Thursday, February 21, 2013

Un-Labeling GMOs part II: Why I am Pro GMO

Last spring I  wrote a criticism of proposition 37 in California, a law that if it had passed would have forced any food containing GMO's to be labeled. Luckily, this legislation failed. However, the fight has not ended and now, in my home state of Washington, an eerily similar GMO labeling law is moving through the legislature.

Since this issue is arising again I want to address the issue. I already discussed why GMOs are likely safe, why wanting to know if something is in food isn't enough to require labeling, and why GMO labeling would actually harm the ability of consumers to make an informed choice.

Rather than repeat my previous arguments I want to explain why I am pro GMO and clear up some misunderstandings of GMOs that I have noticed when reading attacks on GMOs by those who are anti-GMO. My post is not intended to be exhaustive on these subjects. I merely intend this as a starting point and encourage everyone to do their own research on the issue, wikipedia has some sources that make a great starting point.

I am pro GMO because I am an environmentalist and believe in food safety.
I am pro GMO because I believe in protecting the environment.

Imagine if we could find a way to use less pesticides when growing food. Imagine if we could grow more food while using less land and less fertilizer. Imagine if we could make foods that had more vitamins and fewer unhealthy ingredients.

Genetic engineering (GMOs) have the promise to bring all these things. I admit, the science is not perfect, their will be mistakes, and it will take time to get things right. I also admit that many companies may abuse GMOs for their own profit.

But genetic engineering has so much potential to protect our environment that those of us who call ourselves environmentalists do injustice to the planet by fighting GMOs. I believe it is wrong to stop research merely because some people are abusing that research. Instead, why don't we fight the abusers directly. And many people are using genetic engineering primarily to benefit the world. Look at golden rice, a product that is designed to provide vitamin A to people who have vitamin deficiencies. Today, 670,000 children under age 5 die every year from vitamin A deficiency. I find it hard to justify fighting a product that has the potential to save many of these children's lives just because I don't like Monsanto.

GMO is not an ingredient
"I have a right to know if GMO is in my food." -anti GMO belief

GMO is not an ingredient in food. If we look at the mandatory FDA labeling on a food package we will find a list of ingredients and nutritional facts. GMO will never be listed because it is not an ingredient.

Then what is GMO?
GMO is a process. It is a process for changing the genetics of plants and animals by directly changing the genes.

You may not realize it but all food today has been genetically engineered through selective breeding. We have all seen the results of selective breeding in man's best friend--dogs. We have a wide variety of dogs from big to small, short hair to long hair that have all been created by humans. We created these dogs by changing the genes of dogs through breeding dogs that had the traits we wanted. Short haired dogs were bread with other short haired dogs to get short hair genes into baby dogs. This is a messy process of genetic engineering that takes a long time.

Nearly all of the food we eat today has gone through this same process of gene selection. In fact, humans have been selectively breeding plants for thousands of years. From the early days of farming humans have been using selective breeding to genetically engineer better foods.

Modern GMOs are simply a faster and more direct way to achieve this same result. Rather than using selective breeding to insert genes, the genes are inserted directly into the next generation.

So remember all food has been genetically engineered. If you fear what is in modern GMOs you have just as much reason to fear all other foods that were created by selective breeding.

Every GMO is Different
Every single GMO is different. Some genetically engineered foods may have natural pesticides inserted into their genetics while others may simply have vitamins increased. In addition, some GMOs may have been thoroughly tested and shown to be safe.

It makes little sense to be anti-GMO as a whole because all GMOs are different. We all should oppose genetically engineered foods that turn out to be dangerous. But, every GMO needs to be tested on its own to find out if it is dangerous.

GMO labeling requirements will apply to all GMOs, even ones shown to be safe.
If we force labeling of GMOs it will apply to all GMOs even safe ones. This is hardly fair. Imagine that a company decides to thoroughly safety test its food. Even once the company proves its food is safe it will still have to sell the food under a "contains GMO" label.

This means that a law forcing labeling of GMOs will actually encourage companies like Monsanto not to test their food because testing will provide them no benefit since they have to label anyways. Shouldn't we promote good behavior by companies by not discouraging testing?

I agree Monsanto has shady business practices
Monsanto and other big businesses tend to use practices to generate profits that many of us disagree with. I'll totally agree that profiteering can lead to misuse of GMOs.

But, that isn't a good reason to oppose all GMOs. Instead we should target the manipulative business practices and try to convince our legislature to prevent these abuses.

Not Every GMO is made by Monsanto
Big businesses aren't the only ones making GMOs. Universities and non-profits are also trying to make GMOs to help save lives and protect our environment. So next time you knock all GMOs remember that you are also attacking people who are very likely doing more than the rest of us to save our planet.

Should we use sustainable farming techniques instead of GMOs?
"We shouldn't use GMOs because they use monocultures that destroy the environment" anti-GMO belief

This statement is misleading because we should use sustainable farming techniques and GMOs. Unsustainable farming techniques aren't a symptom of GMOs, they are a symptom of corporate profiteering. Even if you take GMOs out of the picture corporations are still likely to only see the short term and use unsustainable farming techniques. Again, if you don't like these practices contact your legislature to tell them to stop short sighted farming practices.

Remember, we can use sustainable farming and GMOs to do even more to protect the environment.

Myth: "I heard that rats fed GMOs developed tumors!"
There was a recent study that claimed to show that feeding rats GMOs caused those rats to develop tumors. But it was a shady study and I don't say that lightly. Here are some things that the authors of the study did:
  • They studied rats that are normally used for cancer research because they tend to get tumors after two years. In fact, it is considered inhumane to let this breed of rat live beyond two years because tumors are so common.
  • They used manipulative statistics and research techniques to make it look like the tumors were caused by GMOs.
  • They released their study to reporters prior to having it reviewed by other researchers in the field.
  • They forbid reporters from seeking outside comment on their research. Reporters were required to sign an agreement stating that they would report what they were told and could not ask for other researchers to comment on the paper.
Imagine what you would say if you heard Monsanto performed this study where they used manipulative statistics and forced reporters to report the findings without talking to other researchers. You would be shouting "conspiracy to hide the truth!" I would just ask that you apply that same level of skepticism to this study.

How can I tell if a GMO is healthy?
What makes a food healthy or unhealthy is what is in the food. Every food is made of chemicals, some chemicals are bad some are good. Don't be scared by the word chemical. Remember, water is a chemical with two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom to make a water molecule or H20. Water is a perfectly healthy chemical just like all the other healthy chemicals in foods we eat.

Every ingredient in food whether natural or artificial has a chemical structure just like water does. When we look at any food we need to wonder whether it is full of healthy chemicals or whether it also has dangerous chemicals. It takes a lot of research to determine what chemicals are in food.

I just want to avoid GMOs because genetic engineering is new technology and I want to wait to find out if it is safe.
First, remember that all foods have been genetically modified through selective breeding. Modern genetic engineering is not that different from these older procedures. In fact, there are many foods that have only been recently produced by selective breeding. If you fear GMOs then you should also fear all other foods.

Singling out GMOs as potentially worse than other foods only makes sense if we limit our selection to untested GMOs that have been engineered in a way that adds chemicals that could be dangerous to human health. If we want to label GMOs why not label GMO foods that introduce a new or known dangerous chemical instead of labeling all GMOs.

But GMOs aren't tested are they?
Actually GMOs are fairly well tested and have been shown to be safe. And producers of GMOs have good reason to test. Most of us complain that we live in a litigious culture where everyone sues everyone else when they get injured. Companies that sell GMOs stand to lose a lot of money if they put a product on the market that causes harm to consumers. Of course, this will be a cost benefit analysis to them. They will look at the cost of potential lawsuits and perform only the most cost effective testing to ensure safety. But this also means they will likely test for any obvious or potential risk because they don't want to sell a dangerous product. Of course, companies will have little incentive to research long term health effects that are difficult to detect. But, those kinds of risks are just as likely to exist in traditional foods.

A surprising fact about GMOs is that they are actually tested far more thoroughly than traditional foods. Thus, it is likely that they will be safer than traditional foods because there will have been testing for long term risks.

The question whether any food is safe must be done on a case by case basis whether that food is a GMO or it is a traditional food. We should of course encourage testing of new products like GMOs. But, we shouldn't fear GMOs for bad reasons such as being anti-Monsanto or based on bad research.

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