Thursday, August 7, 2014

Questions about GMO labeling

A couple of years ago in California, proposition 37 called for the labeling of all foods that are genetically engineered. It was narrowly defeated. When I first heard of the proposition, I was for it. When I read up on it, I was against it. I think that I may have changed my mind a few times on it, but ultimately I wound up voting against it.

To all my left-leaning friends, this is the part where you can get out your torches and pitchforks.

I'm not going to get into my reasoning as to why I voted the way that I did. I felt that it was the right decision, but I don't really remember my rationale at the time. It doesn't matter that much now because I've changed my mind on this issue.

I haven't become a big advocate of labeling genetically engineered foods (often incorrectly referred to as GMOs, or genetically modified foods). It's more that I'm just not against labeling, if that makes sense.  Why haven't I become enthusiastically on board when it comes to labeling foods? Mainly, I'm just not sure exactly what good it will do.

I've mentioned this before on my last post, but the first thing we need to get straight is the difference between genetically modified and genetically engineered. People freak out about genetically modified foods, and labeling products "No GMOs" has become a selling point. (The folks giving out free samples at Costco are always eager to point out that their particular product is "GMO free".) From my understanding, this is a bit of inaccurate advertising, as nearly everything we eat has been genetically modified. Hardly any of the vegetables we eat grow that way in the wild, and most of the animals we eat wouldn't last very long if not under the care of human beings. (Ya know, until they're killed so we can eat them, anyway.)

These have all been genetically modified through artificial selection, and humanity has been doing this since the advent of agriculture, so we're talking over ten thousand years here. So, unless you're out there hunting wild elk, or you're picking wild plants, you're eating GMOs. (I don't know how many foods you can buy in the store are grown out in the wild, but there is a chef in Denmark who uses wild ingredients. So, it is possible, just not likely.)

So, if we're going to talk labeling, the law also needs to cover accuracy in labeling, and all of the producers of organic products need to start being a little bit more honest when it comes to their labels as well. If they want to advertise themselves as being free of genetically engineered ingredients, then that at least has a bit more veracity. (Hold on though because it's going to get more complicated in the paragraph after the next one.)

I would imagine that most people who are pro-labeling are on board with me so far. Label the stuff that's been genetically engineered and stop labeling stuff as "GMO free" when it's not. (It's almost, but not quite, as bad as advertising something as being "chemical free".)

But what about the third thing? There's a third thing? Didn't I tell you that this would get more complicated? Why didn't you listen to me? A friend of mine brought it to my attention that we haven't been doing this whole selective breeding thing the exact same way for 10,000 years up until the advent of genetic engineering. What about mutation breeding?  (The short explanation is that it involves exposing seeds to radiation and/or certain chemicals to get the desired result.) That practice isn't even regulated, and I don't hear people freaking out about that - even though it's been around since the 1920s. We would need a label for that as well, right?

I realize what some people may be thinking. What's the problem, Lance? All food will be labeled "Contains GEOs", "GEO Free", or "MB" (Mutation Bred). Simple as that. Now the consumer is informed and knowledgeable.

Call me crazy, but I don't think that tells us much of anything substantial. When it comes to genetically engineered foods, there is no evidence that they cause any harm. Even if you think that they need more testing, your opinion is flying in the face of scientific consensus (and that's independent and non-profit scientific organizations). It's akin to putting warning labels on cell phones that they might cause cancer, even though there's absolutely no reason to think that they will.

Okay, that's a bit of a tangent. You can argue that it's up to the public to educate themselves on this issue and the label is simply informative and not a "warning label". I could probably write a whole blog on that, but for now I'm just going to give the voices in my head that particular point.

The GEO/GEO Free label won't tell us anything about the safety of the product. Yeah, I'm not against that, but I can't get upset about them not including it. From there, how would they go about specifying the labels on the GEO foods? Are they going to list which gene got spliced and from where it came? Would that look like anything other than a bunch of technobabble to anybody who's not a geneticist? Again, I have no problem with them making this information available, but I'm able to feel safe eating an organic carrot without being able to list off its genetic code, and if you were to explain it to me, I'd probably drift off into daydream land. Same goes for GEOs - I'm totally ignorant as to what it all means, and I reckon that's the same for most people who don't have a degree in genetics.

Same goes for the MBs. Are they going to list off the type of radiation that was used and the chemicals? When it comes to radiation, that's one of those scary words like "chemicals" and people are afraid that their skin is going to start peeling off or they'll turn into The Hulk. ("They used gamma rays to engineer these kiwis? Screw that! I know what gamma rays do!") The sun emits radiation, and while you don't want to spend hours out there, it's kinda necessary for making stuff grow, and you need that Vitamin D. As for the other scary word, "chemicals", I couldn't tell you what half the stuff is in some of the salad dressings I've bought. Am I really supposed to know what exposing certain seeds to certain chemicals is going to do? You can inform the hell out of me, I'm still not going to know what the flippin' flap you're talking about.

I'm an unenthusiastic supporter of labeling; at least, I'm not too passionate about it when it comes to the "GMO" labeling, as I don't see how much difference it will make. Even with labels, there are ways to be deceptive, like how products will list different ingredients that are all basically sugar but make it look like there isn't that much of it to people who are too ignorant to know the difference (like me). Think they won't be able to figure out a way to bamboozle you - especially when it comes to something you don't fully understand in the first place? (To the geneticists out there, I know, I know, you understand it. Feel good about yourself now?)

I can get passionate about labels in general if every product was required to be completely honest. How about homeopathic remedies with a label that says that there are no active ingredients and that homeopathy has NEVER been proven to work in controlled conditions? How about a notice before shows on "ghost hunting" and "ancient aliens" that warn the viewer that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the bullcrap that they're about to show the audience? How about labels on expensive wine that let the consumer know that most people - even the experts - can't tell the difference between the pricey stuff and the cheaper vintage?

If we're gonna label stuff, we really gotta put me in charge of it.

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