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Even if GMOs are safe, mandatory labeling is a good idea

Opinion

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In November 2015 the FDA approved the first genetically engineered salmon as fit for human consumption, paving the way for genetically modified organisms to become a regular part of the American diet.

The “super salmon” designed by AquaBounty Technologies produces growth hormones year round rather than just during the summer and reaches adult size in 18 months instead of three years. Not surprisingly, consumer and environmental groups have loudly opposed the FDA’s decision – there’s widespread unease when it comes to GMOs.

Regardless whether you think GMOs are safe or not, the United States needs a mandatory GMO labeling law. Consumers have the right to make purchasing decisions with confidence. If we want to support mandatory-labeling legislation, we’ve got to forge some some alliances that span the aisle of the GMO debate.

Proponents of mandatory labeling need to be clear that they support transparency, not the outright banning of all GMOs. People have they right to know what they eat, but they also have a responsibility to understand how economic interests manipulate GMO politics. If we center the conversation on transparency and education instead of prescriptive policies, we put consumers in charge, not politics.

To move forward, we have to confront the fact that the GMO debate has been tainted, not only by politics and economic self-interest, but also by a pervasive cultural fear that technology threatens the perceived sanctity of nature.

The costs and benefits of GMOs
Proponents of GMO crops, including many large farmers and producers of them, are fighting against organic farmers, specialty retailers and major organic brands. They see mandatory labeling laws as an undue economic burden with little to no scientific bearing.

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Meanwhile, the pro-labeling stance is held by the fast-growing organic food industry, which sees labeling as a competitive advantage.

Proponents of GMOs contend that not a single conclusive test, credible report or any scientific data points to GMO crops being harmful to humans. They also point to the good that GMOs have done, reducing by a factor of 10 the amount of insecticides used on some crops, while simultaneously reducing food costs and decreasing CO2 emissions. With nine billion people forecasted to populate the planet by 2050, the world will have to grow 70% more food by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.

Opponents of so-called Frankenfoods are equally militant. And they speak with their dollars.

Non-GMO is one of fastest growing label trends in U.S. food packages, with sales of items growing 28% last year to about $3 billion, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal

Many claim GMO crops are just a ploy by Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont to sell more herbicides, dominate the supply chain, and leave farmers solely dependent on high-priced transgenic seeds. They believe that inserting foreign genes into crops can make food dangerous or allergenic.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

A (very) brief history of genetic engineering
Defenders of genetic engineering remind us that humans have been genetically modifying food for thousands of years via artificial selection, with large swaths of genes being swapped or altered in the breeding process, often unpredictably. Farmers were crossbreeding plants and animals to select for desirable characteristics long before the German monk Gregor Mendel began conducting his pea-plant experiments in the mid-19th century.

Today’s genetic engineers can target single genes, making them perhaps the most efficient breeders the world has ever known. You’ll find many them walking the halls of CalTech, Harvard and MIT, but genetic engineers congregate in far larger numbers in the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices, elementary-school classrooms and subway cars – viruses, the world’s first genetic engineers, have been inserting their DNA into genomes of crops and humans since the dawn of evolution, cross-pollinating the genes of other species. In fact, the humane genome is filled with genetic sequences originating in viruses.

The lesson here is that to determine whether a food item is “natural” or not, we rely on value judgements that are mostly personal. We ignore the fact that humans have been cross breeding plants and animals for millennia while we object to more precise, and most likely safer, forms of genetic engineering. Nature is never as pure as we wish it to be.

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What we can learn from science-fiction
In referring to genetically modified food like super salmon as “Frankenfoods,” opponents of GMOs explicitly allude to the world’s first science-fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. They also betray the fact that the contentious GMO debate is largely motivated by two emotions: fascination and fear.

Calling GMOs “Frankenfoods” is simply a catchy way of labeling them monstrous, unnatural things. Monsters, as any child knows, are both fascinating and frightful.

Even more interesting is the fact that the term “Frankenfood” most accurately alludes to Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, not the unnamed monster he pieces together in a lab. Composed in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, Shelley’s novel is a cautionary tale: Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant, lonely technologist who upsets the natural order in attempting to engineer a new species. Frankenstein attempts to play God, and he is punished for his pride.

Like Frankenstein and his “monster,” genetic engineers and GMOs inspire intense negative emotions because they challenge our perception of what is natural. This is why GMO discourse so often devolves into a struggle between technology and nature, a false opposition that has been with us since before the Industrial Revolution and remains unresolved.

When we pit technological innovation against the perceived sanctity of nature, we hijack proactive, constructive debate.

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Mandatory labeling
New York Times survey found that 93% of Americans believe foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled to reflect that.

Increasingly, consumers are demanding assurance that food products are safe, for real-time information on purchases, and for product origination insight.

Opponents of GMO labeling say it would be expensive and raise costs for consumers, but the reality is that 64 other countries have GMO labeling laws and food prices haven’t increased. Consumers haven’t stopped eating GMO foods. They simply have more information about what is in their food and how it’s produced, which is how it should be.

More transparent labeling is also good for the top line – clear labels are a major factor in influencing consumer-purchase decisions when shopping for food or beverage products. The food industry is beginning to catch on. CampbellGeneral Mills, and Mars recently announced that they’ll be labeling all GMO ingredients voluntarily. 

Vermont became the first U.S. state to require mandatory labeling for foods containing GMOs starting in July of this year. Maine and Connecticut have also passed labeling laws, but those depend on neighboring states taking similar steps. In July 2015, Congress banned states from requiring mandatory GMO labeling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bill, called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, was backed by industry groups like Monsanto.

Ultimately, a national standard for labeling laws is preferable to state standards. Consumers need consistent, transparent, and recognizable labels.

Some of us see distorted, dangerous monsters where others perceive deliciously plump salmon.  

When it comes to food, most of our purchasing decisions are rooted in emotions, personal values, and perception. Innovative new technologies are now dramatically illuminating product origin and quality insights. It’s time we give consumers the information they deserve to make the best personal decisions, free of political or business influences. 

Note on contributor: Mahni Ghorashi, co-founder of Clear Labs, leads commercial activities at the company, including strategy, marketing and corporate development. After graduating from MIT and getting his MBA, Mahni was head of marketing at Bina Technologies. Mahni is also a concert pianist in his off hours and a tireless supporter of the arts.

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