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My Turn: GMO labeling won’t provide useful information

Last modified: 1/21/2014 5:11:00 PM
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.)


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