Now, Something Completely Different

My cousin, an eminent cardiologist, sent me a brief essay he recently wrote about GMs–genetically modified foods. It exemplifies the sort of appeal to science and evidence that should guide decision-making. Or so my logic tells me. Nevertheless…Well, let’s start with his essay.

   “On May 25, 2012, The New York Times ran an article titled “Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically-Modified Foods.” The article pointed out that for more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the United States — cereals, snack foods, salad dressings — have contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory. Moreover, almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States now contain DNA derived from bacteria. The foreign gene makes the soybeans resistant to an herbicide used in weed control and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide, thus increasing yields and reducing the need for artificially added chemicals.  In addition, almost all the food derived from plants you eat has been produced by selective breeding, artificially selected for various favorable traits, including the enrichment of the content of certain proteins.

   Regulators and scientists say genetic manipulations pose no danger. But as Americans ask questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.

    Labeling bills had been proposed in more than a dozen states over the previous year, and an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration to mandate labels nationally drew more than a million signatures. The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in California prompting a probable subsequent vote that could influence not just food packaging but the future of American agriculture.

     Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the election showdown. It pits some consumer groups and the organic food industry, both of which support mandatory labeling, against more conventional farmers, agricultural biotechnology companies like Monsanto and many of the nation’s best-known food brands like Kellogg’s and Kraft.

    The root of this latest push is most likely fear. Anything that is unknown or perceived to be “foreign” is feared by a general public that is ill educated about the topic, and this likely leads to a form of hysteria. Perhaps it conjures up an Orwellian image of “big brother” manipulating our genes to the point of modifying our own makeup and mischievously invading our stem cells and future progeny.

    And of course there is the ubiquitous presence of moneyed interests. If the California initiative passes, “we will be on our way to getting genetically-tainted foods out of our nation’s food supply for good,” according to Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association—with financial gain at stake—who stated in a letter seeking donations for the California ballot initiative. “If a company like Kellogg’s has to print a label stating that their famous Corn Flakes have been genetically engineered, it will be the kiss of death for their iconic brand in California — the eighth-largest economy in the world — and everywhere else.”

     Opposing such interests are such organizations as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Corn Growers Association, which stand to lose by required labeling, believing that this would seriously undermine their sales.

     What is the science behind such hysteria? A recent comprehensive review* concluded that foods derived from genetically modified crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years and there have been no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA. This report pointed out the many advantages of such modification that included, among others, increasing crop yields and more nutritious contents. There are also a number of uses for plants outside of the food industry, for example in the timber, paper and chemical sectors and increasingly for biofuels. Of significance to the medical field is the use of genetically modified plants for production of recombinant pharmaceuticals. Molecular farming to produce such plant-derived pharmaceuticals is currently being studied by academic and industrial groups across the world. The first full-size native human product, human serum albumin, was demonstrated in 1990, and since then antibodies, blood products, hormones and vaccines have all been expressed in modified plants. Protein pharmaceuticals can be harvested and purified from these plants, or alternatively, plant tissue in a processed form expressing a pharmaceutical could potentially be consumed as an ‘edible vaccine’.

    In conclusion, I believe that anxiety-producing labels are counterproductive, but if such ill-advised legislation results in their appearance, don’t panic—these foods are harmless! In most cases they are far superior to “organic” products that I have reviewed in a previous publication.”

Why am I not entirely convinced?

First, on general policy grounds, I favor disclosure–whether it be disclosure of political contributions, or state budget calculations, or the ingredients in my food.  I may make poor decisions based on those disclosures, but that is still preferable to government exercising “father knows best” paternalism.  Accurate food labeling empowers me; it provides me with the information I need to make informed decisions about what I eat–calorie counts, sugar content, or genetic modifications.

Second, while I am confident that my cousin is correct about the results of testing that has been done– science isn’t static. New genetic modifications appear with some frequency, and newer ones have not been tested over a period of years. Manipulation of genes is different from selective breeding, although both result in genetic modification. The risk may be slight, but individuals should have the information necessary to make risk calculations for themselves–including the sort of information about their safety provided by current science.

Third, call me overly cautious, but some problems take time to emerge. We are just now recognizing the deleterious effects of some pesticides and antibiotics used in large-scale farming. While those techniques to increase crop and animal yields are not genetic modifications, they too were long thought to be free of side effects. One of the reasons we trust science is that it is falsifiable–always open to revision on the basis of new evidence. The jury is always out.

None of this is intended to suggest we avoid GM food, even if we could. I am simply arguing that more information is better than less.  Decisions about disclosure of ingredients in our foods should not rest with manufacturers worried about market share, just as decisions about disclosure of political contributions should not be made by those profiting from them.

Just sayin’


  1. My question to such a labeling effort is “how far are you going to drill down?” Sure, my cornflakes box might tell me that my breakfast cereal was made from GMO corn, but what about the milk? Will it say “hormone-free, but Bessy was fed GMO corn?” Will the fake maple syrup (made with corn syrup) that I put on my breakfast pancakes have a label that includes “corn syrup from GMO corn?” Will local bakeries and restaurants have to disclose the source of their ingredients and attest to the “purity” thereof? While the cereal box in your local grocery store might have to disclose this information, the bulk ingredients used by commercial food establishments might not be labeled in the same fashion.

    What’s next? Will the cornflakes have to disclose “GMO corn grown in soil amended with lime and potassium and sprayed with fungicide, insecticide and herbicide to reduce disease and promote fertility”? (and will the chemical names for those crop treatments be included?)

    I agree with your cousin’s statement that “anxiety-producing labels are counterproductive.” Ultimately, they result in one of two outcomes: (1) The over-saturation of information will cause people to ignore the information completely or (2) folks are going to panic well out of proportion to the threat (if any).

    There may be legitimate concern for our well-being in the attempt to increase the depth of labeling. After all, when nutrition labeling became mandatory, it did generally raise consumer awareness. It seems a little more likely, however, that this is the organic industry taking advantage of pop culture to get ahead of the behemoth GMO companies. Marketing is marketing, however it may be disguised.

    Average citizens are not equipped to make reasoned decisions based upon the information that is proposed. It has nothing to do with intelligence – most folks don’t have time (or inclination) to do their own research to separate the truth from the propaganda, so they listen to whatever story they want to believe in the headlines without taking time to read the entire article; the worse and more dramatic the story is, the more it is believed. We already have established a cultural bias against the term “GMO” – labeling our food with that term is going to create a purely emotional response.

    On a different note, it is ironic that the organic folks are all over the GMO labeling effort, when they can’t even get an accurate and consistent determination of what constitutes “organic.” Seems like a back-door effort to add credibility to the organic food industry by drawing negative attention to the conventional (aka “GMO”) farming industry.

  2. Sheila,
    Your points are well taken—at least when we refer to a well-informed populace, of which you represent what should be the norm! Unfortunately, I believe that the multitudes that harbor the irrational fear that they are being poisoned are playing into the hands of underlying venal and moneyed interests that care little about public health or safety. Although I agree with the old saying that, “knowledge is power”, unfortunately, the powerful often are able to suppress knowledge though the use of scary buzzwords and misinformation fed to the public.
    But where should we draw a line relative to the labeling of potential hazards of all types? Do our governmental overseers have an obligation to warn the public of theoretical dangers related to basically safe products? For instance, peanuts are sold without the written warning that they could cause allergic reactions. Automobiles are sold without an explicit label that you could crash and suffer dire consequences. And so on.
    In the USA, the Food and Drug Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are all involved in the regulatory process for genetically modified crop approval. Consequently, such plants undergo extensive and rigorous safety testing prior to commercialization. Warning labels would, therefore, accomplish nothing more than scare us away from almost all standard foods provided by our supermarkets.
    I conclude that labeling should extend only to those instances involving a clearly demonstrated danger. Absence of labeling of genetically modified food products has—after millions have partaken in them—never been shown to cause any more harm than those products that are not so modified! Should we force the government to label something purely to satisfy certain special interests in order to support their profits—or at least their irrational fears?
    I must state that I agree completely with Miriam, noted above.
    My case rests!
    Morton Tavel, MD
    Youe cousin

  3. Great post and I agree information is always better, even at the risk of confusing people.

    As someone who has food intolerances with several processed foods, I think more is affected by the processing of foods than we understand at this point. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and I like to think I have a level-headed scientific look at the world, but I can’t dismiss my own problems with several processed foods, even if it is anecdotal evidence. GMO is separate from food intolerances, but I understand the frustration of withheld information. Downplaying risks based on averages of averages does not help, even if on average it is true. We are not all average. More information would help to recognize real trends of food intolerance instead of having to guess and fear food as the great unknown of potential “allergies”/intolerances.

    I have a food intolerance to soy protein. What is interesting is that the traditional way of handling soy protein is by fermenting and denaturing soy protein. I seem to have no problems with soy protein that has been properly fermented and denatured. So, therefore I can handle traditional soy sauce and pure soybean oil. However, the modern processing of soy protein (without fermenting and denaturing) means that I am very intolerant of processed soy protein products like soy protein isolate, “soy gluten”, and soy flour. So processing makes the entire difference between being able to eat something and having an “allergic”/intolerance reaction when it comes to soy protein for myself. So I pay attention to processing and wonder about all processing including GMO.

    Next phase of intolerance is that over the last couple of years I have become intolerant to wheat gluten. In the past until somewhat recently, wheat gluten did not have to be 100% wheat and could also contain a little bit of “soy gluten”. Labels are supposed to be much more accurate about wheat gluten now, but my personal theory is that I wonder if years of eating processed wheat gluten that contained a little bit of soy gluten, has finally confused my body to the point, that it also rejects wheat gluten as well.
    Another mystery food intolerance is that I cannot eat hamburgers and highly processed cheap forms of beef, yet I can eat a steak without any problems. So I am not intolerant to beef. Soy protein is sometimes added to stretch cheap meat, so it could be my food intolerance to soy, but I honestly don’t know. Steak is several times higher than hamburger, so it affects my pocketbook.

    How this relates to GMO, my guess is that it does not, but if I noticed a trend of intolerances to GMO foods versus non-GMO foods, I would want the choice to play it safe. Sorry to derail this post with food intolerances, but I see the analogy with wondering about what really is in food, and witheld information about food making a difference.

    I am of the belief that more information and transparency helps people to make better informed choices and to be less paranoid.

    As to what would be enough labeling, in terms of my food intolerances, it would be ideally enough information to help me the best choices about what I can eat as possible. Is that realistic, I realize that it is not, but the more information that I have, the better choices that I can make for myself. Less trial and error would be appreciated. As for GMO, I don’t know the right level, but I would caution on the side of more information than seems needed at this point until we learn more.

  4. If they are safe why would they resist labeling? And how long would studies on people have to be conducted to trully know? Love your blog.

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