Genetically Modified Labels

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

A French study released last week that found rats who were fed genetically modified corn suffered from more tumors and cancers has fueled an already fiery debate over GMO food labels.

The study, conducted over a period of two years by a team of researchers at the University of Caen in northern France, found that rats fed a particular strain of genetically modified corn, along with the herbicide Roundup, had two to three times the number of tumors as control groups.

Among female rats, the study found, the mortality rate was two to three times higher.

Although the European Food Safety Authority has been charged with further examining the findings, some experts have already questioned the study, citing poor statistical analysis, the small size of control groups and the fact that the type of rats used are prone to mammary tumors.

Those supporting the study note it’s long-term analysis, unlike the current 90-day feeding trials required to approve GMO crops for public consumption.

Either way, the study has energized supporters of California’s Proposition 37, aka The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, which calls for labeling on some foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

Those who oppose GMO crops raise legitimate concerns about the unforeseen consequences of messing with Mother Nature. However, they also have an unfair tendency to villainize the researchers who create them and the farmers who use them.

Ironically, the measure is coming up for a vote in the same year as the nation’s worst drought in half a century.

Genetically engineered crops have the potential to better withstand this summer’s drought conditions, produce higher yields for the world’s growing population and produce more nutrient-rich food in the climate extremes of the world’s poorest countries.

One can disagree with the methods or raise concerns about the product, but one can hardly call the motives evil.

The fact remains that the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences have found GM foods to be safe. And in June, the American Medical Association said, “There is no scientific justification for labeling of bioengineered foods.”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t investigate any legitimate evidence that indicates otherwise. And if an ingredient is deemed unsafe, then we shouldn’t be debating whether it’s included on a label, because it has no business being in the product in the first place.

In the meantime, those who want to avoid GM ingredients already have options: They can buy organic or buy products voluntarily labeled non-GMO.

And they can do their own homework, preferably with unbiased sources — something that is, sometimes, difficult to find.

Proponents of the labeling initiative decry the millions in funding put forth to oppose it by industries that produce GM seeds and manufacturers of products that use GM ingredients. They say opposition to the labeling is merely financially motivated.

However, Proposition 37 has likewise gotten its impetus and support from major organic interests that would certainly benefit from its passage.

In other words, take both sides of the debate with a grain of salt.

And therein lies one problem with this ballot initiative: Despite what many voting consumers may think, it involves so much more than simply knowing your food.

The issue of genetically modified ingredients — whether and how to include them on food labels, how to determine a tolerance threshold for accidental contamination, what defines “natural,” etc. — is too complex to be left up to a public vote swayed on both sides by special interests.

In addition, the measure itself raises a number of questions. For instance, there is zero tolerance for accidental GMO contamination, even though that contamination could be the same as for an organic product, which would require no labeling.

Additionally, numerous foods such as milk, alcohol, meat for human consumption and food sold in restaurants, are curiously exempt from the proposal, even though they may in some form contain genetically modified organisms.

None of this is to say consumers don’t have the right to know. But if Californians pass this labeling initiative on Nov. 6, they could still end up knowing very little.

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