What’s in a Label?

What’s in a Label?

Alexis ChapmanFriday,25 March 2016

Last week, just before heading off on a “well deserved” vacation, the Senate voted against S. 2609, a voluntary GMO labeling bill. Had it passed, the bill would have required that in the next two years the “Secretary of the Department of Agriculture establish a national voluntary labeling standard” for foods containing or made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The bill also mandated that the Secretary work with other Federal agencies to provide science-based education about GMOs. It would have prohibited any claims that GMO foods are or aren’t safer or of higher quality than non GMOs. And the bill would have preempted any mandatory GMO labeling laws at the state level, including Vermont’s labeling law that’s scheduled to take effect on July 1 of this year. Food businesses are pretty eager to not have to make special labels for the roughly 620,000 Vermonsters (I’m from Vermont, yes that’s what we call ourselves, don’t check, just trust me) and these companies’ lobbyists were pushing their Senators to act fast on this bill so there was a fun sense of urgency that you don’t normally get to see in the Senate. In fact it’s entirely possible there will be another bill on this sometime this spring.

Anti-GMO groups have been referring to any legislation that would block mandatory labeling as “DARK Acts,” which apparently stands for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.” And these groups have been hailing the failure of this bill as a victory. According to ABC news and other polls around 90% of Americans support labeling of GMOs. So if you believe that people generally have the right to information about their food, and that we should shift our national mandatory labeling paradigm away from just safety and nutrition to more general information, then yes this is a victory. Additionally, if you think that states should have the right to determine this type of thing for themselves and should be able to mandate (or prohibit) GMO labeling, then this is a victory, and there were a number of Republicans who voted against the bill probably for this exact reason. But the narrative that “GMOs are bad/dangerous/unhealthy and need to be labeled so people can avoid them” is really problematic, and if that belief is why this bill failed, then that’s really not a win for anybody.

This bill uses the word “bioengineered” rather than the more common term GMO, and defines bioengineered food as food “that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” That’s a good definition of bioengineered food or genetically modified food. Using the term bioengineering also helps to illustrate one of the things that gets lost when we use the term GMO: bioengineering and genetic modification are processes. Genetic modification isn’t an object, or a characteristic, or a chemical; it’s a process by which an organism’s DNA is changed. And that process can change organisms in a lot of different ways. Corn (which is by the way a human invention, there’s no natural corn) can be modified so that it repels pests without the use of pesticides, or corn can be altered so that it can withstand treatment with more herbicides; rice can be altered so that it produces vitamins that prevent illness and death in children who don’t have access to a diverse diet; bacteria has been altered to produce the vast majority of insulin used since the 1980s so that we don’t have to rely on pig and cow insulin anymore.

Of course some genetic modifications carry the potential for unintended negative consequences; for instance there are legitimate concerns over what would happen to wild salmon populations if GM salmon were to get into the wild. But the idea that the process of genetic modification necessarily leads to the creation of things that are bad/dangerous/unhealthy just doesn’t make sense and is the kind of anti-science thinking that we should be trying to move away from, especially in our lawmaking. 88% of scientists believe GMOs are safe, compared to only 37% of the public, that’s a 51 point gap. To put that in perspective 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is man made and so do 70% of Republicans; that’s a 27 point gap. So maybe the part of this bill that we really need isn’t about labels at all. Maybe it’s the part about education and science-based information. If we had more of that it would be a lot easier for us, and our legislators, to make informed decisions about labels.

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Image Credit: Lindsay Eyink on Flickr

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