Last year, 14 states attempted to pass legislation requiring that genetically modified (GMO) foods be labeled as such. And I learned this week that California is now following in their footsteps to become number 15. The petition in my home state is being sold with the tagline "It's our right to know" what we're eating, and ominous suggestions about the health risks associated with eating GMO foods.
Appealing to voters' "rights" and stirring up health concerns are guaranteed ways to bring attention to political causes, but in the case of GMO food labeling, both tactics are fallacious. There is no reason to label these generally harmless foods and doing so could create unnecessary concern among the public.
While the point is certainly debatable, labeling products that contain dangerous ingredients is a reasonable proposition. Consumers should know if what they are purchasing is harmful; labels are one way to inform them. But GMO foods don't fall into that category.
The idea of food laden with foreign genes may sound scary, but it really isn't. Since we don't live in a sterile environment, all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms — and their DNA. According to agricultural scientist Steve Savage, this fact shouldn't concern us. "Even though we are eating microbes, their genes, and their gene products on a grand scale, it is almost never a problem. In fact, some of these microbes go on to become part of our own bank of bacteria etc. that live within our digestive system — often to our benefit."
Savage goes on to point out that the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter. "We know the exact sequence of the gene, its location in the plant’s chromosomes, what the gene does," Savage says. The result is that we can more easily determine how safe GMO foods are for consumption, compared to their natural counterparts.
But, that's not the only good thing about GMO foods. Genetic engineering has allowed scientists to develop crops that consume less water, grow in harsh environments and produce less carbon dioxide, as molecular biologist Henry Miller points out. Put another way, these technological advances have made it possible to produce cheaper food in greater quantities and in a more sustainable fashion. Food security and environmental protection are political causes typically championed by progressives. So why are these same people pushing for GMO food labeling?
That's where the "right to know" part of the argument comes in. Sure, these foods may be safe for human consumption. But knowing what you're eating is "...an important way to exercise your democratic rights as a citizen," according to New York University's Marion Nestle. And there's nothing more sexy than democracy if you're a progressive.
I understand why telling those dastardly corporate food producers and grocery chains that we the people have a right to know what's in our food is so appealing. But the idea is problematic for several reasons, the least of which being that labels for GMO foods imply that there's something wrong with them, when in reality there isn't.
Equally troubling is the fact that misleading the public about science often backfires. As I've previously written on PolicyMic, dishonest political advocacy masquerading as science journalism teaches the public to distrust scientists and wrongly doubt their conclusions. The same applies to teaching people to fear GMO foods without cause.
Most importantly, science education doesn't come from food packaging. There's simply no way to properly educate consumers about the foods they're eating at the point of sale. That requires a concerted effort on the part of scientists and educators (which is already underway), and a desire to learn on the part of consumers. There's no reason to begin that process by feeding people misleading information during their weekly grocery runs.
Of course, that last sentence assumes that supporters of food labeling petitions are interested in educating people about nutrition, which they aren't. The environmentalists and public health advocates behind these measures are trying to force their preferences on the public through the initiative process. If you think that's just the ranting of an idealistic libertarian, considering that prominent scientists and science writers have been saying the same thing for many years.
If for no other reason, the opinion of experts ought to be enough to put a stop to exaggerated fears of genetic engineering and baseless food labeling campaigns.
Photo Credit: Ashoka's Changemaker's