Specter’s New Yorker GMO Labeling Essay Misses the Mark

By: Gary Hirshberg, Chairman, Just Label It

Michael Specter’s essay in The New Yorker against labeling genetically engineered food is fraught with factual errors but also misses the fundamental point that people not only want to know what’s in their food, but also how it’s grown.  Sadly, while conceding that GE labeling is inevitable, his arguments are not only filled with falsehoods, but they add nothing new to the debate that has become America’s biggest current food fight.

For instance, he states: “Most of the legislation that has been proposed would require a label that says something like “produced with genetic engineering.” Almost none of the labels would identify any specific G.M.O. ingredient in any particular food.” There are at least 26 different state labeling proposals and this does describe some of them, but this is a severe and unfortunate oversimplification.  Just Label It and most responsible organizations advocating for a unified mandatory federal label believe that the actual label specifics need to be determined through an inclusive public input process, but any labeling requirement should be consistent with other labeling systems already used around the world.

He then states: “All breeding—whether mixing varieties of apples or crossing types of orchids—modifies genomes. There is no other reason to do it. And all the food we eat has been modified in some way—either by nature or by humans.”  This is the type of  blatant and unfortunate obfuscation to which the GE patent holders often resort.  All of the chemical companies engaged in biotechnology and even the US Patent Office recognize genetically engineered plants or animals as organisms that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In other words, these are new life forms (hence the patents) created by the transfer and introduction of genetic material from other species in ways that could not occur in nature or through traditional breeding methods. The Monsanto Company’s website draws a clear distinction between genetically engineered and conventionally bred crops.  

Specter also repeats the canard that we need genetically engineered foods to feed the world, when, in fact, numerous studies have shown that GE crops have never lived up to their promise of higher intrinsic yields. Plus, there are more effective ways to combat hunger than betting the farm on a single technology – such as reducing food waste and ending food-to-fuel mandates.

Finally, he  falls back on the tired argument that labeling is not necessary because “The overwhelming scientific consensus, based on hundreds of independent studies, demonstrates that foods containing currently available G.M.O.s pose no greater health risk or environmental concern than any other foods.”  First, there is actually substantial scientific debate on the health and safety of these crops. But more importantly, we’re not advocating labeling because we believe GM crops are unsafe.  As a matter of US policy, if an ingredient poses a food safety hazard, we don’t label its presence, we take it out of food. So, if we were making a safety argument, we’d be advocating banning GE ingredients, not labeling them.  When our government determines that labeling is required for additives like food colorings, dyes or various byproducts, it is not because they have found they are unsafe.  The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act establishes that the consumer has a right to know when something is added to food that changes it in ways a consumer would likely not recognize, and thus labeling is required.

The reality is we label whatever we deem MATERIAL and important for the consumer to know.  50 years ago we didn’t label calories, fat, salt, kinds of fats, etc. Now we know this information is vitally important to us to make informed purchasing decisions which affect our health. We’re now required to label potential allergens and production methods such as “made from concentrate”, irradiation, wild or farmed, and even Country of Origin (required in all supermarkets on produce and meat).  Simply put, policy makers found that these processes were material to the consumer.

The reason we need to label genetically engineered ingredients is to allow the marketplace to function, ie to allow consumers to choose foods based on how they were grown.   Genetic engineering is absolutely material to all of us. Why? Because the widespread adoption of GE corn and soybeans has led to a significant increase in hundreds of thousands of pounds of herbicides designed to be used with these crops. The USGS has shown that 60-100% of rainwater samples in the midwest now contain Monsanto’s glyphosate (“Roundup”) as a result of rampant use of corn and soy that have been genetically engineered to allow greater use of this herbicide.  So midwesterners are likely breathing and drinking this herbicide.  And now that dozens of weeds have grown resistant to glyphosate,  farmers are being urged to resort to an even more toxic herbicide, 2,4-D, which has been linked to an array of dangerous health effects including Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease. If the government approves Dow Chemical Co.’s new 2,4-D herbicide, there will be hundreds of elementary schools within just a few hundred feet of fields that could be doused by this likely carcinogen.  We think this is very material to all of us, but especially the families whose children reside in these communities.

Mr. Specter also states that there are no genetically engineered apples in the market, and here he is at least partially correct. However, regulators are considering approving an apple genetically engineered not to go brown after it’s sliced, so this could change soon.

Finally, Mr. Specter states that “the world needs crops that demand less from the environment and provide more nutrition, using less water, on the same amount of land. Without relying on progress and the advance of science, as we have for centuries, it’s simply not going to happen.”  We agree with these goals and we even agree that genetic engineering may offer some promise to one day deliver such useful benefits.  But up until now, that has not been the focus of genetically engineered technology. Instead, the vast majority of commercialized GE crops have been engineered to use more herbicides.  This should come as no surprise, since the owners of these patented seeds also sell these chemicals.

Labeling GE crops does not seek to stop progress. It simply will allow all of us to choose what’s in our foods and how they are grown.

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