Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Un-Labelling GMOs

figure 1.
Modern banana (top)
Wild banana (bottom)
In case you are new to the debate, GMO standards for Genetically Modified Organisms (sometimes called GEGenetically Engineered) and refers to plants and animals whose DNA have been modified by Humans.  The term GMO is itself a bit of a misnomer; not because it is inaccurate but instead because it is misleading.  In reality every living thing has been genetically modified by evolution which is constantly modifying the DNA of animals through the process of natural selection.  Additionally, nearly all food we eat today has been genetically modified through the process of artificial selection—we have been selectively breeding plants for thousands of years and most of us would not recognize the natural versions of many of the foods we eat today (such as the banana that has been drastically changed by selective breeding).  Thus, the term GMO when applied only to foods modified by humans is a misnomer because it suggests that only synthetically modified foods are genetically modified when in fact all foods have been genetically modified either through natural or artificial selection.  So to use the term GMO correctly we should say that every living thing is a GMO.  However, to avoid confusion I will use GMO in the modern sense of the word that refers only to those living things that have had their DNA modified directly by humans.

Now that we have the definition of GMOs out of the way lets move to the current debate.  Despite the fact that current research is showing that GMOs are safe to eat and are a promising avenue for achieving more environmentally friendly farming techniques there are many groups against GMOs.  One thing these groups are fighting for is to force foods containing GMOs to be labeled so that consumers can choose not to buy them.  Many countries already have such regulations and some countries have even forbidden the selling of GMOs.  In the U.S. this battle is just now starting in places like California where enough signatures were gathered to put up a measure on the ballot this November.  But remember, all food we eat is genetically modified.  Thus it appears a bit absurd to force sellers to label these foods as GMOs unless there is a health difference.

Is there then a reason that we should force GMOs to be labeled?  This question raises up three primary issues: 1. is there any evidence that GMOs are dangerous and thus should be labeled for safety reasons; 2. do consumer's have a right to force labeling merely because they want it; and 3. does consumer choice create a right to know what is in food?

1.   GMOs appear to be Safe.
Some things that we eat are good for us.  Some things that we eat are bad for us.  The factor that determines whether a certain type of food is healthy is the chemical contents of that food.  All food is made up of chemicals.  I know chemicals is a bit of a loaded word because many people use it to refer to dangerous industrial chemicals.  But in the scientific use of the word chemical everything is made up of chemicals.  Even water is a chemical made up of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

Thus, when we look at food safety the question is whether there is any chemical in the food that when placed in our bodies at the dose contained in that food will have a harmful effect.  Every individual food needs to be tested to determine whether that food is healthy or not.  Thus, it is possible that one GMO could be healthy and another one unhealthy.  Likewise it is possible that a non-GMO food could be unhealthy.

GMO foods have been tested and shown to not contain any more chemicals that are dangerous to human health than non-GMO food.  Additionally, if we think about it logically we should wonder why genetic modification would be more likely to produce dangerous food than things like artificial selection.  As discussed above genetic modfication is something that has been done through artificial selection for thousands of years.  Artificial selection is just as likely to produce new chemicals in food as are GMO techniques.

Scientists can test GMO foods and determine whether they do in fact contain any novel chemicals or ones that have been shown to be dangerous.  Thus, they can determine whether such foods are safe. No such techniques existed for artificially selected foods other than trial and error over years of use by humans.  Thus today we can test GMOs much more quickly than those who artificially selected food and ate it without having any idea what was in their food.

The real issue here is that the burden is on the anti-GMO activists to show why and how GMOs are dangerous to human health.  The problem is that they have not presented any such evidence.  They just cling to conspiracy theories that the food wasn't actually properly tested or simply assume that GMOs are inherently dangerous.  Of course we should make sure that GMOs are tested to ensure that they are safe just like any other food.  But my point is that if anti-GMO activists want to point at GMOs specifically and say they are dangerous they need some sort of evidence to back their claims.

2.  The Right to Label Food.
Before I get into the question of whether consumer's have a right to force food to be labeled merely because they want it to be let me start with an example:

Lets go back fifty or one-hundred years and imagine a group of white racists that decide they don't want to eat food produced by people other than white farmers.  They then begin a campaign to force all food to contain a label stating what races of people worked on the farms that produced the food.  Do they have a right to have that labeling merely because they want consumer choice?

Ok, I admit, this example is extreme.  But I am trying to prove a point.  It seems absurd that we should just allow a group of consumers to force labeling merely because they want it.  There ought to be a good reason before we place a restriction on manufacturers.  So lets go to a bit more reasonable example:

Imagine that a group of people believes that it is unhealthy for food to ever touch metal.  They have no research supporting this position they just believe it to be true.  They begin a campaign to force the labeling of all food that has ever touched metal while it was being processed.  
Do they have a right to have that labeling merely because they want consumer choice?

I've been a bit more reasonable in my example this time and I hope you can start to see the problem.  Imagine if we forced foods to be labeled with every little thing that people had concerns about.  By forcing labeling we are not only putting a burden on the producers of food who must add a label but also on the consumers who will be forced to read through countless warnings.  This seems especially absurd when those who sell products that do not contain things like GMOs could very easily label their products as "GMO free".

There is also another underlying issue with forced labeling.  The fact that something is placed on the label can be confusing to those who don't understand the issue.  Imagine if you had never heard the debate about GMO vs. GMO free foods.  The mere fact that there is a label is likely to make people believe that GMOs are dangerous and should be avoided.  This adds another burden on those who sell GMO foods as it may deter people from buying such foods even though they really are safe.  It seems highly unfair to place such a burden on a seller of foods unless it can actually be shown that these foods are dangerous.

Thus, unless a group can show that a product really does have some health difference it seems wrong to force labeling.  Otherwise racists could claim they have a right to know who produced food in order to protect their desire to discriminate.  The mere fact that a group wants food labeled isn't enough.  They need to demonstrate a reason that the label should go on the food.  Labeling food as GMO is of course not as repulsive as the hypothetical racist labeling of food.  But it is a cheap way to attack the credentials of food and force the unsupported opinions of a single group onto all sellers and consumers.  Anti-GMO activists are trying to take a short cut around proving GMOs are dangerous and jump straight to labeling under the guise of a right to know.

3.  Consumer Choice.
Anti-GMO groups want to frame the GMO labeling debate as merely one of consumer choice.  They argue that consumers have a right to know what is in the food they are eating so that they can make an informed choice.  This seems like a reasonable argument on first glance but when we dig deeper it falls apart.

To explain why this argument falls apart let me start with the ultimate consumer choice label.  Imagine a label that contained every single chemical found in the food you were eating along with a description of the average quantity of that chemical in every serving.  Every food we eat is made up of huge numbers of different chemicals and thus our labels would contain long lists of every single chemical in that food.  These lists would be much longer than the current lists that just include ingredients because each ingredient in food is made up of numerous different chemicals.  This label would be the ultimate consumer choice label because it tells consumers exactly what they are eating.  Or would it really be?

How many consumers really know what every chemical compound is, how it is digested, and what affects it has on the human body.  The answer is almost none.  Only a few scientists are likely to be able to read such labels and I highly doubt even they could decide whether food is healthy based on such a label without doing significant research on each ingredient.

The point I am trying to make is that consumer choice is only improved when meaningful labels are placed on food that allow consumers to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food.  Any labels that consumers do not understand or that are confusing do not actually benefit consumer choice.  The only time consumer choice is benefited is when a label actually tells the consumer something useful about how healthy the food is (or other relevant information such as whether the food was farmed in an environmentally friendly manner).

The problem for anti-GMO activists is that they are trying to avoid the whole step of proving that GMOs are dangerous by simply throwing a label on food and allowing consumer's to guess for themselves.  Thus, a contains GMO label isn't actually increasing consumer choice. Instead it is increasing consumer confusion by removing the debate from the scientific arena to one of public guessing what is healthy.

Remember, GMOs haven't been shown to be unhealthy and there is no reason for us to believe that they would be less healthy than other food.  Additionally, we really need to examine every food on its own, the mere fact that food is genetically modified does not make it unhealthy.  It is possible that some GMOs may be unhealthy while others are healthy just as it is possible for non-GMOs to be healthy or unhealthy.  If we want to use labels we should use meaningful ones that point out specific harmful properties of food that have been detected with research.

If anti-GMO groups were able to show that there is something about GMOs that cause them to be less healthy as a group then at that point they should be able to force labeling of GMOs.  However, they haven't done that.  Right now they are a group with a belief unsupported by evidence and they are trying to force that belief onto all consumers.  Consumers have a right to choose what food they buy and to be given enough information to make an informed choice.  But, at the same time, every consumer has the right to be free from misleading and unnecessary labels.  A contains GMO label is misleading and unnecessary and we all, as consumers, have a right to not be presented with these types of misleading labels.

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