Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sincere questions for the "Just Label It!" crowd

I've written a few blog posts about GMOs now, having started about a year ago. I think that my best post was on the scientific consensus, as I think I did a good job appealing to those who accept things like climate change, evolution, etc. Since then, I realize that I was just a small part in a significant shift in the conversation, and more and more people are starting to accept that there isn't anything inherently bad about the technology. (Perhaps the most comprehensive overview came out recently on Slate's website.)

If you're against GMOs, or you think that they're inherently dangerous, then this post is not for you. Instead, I would like to address those who still feel that GMOs should be labeled even though they're not inherently dangerous. The reason why is that while I'm seeing less hysteria about GMOs being bad, I still see a lot of people who still don't understand why they can't be labeled. In my opinion, I'm against it, and either my reasoning is sound or somebody out there can show me where I've gone wrong and convince me otherwise. (Honestly, I've flip-flopped several times on this issue. What's another flop?)

Let's make one thing clear right from the get-go. The most common argument regarding GMO labeling is the phrase: "We have a right to know what's in our food." This is a completely reasonable position to have. After all, we have ingredient labels and all kinds of information listed on the products that we buy. Why should this be the exception? Again, that's completely reasonable.

Yet I'm still against the GMO label. How can I believe that we have the right to know what's in our food but not believe in labeling them?

Basically, it's because I don't believe that a label reading "GMO" tells us what's in our food. If it did, then I'd be for it, but that doesn't seem to be the case. First of all, GMO is not an ingredient. An ingredient might be a GMO, but GMOs themselves don't mean that an ingredient has been added to the corn (to give one example) the way salt is added to a jar of peanuts.

GMOs are a process, much like artificial selection is a process. As far as I know, we don't label any processes for the food that we consume. Now I realize that you might be rolling your eyes and thinking that I'm obfuscating a bit here. Clearly we're discussing two different things, right? Artificial selection is something we've been doing since the advent of agriculture. GMOs are created in a lab. That's the difference, and that's what the label tells us.

But not quite. Mutagenesis, where plants are subjected to chemicals and radiation, has been around for decades, and they aren't considered to be GMOs. In fact, they can be labeled as organic, unlike GMOs.

Okay, so a GMO label tells us about a process where the genetic structure of a plant is altered in a lab process that isn't mutagenesis. Assuming that you're still okay with this premise, and if you are, I'd really like to know why, we still have a problem, and this, for me, is the biggest one. The following is a list of techniques where genes have been altered in plants that produce food. While reading through it, ask yourself if you can tell which ones are considered GMOs and which ones aren't. (List courtesy of Kavin Senapathy.)

  1. Corn engineered with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis to express an insecticidal protein. 
  2. Corn created by scientists by crossing genetically homozygous corn genomes, resulting in more robust heterozygous varieties. These are commercialized and sold. 
  3. Watermelon created by crossing a parent with four sets of chromosomes with a parent with two sets. The offspring, with three sets, cannot complete the process of meiosis, rendering it sterile and unable to produce seeds. 
  4. Papaya with a short viral sequence in its genome, allowing it to resist harmful ringspot infection. 
  5. Kiwi created by applying a chemical to induce multiplication of the number of chromosomes (polyploidy) causing the fruit to be larger and more commercially viable. 
  6. Apple created with reduced expression of the enzyme that causes it to turn brown (it will still brown when rotten, but not when bitten.) 
  7. Grapefruit created by exposure to gamma radiation to induce artificial genetic mutations. Those with beneficial mutations are then commercialized and sold.

Now, you might have been able to guess at a couple after my explanation of mutagensis, but if you're really not sure which ones are GMOs (only 1, 4, and 6) then the question is this:

How does a GMO label tell you what's in your food when you don't know what a GMO is?

Please don't think that I'm trying to insult you or get one over on you by pointing out what you don't know. I only got about half of them right myself when I took the quiz. But the point still stands, doesn't it? If not, please, tell me what I'm getting wrong and how the label still informs you.

I once had somebody express to me concern about "Roundup ready" corn and soy, as they're sprayed with glyphosate, which has some people concerned. This was in a discussion where the person was trying to convince me of the wisdom of GMO labeling. But not all GMOs are "Roundup ready". So isn't what's needed, if you think that you need to know that, is a "sprayed with glyphosate" label? And if they're going to label that, then why not also label the other herbicides and pesticides which are potentially as, if not more, harmful?

So, I managed to successfully avoid discussing Monsanto up to this point, but that's always the 800 pound gorilla in the room when discussing this matter, so I guess I'd better get to it.. When California had its GMO labeling initiative on the ballot, the most commonly cited reason (to me) as to why they should be labeled was because big Agri-businesses like Monsanto were paying a lot of money to defeat the measure. This is absolutely true. However, I don't find that to be a compelling reason to be in favor of labels. It certainly is worth considering, but I feel that one can't simply make decisions based on who else is for or against something. After all, Monsanto was awarded as "The Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality" by the Human Rights Campaign. Am I going to change my position on equality for gay people just because Monsanto supports it? Certainly not.

I guess what I'm saying is that even if one accepts the most negative view of Monsanto, it can be agreed that nobody (and no corporation) is wrong 100% of the time. They could be against labels for purely selfish reasons as well, but that doesn't necessarily mean that labels are a good idea.

My last point is that if you STILL think that GMOs should be labeled, they kinda are in a way. At least, there are plenty of products that proudly label themselves as "Non GMO". Also, if it's certified organic, then it's not a GMO. Beyond that, you can educate yourself as to which products are likely to be GMOs and which aren't, and then you'll know which ones to avoid. (I once had a person tell me that he could tell the difference between organic and GMO tomatoes. I thought that was remarkable considering that there aren't any GMO tomatoes on the market.)

If you've stuck with me this long, hopefully you can at least see why I don't understand what a GMO label tells us. It seems to me that it would simply confuse people. Perhaps there is some way to inform consumers more than they already are, and I'm all ears as to what that is, but you're going to have a ways to go in order to convince me that a GMO label is even a good first step.


Luna Solara said...

I would be entirely happy with a label that read something like this.

The contents of this food product. Are in some way covered by patents which prevent the grower from replanting the seeds, and which require them to sign a license agreement with (Insert name of company, which is likely to be Monsanto here.)

That is the root of my sincere and vehement objection to 'GMO' foods. They have transformed agriculture into an entire industry which by necessity pays rent to certain corporations.

It's the related business practices in our current economy that at least some of us object to. Not some inherent boogeyman in the modification of genes, that's a natural process which happens every single time anything reproduces.

Clearly that would require people to actually care about things, and that seems unlikely. I would be happy with a label that said that a certain food product contains organisms which are 'genetically modified' in the sense that they have been engineered beyond simply selecting for the most desirable offspring. As rather obviously that's been done to all organisms for a very long time.

I get pretty pissed at my fellow skeptics for sliding into GMO apology, when that involves endorsing industry propaganda. Yes, I understand that much of the opposition to GMO food is essentially as idiotic as the opposition to vaccines. However the root of the issue is quite different, to me at least.

Along with this fundamental shift in the way agriculture works, the use of some of the most popular of these GMO products. Roundup ready soybeans for instance. Means that I'm literally bathing in this particular herbicide. I don't believe that this has been shown to be safe. Sure there's some research, funded by those who stand to make billions off the use of these crops and this herbicide.

There are also issues with the vastly reduced diversity of the genome of our food supply, it's increased vulnerability to emergent threats. The list continues, and I'm hardly the most knowledgeable person on this subject.

Labelling gives me the ability to'vote' with my debit card, and support those products which, as a whole support the sort of agriculture which we grew up with, the sort of industry practices which built our civilization to this point.

Denying me this information serves exactly one purpose. It's good for the stock price of Monsanto and company.

And yes, in fact, I would pay an extra $50 a week just to hurt their stock price, these people have spent billions to deny us the right to sue them. To change laws and industry practices so that they can profit to an incredible degree. To fund research which supports the notion that I shouldn't mind a bit how much of certain herbicides is in my drinking water.

Now, as a result of the corrupt and biased nature of our political landscape, I'm not entirely certain that I believe all the research which shows these foods are all safe. Sure there's nothing 'inherent' in the process which would make them unsafe. But if BP tells me that an oil well next to reservoir which provides my drinking water is safe? I don't suddenly bow down before any alleged 'science' which is pointed at me. I want to see actual data, and actual science, not that which is performed by people paid to produce results which, say it is in fact safe.

Luna Solara said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lance Johnson said...

"The contents of this food product. Are in some way covered by patents which prevent the grower from replanting the seeds..."

The thing is, this is not unique to GMOs. You can patent any kind of seed that you develop. Also, it's my understanding that farmers had stopped relying on saving seeds before Monsanto came into the equation. (link - see Myth #4

"Means that I'm literally bathing in this particular herbicide. I don't believe that this has been shown to be safe. Sure there's some research, funded by those who stand to make billions off the use of these crops and this herbicide."

A couple of things:

1. From my understanding, the equivalent of two soda cans of glyphosate are used per football field. I don't know about you, but I think that the word "literally" doesn't really apply here.

2. Perhaps the research is funded by the chemical companies. But that's not an argument against it if it's made public and subject to peer review. Pretty sure airline industries pay to have their planes tested - wouldn't it make sense for them to do that?

Considering that the stuff has been used for a few decades now with no evidence of harm, I think that the burden of proof is on those who are taking issue with it. Plus, the really big question always goes back to what we should use if we were to replace glyphosate. Are the alternatives any safer? Not from what I know.

For the record though, I do think that there are issues with glyphosate - not so much that it's giving us cancer or something like that but that it's being relied on to solve a problem that probably requires many solutions.

Have you heard of Kevin Folta? I suggest checking out his blog. He's a public scientist, and he's better than I am at explaining all of this stuff.

Anyway, I'm still left with my original objection. I don't know exactly what a GMO label tells me. There are GMOs that have nothing to do with Monsanto like Arctic Apples, Hawaiin Papayas, and the Simplot potato.

Seems to me like what you want is a Monsanto label moreso than a GMO label. Is that fair?