GMO Labeling and the Wish for a Better Debate

GMO labeling

The debate over GMO’s isn’t going away. Ninety-three percent of respondents in a July 2013 New York Times poll said that products containing GMO’s should list that information on ingredient labels. In response, GMO producers and their industry groups have spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat labeling initiatives in four states, and are targeting two more. They’ve also lost a lawsuit challenging the initiative passed by the citizens of Vermont.

Meanwhile, those of us simply trying make informed and healthy consumer choices are left wondering why GMO’s should be excluded from the rules requiring MSG and color additives to be listed. We’re betting a lot of people would be happier if the GMO debate were conducted on a more transparent, honest level, if the argument were about substance and science, not simply winning. It’s especially hard to understand all the drama over something as innocent as an ingredients label.

Amidst all the noise, here are some facts:

  • They Aren’t the Same: Pro-GMO lobbyists like to argue that the development of new plant species for a specific purpose has been going on for thousands of years and their methods are really no different than that. Except they are different. Completely. The cross-pollination and selective breeding that farmers and biologists have practiced for centuries are fundamentally about mating. Genetic engineering is not. It’s about force and cellular intrusion, the end result being genetic material that would never occur naturally.
  • Avoiding the Issue: There’s been no initiative in any state that has sought to ban GMO’s. Not a single one. And yet industry lobbyists invariably avoid the labeling issue – the actual one – in order to pose a more dramatic, and fictional, one – the threat of a ban. Creating a dramatic issue allows pro-GMO factions to paint pro-labeling forces as extreme and emotional. It also allows them to avoid an argument they simply can’t win, one about transparency, accountability, and consumers’ right to know. If you see the terms “anti-science” and “luddites” in criticisms of labeling efforts, you can be certain it’s not original thought. It was born with GMO lobbyists and disseminated to foot soldiers.
  • No Corroboration of Claims: In the 35 years since the first GMO’s were approved by the FDA for introduction to the public, there have been no peer-reviewed, scientific studies independent of corporate funding and influence that corroborate industry claims for the benefits of GMO’s. They haven’t increased crop yields, nor have they increased crop resistance to drought and pesticides. They are not feeding the world.

There have been studies, of course – including those conducted by the industry that were the basis for initial FDA approval – and many of those studies carry the names of actual scientists. But they don’t meet the standard of being free from corporate funding or influence. What keeps getting lost in all the noise is, corporate science isn’t science. When the outcome of experimentation is pre-determined – “this product is safe” – it’s not science, it’s marketing. Luckily, there are groups like the Non-GMO Project and Natural Food Certifiers that provide consumers with information the industry and federal government won’t.

Winning for its own sake, or for public control of an argument, is fine in sports and entertainment. It isn’t fine when it determines what we put into our bodies, our soil, and our water. And it’s certainly not fine for determining food and health futures for the entire world. Winning like that is when everyone loses.

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