The GMO label fight misses bigger issues

It appears that the GMO labeling argument is finally settled in Oregon — and it will remain that way until someone in the 50.1 percent or the 49.9 percent camp decides that it’s never too early to start campaigning for the next round. This is clearly an issue on the rise, and if it seemed ugly and divisive this last time around, just wait. The fury of finger pointing will hide the fact that this political debate is mostly just muddying the waters and distracting us from more important questions.

I’m all for anything that improves transparency and allows consumers to make informed decisions, and food labels can be a great way to do this. However, this approach only works if these labels answer something about the food, and for that to happen we need to make sure we get the question right. This should sound familiar to anyone that has ever stepped into a classroom, as I think all teachers are required to say, “Make sure you read and understand the questions before you answer them” every time they hand out a test.

When it comes to GMOs, we’re doing a poor job of even asking the right questions. For example, a recent “Food Demand Survey” by Oklahoma State University found that 82 percent of respondents supported mandatory labeling of all food containing GMO products, which sounds very straightforward. However it also found that 80 percent of respondents supported mandatory labeling of all food containing DNA. DNA, by the way, is found in everything that is, was, or might one day be alive, which would be all food except for salt licks and probably some types of Halloween candy.

The coming round of the GMO labeling fight, wherever it next happens, is a great opportunity to improve on this. Here are just two of the dozens of things that we need to work into the coming debates.

One, the issues that are often blamed on GMOs are usually far more pervasive. To take just one example, it is often claimed that GMOs prevent farmers from saving their seeds. In reality, growing out your own seed on a commercial scale is usually not practical unless you’re a grain farmer (in which case that’s the point). Even if you wanted to grow your own vegetable seed, for example, many non-GMO crop varieties are hybrids, which means that the seeds wouldn’t have the same characteristics as the parent plants. Those non-GMO and non-hybrid varieties that are left might still be patented through conventional breeding, in which case any replanting would probably be under contract restrictions. And while we’re on the subject of seeds and genetics, it’s worth noting that many non-GMO crop varieties began their career as a highly irradiated seed, since radiation causes random genetic mutations, a very small portion of which might prove to be valuable.

Two, “GMOs” are not actually a simple type of crop because there are important differences among those varieties that are born in a test tube, to borrow some imagery from 1950s science fiction movies. A neutral genetic marker — a portion of the DNA that doesn’t code for a protein — might have been inserted to see if a different target gene was inherited through conventional breeding methods; an existing gene could have been turned on or off or up or down, such as to strengthen cell walls and reduce lodging; a specific gene could have been swapped with a nearly identical one from another species to produce a slightly different protein and a significantly different effect, such as with Round-Up Ready crops; or a completely novel gene could have been inserted into a crop genome, such as from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into corn.

Point being, forget the simplistic arguments that will soon again flood the airwaves. GM crops will not save the world — the world is just too complex for that — nor will avoiding them make all the problems go away. Are there important environmental, social and health implications of growing GM crops? Absolutely, but most of them come from “growing crops” and won’t just disappear if you remove the “GM.” Should consumers be able to make relevant and informed choices about the larger implications of the products in the grocery store aisle? Yes, please! But those choices must be relevant and informed or the choice is meaningless at best.

There is a lot to want to change about food production and food consumption, and allowing consumer choice to drive this change is great, but for this to work we have to read and understand the questions before picking up a No. 2 pencil and filling in our choice.

Jon Eldon worked with genetics as a conservation biologist and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California-Santa Cruz in soil fertility management and food security. He is on twitter at jondeldon.

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