” of a potential? It is no evidence at all, as a broad spectrum of scientists have attested. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, notes that

Foods containing ingredients from genetically modified (GM) crops pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques. . . . Legally mandating labels on GM foods could therefore ‘mislead and falsely alarm consumers’. . .

The “could be” “might be” a “potential” risk line permeates anti-GMO arguments.

But University of California @ Davis plant geneticist and professor Pamela Ronald—of whom prominent GMO skeptic Michael Pollan says, “If anyone can make the case for this technology, it’s Pam Ronald”— notes:

There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.

And three Kenyan food policy experts noted that, in a survey of 39 biotechnology experts, “Most respondents do not like the idea of labeling GM food.”

Worse, the OCA demands that GMO foods, which have been on the market and consumed regularly for two decades, should be “eliminated from the food supply” until “the FDA can state unequivocally that GMOs are safe for human consumption.” This is tantamount to demanding omniscience from FDA scientists, because genetic modification is only a technological process that tells you nothing about the end products it produces. There is no way to state “unequivocally” that some harmful genetically engineered food product won’t some day find its way onto the market, which is why the FDA says that “the characteristics of the food product, rather than the fact that the new methods are used,” should be the focus. Some risk is inherent in all human activity, and that risk must always be balanced against the benefits and associated risks of not employing a technology. If the OCA’s irrational standards of perfection were adopted throughout mankind’s history, no new technology would have ever been adopted, and man would have never emerged from the cave.

The OCA may simply be trying to rationalize a greedy agenda; to cut out competition GM foods pose for “organic” foods. As AP reports, “Some farmers in Vermont, known for its organic food operations, see the bill's passage as a David-vs.-Goliath victory.” In any event, the organic industry is hypocritical, since all so-called “organic” foods have been genetically modified by older techniques. As the FDA notes, “essentially all food crops have been genetically modified and . . . bioengineering technology is only one of a number of technologies used to genetically modify crops.”

More sinister is the environmentalists and anti-capitalists. Environmentalists simply value the natural “environment” above human well-being, and always oppose technological advance. Environmentalists have actually cited damage to “biodiversity” and “ecosystems” as reasons to forgo alleviation of human malnutrition and related illnesses.

Anti-capitalists have “concerns about the dominance of big agribusiness.” As The New Yorker’s Amanda Little reported without challenge at a GMO debate in front of a university audience dominated by anti-GMO student skeptics:

One ominous metaphor was by far the most prevalent among the students with whom I spoke after Ronald’s lecture: “G.M.O.s have come to represent the corporate control of our food system,” Mikel Shybut, a twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. student in plant and microbial biology, told me. Shybut stressed that he and his peers had little concern about the human-health impacts of G.M.O.s. He said that he believed in “the promise and power of genetic engineering,” but only insofar as they are “used for people, not for profit.”

These students are apparently unaware of the biggest human experiment in food production “used for people, not for profit”—the farm-collectivized Soviet Union, which, despite holding the largest area of fertile land on the planet, could only stave off mass starvation by relying on small, privately owned, for-profit domestic farm plots and generous imports of grain courtesy of profit-seeking businessmen from the capitalist West, particularly the U.S.A.

The bottom line is that the Vermont legislature caved in to ignorance and fear-mongering, and the food industry—if the new mandate is not overturned in the courts—will get stuck paying the price. But the ploy may backfire on the anti-GMO zealots. As the U.K.’s Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine notes:

Opposition to GM crops is perceived to be greater in the EU compared with other countries such as the USA, where food from GM crops has become part of the normal diet. However, the situation is complex and UK public opinion is perhaps not so set against GM crops as is generally believed. Surveys have reported findings in which only 13% of consumers said they actively avoid GM foods, while 74% were not sufficiently concerned to actively avoid it. This seems surprising considering the amount of anti-GM media coverage. From many of these articles it would seem appropriate to assume that the public as a whole are adamantly opposed to GM foods, but this is not substantiated by the surveys conducted.

Once consumers realize that they have been eating GMO foods for years, they may simply brush of the whole controversy, and go on buying the products as they have been. Let’s hope so, because if the technology-hating, capitalism-hating anti-GMO zealots ever get their way, billions of people will pay the price in higher prices, lower quality, and—in the case of many third-world countries—malnutrition and starvation.

Related Reading:

Amanda Maxham on GMOs—Voices for Reason

No comments: