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Should we label genetically modified foods?

Few issues manage to raise the temperature of discussions about plant genetic engineering more than labelling of genetically modified (GM) crops. Agricultural producers have argued that there are no demonstrable risks, so that a GM label can only have the function of scaring off wary consumers. Consumer advocates respond that consumers have every right to make that decision, and to the information necessary to make it. Are GM labels simply the progress-impeding tools of Luddites fearing change, or are GM labels a necessary safety component to protect the public? Is the agricultural industry trying to conceal the nature of the food it is supplying to customers? What have they got to hide?

To sort all this out, it is important to separate two quite different issues, the need for a label, and the right of the public to have one. Every serious scientific investigation of the risks of GM foods has concluded that they are safe -- indeed, in the case of soybeans and many other crops modified to improve cultivation, the foods themselves are not altered in any detectable way, and no nutritional test could distinguish them from "organic" varieties. So there seems to be little if any need for a GM label for genetically engineered foods.

The right of the public to know what it is eating is a very different issue. There is widespread fear of genetic manipulation in Europe, because it is unfamiliar. People there don't trust their regulatory agencies as we do here, because their agencies have a poor track record of protecting them. When they look at genetically modified foods, they are haunted by past experiences of regulatory ineptitude. In England they remember British regulators' failure to protect consumers from meat infected with mad cow disease.

Fear is the issue, not science. It does no good what-so-ever to tell a fearful European that there is no evidence to warrant fear, no trace of data supporting danger from GM crops. A European consumer will simply respond that the harm is not yet evident, that we don't know enough to see the danger lurking around the corner. "Slow down," the European consumers say. "Give research a chance to look around all the corners. Lets be sure." No one can argue against caution, but in fairness to the agriculture industry, it is difficult to image what else they can look into -- safety has been explored very thoroughly. The fear remains, though, for the simple reason that no amount of information can remove it. Like a child scared of a monster under the bed, looking under the bed again doesn't help -- the monster still might be there next time.

So the fear is likely to stay, at least until time lessens its punch. And that means we are going to have to have GM labels, for people have every right to be informed about something they fear.

What should these labels be like? A label that only says "GM FOOD" simply acts as a brand -- like a POISON label, it shouts a warning to the public of lurking danger. Why not instead have a GM label that provides information to the consumer, that tells the customer what regulators know about that product?

Here are the sorts of GM labels I would like to see:

PROCESS LABEL (for Bt corn): The production of this food was made more efficient by the addition of genes that made plants resistant to pests so that less pesticides were required to grow the crop.

PROCESS LABEL (for Roundup-ready soybeans): Genes have been added to this crop to render it resistant to herbicides-- this reduces soil erosion by lessening the need for weed-removing cultivation.

PRODUCT LABEL (for high beta-carotene rice): Genes have been added to this food to enhance its beta-carotene content and so combat vitamin A deficiency.

I suspect that the agriculture industry would embrace GM food labels that in each instance actually told consumers what has been done to the gene-modified crop. We should label our food just like we label our drugs, with clear statements from regulatory agencies about what was done to the product. Fear will lessen as GM crops hit the market that actually benefit consumers with better nutrition. With regulated informative labels like drugs now have, companies will in future be clamoring for approval to make improvement claims. Adding informative GM labels now will go a long way towards shortening the wait.

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