FALL 2013

Putting Fear on the Table

Genetically engineered ingredients have repeatedly been found safe, but that isn’t stopping backers of Initiative 522 from trying to persuade voters to require expensive and unnecessary labels on foods that use them. Consumers and small food processors stand to lose the most.
By: Jason Hagey
Putting Fear on the Table

The science is clear and unequivocal, at least according to folks on one side of the argument. They can’t understand why there’s even a debate.

And yet the skeptics persist, certain in their belief that the scientists are either biased and pushing an agenda — or just plain wrong.

Sound familiar? The arguments may resemble the climate change debate, but the issue in this case is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Genetic engineering has been part of Americans’ food supply for almost two decades now. Hundreds of scientific studies have examined the safety of GMOs and none have found a link between consumption of foods with GMOs and adverse health effects.

Still, anti-GMO crusaders continue to push for new laws requiring labels for genetically engineered foods. Washington state is the current battleground.

Initiative 522, one of two initiatives on the ballot in November, would require labeling on some foods containing genetically modified ingredients. (Numerous exemptions would create a patchwork labeling system, confusing consumers and giving an advantage to some producers.)

Proponents say it’s about the people’s “right to know,” and that it’s a simple matter of putting a label on a package of food. The campaign emphasizes the need to “label genetically engineered foods.”

But the irony of I-522 is that the measure is itself mislabeled. Anyone who spends even a short amount of time looking into it can see that it’s part of a larger movement — fueled by emotion and fear — aimed at stopping genetic engineering.

Alex McGregor, president of the family-owned McGregor Company, a Colfax-based agricultural supply firm with roots in farming dating to 1882, calls I-522 a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
 
“Under the guise of letting people know, it’s a campaign that runs in the face of sound science,” McGregor said.

AWB came out against the measure this spring, siding with opponents who argue not only that it runs counter to science, but would also make food more expensive for consumers and food processors — without doing anything to improve food safety — make it harder for Washington growers to export their products, and open the door to frivolous lawsuits.

“This initiative would confuse consumers for no good reason and put our state at a competitive disadvantage,” said Gary Chandler, AWB’s vice president of government affairs.

SCIENCE VS. EMOTION
Plant breeding dates back thousands of years, but the kind of genetic engineering targeted by GMO opponents — which alters an organism’s DNA — began in the mid-1980s. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave its first approval of a genetically engineered crop, a tomato designed to remain firm for a longer period of time. The same year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that genetically engineered foods are not inherently dangerous and do not require special regulation.

Since then, hundreds of studies have examined the safety of genetically engineered food, including nearly 470 that have been peer-reviewed. Close to 30 percent of those were produced and funded independent of large commercial seed companies, according to David Tribe, a microbiologist who teaches at the University of Melbourne.

The National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association have repeatedly found genetically modified food to be safe and the World Health Organization declared that “no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” Even in Europe — which is notoriously anti-GMO — the European Commission found that GMOs do not pose a greater risk than conventional plant breeding.

“Just to be clear, there has never been a single reputable, peer-reviewed study that has found any link between the consumption of genetically modified foods and adverse health effects,” wrote Aaron Larsen, a blogger and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology. “Perhaps as importantly, there is no proposed mechanism that can explain why such a link could exist.”

Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, weighed in on the issue last year during the campaign for California’s Proposition 37, a measure similar to I-522 that was defeated by voters.

In a blog post titled “The anti-GMO campaign’s dangerous war on science,” Eisen wrote that he supports the rights of people to make choices about what they eat and he understands where some of the nervousness about GMOs comes from. But as a molecular biologist familiar with the technology of genetic modification and the research into its safety, he doesn’t find it “the least bit frightening.”

“What I do find frightening,” Eisen wrote, “is the way backers of this initiative have turned a campaign for consumer choice into a crusade against GMOs. They don’t want the ‘genetically engineered’ label to merely provide information. They want it to be a warning — the equivalent for GM food of the cancer warning on cigarette boxes.”

CONFUSING AND EXPENSIVE
If Washington voters approve I-522, it would prove costly for consumers, farmers and food processors.

Virtually all processed foods in the United States now contain at least some ingredients from plants that have been genetically modified. Many Northwest processors go out of their way to buck the trend and produce non-GMO products, but qualifying for a non-GMO label under the rules of I-522 would require testing that costs $200 per ingredient, said David Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Association. Products often contain as many as 20-25 ingredients. “Most small and medium-sized companies are not capitalized to do that,” Zepponi said.

And processors would have a hard time finding suppliers willing to guarantee the presence of zero genetically modified organisms.

Companies that opted not to do the testing and put a GMO label on packages instead would face the complication and expense of setting up one product line for Washington-bound products and products sold in the rest of the country.

In addition, some companies might decide to put GMO labels on all of their products, whether or not they contained GMOs, as a precautionary measure to avoid potential lawsuits, essentially making the labels meaningless.

Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms & Forests, said the state’s commodity growers —potatoes, wheat, canola, berries, etc. — would all be hurt by I-522, whether or not they grow genetically engineered crops, in part because of the new layer of bureaucracy it would add.

Many of Washington’s canola, corn and alfalfa farmers choose to grow genetically engineered crops, in part because of the cost savings and environmental benefits. The plants are so weed-resistant that many report saving 75 percent on their diesel bill because they only need to make one pass of the field to control weeds.

“It’s just good farming practice,” Hansen said.

On the other hand, Washington’s large berry crop — primarily raspberries, blueberries and strawberries — is mostly non-GMO, but those growers could be required to add GMO labels because of the way the initiative is written. That’s because many growers pack their own berries and freeze them — adding a little sugar. The berries aren’t genetically modified, but the sugar comes from GE sugar beets.

“I’m not sure the small farmers and farmers’ market sellers realize how this might impact them,” Hansen said.
 
FEEDING THE WORLD
What’s especially distressing to proponents of genetic engineering is the damage that opponents could inflict on efforts to feed a growing world population.

The current population of about 7 billion is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations. The extra people will not only require extra food, but they will also take up space — space that, in some cases, is currently used to grow food. It’s estimated that the world will need to double its food production by then.

Technology has led to huge advancements over the last generation and could produce many more gains.
McGregor notes that Washington’s current generation of farmers, who are an average age of 57, have increased productivity by nearly 300 percent, reduced waterborne soil erosion 85 percent and reduced dust by six-fold.

Genetic engineering allows for the development of crops that can survive flooding, resist pests (requiring the use of fewer pesticides) and contain more nutrition. Those are especially important qualities in developing nations where the population is growing fast but does not have the relative wealth of U.S. and European consumers.

A 2011 report on the state of biotech crops published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, notes the backlash against strict European limits on GMOs and quotes a Kenyan doctor who is critical of the European Union.

“The affluent West has the luxury of choice in the type of technology they use to grow food crops, yet the influence and sensitivities are denying many in the developing world access to such technologies which could lead to a more plentiful supply of food,” said Dr. Felix M’mboyi. “This kind of hypocrisy and arrogance comes with the luxury of a full stomach.”

His comments were directed at European officials, but they resonate in Washington state as the I-522 campaign picks up.

Closer to home, Hansen sums up the debate this way: “I certainly hope that Washington will regulate based on science and not emotion. We have some of the best farmers in the world. To cut them off from new technology would be incredibly sad.”


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Putting Fear on the Table
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