More Reasons for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods

October 16, 2012 | 2:21 pm
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

As I noted yesterday, the cost to consumers from labeling the processed foods that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients is likely to be very small. In most cases a few percent or less. As I also wrote, the right to know what is in our food is probably the most compelling reason for labeling GE foods. But there are other reasons why some may want to know whether our food contains GE ingredients. Two common reasons are concerns about health and environmental risks from GE food and crops.

These are complex issues that cannot easily be addressed in a blog post. So instead of going into mind-numbing details of specific studies about the risks from eating GE foods, let’s consider some broader issues around GE food safety.

In the case of environmental harm, there are already emerging problems to consider.

Addressing common misinformation

Some have accused activists of using scare tactics to intimidate voters into supporting labeling. And over the years there has been misinformation about genetic engineering that includes suggestions that it is causing all kinds of health problems for which no legitimate scientific justification exists. But there has also been misinformation coming from those that oppose GE labeling.

Here are a few of the questionable points that have been made to convince consumers to vote against labeling:

“We have been eating GE foods for 16 years without incident. If these foods were harmful we would know it by now. So labeling is not needed to protect our health.”  It is true that if these foods were so acutely toxic that people were falling down dead in the streets after eating them, the cause would be quickly determined. But few expect this kind of harm to occur.

If instead a GE food caused an increase in some known disease, from allergies to cancer, it is likely that we would only identify the cause if proper epidemiological studies were conducted. This has been true historically for everything from cancer caused by tobacco smoking, to dietary causes of heart disease. Without these kinds of studies of the human population, we simply do not know what the health effects of GE foods actually are. And these types of studies have never been done. This should not be interpreted to mean that GE foods are in fact causing harm — we simply have no idea one way or the other based on current human consumption.

Testing has proven these foods to be safe.”  The current regulatory testing requirements in the United States are minimal. They are designed primarily to detect acute (short term) harm. Testing in animals, for pesticidal genes like Bt, consists of feeding one high dose and looking for major harm for a month. Testing for for 90 days may also be done (for Europeans, not for us).

Long term studies, usually needed to detect slowly developing disease, are not required by regulators anywhere. In fact, FDA has no testing requirements and does not even approve the safety of GE foods at the end of its cursory review. It leaves the testing up to the discretion of the companies that stand to gain from commercialization of these foods. FDA has only some general recommendations to test for allergenicity or toxicity, but no guidance to the industry on what they need to do to ensure that these foods are safe.

Some scientists and the food industry have argued that this is enough, or more than enough (many would like to roll back the regulations we already have). This is a matter of debate, because there is a lot we don’t know about whole-food safety or the risks from the wide range of different engineered genes that may be coming and have never been in our food supply before.

There is, however, no doubt that harmful genes can be introduced into our food through GE, as when a Brazil-nut allergen was engineered into soybeans. That was easy to detect because the gene came from a food. Detecting allergens or other harmful genes from non-food sources is a bigger challenge. The issue is not mainly about the safety of the current few GE foods, but rather whether our regulations will ensure the detection of harmful GE foods in coming years when many new genes hit the market. Many of these genes may be harmless, but consumers are justified in questioning the adequacy of current regulations to detect possibly harmful GE foods.

There has been no environmental harm from GE crops. So if you want to choose whether to eat GE foods over concern for the environment, no need to worry.” Contrary to early claims by the GE industry, the use of GE herbicide resistant crops has likely led to a large increase in herbicide use, mainly Roundup (glyphosate). On the plus side of the ledger, there has been a decrease in harmful chemical insecticides (but see my post on the increased use of neonicotinoid insecticides that are harming honey bees). The net effect, according to new research, is a 404 million pound increase in pesticide use when the large increase in herbicides is weighed against the smaller decrease in insecticide use.

Some have argued that Roundup herbicide used on these crops is essentially harmless, but there is evidence that Roundup causes environmental harm. Recent research has shown that Roundup has decimated the milkweeds needed by monarch butterfly larvae for food. Egg-laying by monarchs in the Midwest is down by 81 percent. There are also other things that harm monarchs, but it is likely that the drastic reduction of food sources is a big problem.

Other experiments have shown that low doses of Roundup can kill amphibians, although additional experiments are needed to determine whether this occurs in nature.

The GE industry solution to the resistant weeds that infest many millions of acres of cropland due to the use of glyphosate on GE crops, and that are driving up herbicide use, is more of the same—the introduction of new herbicide-resistant crops to be sprayed with older, nastier herbicides like 2,4-D and dicamba. Scientists, observing that weeds are developing resistance to multiple herbicides, including those for which new GE crops will be immune, are raising serious questions about the wisdom of shortsighted strategies based on more herbicide use. Others are projecting large increases in the use of existing, worrisome, herbicides.

Opponents of labeling point out that herbicide resistant weeds have occurred before. But the scale and rate of spread of weeds resistant to Roundup, because of mismanagement of GE crops, is unprecedented.

And now, Bt resistant insects (rootworms) have developed in the corn belt, threatening to drive up insecticide use.

Scare tactics?

All of these considerations (and others) leave a lot of unanswered questions about harm—and possible future harm—from GE crops, and many legitimate concerns that consumers may want to consider when deciding whether to purchase GE foods. Some may look at these issues and decide that they are unimportant. The overriding point is that consumers should have the ability to make up their own minds.

As so often happens, the GE industry and big food is accusing the supporters of labeling of scare tactics, when they are guilty of such tactics themselves. Hopefully consumers will see through the haze of money-driven adds that are trying to scare consumers away from the fundamental reasons that they should claim their right to decide what to eat.