Food Matters

Food Matters

Giving science a seat at the table

GMO Labeling Debate Follow-up


Delicious cherry tomatoes... not quite ripe.

There was a pretty huge response to my take on the GMO labeling debate last Friday. At the time of writing, there are 37 comments (for comparison, my other posts here have had between 0 and 4 comments), and I had a couple of convergent conversations on twitter and google+. I usually like to respond to every comment, but they kinda got away from me over the weekend, so I though I should follow up on a couple of themes that came out in the folks that disagreed with me.

Argument 1: GMO labels aren't about the safety of the food itself, they're about informing consumers so that they can chose to avoid [x]

Best exemplified by Kenn Amdahl, who wrote to me in an e-mail (quoted with permission):

I agree with you about the danger of GMOs-- I'd eat them. I suspect our bodies can digest proteins just fine even if they're altered a bit. The reason I wish they were labeled has nothing to do with the plant itself. It's that the main way they're modifying plants is to make them "Roundup Ready" so they can spray more pesticides on my food, and my cotton, and my sidewalk.

Similar sentiments were voiced on twitter and in the comments, and I completely understand and agree with the impulse to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides on the food you eat. The trouble with this argument vis-a-vis GMOs is that labeling laws (at least those that have been proposed) don't actually address the problem. Most types of agriculture (including organic) use pesticides and herbicides, many of which are more toxic than Roundup. Some genetic modifications have nothing to do with pesticides and herbicides. I would completely support a law that required labeling food with the pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers that are used in their production, and/or to give more authority and responsibilities to the regulatory agencies that look at such things. But these regulations should apply equally to all food-crops, not just the genetically engineered ones.

Argument 2: Consumers have a right to know they're eating GMOs because GMOs are linked to [bad farming practice]

There are many problems with our industrial agricultural system, from monoculture to reliance on a single herbicide or pesticide (like Roundup) to over-reliance on chemically synthesized fertilizers to high fossil fuel use etc etc. The argument here, as far as I can tell, is that because many industrial farming practices are bad, and because GMOs are also used in industrial farming, we should label GMOs so that we can avoid eating industrially farmed food. One example of this argument was expressed by DougAlder in the comments

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.

These sorts of arguments seem to place the blame for all the bad practices at the feet of GMO, when in reality, GMOs are just one efficient tool that people using bad farming practices can also utilize. This is akin to arguing that because crop dusting huge volumes of chemical pesticides is bad, we should boycott airplanes. Herbicide and pesticide resistance were cropping up long before genetic engineering came onto the stage, necessitating much greater use of those chemicals or turning to more toxic alternatives. The introduction of Roundup ready crops actually began as a wonderful thing in this regard, since Roundup was less toxic than many of the alternatives being used previously, and could be used in much lower amounts. That happy state of affairs was mis-managed and now much larger doses are needed because of resistant weeds, but again, this isn't the fault of the GMOs. Doug's other point about the spread of recombinant genes into the ecosystem shouldn't be of any greater concern than the spread of new beneficial gene variants created by mutation breeding. That is to say, I agree that it's a concern, but it's not a concern unique to GMOs.

Many organic foods are industrially farmed, using monoculture and unsustainable farming practices as well, and these practices are just as harmful to food security as when they're used on GMO crops. If the concern is ever increasing use of pesticides and herbicides, let's regulate THAT. If the concern is monoculture, or if you want to promote no-till agriculture, let's pass laws or subsidies addressing THAT. Targeting GMOs is a blunt and imperfect instrument that doesn't actually address the problems that these people (and I) actually care about.


The bottom line here for me is NOT that GMOs should be unregulated. It's NOT that GMOs are universally good. It's NOT that folks on the side of labeling are bad people, or even that they're wrong. The bottom line is that our current farming practices are not sustainable. We can't have a few mega corporations controlling our food supply, we can't continue to use boatloads of energy from fossil fuels to produce food, and we can't continue to destroy natural habitats for farmland. We need to figure out why many poor people in the US can get plenty of calories but not enough nutrition and others can't even get enough calories.

The thing I want to make clear here is that, while genetic engineering is a piece of all of these puzzles, it is only a tool. It can be used by big corporations to bump up sales of a chemical, or it can be used by philanthropists that want to feed the world and increase nutrition. You don't blame crop dusting on planes and you don't blame rocketry for nuclear missiles. Don't blame genetic engineering for monoculture or herbicide use. Let's talk about reforms to farming, let's talk about feeding the hungry and protecting the environment, but let's talk about the actual problems rather than using GMOs as a proxy.

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

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