Give shoppers an informed choice with GMO labels

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday, Nov. 30:

When it comes to the debate over genetically modified organisms, the biotech industry often paints a caricature of GMO opponents. It portrays them as anti-science fear-mongers who would rather see the world starve than give up their misguided beliefs. That’s a smart rhetorical move, but it’s unfair. People who want to make informed decisions about what they feed their families are neither so monolithic nor so simplistic in their beliefs.

Unfortunately, the biotech industry is on a roll with this strategy.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved sale of genetically engineered salmon. The agency concluded that the salmon are safe for human consumption and just as nutritious as natural fish. This was the first time the FDA had approved a GMO animal, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. Companies continue to tweak animals’ genetic code to make them grow bigger faster and contain other desirable traits.

On the same day as its salmon decision, the FDA issued guidelines for GMO labeling — or more accurately not labeling. The agency will not require labels for GMO food. Instead, it only asks that the rare company that does volunteer to put labels on its GMO products should refer to them as “food derived from genetically engineered plants.”

Score another for big agriculture. Companies, most notably Monsanto, have spent considerable sums of money fighting labeling efforts and even recruited scientists to write about the issue.

We trust that the FDA had done its homework on GMO food when it said, “(The FDA) was not aware of any information showing that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”

Despite that assurance, some GMO opponents still worry about the health risks of ingesting food that nature didn’t produce. But even if they are wrong, there are other reasons that people might choose to avoid GMO products.

The politics and business practices might turn people off, for example. Stories abound of heavy-handed tactics used by the biotech industry and its effects on small farmers.

Then there are the undesirable side effects of producing GMO crops. Growers risk cross-contamination with natural crops when seeds or pollen are borne on the wind.

And the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, has declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, an herbicide that kills weeds but not the GMO “Roundup-ready” crops.

People deserve the opportunity to make informed decisions when they buy their groceries. That isn’t a controversial view among most Americans who are not members of Congress or on the industry payroll — and those are not mutually exclusive categories.

In a survey conducted this past summer, about half of people worried that GMO foods are not safe. The stunning number, however, was that 93 percent of people said the federal government should require GMO labels. That means a large number of people who agree that GMO food is safe to eat still think that they should be labeled.

We can’t think of another public policy issue on which 93 percent of Americans agree.

Yet Congress, with Monsanto’s support, wants to go in the opposite direction. The Orwellian named “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” would block federal and state labeling requirements. It even forbids states from making it illegal to label food products as “natural” if they contain GMO. Connecticut has such a law, and it makes eminent sense. Genetically engineered foods are literally unnatural.

It’s little wonder, then, that opponents have taken to calling the bill the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK)” Act.

The bill passed the House in July on a mostly party-line vote with Republicans in favor. The bill now awaits action in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Americans — especially conservatives — like to tout the power of the marketplace to decide what is appropriate. The problem in this case is that the “marketplace” is composed of millions of individual consumers making billions of individual shopping decisions. If those are not informed decisions, then the market decision is meaningless.

Opponents of labeling want that skewed marketplace. They don’t want to give shoppers a chance to decide because they fear that millions would choose to avoid GMO products. If their products really are that scary, maybe they shouldn’t be using them.

Lawmakers owe their constituents better. They should empower people with as much knowledge as possible, not keep them in the dark on GMO foods.


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