Anti-biotechnology activists submitted 350,000 signatures from registered Washington voters to put a proposed genetic modification labeling law on the state’s November 2013 election ballot. The 350,000 signatures must be verified, but are 100,000 more than necessary to put the measure on the ballot.
The GM measure, known as I-522, states consumers have a right to know if the food they purchase was produced through genetic engineering.
“I-522 is about freedom of choice so we can decide what we feed our families and whether we want to buy and eat genetically engineered foods,” said Trudy Bialic, spokesperson for PCC Natural Markets.
Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says consumers have a right to know if products they purchase have negative health consequences. However, requiring producers to provide notice of genetically modified ingredients misleads people into believing a health risk exists, Conko said.
“The use of recombinant DNA techniques—what’s generally referred to as biotechnology, genetic engineering, or genetic modification—to modify foods does not itself make a food more or less safe, or change the nutritional value of a food,” said Conko. “So labeling a product as ‘genetically modified’ gives consumers no useful information.”
‘Betrays a Political Agenda’
Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, says non-genetically modified (GMO) crops have negative impacts that could be listed on labels as well.
Myers points out non-GMO crops often require more water, more fertilizer, and more herbicides. Each of these factors could harm the environment and even human health.
“When activists give some information while hiding other information, it betrays a political agenda that supersedes the real science,” Myers observed.
Conko questioned why anti-biotechnology activists assert the need to know about genetically modified ingredients but seemingly have no interest in demanding notification about the negative consequences of other breeding methods. He said some of these other methods are far more genetically invasive and far less safe than biotechnology.
Some Labeling Already Required
“It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already does require labeling when a new food item is changed in a material way,” Conko said.
According to Conko, the FDA doesn’t restrict the labeling policy to genetically modified substances because every breeding method can give rise to material changes, such as allergic proteins and changes in dietary nutrients.
“Importantly, since consumers need to know what change was made in the food product, FDA policy requires that the specific change be noted on the label, not what breeding method was used to make the change,” he said.
GMO Environmental Benefits
Myers and Conko both note genetic modification provides many environmental benefits.
“Biotechnology crops are developed to reduce resource use and increase yields by using resources more efficiently,” said Myers.
“The most common biotechnology traits in foods now on the market are ones that make farming more efficient,” Conko said.
Conko explained one of the most common biotechnology traits used for cultivating crops today involves insect resistance. When crops are more resistant to insects, farmers can grow crops while placing fewer insecticides in the environment.
“Breeders have inserted a gene from a common soil microbe called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a protein that is toxic to certain caterpillars but entirely nontoxic to humans and other mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians,” he said.
NGOs Endorse GMOs
Myers explained that health concerns raised by anti-biotechnology activists are misplaced.
“The potential health impacts are speculative rather than real. Many organizations around the world have looked at GMOs to determine whether they pose a health risk, and all of these agencies have found no concern,” said Myers.
Conko said genetic modification reduces health and environment risks involved in traditional breeding methods.
“In fact, because GM breeding moves just one or a small number of fully characterized genes at a time, and the breeders know exactly what traits those genes confer, they are actually far less likely to produce a product with harmful characteristics than are breeders who use less precise conventional methods,” he said.
Some of the organizations finding no increase in health risks include the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the American Medical Association.