How Not to Label Biotech Foods: Should foods made from genetically modified plants or animals be specially labeled?

September 10, 2012

The New Atlantis:

When Californians go to the polls this November, one of the ballot initiatives they will vote on will be the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, a proposed law that would require that foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be specially labeled. This move for mandatory labeling is just the latest development in the ongoing controversy over the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.

Proponents of the technology argue that creating GM plants and animals for human consumption is essentially no different from the selective breeding that farmers have carried out for millennia, which resulted in accumulated genetic changes over time. But the methods used to create today’s genetically modified organisms allow for more rapid and dramatic changes. Modern GMOs are often created using recombinant DNA techniques in which an organism’s genes are directly altered, often by inserting DNA fragments from other organisms. This approach offers much greater precision than selective breeding, removing the requirement of several generations of breeding for a particular trait to become widespread in a population. It also allows for the direct addition to an organism of novel traits that do not occur naturally in the species.

Critics cite concerns like the potential for loss of biodiversity, and fear that the widespread use of recombinant DNA techniques in agriculture represents a vast and as yet unproven experiment with uncertain consequences for human health and the environment. There are a few known cases of unintended negative consequences resulting from the use of GMOs: for example, the use of crops genetically engineered to be resistant to the powerful herbicide Roundup may have accelerated the emergence of weeds that are also resistant, and are spreading in the wild, in some cases creating a sort of war of attrition in which farmers must use additional herbicides or revert to manually removing the weeds. Although there is no evidence that these or any other GMOs have had adverse impacts on human health or safety — and indeed, the National Academies have repeatedly concluded that GM techniques pose no known unique risks to human health as compared to more traditional plant-breeding methods — some critics contend that GM foods should be considered unsafe for human consumption until proven otherwise, and others fear the possibilities of genetically modified organisms being released into the wild and damaging ecosystems, and believe they should not be permitted at all.

But advocates note the advantages of GM foods in combating malnutrition and related illnesses: for example, “golden rice,” a product genetically engineered to have high concentrations of beta-carotene, holds the potential if widely used to prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of permanent blindness and millions of deaths in developing countries every year caused by diets deficient in vitamin A. More generally, genetic modification allows crops to produce larger yields, be more naturally resistant to pests, and be better able to withstand droughts, meaning that they are able to provide more food while using less land, water, and pesticides — a boon to both human prosperity and the environment. Advocates further emphasize that there is no evidence to date of negative health impacts from the production or consumption of GM foods, and argue that the enormous benefits overwhelm the potential risks.

What the Law Now Requires

Although GM foods have long been controversial in Europe, the debate has received less attention in the United States. Recently, though, there have been a number of campaigns to restrict GM foods in America, not only in California, but in the U.S. Congress, where this year Senators Bernard Sanders (I.-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D.-Cal.) proposed an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have allowed states to introduce GM-food-labeling requirements (the amendment failed). The recently renewed concern over GM labeling may be due in part to the expected approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of a company’s request to offer GM fish for human consumption — a decision that would mark the first time the agency approved a GM animal (all approved GMOs to date have been plants).

The company, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, has been seeking approval for its AquAdvantage salmon for some time now: the fish themselves were developed in 1989 when scientists genetically modified Atlantic salmon to produce more growth hormone, allowing them to reach market size much faster than ordinary fish, and the company first requested approval from the FDA in 1995. The agency seems ready to approve the fish, as its review of the evidence found “no biologically relevant difference” between food from the AquAdvantage salmon and natural Atlantic salmon. Because the genetically modified animals are nutritionally the same as the unmodified salmon, the FDA concluded that they are as safe to eat as unmodified fish.

Some have argued that if the FDA does approve the AquAdvantage salmon, it should still require that the fish be labeled as genetically modified in stores. But although environmentalists and some members of Congress have argued that consumers have a “right to know” how their food was made, under existing FDA policy for GMO foods, labels only need to accurately describe the attributes of what is in the food itself, not the processes by which the food was grown or made. And the evidence shows that the mere fact that the salmon was genetically engineered is no more relevant to consumer health, nutrition, and safety than, say, the size of the individual fish itself or the pen in which it was raised. So unless and until the FDA finds some difference in the content of the genetically modified fish, it in fact has no basis upon which to require special labeling…

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