Mandatory labeling of genetically modified, or GMO, foods is a bad idea for several reasons.
First is cost. Labeling foods as to their GMO status involves much more that just changing labels. The certification program that governs organic food is estimated to cost consumers several million dollars each year. A similar program will have to be set up for any mandatory labeling program. To avoid penalties, every farmer will have to sign papers for every crop he delivers to a warehouse as to whether it is GMO. Every middleman between the farmer and the end processor or wholesaler will have to repeat this process, guaranteeing GMO status. All this bureaucratic paper shuffling will not be done for free.
And the onus to be correct will be greatest on the non-GMO supplier. If a load of GMO corn accidentally gets dumped into a non-GMO bin, the — um — manure will hit the fan. If the opposite happens, who cares?
Costs for non-GMO foods will likely rise the most, because many crops will require a premium to the farmer as incentive to grow them. Eighty-eight percent of the corn grown in this country is GMO, 94 percent of the soybeans, 90 of the canola and cotton and 95 percent of sugar beets, according to 2012 data. Approximately 70 percent of packaged foods in grocery stores contains ingredients from one or more of these crops. Demand for non-GMO supplies of these crops could outstrip production if too many food manufacturers decide to eliminate GMOs from their products.
The dangers of eating GMO foods are theoretical. Some scientists claim that inserted genes may do different things depending on where they land in the genome, and changes can occur with every new crop of seed. Others say the new gene may turn off other genes, resulting in adverse effects. But they fail to realize that these effects are possible with conventional crosses also, and it’s up to the geneticist to determine if any unexpected change occurs. New varieties are never released for commercial production until the genome has stabilized.
If adverse mutations do occur after release of a variety they will soon be eliminated from the population. Plant breeders don’t release a variety and then forget about it. For self-pollinating crops, certifying agencies select plants true to the variety each year and plant them for increase. The increase is continued for about three more generations before being sold to a farmer for commercial production. Any mutation that occurs in the first or succeeding generations will be eliminated in the commercial harvest, never having the chance to become of any significant percentage of the whole.
For hybrid crops, the inbred lines that are crossed to make the hybrid are carefully selected and monitored. The farmer must buy new seed yearly, so again, a deleterious mutation will get no chance to increase.
Then there is the ambiguity of labeling. How do you label sugar from Roundup Ready sugarbeets? Sucrose (table sugar) is sucrose no matter where it comes from. Genes only affect the proteins of the plant, and the proteins end up in the pulp. Does one still label sugar from Roundup Ready sugarbeets as “Contains GMOs?” Such would not be scientifically accurate. The same is true for corn oil, corn sugar and corn starch; and for oil from canola, soybeans and cottonseed. The proteins end up in the meal. Labeling all the products in the grocery store that contain one or more of these ingredients “Contains GMOs” is misleading, unscientific and unnecessary.
Consumers need to understand that genes code for proteins (or parts of proteins), and proteins are the “toolbox” the plant uses to make and store everything a cell needs. New proteins are produced when new genes are introduced into a plant’s genome. Plant scientists have been doing that now for 125 years through conventional crosses. Luther Burbank, one of the first to cross plants on a large scale, was roundly criticized for “tampering with God’s creations.” If the Internet had been available in his day plant breeding might still be in limbo. Genetic engineering is just another way of coaxing a plant to make proteins that will enable resistance to disease, insects or herbicides. Genetic engineering has the advantage of only adding the gene of choice. Conventional crossing always adds unwanted genes that then have to be removed through several generations of back-crossing to the desired parent.
Simplot hopes to soon release a genetically engineered potato that will reduce losses from black spot due to bruising, and prevent cut potatoes from turning brown. Called Innate, this new variety results from transferring a gene from a wild potato into a russet potato. The transferred gene reduces the production of an enzyme responsible for the black spots and browning. This gene could save growers, processors and consumers million of dollars. But again, the ambiguous question: Will this potato have to be labeled GMO, even though the gene came from another potato?
And then there is the apple variety that Canadian scientists have developed that won’t turn brown when cut. They accomplished this by turning off a gene that makes the enzyme that causes apples to turn brown and exposed to air. Nothing added here, but genetic manipulation was used. Alarming consumers by labeling this apple “GMO” seems like overkill.
Consumers have a right to know what is in their food if it really makes a difference, but 25 years of experience with GMO ingredients suggests harmful differences are imagined, and therefore labeling only alarms the uninformed.
GMO crops are now grown or imported in over 27 countries. If the world is going to be well fed in the future without destroying wildlife and the environment we need more, not less, emphasis on genetically engineered crops. It’s time to relax and let the scientists do the work that is so important for the future well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.
Jack DeWitt has a master’s degree in agronomy from Washington State University and has 50-plus years of farming experience and agricultural research monitoring. He lives in Milton-Freewater, Ore.