Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Modest Proposal About How To Do GMO Food Labeling Right

A Modest Proposal About How To Do GMO Food Labeling Right:
Should food with ingredients from genetically engineered crops - "GMOs" - be labeled?  Many argue that consumers have a "right to know" about this.  Ok, if the real reason for labeling is to provide consumers with knowledge, then the label should read:
"Contains ingredients from biotech enhanced crops approved by the USDA, FDA and EPA"
That would tell people what is unique about these crops.  Humans have been genetically modifying crops for centuries using a variety of methods.  The difference for genetically engineered crops is that they must be fully characterized and tested in order to gain approval from three different regulatory agencies - the USDA, the EPA and the FDA (there is a description of this process below if you are interested).  Crops modified in other ways including those generated by conventional breedingmutation breeding or "wide crosses" or hybrids or doubled haploids don't have to be tested or approved at all.  The clear, international scientific consensus is that genetic engineering involves no unusual risk relative to all the other methods of genetic modification, but this testing was instituted out of an abundance of caution.  Thus, any label should let consumers know about this extra level of scrutiny conducted for their benefit.

Let's Really Make It About Knowledge

Also, if we label genetically engineered foods, we should accompany that with supporting educational resources.  We have some experience as a country about what happens if you label but don't educate. Back in 1994, Congress passed the "Nutrition Labeling and Education Act" that lead to that list of nutrient contents you see on food packages.  The lawmakers never followed through to provide the funding for the education part (imagine that!)  So the law effectively became the "Nutrition Labeling in a Vacuum Act" and many consumers get little benefit from the labels.  Let's not repeat that mistake with a "GMO Labeling in a Vacuum" law. 
Accompanying the label I have described, there should be a URL or a code stamp to take you to web sites that explain how these crops are developed, how they have been evaluated, and also about some of their advantages. The site could talk about how:
Congress could even fund an educational program to provide basic nutrition education which should have started 18 years ago. 
If some politician will introduce a bill to require labeling of the type I have described and include guaranteed funding for real education, they could get the enthusiastic support of the scientific community.  
ABOUT Steve Savage
Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State Univ., DuPont, Mycogen, independent consultant). Since mid 2009 I've also been blogging on a variety of "sustainability" web sites and on my own blog, Applied Mythology.
I'm passionate about the need for scientific innovation in our effort to feed the world and about countering the disinformation about farming and about the science behind it. You can follow me on twitter @grapedoc

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