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My Turn: GMO labeling won’t provide useful information

We hear a lot of comments and concerns from people on both sides of the debate about GMO labeling and House Bill 660, a bill that would require labeling of genetically engineered foods and agricultural commodities. And we get a lot of questions about the state Department of Agriculture’s position on the bill.

Advocates assert the public right to know what is in their food. It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But what useful or verifiable information would the proposed labeling requirement provide? “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” labels would merely convey the information that the food contains or may contain some ingredient from a crop that was derived through biotechnology. By whatever preferred name – biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetically modified – this describes a broad category of plant-breeding techniques. Each engineered plant variety is different – the label only identifies the use of GE, not the genetic traits or characteristics of the crop.

HB 660’s stated purpose is to “assist consumers who are concerned about the potential effects of genetic engineering on their health, beliefs and the environment to make informed purchasing decisions” and “reduce and prevent consumer confusion and inadvertent deception.”

Proponents most frequently express concerns about the risk of allergies to foods derived through genetic engineering. But the proposed labels will provide no useful information on specific genetic traits of the crop or crops.

In testimony before a House subcommittee, geneticist and biotechnology advocate Val Giddings told the committee his son has life-threatening food allergies. He said although opponents of agricultural biotechnology claim it increases allergy risks, the reality is the opposite. Foods derived from biotechnology are the only foods screened for allergenicity, and genetic engineering methods allow for more precise transfer of specific genes, resulting in reduced risks. Genetically modified non-allergenic varieties of popular food plants such as peanuts and soy are being developed.

Labeling advocates claim GE crops have resulted in increased pesticide use. It’s true that use of the herbicide glyphosate has increased along with crops engineered for resistance – but most often replacing more toxic and/or persistent herbicides. Insect-resistant crops are engineered to incorporate Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) proteins from a naturally occurring soil bacterium which has long been a popular insecticide with organic farmers and gardeners.

Widespread adoption of Bt crop varieties has yielded dramatic reductions in insecticides used on crops and soil. These are examples of environmental benefits derived from biotech crops, with more to come.

In an editorial in the September Miner Institute Report, Agronomist Ev Thomas notes that 90 percent or more of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are biotech products. Sugar beets and canola are other typically biotech crops. Taken together, this means most of the vegetable oils and many sugars in our food supply are derived from GM crops. But processing of oils and sugars leaves no detectable proteins or DNA in the food product – so the genetically modified origin of the foods can not be detected or verified. What is the meaning of GM labels for these products?

Meanwhile, GMO labeling would likely have a “skull and crossbones effect” on consumers, leading people to assume that “Genetically Engineered” indicates inferior, unsafe or unhealthy products – despite the lack of evidence over the past two decades that biotech crops have been widely grown and consumed. If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.

Few people challenge the extensive and growing use of genetic engineering in medicine and pharmaceuticals. Food and agriculture should not be asked to address today’s and future challenges with 100-year-old tools and science.

(Lorraine Merrill is the New Hampshire commissioner of agriculture, food and markets.)

Legacy Comments6

What useful or verifiable information the proposed labeling requirement would provide is that the people who want to avoid it could, for whatever reason they so chose to do so. And for those who eat it anyways, the CDC could track what diseases occur from it. And that actually is what is being avoided, isn't it, the ability to trace any health impact. Because "substantially similar", for FDA approval purposes, ducks any genuine testing and no labeling means no further evaluation of health impacts.

Labeling is just fair. I may be, or may not be a scientist. Does that mean that I shouldn't have a choice about what a corporation wants be to buy? What if I have labeling and I decide to refrain from buying their products, and at some later time, it is discovered that the stuff causes cancer or intestinal destruction. Maybe it causes Alzheimer's, or any of the other horrid diseases, like smoking or lead paint cause or asbestos do. I was alive when DOCTORS told America that smoking was good for your nerves. Tobacco executives trotted out their scientists who proved smoking was, at worst, a non-issue. Millions were spent on advertising to convince everyone that it was not just safe, it was cool. It was absolutely safe. People believed them. People died by the millions. Those doctors faded into the background and have never been taken to task. Don't we at least deserve a choice? Guys like Bernie Mooney came forward from ot of nowhere as instant subject matter experts. he knows everything we don't and he says it's okay....right up until the dying starts. You'll never hear from him again. No, GMO's are too risky. We know it because they spend hundreds of millions defending their right NOT to tell you anything about them. To stop labeling. We've seen it all before.

Thanks for a factual op-ed. Ianni: allergic to GMO foods? Nonsense. They are all tested for allergens before they come to market. If there was some novel allergen it would have been found by now. The only people who seem to get these mystery allergies are anti-gmo people. Funny how that works. I would also suggest you take a course in genetics 101..

I try ro imagine who would jump on a blog, have all sorts of specific information yet have no problem with animal DNA injected into plants, increased amounts of pesticides and no problem telling the world that--Gosh golly, this stuff is just awesome. No, it doesn't taste better. No, it isn't better for you. No, it does have significant drawbacks , like creating superweeds and increasing by 82% the amount of pesticides uptake into the plant. But you say it's "PROVEN" safe. And you are.....? And you work for.....? You should take a few courses yourself. Like how to avoid being detected as a paid pumper. Maybe a class or two on chemistry or biology. How about you just get a real job that doesn't involve selling out humanity?

A Monsanto employee, that's who. Like the Monsanto employee, then FDA employee, then back to being a Monsanto employee who was working at the FDA when it was deemed "safe". For patenting's sake, unique, for consumption's sake (test avoidance), substantially similar. If you want a full picture, pick up the book "The World According To Monsanto", on how devious they've been.

Lorraine Merrill is too closely aligned with big agriculture, biotech and food interests to the detriment of the people of New Hampshire. For the growing proportion of people like myself who have strong allergic reactions to GMO crops, especially GMO corn and soy, the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients is essential for us to stay healthy and avoid debilitating food reactions. Currently, without GMO labeling, choosing foods wisely is difficult due to extensive use of GMOS in processed foods, even in so-called health foods and gluten-free products. Worse yet, since GMOs are not labeled, epidemiological studies are impossible to conduct regarding the cause of increasing allergic food reactions. Consequently it's unclear if strong reactions to GMO corn, soy and other GMO crops are due to novel proteins created with genetic modification, or to high levels of Roundup contamination (the most common trait in GMO crops is resistance to Roundup herbicide), or some combination of both. It's come to the point where you can't trust a highly placed state official like Lorraine Merrill to make the health and well being of New Hampshire citizens a first priority. I hope New Hampshire legislators have a better sense of their priorities.

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