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GMO Labeling, I-522, and Why This Debate Sucks for Progressive Scientists Like Me

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Me picking beans at Red Fire Farm in Western Mass

I’m a granola (and dirt)-eating, tree-hugging, liberal/progressive. If I was called by a pollster asking about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), I’d be counted among the folks that disapprove, but only because I think it doesn’t go far enough (I’m for single-payer, but I could have settled for the public option). I think we should tax the rich at much higher rates, expand social safety nets and reign in corporations. I support local farmers and shop at Whole Foods.

All that said, to me, science matters more than ideology. I wanted to join the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but I had experiments to do. And when it comes to genetically modified organisms in our food supply, I take the position that the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, and the Royal Society take, namely that GMOs are safe for consumption.

On Tuesday, voters in Washington state defeated a ballot initiative that would have required special labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms. As Christie Wilcox noted almost exactly a year ago when a similar measure was defeated in California:

The simple fact is that there is no evidence that GMOs, as a blanket group, are dangerous. There’s a simple reason for this: not all GMOs are the same. Every plant created with genetic technology contains a different modification. More to the point, if the goal is to know more about what’s in your food, a generic GMO label won’t tell you. Adding Bt toxin to corn is different than adding Vitamin A to rice or vaccines to potatoes or heart-protective peptides to tomatoes. If Prop 37 was really about informed decisions, it would have sought accurate labeling of different types of GMOs so consumers can choose to avoid those that they disapprove of or are worried about. Instead, anti-GMO activists put forward a sloppily written mandate in a attempt to discredit all genetic engineering as a single entity. The legislation was considered so poorly worded that most Californian newspapers rallied against it, with the LA Times calling Prop 37 “problematic on a number of levels”.

The language of I-522 in Washington was changed slightly from California’s Prop 37, but

The proposed label system is too vague and contains little useful information.  The supporting arguments suggest labeling could help consumers concerned with health, dietary, religious, environmental, and corporate control issues avoid GE products.  The actual labeling, however, does not guarantee any GE content will be present in the product.  The proposed labels are not required to specify what ingredients may be GE, nor the extent to which they may be present.  In addition, the law does not require testing for the presence of GE components.  Consumers wishing to discern between GE and non-GE products can already do so through existing, non-mandatory labeling designations provided by USDA Organic certification, or one of several private non-GE certification businesses. [emphasis mine]

And yet, despite the lack of evidence for harm, despite the fact that it’s already possible to find food that doesn’t contain GMO, people on my side of the political spectrum, who are generally pro-science when it comes to climate change, seem to ignore or misrepresent the science of biotechnology. Some of this is surely driven by anti-corporatism. Last night, the sum of Rachel Maddow’s commentary on the loss of I-522 was based on the fact that public opinion was in favor of labeling, and then out-of-state corporations spent a bunch of money and swayed public opinion.

I love Rachel Maddow (I told you, I’m a liberal), and I’ll admit, it pains me to take the same side as Monsanto on matters of public policy. Surely, Monsanto’s position on GMOs is informed by profit motive, not the public good. But in this case, the profit motive lines up with scientific consensus. And Maddow, who I think generally cares about evidence-based policy, has it wrong on this one.

Whether to label or not isn’t strictly a scientific question, but the arguments in favor of labeling are based on claims that can be addressed by science. In general, why would you want to label food?

Nutrition: The scientific evidence suggests that there’s no nutritional difference between genetically engineered crops and their conventional counterparts.

Safety: The scientific evidence suggests that genetically engineered foods (at least those currently on the market) are safe for consumption.

Information?: Companies are already free to label their foods as GMO-free, or get certified as organic (part of the organic classification is lack of GMO).

Where we mandate labeling by law, we do so when there is are plausible health consequences, and we do so consistently. Proponents of labeling often claim “consumers have a right to know” what’s in their food, but we don’t mandate that food boxes contain labels informing consumers which pesticides were used to grow the plants in their food, nor what fertilizer provided the nutrients, nor where the food was grown. If a scientist bombards a corn seed with radiation to introduce hundreds or thousands of mutations, and then selects for mutants with beneficial properties, that would not warrant a label, whereas a targeted insertion of a single gene would.

Maybe we should have laws mandating that all foods that aren’t processed to remove their DNA should contain “WARNING: Product contains genes.” Or perhaps the sequence of all of the 2.3 billion nucleotides in the corn genome be put on the box of any product containing any form of corn. The labeling laws thus far proposed would be no more informative to consumers.

Kevin Bonham About the Author: Kevin Bonham is a Curriculum Fellow in the Microbiology and Immunobiology department at Harvard Medical school. He received his PhD from Harvard, where he studied how the cells of the immune system detect the presence of infectious microbes. Find him on Google+, Reddit. Follow on Twitter @Kevbonham.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 65 Comments

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  1. 1. mem from somerville 2:36 pm 11/8/2013

    Yeah, I consider myself a progressive and I thought the vote went the right way.

    I agree that out-of-state money played a factor here. But I’d say it played it in the beginning to get it on the ballot, where it turns out that 80% of people voted “no” or couldn’t be arsed to vote about it.

    And the reason the other out-of-state money came in after was because labelers played the WA system to get in.

    Link to this
  2. 2. M Tucker 3:18 pm 11/8/2013

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So what if the ACA supports the despicable health insurance industry, which will not be done away with overnight. What about all those who could not get health coverage due to the outlandish “pre-existing condition” restriction? Gone now! What about all those who could not afford insurance?

    Opposition because it is not a single payer system IS ideology. Sorry…

    Being a progressive liberal does not mean you will be persuaded by science. As a progressive liberal myself I wish that was true but I know many who oppose GMO foods and will not get their kids immunized.

    The reason this “debate sucks” for me is that Fox is opposed to the labeling too. I am mortified to discover that the strongest arguments against the labeling are coming from Fox and not from Maddow or Hayes or the rest. I don’t watch Fox, I discovered that on The Daily Show.

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  3. 3. Kevbonham 4:11 pm 11/8/2013

    @ M. Tucker – I think ACA is a vast improvement over what we had before, don’t get me wrong. I’m regularly arguing with conservative friends and relatives in support of it. I just wish it went further.

    “Being a progressive liberal does not mean you will be persuaded by science.”

    And this makes me sad. My ideology wants the right-wing to be the only bastion of science denial. Alas, my experience shows me that it’s not.

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  4. 4. rweiler1023 4:21 pm 11/8/2013

    I consider myself a progressive but also a free market capitalist, and one of the preconditions for free market capitalism is that the participants have ‘perfect’ information or as close to perfect as possible. That’s all labeling does. In addition, safety for human consumption isn’t the sole issue with GMOs or even the primary issue. I would say that the more important issue is ‘do we increase the rate at which natural pesticides become ineffective by making them nearly universal’. The early evidence so far appears to be ‘yes’, and substantially faster than anybody thought possible.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 4:51 pm 11/8/2013

    @ Kevbonham, yeah, quite a few progressives are in the “put everything on the label” camp. I want my Whole Foods, organic eating friends to demand a complete list of the approved “organic” pesticides used by those farmers. Not to shut down organic farming but to educate them. I don’t really want it labeled I want them to know that organic does not mean that chemicals are not used. These same GMO labeling friends, who say they are liberals, also seem to have a strong leaning toward the “chemical phobia” crowd while they believe that organic means no chemicals are used.

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  6. 6. maize 5:00 pm 11/8/2013

    I really know what you mean, Kevin. Environmentalists and many on the Left have gone completely off the rails on this one, and it is deeply discouraging to be a scientist faced with countering some of the truly bizarre theories being spread by anti-GMO activists. It is oddly similar to arguing with Creationists, or the anti-Vaccination loons, and generally about as successful. I’m afraid that the movement has become hysterical, ideological, paranoid and profoundly anti-scientific. I’m not sure if it matters to them that they are rapidly losing the progressive scientist vote (how many of us are there, really?), but they really are. I’m also concerned with the tone that many arguments against GMOs have taken. Monsanto and the other seed companies are no more or less “evil” than most other big companies, and, as a progressive, I’m all for regulating their activity and getting their money out of our politics. But the hatred spewed against them has gotten absurd. Substitute the phrase “The Jews”, or the more veiled “The Bankers” for “Monsanto” and see how it plays. Spreading ignorance, hatred and fear are not the way to get where we want to go. We have seen, over and over again, where that will lead. And indeed, there are many academic scientists who have been targeted by “direct action” who have already gotten a taste of what what we have to look forward to if we don’t speak out.

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  7. 7. M Tucker 5:09 pm 11/8/2013

    “Free market capitalist” is a suspicious buzz phrase. No market is truly free and few participants really care about open information regarding the market. I know that it is nearly 100% sure that I will not get GMO food if I shop at Whole Foods. That is as perfect as you could possibly expect. Move on. Leave the rest of the market alone. Allow for others to disagree with your opinion. Don’t panic the mostly unaware consumer by forcing labels that have nothing to do with nutrition or safety. Don’t force up already high food prices because of your personal philosophy.

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  8. 8. Kevbonham 5:37 pm 11/8/2013

    @ Rweiler – The trouble is that a GMO label is as likely to misinform as it is to inform. Like I said above – there’s a lot about the way our food is made that isn’t on any label. Why treat the method of breeding any different?

    @ Maize – No need to Godwin this thing, but I agree. Business practices need regulating, and really our entire agriculture system could use an overhaul. But GE could be a tool to help us accomplish that.

    @ M Tucker – It’s worth a distinction, because progressives are often labeled as being against the free-market. That said, I agree with the substance of your comment.

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  9. 9. rkipling 5:47 pm 11/8/2013

    Progressive’s, look upon Obamacare and despair.
    I don’t have to say a thing to you except to ask that you keep watching.

    I believe you mean well. You don’t want the sick to suffer. Neither do I. You and Obama just don’t understand that a command economy has never and will never work.

    Put insurance companies in actual competition. That will weed out the bad actors. There are many bad actors.

    Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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  10. 10. Kevbonham 6:01 pm 11/8/2013

    @ rkipling – you may have missed the point of this post. In response to “a command economy has never and will never work,” re: healthcare I would like to point you to Britain, Sweeden, Norway, Denmark.

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  11. 11. larkalt 6:08 pm 11/8/2013

    I worry about GMO’s because I have a lot of allergies to foods that aren’t major allergens – delayed allergies, probably related to celiac disease. Bananas & apples for example.
    They wouldn’t add major allergens to a GMO food but I don’t know that they would avoid adding *any* allergens.
    I don’t want to get sick after eating a food that I thought was safe to eat, because the plant was genetically modified to make a protein I’m allergic to.
    So it’s crucial to tell people when a food has been genetically modified and how.

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  12. 12. rkipling 6:16 pm 11/8/2013

    Kevbonham,

    Fine. Just keep watching. :)

    Link to this
  13. 13. nickrud 6:23 pm 11/8/2013

    I revived my account here just so could point out that rkipling would simply say ‘they will’, but I see I took too long :)

    And to rkipling, I’d simply point out that the exchanges do exactly what you suggest, put the insurance companies in direct competition, for the first time ever. Same mandatory minimums and with human readable policies. Sort of like how all cars need to have certain minimum standards, like turn signals or headlamps of a certain brightness. Everyone knows the minimum they get and that there’s someone checking it’s actually done.

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  14. 14. spacegizmo 6:50 pm 11/8/2013

    I was one of the Washington State voters who voted no, and like Kevin I am against the anti-GMO messaging because the science consensus doesn’t align. The anti-GMO people in my mind are as bad as the anti-vaccine/anti-climate change/anti-evolution people. I am all for reasonable measures, but the Anti-GMO side’s whole argument is based on fear and not facts. Which is why I can’t support them.

    As for Monsanto, I am in no way supporting them but I don’t think they are any more evil than any other food producer company. So called organic food is not necessarily safer, nor are the companies that produce organic food necessarily more ethical.

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  15. 15. michelhays@juno.com 6:58 pm 11/8/2013

    “If Prop 37 was really about informed decisions, it would have sought accurate labeling of different types of GMOs so consumers can choose to avoid those that they disapprove of or are worried about.”

    I would agree with this idea. What this article sidesteps is that GMOs are a large part of the corn/soy surplus in our country. I’m also not a fan of “scorched-earth” style farming using RoundUp, I think it is a shortsighted use of resources. I would like to avoid that type of GMO, where I would like to take advantage of the Bt GMOs.

    I am ambivalent about the GMOs that proport to increase nutrition and solve end-use cosmetic problems (golden rice and atomic apples.)

    Here’s my problem: the public should have the right to make stupid decisions if they so choose. Why are you out to prevent that? There are so many more serious stupid decisions that consumers make unimpeded – why do SciAm blogs so frequently talk about this one?

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  16. 16. rkipling 7:06 pm 11/8/2013

    nickrud,

    In some areas there is only one insurance provider so far, but sure, let’s see how it goes. Be optimistic. Maybe that will help?

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  17. 17. vapur 7:10 pm 11/8/2013

    Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Furthermore, the potential dangers of GMO was highlighted in a previous article from this site. Physical evolution is happening.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=vitamins-minerals-and-microrna

    Link to this
  18. 18. pugethiker 10:27 pm 11/8/2013

    vapur, check out this editorial on Nature Biotech about research that has not been able to replicate the research you link to.

    http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v31/n11/full/nbt.2748.html

    Link to this
  19. 19. Owl905 1:37 am 11/9/2013

    Generally in favor of GMOs, and prefer private enterprise over state intervention wherever a product/service lifecycle means an endgame.
    But the GMO labels should be on. All of them. All the time. It’s bizarre to see people going thumbs down while claiming to represent the intelligent side of the coin.
    The labels should remain on until the fear their absence has provoked, disappears. Take the claim of ‘surrendering to the fringe’ and shove it. The absence of labels is empowering the mongrels; it’s fueling some disgusting impersonations of documentaries; and recently it helped lead to the loss of the Golden Rice experiment. The longer it’s absent, the louder the cries of ‘hiding something’ will be. And messengers will get shot when their best message is “C’mon, it’s safe.”
    When checkout scanners came in, the business case was pushed back a decade because of consumer fears over removal of the price-tags. Business had to wait out the fear-mongers. Now no one wants the eyesore.
    GMO labelling is the same deal – put it on and sell GMO as a feature. It isn’t the reality that needs to be changed, it’s the perception.

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  20. 20. rkipling 10:05 am 11/9/2013

    Kevbonham,

    Maybe my comment was off-topic, but you started out talking about Obamacare, Occupy, and Maddow. I read your short bio. Since to be a scientist you must think objectively at least about immunology, allow me to offer some a few thoughts. I wouldn’t bother with a non-scientist.

    The far-right would find me as repugnant as the progressives here seem to. I don’t consider those of either stripe to be necessarily evil. I think most are sincere in their strongly held beliefs. Sincerity of conviction doesn’t validate a belief. I’m concerned with system functionality. My frustration with progressives about Obamacare isn’t with their objectives. It is with their lack of understanding of how economic systems work and their hubris that they are smart enough to construct an intricate regulatory system to better manage health insurance. Note that we are talking about health insurance not healthcare.

    A basic structure is, of course, required for health insurance/healthcare. Self-corrective mechanisms should be allowed for the system to operate and improve. Bureaucratic top-down control attempts correction with yet more regulations. Determining all the unintended interactions and conflicts within the regulations is not possible. All the best intentions will not untangle regulatory conflicts. This is why Obamacare is destined for failure not just the website. Those who devised the Obamacare regulations presumed they could predict how people would react. Their understanding is being shown to be inadequate.

    One example is the necessity for young healthy people like you to willingly pay more to subsidize older people like me. You might do that. But, I think you will find most of the young will not or cannot pay. Given a choice between health insurance premiums or payments on a new car, which will they choose? Free stuff they will take.

    I won’t get into how difficult integration of all the different software architectures of all the federal government, state government, and insurance companies. From what I understand, nothing on this scale has ever been attempted. The Tower of Babel story comes to mind for some reason.

    Here is an example of a national healthcare system in Singapore that is largely market driven. People spend their own money (from mandatory health savings accounts). I would need to learn more, but something like this might be a better solution? Singapore spends about 4% of GDP on healthcare with better outcomes. See the link below.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Healthcare_in_Singapore

    Link to this
  21. 21. Ed Rybicki 10:13 am 11/9/2013

    @larkalt: the chances that you would be allergic to a protein produced by a GM plant are really, really low – largely because all GMOs are tested for allergenicity or similarity of their transgenically-produced protein to any known allergens.

    This does not, of course, mean that you WON’T manifest allergic responses to a given protein – but you are MUCH more likely to be reacting to traces of (in your case) apple, banana, kiwifruit….

    Link to this
  22. 22. larkalt 12:34 pm 11/9/2013

    “@larkalt: the chances that you would be allergic to a protein produced by a GM plant are really, really low – largely because all GMOs are tested for allergenicity or similarity of their transgenically-produced protein to any known allergens.”
    But what I said is, there are many plants that I and others are allergic to, that don’t have major allergens. There are MANY proteins that can cause an allergic reaction.
    And what does “testing for allergenicity” mean? Yes, I expect (hope) they test to see if a GMO might cross-react with common allergies like milk allergy. But is there any way to know a priori if a protein is capable of triggering an allergic reaction in someone, even if not that often??? Whether by antibody-mediated or by cellular immunity???
    It’s known that there are food allergies and hypersensitivities other than classical food allergies (the type that can cause anaphylaxis) – because these non-classical food allergies can be confirmed by double-blind placebo-controlled food challenges.
    But very little is known about non-classical food allergies. I’ve been looking at the recent research. There’s been a little research on non-celiac gluten sensitivity and the hypersensitivities to non-gluten foods that often go with it – but very little is known about the mechanism.
    Not labelling GMO foods – not telling people what non-native ingredients those plants have – robs people of the ability to sort out what foods bother them. It would mean making the assumption that scientists are able to engineer foods that won’t cause allergic reactions, classical or non-classical. That sounds like a huge wrong assumption.
    The amylase/trypsin inhibitors in wheat are insecticides, part of the plant’s natural defense – but they are also allergens. So if someone genetically engineered another plant to produce wheat ATI’s, they would be engineering allergens into the plant.

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  23. 23. DougAlder 7:46 pm 11/9/2013

    The safety issue with GMOs is NOT just based on whether they are safe to eat or not – although that is the only side you have presented here. There is also a large question as to whether they are safe for the environment as well, and there the science is not so certain as it is for food safety. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned and two of the biggest are the inability of farms to keep their GMO crops from spreading into the wild, and (here’s where Monsanto is truly evil)causing the evolution of super weeds (Roundup resistant) which in turn requires the use of ever more potent weed killers, which, regardless of the care taken does make its way into the food chain. A reason for labeling GMO foods is so you can avoid buying them thus creating a financial disincentive to use GMO seeds and lessen the above two problems.

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  24. 24. Shoshin 7:53 pm 11/9/2013

    Hundreds of billions of GMO meals have been consumed over the past 25 years. Man has been “tampering” with plant and animal genetic code, knowingly or unknowingly for thousands of years. No story here but irrational fear.

    Looks to me like this GMO mule has been beat to death, but the eco-arrogants know a fear-funding cash cow when they see one, so, like AGW, fracking and the ghost of the Koch brothers, we are damned to endure ignorant and fear-mongering hand wringing for as long as the eco-arrogants can milk a buck out of it.

    It’s the American Way. We are all free to be as stupid as we want. The eco-arrogants are trying to change that though, they want us all to be as stupid as THEY want.

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  25. 25. Lonicera 10:33 pm 11/9/2013

    This is the first time I have seen an argument advanced that instead of just labeling for GMO’s, there should be labeling identifying which ingredients are genetically engineered. Fine. It’s a refreshing change from the arrogant argument pushed by the editors a few months ago that people are scientifically ignorant and therefore (?) labeling should be avoided altogether. It seems to me that if indeed people are ignorant, they could be educated. But that’s just what companies like Monsanto are avoiding, along with avoiding labeling. Let’s have that discussion, then, about whether GMO foods are safe. But as Owl905 points out above, that is not the only issue. Other worries relate to the contamination of non-GMO crops, and increasing (not decreasing) reliance on pesticides in the wake of “Round-Up ready” crops.

    I buy most of my food from stores that don’t pretend to scrutinize the ingredients going into every product. I wouldn’t trust Whole Foods’ judgement in every case, either. I’m fairly certain that in the long run consumer activists are going to wear down the opposition, and labeling is going to be a fact. So let’s see if we can address the issues rather than blaming the people who buy the food for their supposed ignorance.

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  26. 26. Coles 11:46 pm 11/9/2013

    I was pro 522, but unfortunately I don’t live in Washington so it doesn’t really matter. The few friends I have in Washington voted no based on the fear of food prices going up. Yes, the greatest motivation for voting either way it seemed was irrational fear on both sides, not just the pro 522 side. Isn’t that what American elections are about these days though?

    I am one of those people like you suggested that would like the specifics of the GMO involved, but I would settle for any kind of labeling to start with. The reason I am for labeling is not for fear of what is out there, but for fear that our regulating bodies are all but giving up their role in testing new ones that come into the market. While I acknowledge that the current GMOs on the market do have evidence on their side, that far from proves that they are safe, and there are widespread ramifications to GMOs that go beyond health (specifically environmental). I look to the current effort to ban trans fats as an imperfect but somewhat parallel situation. We knew trans fats weren’t great as far back as the 60s, corporations fought labeling saying that it was going to cause skyrocketing food prices (it didn’t), they were labeled, people still afforded food and now they think the health benefits are so bad that they are attempting an outright ban. The moral here is that the cost of labeling argument is garbage and just because something has been on the market for 20+ years and people have consumed it millions of times does not mean that its safety is proven. The frightening difference between these two examples is that trans fats can easily be taken off the market, whereas there will come a time, and we may have already crossed that line, where GMOs cannot be taken back out of our environment if there are problems.

    As for the person who complained about their food prices going up or the argument about nutrition quality. The bulk of these crops are not grown for direct consumption/nutrition and they are highly subsidized; food that contains these should cost more. My unwilling tax dollars go to keeping these junk food prices low, and then go again to subsidize the health problems that they cause. These crops are not “feeding the world” they are used for corn syrup, livestock feed and raw materials in processed foods. Unhealthy foods that contribute greatly to a multitude of costly chronic illness.

    As for being able to get GMO free food easily. First of all, the majority of people don’t live near a Whole Foods, or probably even a grocery store that carries a lot of organic products. I live in St. Louis which is surrounded by states containing miles and miles of cornfields, and I can’t find fresh, non frozen corn that can be certified as GMO free anywhere. Not Whole Foods, not anywhere. So much for having a choice.

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  27. 27. RSchmidt 12:06 am 11/10/2013

    My concerns about GMOs have nothing to do with health. I agree that GMOs can actually be healthier than standard hybridized foods and provide a means of increasing productivity. My concerns are based mostly on food security. There is solid evidence showing lateral gene transfer makes it possible for GMO benefits to be transferred to weed plants, which works fine as the GMO companies also make the herbicides, fungicides, etc. Like it or not, farms will be forced to plant super crops because they need the chemicals to fight off the super pests. I would feel more confident in the promise of GMOs if I felt that efforts were focused on creating hardier more productive food sources but I believe that a great deal of the research is about how to create dependence and not food security. It is for that reason I think foods should be marked GMO and information should be provided to explain what was modified. Was it modified to produce more omega 3 or to not produce viable seeds. I agree that each GMO needs to be evaluated individually and so I support providing the consumer with as much information as possible. Nothing shakes the public’s trust more than deliberate attempts to hide information from them.

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  28. 28. Descarreaux 5:49 am 11/10/2013

    Aren’t you afraid to be naïve?

    Is it paranoid to be suspicious about the power of lobbies to hide the real scientific results?

    Finally, what about those studies:
    http://gmojudycarman.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/The-Full-Paper.pdf

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  29. 29. Chryses 12:10 pm 11/10/2013

    RSchmidt (27),

    “… My concerns are based mostly on food security …”

    It would follow from your statement that you would want food labeled according to the degree to which each product increased or decreased what you perceive s food security.

    How would you label chicken or pork products that have been raised industrially, in contrast to those that have not?

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  30. 30. RSchmidt 2:03 pm 11/10/2013

    Chryses (29) “It would follow from your statement that you would want food labeled according to the degree to which each product increased or decreased what you perceive s food security” as I suggested I would want information regarding what type of genetic change had been made i.e. increased production of a natural fungicide or the inability to produce seed. From this the general public can make choices based on the type of change, because as has already been mentioned, not all genetic modifications are the same and therefore have to be evaluated on a case by case basis. Just because my concern is food security does not mean it is everyone’s concern so give the public the information and let them decide for themselves.

    In regards to your question about how to label chicken and pork, I don’t see how that has anything to do with the article which is about genetics and not animal care.

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  31. 31. Chryses 2:28 pm 11/10/2013

    RSchmidt (30),

    “… In regards to your question about how to label chicken and pork, I don’t see how that has anything to do with the article which is about genetics and not animal care.”

    “… My concerns are based mostly on food security …” (RSchmidt, #27).

    If what you posted @27 is in fact true, then your concern is about how the food is prepared. Does how the food is prepared have anything to do with the article? Yes, it does. The irrational fear of and opposition to how the food is prepared is the essence of the article.

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  32. 32. FlexibleArrangement 5:39 pm 11/10/2013

    @Chryses

    Sooooooooooooo, your attitude is that ONLY the food content matters, not how the food gets to your table?

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  33. 33. Chryses 6:46 pm 11/10/2013

    FlexibleArrangement (32),

    In general, yes; there is a qualitative difference between the contents of a product and its preparation. In this very limited domain, where a gene is added or removed from a genome by one method or another? Very much yes. The origin of the gene that produces a protein is inconsequential. While gene selection by “natural” methods (selective breeding) is not, so far as I know, subject to health testing, such is routinely done when the tools are those of the molecular biologist.

    GMOs appear to me to be the safer choice.

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  34. 34. NewGatsby 9:45 pm 11/10/2013

    @25. Lonicera

    “Let’s have that discussion, then, about whether GMO foods are safe.”

    OK. Which one(s) do you claim are unsafe, and why?
    Please be specific.

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  35. 35. Loren E 9:37 am 11/11/2013

    @larkalt (11)
    ‘They wouldn’t add major allergens to a GMO food but I don’t know that they would avoid adding *any* allergens.’
    Check out the “allergenonline” site out of the University of Nebraska for the current state of affairs on this subject.

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  36. 36. BrentBT 11:19 am 11/11/2013

    Your title says it all, thanks. I think you speak for lots of scientists like myself in expressing this perspective. My experience is that the topic of genetic modification has become so politically and socially fraught that it has taken on a life of its own, almost completely free of scientific content. It is difficult, as a scientist, to know what the discussion is actually about, and when it is useful to participate in it qua scientist instead of in some other capacity. Still, when it comes to decisions of this sort that affect food security and the freedom to use new technologies to improve the food supply, decisions have to be informed and driven by knowledge and expertise rather than activism.

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  37. 37. OgreMk5 11:22 am 11/11/2013

    I see a lot of arguments about GMOs here, but that’s not what the discussion is about. The discussion is about labeling.

    If one actually reads the proposed law, the obvious intent of the law is to promote organic foods and suppress GMOs. Whether that is a good thing or not is immaterial to the fact that labeling law will not do what the proponents claim that it would… inform purchasers. Again (just like the California law), the bag of chips you buy in the grocery store would have to have a label, the same chips at the deli across the street would not.

    That simple aspect of the law means that it isn’t designed to inform consumers or allow for ‘wise choices’, but to promote one type of food “organic” over another type of food “GM”. In the Washington bill, this point is made explicitly.

    If one wants labels, then we should label everything with all possible information. Let’s see what the organic promoters do when they realize that they have to state that they have used copper compounds on their “organic” vegetables.

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  38. 38. Coles 12:57 pm 11/11/2013

    @OgreMk5

    No labeling is going to be perfect, and yes the intent of some to label is to create a bias. If we abandoned every law because it wasn’t perfect, there wouldn’t be any. Reasonable people in most industrialized nations have compromised on some sort of GMO labeling. Are they all uninformed, stupid or irrational? Are we the only ones who know better? Restaurants/Delis don’t have to display ingredients or nutrition data either, maybe we should stop requiring products in grocery stores to label anything. Isn’t that essentially the argument you are making? If you can’t do it all, why do anything? Also, lets be real, the average American doesn’t know what a GMO actually is, (nor do they care if it would potentially raise food prices) as evidenced by the 522 polling of “no” voters. GMO products will almost always be cheaper since most of them are subsidized, so the potential bias is blown out of proportion. People that want to know will know, people that don’t care will buy what they have always bought or what is cheaper.

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  39. 39. ikewinski 1:05 pm 11/11/2013

    I think that the kosher label is a good example of how the markets solve the consumer choice issue. There’s no need for the government to mandate labeling of non-kosher foods because the people making kosher foods have their own set of labels that identify it as such (each holding to different standards of kashrut).

    In a similar manner the USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project labels give consumers a choice.

    If choice were the real issue, there wouldn’t be an I-522 or Proposition 37 because consumers have a choice already.

    I regularly see debates on anti-GMO boards along the lines of “should we label them or ban them?” Inevitably the proponents of labeling claim this is the first step toward a complete ban to appease those wanting outright ban.

    There’s a kind of paternalism at work in the anti-GMO community that sees the masses as sheeple who are too stupid to buy the right food on their own and who need labels put in their faces to scare them away from GMO. The dishonesty over labeling motives combined with that paternalism seems to be a losing strategy with the masses.

    The arguments about “if they have nothing to hide why won’t they label it?” are the very worst of all in my opinion. These arguments are corrosive of your own individual rights to privacy (if you have nothing to hide, you won’t object to the government installing a camera in your bedroom, right?). While I disagree with the idea that corporations are persons with rights, the argument remains corrosive of individual rights even if we explicitly strip corporate personhood. If that logic applies to corporations, it also applies to individuals.

    In reality, we all have something to hide (which is why none of us would consent to cameras in our bedrooms). “Something to hide” isn’t the same as guilt or wrongdoing as this example demonstrates. We’d all like to keep our sexual activities private. GM seed companies fear being unfairly stigmatized. Neither case represents wrongdoing per-se.

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  40. 40. Kevin Bonham in reply to Kevin Bonham 1:13 pm 11/11/2013

    Hi folks – sorry I let comments get away from me a bit over the weekend. There’s some great discussion going on here, but I put up a follow-up post to clarify a few points.

    I’ll try to get to all the comments here, but you can continue the discussion over on the new post as well.

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  41. 41. jonhuie 8:41 pm 11/11/2013

    1. Regarding, “but we don’t mandate that food boxes contain labels informing consumers which pesticides were used to grow the plants in their food, nor what fertilizer provided the nutrients, nor where the food was grown,” — we SHOULD mandate all that information – and more. That food labels lack other meaningful information, should not be an excuse for omitting GMO information.

    2. Of course that author is correct that food labels should specify exactly what modifications have been made to food (like RoundUp-resistance) – whether by genetic modification, or otherwise. Simply labeling “GMO” is quite inadequate, but it is at least a beginning.

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  42. 42. jonMcGoran 7:48 am 11/12/2013

    One thing that you do not address, and that so much of both commercial media and the scientific community fails to address, is the lack of long term research into the safety of the GMOs on the market. Both the Bt and the Roundup Ready GMOs could very possibly have serious long term health implications, but through whatever means (most notably the aggressive application of over-reaching intellectual property laws and the importance of corporate funding in academic research), GMO manufacturers have managed to prevent that research from being done. What little long-term research exists, while inconclusive and in some cases possibly flawed, is still strongly suggestive of serious negative health implications. Maybe these GMOs are safe, but until adequate long-term research has been done, we surely do not know it. For those in the scientific community to assert they KNOW GMOs are safe when so little research has been done for periods of longer than 90 days is unconscionable. And labeling as “anti-science” those who are concerned with this lack of research undermines the legitimacy of the scientific community itself from within, at a time when it is under serious threat from without.

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  43. 43. Kevbonham 1:12 pm 11/12/2013

    @ Jonhuie – 1) I don’t mean that as an excuse for omitting GMO labeling, I mean to say that GMO labels themselves (at least as proposed) aren’t actually informative, and that people should be working to get labels for the things that *actually* concern them.

    2) As long as such labels also included modifications to “conventionally bred,” chemically mutagenized and other hybridized varieties, I’d be totally on board with that approach. The GMO labeling laws aren’t really a start, they don’t actually provide any information.

    @ JonMcGoran – I do not address it, because there’s a strong scientific consensus that GMOs on the market currently are safe. Your definition of “adequate” research does not match what people with the expertise (see the list of scientific and medical associations I listed) believe.

    I never saw delicata squash on store shelves until the last couple of years. They might be unsafe for consumption in the long term. How would you test this? Who should pay for that testing? In the absence of any noticeable harm, and in the absence of any plausible mechanism for causing harm, should we block delicata squash from being sold?

    Substitute any new food hitting store shelves. Actually, pick an old food that everyone believes is safe (non-GMO corn for instance). How do we know that they are safe? How would you design a study to test long-term health implications? Maybe removing corn from our diets would prolong health by 5 years and reduce cancer risk by 0.5%.

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  44. 44. jonMcGoran 1:33 pm 11/12/2013

    There are plenty of people with expertise who are concerned. Heck, there’s a whole union of them (see http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/ and http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/). And no, I do not think it is unreasonable for a little bit of long-term testing before you use an entirely new bioscience to take over 90% percent of a food production system (and definitely not after). There are plenty of plausible mechanisms for causing harm, but at this point, they have been under-researched. As I stated, the few long-term studies have strongly suggested health concerns, and they may not be perfect or conclusive, but they definitely warrant further study.

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  45. 45. 4science 5:57 pm 11/12/2013

    I’d like to point out that if you consider yourself progressive that shopping at Whole Foods is a grossly hypocritical action. The CEO is a libertarian, union-busting thug. Mackay thinks that people don’t have an intrinsic right to healthcare, food, or shelter, that the ACA is fascism, and that global warming isn’t a big deal and will benefit humans. Seriously, look it up. When you shop there, you’re putting money in this guy’s pocket.

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  46. 46. Coles 9:02 pm 11/12/2013

    @4science. If one is against animal abuse, then eating factory farmed meat is a grossly hypocritical action. Do you eat meat? Way to go off topic.

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  47. 47. BrentBT 12:06 am 11/13/2013

    I had the strange and disheartening experience lately of watching Genetic Roulette with some friends. Before watching this video I had followed the news about public reaction to agricultural technology, but I had no idea sort of information was shaping popular opinion. As a scientist I was alternately insulted by, and embarrassed for Jeffrey Smith and the cast of characters he assembled for this amateur infomercial pretending to be documentary. It saddens me that this sort of thing drives so many well-intentioned people to make ill-informed choices and waste good potential for useful activism. Makes me wonder what we need more of, whether its better scientific education so that nonsensical fabrications like this are recognized for what they are, or better relationships between the research community and general public so they know who to trust for accurate information, or what?

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  48. 48. jonphillips 4:23 am 11/13/2013

    I’m sorry, but if you think that, as a scientist, you should get to decide for the ignorant masses what they should be allowed to know about their consumer choices, then you aren’t actually “liberal/progressive.” For the record, I think that the overwhelming majority of fears about GMOs are vastly overblown. I also think that if people want to know what’s in their food, they absolutely have that right. The issue isn’t whether GMOs are bad, it’s whether we support basic consumer rights.

    The role of the scientist is to advance knowledge and inform the public, not dictate policy.

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  49. 49. BrentBT 8:59 am 11/13/2013

    @jonphillips: Quite right, the role of the scientist is to advance knowledge and inform the public, not dictate policy. I think what is being lamented here by scientists and the scientifically informed is the seemingly intentional lack of attention by the public and particularly by activist leaders, who are trying to shape policy, to the information being offered by the majority of scientists. My point above about the Jeffrey Smith’s in this policy debate is that they are either not informing themselves with the breadth of reputable, peer-reviewed, public scientific knowledge that is available, or worse, that they are intentionally ignoring that knowledge in the interest of some agenda other than the one they represent themselves to be advocating.

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  50. 50. jonphillips 11:30 am 11/13/2013

    @BrentBT – I’m afraid that the validity of public fears about GMOs are completely irrelevant to this case. It’s not a question of regulating GMOs (in which case, of course scientific consensus about the relative merits of public concerns would be significant). Here, we’re only talking about whether consumers have the right to know what they’re consuming. It doesn’t matter if these fears are valid or not; people get to decide for themselves what they consider important, and have a right to be informed. As an atheist, I don’t think that a Jewish or Muslim person is tangibly harmed if they eat food that is not Kosher or halal, but they still have a basic right to the knowledge of whether their food conforms to their dietary preferences, whether those preferences seem rational to me or not.

    In an ideal world, something like I-522 wouldn’t even require a majority vote; the simple presence of a significant group of people who want to know whether the products they buy contain GMOs (or animal products or allergens or rely on unethical labor practices or whatever) would be sufficient to mandate labeling.

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  51. 51. Kevbonham 11:49 am 11/13/2013

    @4science – Can’t boycott every business owned by people who disagree with me politically. Does CEO of WF contribute a ton of money to tea-party political campaigns? If so, I would definitely think twice about shopping there.

    @ BrentBT – yeah.

    @ Johnphillips – My posts here are precisely intended to “advance knowledge and inform the public,” I do not believe my blog caries the force of law. I’d like to inform the public that GMO labeling laws are non-sensical, don’t actually impart any useful information and ignore the real problems facing our agricultural production.

    On your last comment, “As an atheist, I don’t think that a Jewish or Muslim person is tangibly harmed if they eat food that is not Kosher or halal, but they still have a basic right to the knowledge of whether their food conforms to their dietary preferences…”

    Wrong. Jews and Muslims would not and should not be permitted to mandate that all food that doesn’t conform to their dietary principals be labeled “This food is not kosher” or “This food is not halal.” Products that want to be labeled to show that they conform to dietary principals are free to do that, and I’d even support a federal or private regulatory agency to enforce it. So, for instance, I would support a “GMO-free” label, where companies that wanted to tout that fact could advertise it. We already have USDA Organic that includes GMO-free, and I’m totally fine with that too.

    If people want to shop on certain principals, that’s totally fine, but the rest of the world should not be compelled to play along unless there are legitimate health reasons for it.

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  52. 52. jonphillips 12:17 pm 11/13/2013

    @Kevbonham – I’d like to think that it goes without saying that I am not confusing your writing with the force of law. The discussion here is not whether you are, right here, imposing your views on others, it’s whether the state should implicitly accept the word of the scientific community (or the business community, or any other elite constituency) over consumers regarding what is and is not important to them.

    It’s telling that you think that mandatory labeling of Kosher or halal would represent Jews and Muslims mandating anything. Neither Jews nor Muslims have the clout in our society to mandate any such thing; if it were to happen, it would stem from society as a whole recognizing that people have different priorities, and making life easier for everyone. The costs of mandatory labeling are marginal and make life much easier for those who require or prefer it. Mandatory labeling, whether Kosher or GMO, has no bearing on you if you don’t care one way or another. No one is “compelling you to play along.”

    If you believe that the rights of business to label or not as they see fit trumps the rights of consumers to know what they’re purchasing (or that scientists should be able to, qua scientist, speak with authority as to what other people should or should not consider important), well, we disagree, but you’re entitled to your opinion. But don’t pretend that just because you don’t favor letting people die of preventable diseases, your politics are “progressive” or “liberal.”

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  53. 53. jonphillips 12:53 pm 11/13/2013

    Also, for the record, I apologize if I come across as somewhat overly aggressive. This particular case touches on a number of my personal pet-issues, both personal and professional. As someone with a serious food allergy, I react strongly to arguments against mandatory labeling, most of which tend to be disingenuous at best. As a historian who focuses on the intersection of twentieth-century biology and politics, I find that these arguments (by both scientists and non-scientists) often lack a degree historical context that would hopefully make one pause before opposing the will of the less-educated masses.

    As I said above, on the substance of GMOs, we don’t disagree. But that shouldn’t be used to frustrate a popular agenda that doesn’t cause direct harm.

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  54. 54. Kevbonham 1:19 pm 11/13/2013

    @ jonphillips – I have no problem with vehement dissent, as long as you’re not a dick. So far, you haven’t approached that line, so carry on :-)

    In my last reply, I almost followed the last line mentioning legitimate health concerns with what I think is a good example: nut allergies. We require products to label if they were produced in a factory that processes nuts even if those products don’t contain nuts. There’s a legitimate public health associated with this label, so I think it makes sense.

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  55. 55. Kevbonham 1:23 pm 11/13/2013

    As for the political force/public opinion argument, I do think that science needs to take a stronger position on public policy – there are some situations where technocratic approaches are valid. That said, this is not a post to say that the NIH should have the authority to step in and block a labeling law if it gets passed, it’s just trying to get information out there into the hands of people that are trying to sway public opinion.

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  56. 56. sciliz 1:39 pm 11/13/2013

    Look, there’s no scientific reason I shouldn’t buy clothes made in Bangladesh. I just have a moral/ ethical opposition to sweatshops. Is the labeling of clothes by country of origin flawed? Yes. There are sweatshops that get to use the made in the USA label, and certainly ethically made items from e.g. China. But as a consumer, I prefer to avoid Bangladesh made items, in the hopes it will function in a small way as a “vote with my dollars” kind of thing. Ultimately, as a liberal I also have a belief in democracy trumping many things. If 75%+ people want a label of what day of the year something was made, out of a bizarre consumer product zodiac belief system, I’d say that trumps companies desires to not bother with it.

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  57. 57. jonphillips 2:18 pm 11/13/2013

    “As for the political force/public opinion argument, I do think that science needs to take a stronger position on public policy..”

    I don’t disagree. There are a lot of issues where the science suggests much more robust policies than we have in place – vaccination, antibiotic use, climate change, just to name the obvious. And I think that if we were talking about banning GMOs, or even subjecting them to heightened regulatory scrutiny or cutting funding, then the scientific consensus on their relative harmlessness should be weighed heavily, if not be considered outright dispositive.

    But I strongly agree with sciliz above: if people want it labeled, then opposition to that should stem from substantive arguments against labeling rather than weakness in the case for. In the absence of compelling reasons NOT to label, public desire for it should be sufficient.

    I do think that food allergies can provide an instructive example here – everyone recognizes the severity of nut allergies, but there are a substantial number of well-educated people (including some, though thankfully few, scientific and medical professionals) who refuse to accept celiac disease and wheat allergy as a legitimate thing. For too many people, the fact that there are a lot of ridiculous claims about gluten is sufficient reason to oppose labeling, which doesn’t help anyone and actively hurts those for whom warnings about gluten are important.

    Basically, scientific evidence is a good reason to support mandatory labeling, but lack of scientific evidence in and of itself isn’t a good reason to oppose it. But thanks for engaging, and I’ll try to continue to not be a dick :)

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  58. 58. BrentBT 8:39 pm 11/13/2013

    To clarify, too, I was not citing Jeffrey Smith as an argument against labeling. He is just an example of what is wrong with the pro-labeling movement right now. I think labels would be fine, if the goal were actually to afford the public greater freedom to make their own decisions. Instead, people like Smith, and the sort of labels mandated by I522, are intended to stigmatize an industry and thereby foreclose people’s freedom to choose by excluding certain choices without a convincing rationale.

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  59. 59. Coles 8:57 pm 11/13/2013

    @BrentBT. Isn’t excluding information entirely a bigger foreclosure on a person’s freedom to choose? Not labeling is an absolute denial of the person’s freedom to choose, how a person interprets a label is subjective, but the choice still lies with them.

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  60. 60. BrentBT 11:35 pm 11/13/2013

    @Coles: I don’t understand your question. Are you asking me to say whether I think misinforming people in the interest of scaring them away from something one doesn’t want them to choose is better than not misinforming them? I’m for putting accurate ingredient labels on the products, not “warning” labels.

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  61. 61. Coles 1:39 am 11/14/2013

    I will plead ignorance because I have not seen the labels proposed by 522, have you? What warning or misinformation was to be included on the 522 labels? If it just has a little GMO stamp like I have seen on foreign products that contain GMOs, I wouldn’t consider that misinformation at all. If the 522 labels were similar to those, they would be ignored by most consumers and all of these worries about “warning labels” and product bias would be just as irrational as some of the health claims made by the pro labeling side. If you have information on how the 522 labels would resemble warnings, I would be glad to check it out, and if it were true, I would be on your side. You can’t be against a label that states a simple fact just because you don’t think that consumers can handle the information the way you want them to. Well, I guess you can, but it makes no sense at all if you are advocating for freedom of choice for consumers.

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  62. 62. Kevbonham 10:50 am 11/14/2013

    @ Coles – There’s a lot of information we “exclude” from labels. As I mentioned at the end of my post, we don’t include the entire genomic sequence of the crops used in food products. Is excluding that information preventing people from making informed choices?

    People that care about avoiding GMOs can already do so. There are informational databases and apps etc.

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  63. 63. BrentBT 12:09 pm 11/14/2013

    I-522 would have required that non-exempt foods and agricultural products offered for retail sale state “clearly and conspicuously” on the front of the package if they were genetically-engineered, contain or might have contained genetically-engineered ingredients. There is no stipulation in the law about providing any other information. As we know, each genetic modification is different, and every one that is in the commercial space has gotten there through an extensive and costly deregulation process with the FDA, USDA and in many cases also the EPA that is unique to the particular modification in a particular crop. There is likewise no requirement in the law for the label to state what ingredients or how much of these are in the food. Combined with this lack of actionable information, the requirement for a big label on the front of the package sounds more like a warning.

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  64. 64. Coles 10:08 pm 11/14/2013

    @ Kevbonham – if you honestly can’t see the difference that one might see between the labeling the entire genomic sequence of a natural organism and GMOs, I don’t know what to tell you.

    @ brentBT – it may sound to you like a warning, but that is your interpretation and you obviously have your bias as do I. I see nothing unreasonable about the small stamps that only provide a simple statement of fact that are on the international products that I have seen that contain GMOs. It leaves it up the the consumer to decide what direction to take. Most consumers will not care because those products will still be considerably cheaper.

    We are beating a dead horse here, and are arguing our points from areas that obviously don’t matter to the other. I am pro labeling because #1 consumers have the right to know what they want to know, and the overwhelming number of consumers want to know. Every poll suggests that 37 and 522 went down, not because people don’t want to know, but because they feared the phantom food price increases that were never going to happen. #2 on a personal level, I want people to educate themselves about and question GMOs because we are protentially altering our food supply forever. I am not anti GMO altogether, I just think any crop altering technologies need to be advanced with extreme caution. My hope is that a label would encourage people to want to become more informed about them. I don’t care about whether that makes them for or against GMOs as you do, I just want it to be in more people’s awareness.

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  65. 65. Kevbonham 3:01 pm 11/15/2013

    @ Coles – “if you honestly can’t see the difference that one might see between the labeling the entire genomic sequence of a natural organism and GMOs, I don’t know what to tell you.”

    1) Almost no organism that we consume is “natural.” Most are the products of thousands of years of artificial selection. The fact that you consider plants bombarded with radiation to introduce genetic mutations as “natural,” as opposed to gene elements inserted using agrobacterium is telling of the ignorance of many in the debate.

    Simply labeling something as “GMO” tells consumers nothing about the modifications that were made. My suggestion of including the entire genomic sequence would tell consumers what genes were changed and HOW they were changed, regardless of the method used to induce that change. What are you and the anti-genome-labeling lobby trying to hide?

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