Fear and Loathing Haunt GMOs

It's difficult to balance the lack of negative scientific evidence against consumers' right to know what's in their food.

By Rory Gillespie, Contributing Editor

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"There's no doubt that Golden Rice could have saved millions of lives -- 10 million is a reasonable estimate -- since it was developed," Chassy says. "Studies in humans show that the beta-carotene in GR is well absorbed and that it is converted to vitamin A. One bowl of Golden Rice per day can eliminate vitamin A deficiency. Opposition from well-financed professional scaremongers and nay-sayers coupled with needlessly restrictive regulations have blocked the introduction of GR at a great cost in lives."

Science and modern farming are doing their jobs, he says. And it is time to get out of their way.

U.S. government agencies USDA, FDA and EPA say GMOs pose no risks or hazards and are not calling for labeling. The FDA says, "We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using bioengineering. FDA supports voluntary labeling that provides consumers with this information and has issued draft guidance to industry regarding such labeling." But not mandatory labeling.

How else to feed the world?

Most involved in feeding the world see labeling as an unnecessary issue.

"The Grocery Manufacturers Association and its member companies are committed to providing consumers with safe, healthy and affordable food," says Brian Kennedy, director of communications. "We oppose special mandatory labeling for food products containing genetically modified ingredients because these labels could mislead consumers into believing that foods produced through modern biotechnology are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk.

"The FDA and numerous of regulatory and scientific bodies, including the World Health Organization, Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the American Medical Assn., have concluded that foods and beverages that contain genetically modified ingredients are safe and they are materially no different than products that do not contain genetically modified ingredients," he continues.

"Consumers looking for more information about a particular food product beyond what is listed on the food label have a number of resources available to them, including the manufacturer's website or its customer service department," he adds. "The limited space on a food label should be reserved for the critically important food safety and nutritional information that can allow consumers to make safe and healthful food choices."

GMO opponents point out several nations require labeling and eight in Europe – Poland, Austria France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece and Bulgaria -- have banned GMO crops within their borders.

"Besides raising concerns under the First Amendment and potentially encroaching on the FDA's purview, the big issue is that consumers are likely to view a government-mandated GMO label as a warning of health concerns, akin to warnings on cigarette packs," says David Ter Molen, a partner and member of the food industry team at the law firm Freeborn & Peters (and a contributor to Food Processing). He also said a labeling requirement, depending on its specific mandates, would create additional issues for food processors relating to certifications and cross-contaminations across product lines. The potential impact, including possible penalties for alleged violations, could be quite significant on food producers.

"Every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of biotech crops has found them to be as safe as conventionally grown foods," says Karen Batra, director of food and agriculture communications at Biotechnology Industry Organization. She points to conclusions from just a few:

  • The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in a 2004 report concluded that "no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population."
  • The World Health Organization states, "No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved."
  • In 2010, a European Commission review of 50 studies on the safety of biotech crops found "no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms."
  • An American Medical Assn. report from its own Council on Science and Public Health concluded that "Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature."

GMO opponents seem to suggest there is a conspiracy from government agencies and agribusiness to promote GMOs. The conspiracy label may be more properly placed on anti-GMO side, says attorney Michael Steel.

"The people who favor labeling want to get a market advantage," said Steel, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, where his environmental practice emphasizes federal, state and local regulatory compliance issues. "They do that because there is so much misinformation about GMO foods. People who support GMO labeling tend to be, the biggest contingent is, organic food producers and they are always concerned about big agriculture. The other group is people who are suspicious of everything."

Chassy, who was head of the Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois from 1989-2000, sees the GMO debates as extremely counterproductive.

"This is the wrong issue at wrong time," Chassy says. "We need to get people to eat better and provide better food safety. I see GMO crops simply as newer varieties and find them unremarkable, except they are part of the art of farming.

"More importantly, we have a voluntary system of labeling," Chassy said. "If you want non-GM or kosher or organic foods, it is up to those producers to label their product and incur the cost of labeling.

"Right now we cannot produce enough food for people. It is, in fact, hard to imagine how we could accomplish what we need to in agriculture without biotechnology."

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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