Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Labeling Inconsistencies: How Do You Actually Define a GMO?

Monsanto proudly labels all of their GMOs.
Stephan Neidenbach - welovegv@gmail.com (edited by Emilia Raszkiewicz)
Labeling genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in the food supply has become a hot-button issue for farmers, consumers, and brands. On the surface, labeling seems like such a simple and reasonable request. If GMOs are safe, why label them? Or why not label them? More importantly, how do you define GMOs to weigh the real benefits of labeling or not labeling these foods?

The same question about labeling could be asked about the consumer’s right to know about any production tool used in agriculture. In the case of the International Dairy Foods Association’s, the court decision addressed the consumer’s wish to know about their foods’ production methods: “Were consumer interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could require manufacturers to disclose about their production methods.  For instance, with respect to cattle, consumers might reasonably evince an interest in knowing which grains herds were fed, with which medicines they were treated, or the age at which they were slaughtered. Absent, however, is some indication that this information bears on a reasonable concern for human health or safety or some other sufficiently substantial governmental concern, the manufacturers cannot be compelled to disclose it. Instead, those consumers interested in such information should exercise the power of their purses by buying products from manufacturers who voluntarily reveal it.”

Clearly, on both sides of the aisle, parties are heavily invested on the outcome of labeling GMOs. The conventional food industry will tell you that labeling will increase costs. The organic food industry will try to show a substantial difference between GMOs and their counterparts bred through artificial selection or mutagenesis. How should GMOs be defined? Would a crop variety bred by mutagenesis or farmers’ selection not be a GMO, too? As a history teacher, I prefer to look at the past and how other breeding methods have been and are regulated.

Pesticide-inferring traits are currently the most common traits found in genetically modified crops. But, this can lead to the question:  if herbicide tolerance in plants and bt corn crops are chief concerns among GMO-labeling activists, shouldn’t they be concerned about labeling specific traits? Some genetically modified traits in plants include those for better taste, better nutrition, better yields, storage longevity, disease resistance, and more. The disease- resistant papaya introduced in Hawaii was one of the greatest success stories involving genetically modified crops, and it has nothing to do with pesticide- related traits. The Arctic Apple has been modified to confer a non-browning trait to increase storage times and reduce food waste, and Simplot’s new potato actually reduces the risk of a known carcinogen.

Labeled GMO crops are not the only types that are bred for specific traits; a plant can be a GMO even if not created in the laboratory and/or not containing genes from different organisms (transgenic). Seven crops are currently being produced by BASF for tolerance to their imazamox-based herbicide, “Beyond. Foods such as these crops are unlabeled and unregulated because they were created through mutagenesis, where chemicals and/or radiation are applied to speed up artificial selection. The herbicide-resistant sunflower, for example, was created after a farmer had discovered a crop of wild sunflowers that had developed a resistance to his herbicide treatments. Ethyl methanesulfonate and sodium azide were applied to the seeds of domesticated sunflowers to bring about the same resistance. These sunflowers are used in the oil Chipotle switched to when they decided GM soybeans were too dangerous because of herbicide tolerance…..  If they were not created in the laboratory, are they not GMOs, or not as potentially harmful?

Can An Organism Bred by Artificial Selection Outside of the Laboratory be Labeled a GMO, too?

Should we label foods for artificial selection, the products of which have cultivated, consumed, and marketed without labels? Artificial selection has been used for decades to select for pesticide- related and other traits. While the labeled, genetically-modified “GMO” bt corn crops express a protein that has been tested as harmless to humans, traits naturally occurring in unlabeled, artificially-selected plants can be harmful, especially when bred to increase their yields. 99% of the pesticides we consume in our diet are naturally occurring in the crops themselves, many of which are carcinogenic at high enough doses. By no means does this imply that we should fear these natural pesticides, but they should be considered when looking at risk assessments for novel traits—and labeling.

Potato breeders have used artificial selection to express disease and pest resistant traits for decades. High solanine potato varieties were found to be dangerous after commercial release in both the United States and Sweden. Celery was found have have elevated levels of psoralens, causing skin irritation, and even an organic zucchini variety caused harm from elevated levels of cucurbitacins, caused by an unusually wet summer bringing additional insects and fungi. Had the organic farmer used a fungicide, the zucchini probably would not have activated that trait, and would not have caused the risk of harm to his consumers. Compare that with outwardly-labeled genetically modified crops, where only one has shown the potential to harm consumers. Specifically, wWhen the allergen from the Brazil nut was transferred to a soybean through genetic engineering, it was detected by the researchers in the early stages, long before entering the market.

Ongoing ,Worldwide Inconsistency in Labeling

Europe is an excellent example of the inconsistency seen in labeling products that contain GMOs. The 1990s created a perfect storm in the EU, allowing fear mongering from governments to dictate a policy of precaution. Poor decision making by the UK led to the mad cow disease scare and a distrust of government regulation. Standardized organic labels were not regulated by the governments of Europe, leading to consumers who did wish to avoid GMOs to be unsure if they actually could trust the labeling. On the other hand, the United States created the National Organic Production Act of 1990 prior to GMOs coming on to the market, giving consumers this option.

In 1991,  European corporations held 55% of the global market share for agricultural chemicals. By the end of the 1990s, that market share fell to to 47% as US corporations gained market share with their transgenic crops, offering appealing products that reduced the need for applying chemicals. Inconsistencies with labeling GMOs and fear mongering discouraged many European farmers, who sought to avoid losing their farming subsidies after the WTO began to crack down. As a result, they stuck with labeled non-GMO crops so they can claim their product is “different” enough to keep receiving those subsidies. Allowing fear of GMOs to create public policy was an easy economic decision for Europe to make. As another example of inconsistency, the EU is circumventing its own GMO labeling policy by using genetic editing techniques to create herbicide tolerance to sulfonylurea. What is the argument, then? Does Europe fear GMOs because they are plants that are bred with genes allowing them to resist pesticides and herbicides? Does it matter how a GMO is created? In this case, would not GMOs be the safer alternative for the environment? Some European countries are using more than twice as many agricultural chemicals per acre as the United States. By making unwarranted claims about health and the environment, Europe is simply able to get around trade agreements and benefit their own chemical and seed companies.
Misinformation about Patents and Mandatory Labels: Not Only GMOs are Patented

Labeling proponents argue that because transgenic crops are patented, the government, by granting these patents, views these crops as inherently different from crops bred by alternative methods. However, patented crops exist that have been created using other breeding methods. The Ruby pink grapefruit, a result of mutagenesis, was patented decades ago, and even the organic Goose creek tomato variety was patented in 2004. Patents on living organisms are a topic worthy of discussion, but it is not a discussion solely involving genetically modified crops. Genetically, there is a much greater difference between all the different varieties of sweet corn than there is between GMO-labeled bt sweet corn and the varieties the trait was added to.

“At the very least, we should demand consistency.”

Mandatory labels are meant to give consumers information about a product. A label that reads, “this product contains genetically modified ingredients” tells the consumer nothing about selection method was used to create the imparted trait. It also does not explain the benefit of the genetically-modified trait, how the trait was used, how the trait is regulated, and ultimately, a shopper is left with no new information about the environmental or health impacts of the product. Voluntary dietary labels, like kosher and halal, already exist for consumers who wish to avoid GMOs for their own reasons, in the form of organic and non-GMO labels. There are no arguments against GMOs that cannot also be applied to mutagenesis and artificial selection. We should either label all methods of breeding, or label no methods of breeding. At the very least, we should demand consistency.

(Author's note: Emilia asked me to, as a layman, write an article about labeling for scientists on a web page she was an editor for. I was not paid a dime, and was just honored to have a professional editor work with me. She left that job before it got published. Any poor writing is a reflection on me, not her, as we never finished our collaboration.) Creative Commons License
This work by Stephan Neidenbach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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