GMO Labeling – Not So Black and White After All

I want to know what’s in my food. I am skeptical of many of the novel, new foods and production methods food producers are employing to supposedly “enhance” foods, which is usually marketing spin for production changes that serve primarily to increase profits, regardless of the impact on public health.  The last thing that I want is to permit the food industry to take this deception even further by sneaking biologically altered ingredients into our foods without us even knowing it.

So I should be in favor of GMO labeling, right?

Egg CartonAbout 4 months ago, I began this blog post with the aim of arguing in favor of GMO labeling and exposing the holes in my opponents’ arguments. In order to do this effectively, I had to really understand the other side. So I devoted countless hours to listening to various authorities who argued against labeling for various reasons. And that’s when things got complicated.  One by one, each of my arguments fell apart. Confusion led to frustration which lead to fear. Fear that I’ve been so ignorant and probably still am. Fear that I might tip over to the “dark side” and join the likes of Monsanto, the most vilified entity in the natural foods community. Fear that I would lose my readers.

After more than 40 revisions to this article, I’ve decided to go ahead and publish it now, despite being more undecided than ever on this very polarizing topic.  As with my journey to learn more about the complex issues surrounding vaccines, I invite you to join me on my at this critical juncture in my journey toward greater understanding through openness, objectivity and humility.

Starting With the Science: The Term “Genetically Modified” is Fuzzy

The term “Genetically Modified” or “Genetically Engineered” is used to refer to the biotechnological process conducted in a laboratory in which a gene gun is used to forcefully inject genetic material from one organism into another.  Is this approach sufficiently different from other methods of genetic influence to justify having a label of its own?

The Scientific Distinction

dnaAll life on earth has been genetically influenced to some degree. Darwin stated in The Origin of Species that, “nature gives successive variations.”  We now know that those variations result from  mutations in DNA sequences. Those mutations are either inherited from a parent, or they occur during an organism’s life as a result of environmental factors, like atmospheric radiation or chemical exposure.

Through artificial selection and controlled breeding methods, humans have been influencing plant and animal traits for thousands of years.  Mass selection, inbreeding and hybridization could each be considered methods of genetic influence, or “modification.” The problem, however, is that these methods all requires a lot of time as well as plenty of luck to  arrive at traits that are sufficiently different and desirable.

To address the time challenge, starting in the 1950s, scientists began using a method known as mutagenesis, which uses chemicals or radiation to intentionally “scramble the genetic material in crops, a process that has produced valuable mutants like red grapefruit, disease-resistant cocoa and premium barley for Scotch whiskey.”

None of the approaches described thus far require special labeling, even though they could be perceived as methods of “modifying” the genes of organisms in a semi-controlled way. The biotech approach with the gene gun, however, is what labeling advocates are asking food producers to disclose.

Biotechnological methods can solve both the time as well as the luck parts of the problem by taking specific genetic material out of one organism and inserting it with precision into the genome of another organism. As an example, Chrysanthemum is known to be naturally resistant to Japanese Beetles. Grapes, however, are not. If you could isolate the gene(s) in the chrysanthemum responsible for beetle resistance and transfer them into the grape plant’s genome, then you could theoretically impart this very desirable quality of pest resistance into the plant, while having minimal impact on other traits of the plant. (I made this example up).

From an overall science/risk perspective, it’s not easy to differentiate between organisms created through biotechnology and those developed through other means of genetic influence. It’s not because the biological differences aren’t there, but rather, because our understanding of the topic is still very weak. For example, some claim that a key difference lies in the fact that GM plants are produced by transferring genetic material horizontally across species or even kingdoms. GM opponents argue that mother nature never intended for this to happen, which is why humans can’t breed with fish. The fear is that transgenesis, or horizontal gene transfer, doesn’t happen in nature and if forced, could have unintended consequences. That argument is weakened by recent discoveries of organisms that seem to have experienced horizontal gene transfer at some point in their evolution. Is there a difference? Maybe. But without understanding those differences, it’s hard to answer the ultimate question: is genetic modification through biotechnology safe, or might it result in some catastrophic unintended consequences?

Plenty of safety studies on GMOs have been conducted. With only a few controversial exceptions, the credible published research overwhelmingly fails to show any harm to human health resulting from the consumption of foods that have been genetically engineered using biotech methods. On the contrary, if you read books like Wheat Belly, you can see that traditional methods of genetic influence, like selective breeding and hybridization, can and do result in varieties of crops that are harmful to some people, as evidenced by the growing rate of intolerance to modern wheat varieties (due, apparently, to their high gluten content).  Why should a tomato that’s been engineered in a lab to have a slightly thicker skin (which reduces spoilage in shipping) bear the scary “GMO” label, while a loaf of high-gluten wheat bread does not require any warning label?

Environmental, Ideological & Economic Factors

Those opposed to labeling of GMOs, by and large, try to keep the debate solely focused on the science. They dismiss concerns related to ethics, economics, philosophy and politics  as having little merit.  Consider the Genetic Literacy Project, a pro-biotechnology organization whose tag line is, “Where science trumps ideology.”  The implication is that the viewpoints of the genetically “illiterate” on topics such as GMO labeling and safety have little merit, since their arguments aren’t purely science-based.  As a degreed scientist, I take huge issue with this assertion. It is mankind’s ability to consider scientific, economic, ethical and philosophical aspects all together that makes us a more evolved species. It is also necessary for a properly functioning society. The more the biotech industry dismisses the non-scientific concerns (as well as the concerns that non-scientists have over how the science is conducted), the harder the battle with anti-GMO activists will be.

Now here are some important differences between GMO and non-GMO crops:

  1. GMO seeds are strongly linked to increased pesticide use: The vast majority of GM crops have been engineered for pesticide resistance or pesticide expression. Pesticide resistance means they can stand up to regular, large doses of pesticides, like Monsanto’s Roundup. Pesticide expression makes the plants inherently poisonous to pests. An example is BT Corn, which expresses pesticide proteins from the BT bacterium.  This article summarizes a recent major study that validates the link between GM crops and greater pesticide use. Many consumers want to minimize their consumption of pesticides. Since food producers are not required to disclose information about pesticide use, the GMO label is interpreted by some as a sort of proxy, or warning system that a food may have greater pesticide content than non-GMO varieties. Whether or not fear of these pesticides is justified is also a hotly debated topic. Monsanto would argue that RoundUp is safer than other herbicides, which would be used if RoundUp weren’t available. On the other hand, this recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that Glyphosate overuse is causing an explosion in the emergence of herbicide-resistant super weeds, which necessitates the use of ever-more potent and toxic herbicides.
  2. Consumers Don’t Always Trust GMO Safety Studies and Want The Option to Opt Out of Being a Guinea Pig in a Long-Term Experiment on GMO Safety: The biotech mantra is sung to the same tune as the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries: “No credible science has shown them to be harmful to humans.” This is, of course, different from saying that they have been proven to be safe. It is widely known that seed producers exert tremendous control over GM crop research and their own research is often flawed.   Independent researchers can’t help much because any research they try to do, especially research that might illuminate a potential safety problem, is attacked and suppressed, as has happened with the famous Seralini rat study as well as the Pustazi.   Much of the existing and supposedly credible science on GMOs certainly suffers from all of the same flaws described in this recent cover story in The Economist, such as bias, conflicts of interest, lack of scientific rigor and inability to be replicated. Should new food products be considered safe until proven dangerous? This risks harming people. Or should they be considered dangerous until proven safe over the long-term? This would discourage innovation and production of GMO’s due to the additional cost burden. This question is not easy to answer.
  3. GMO seeds are the only kind of seeds that can be patented.  Patentability is what makes GMOs such a lucrative commodity. Non-GMO seeds are much less so because when they self-replicate, they don’t have to be re-licensed. But the license agreements for patented GMO seeds forbid people from saving seeds. They must be repurchased every year. Many consumers are turned off by the tactics GMO seed companies are using to enforce their patents, such as threatening and suing farmers whose crops are unintentionally contaminated by GM seeds. Consumers are also angered at GM seed companies for limiting the research that can be done with their seeds. Many feel that farmers who have “bet their farms” on GMOs have been driven into bankruptcy or even suicide, thanks to the empty promises made by GMO seed producers. While companies like Monsanto deny responsibility, many consumers want to opt out of supporting corporations behaving in ways that they deem to be harmful to society.
  4. Widespread adoption of GMO seeds may threaten agricultural biodiversity and cause Agricultural Pollution.
    Image courtesy of

    Image courtesy of

    As with other commodity industries, producers are strongly incentivized to consolidate in order to exert greater control over the market and prices. Today, just 3 companies control 53% of the seed market: Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. Some are linking this trend to the explosion of monocultures and resulting extinction of local varieties of plants, which have adapted over millennia to be in symbiosis with the regions to which they are native. They are instead being replaced by one-size-fits-all GMO varieties. Less diversity could lead to problems such as greater susceptibility to outbreaks of plant diseases and pests as well as the emergence of herbicide-resistant superweeds, as discussed above. Although the GMO varieties of a crop may be superior in one respect, the fear is that they will trigger catastrophic and irreversible damage in the form of agricultural pollution. One counter argument I came across here is that seed companies “introduce the same trait by breeding to many different cultivars. Therefore, using genetically engineered crops doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the diversity of cultivars.” If this is true, I find it curious that I was not able to find any reference to this practice on Monsanto’s website.


Our Right to Know What’s In Our Foods

In principle, I would like full transparency into what I’m eating, including how much of which ingredients were used, how they were grown, processed and packaged and any known risks of consuming the food. Sure, I would also like to know which ingredients were genetically modified, but that’s relatively low on my labeling wish list right now. Why? Because the list of genetically modified crops is common knowledge and can be looked up. All I have to do to avoid them is seek out organic versions of foods that contain these ingredients.  Higher on my labeling wish list would be to know:

Ok, then why don’t we just go ahead and label it all?

Labeling Regulation Will Likely Cause More Harm Than Benefit 

Nutrition LabelFood labels are the source of so much confusion. I devoted an entire blog post to Food Labels that Lie. But even the legitimate “information” on labels that is regulated by the government, such as the fat and calorie content or whether the food is pasteurized, is terribly misleading. Consumers then draw sweeping conclusions about a food’s healthfulness or safety when in fact, those conclusions are often far from the truth. The GMO label is no different. Simply saying that a food was grown from a GMO seed tells me almost nothing about how safe or nutritious the food is. Should the Flavr Savr tomato, which was  engineered to stay firm and ripe for longer, be put into the same bucket as insecticide-producing (BT) corn? That’s effectively what GMO labeling would do, since the label would disclose nothing about the special characteristics that were conferred to the crop. I believe it would be much more useful to disclose the specific variety and cultivar of a food, including non-GMO foods, such as wheat.

The bigger issue with GMO labeling regulation is that, like all government regulations, it will be complex, expensive, and will likely backfire. What if only the baking powder in a loaf of bread is derived from GMO corn. Must the entire loaf of bread be labeled GMO? What if an organic farmer’s crop is inadvertently polluted by GMO seeds that blew over from a nearby farm or his otherwise organically-raised cattle were accidentally fed some GM alfalfa hay?  Or what if his soil is fertilized with chicken manure from chickens fed GM soy-based feed? Must he endure the cost burden of having to label his foods as GMO? Far too much taxpayer money will go into studying, debating and lobbying around this.

GMO labeling will also disproportionately hurt small-scale producers, as have the burdensome regulations on everything from organic vegetable certification to meat slaughter. This means that small, local, natural producers will either go out of business, or will go underground, neither of which is good for our society.

I’ve personally lost faith in our government’s ability to ensure a safe food supply, let alone a healthy one, as have many experts in the field, such as activist farmer Joel Salatin. As almost always happens with government regulatory bodies, the USDA and FDA are both being overtaken by the very companies and special interests that they are supposed to regulate. George Stigler won a nobel prize for explaining this phenomenon in his theory of Regulatory Capture.

Joel Salatin puts it very well in this article, in which he states, “…asking for more government intrusion in the food system is absolutely the wrong approach. After all, we are where we are due to government intrusion in the food system. How do you think Tyson got so big? How do you think Monsanto grew? How do you think we got a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico from agricultural chemical runoff ? How did the American consumer become so ignorant?

Instead of requiring GMO labeling, how about eliminating GMO subsidies?

Now that’s an idea worth considering!

My Takeaways

This entire GMO labeling debate really boils down to one core underlying issue, and that is the growing mistrust of our food supply. The current approach is to rely on our government to put in place more regulatory “carrots and sticks” to force producers to do the right thing.  It has not worked. Americans have only become sicker and less trusting than ever.

FarmstandRather than continuing to support the companies who mislead, cut corners, bribe government officials and hide behind a veil of secrecy, I think a better approach is to stop buying from them and source food from people you trust. No, not stores, brands, retailers or companies. I mean living, breathing human beings.  Pick up the phone and try calling the producer. If you aren’t able to speak with the individual who takes full responsibility for the food they’re supplying to you, then you had better beware.

Stay tuned for a future post about alternative food sources.


2 thoughts on “GMO Labeling – Not So Black and White After All

  1. Do you know that foods in Europe are already labeled if they contain GMOs? All the major brand labels here, Kelloggs, Heinz, etc, label their GMOs over there. The labeling seems to work fine in Europe and hasn’t bankrupted any business nor caused undo chaos. Though, it likely has led to some families choosing non GMO products, which is a real drag for Monsanto.

  2. Patenting seeds with predefined qualities is the beginning of a future where companies like Monsanto will eventually innovate and provide the option of chosing engineered children who can congenitally resist cold, rubella, measles, mumps etc. It will eventually lead to choosing physical and intellectual characteristics. There will always be a group willing to pay for these offerings (plant seeds today and human zygotes tomorrow) and chose their future generations. Human desire to play God is as old as humanity itself!

Comments are closed.