Labeling genetically modified food: consumer's right or promotion of senseless panic?

Should manufacturers be required to label genetically engineered food?

After all, humans have technically been engaging in genetic engineering since we discovered selective breeding. Does it really matter if the organism’s DNA was modified in a more direct manner?

IMO, labeling such food would only cause unnecessary panic. I mean, many people might think “If they have to point it out, it can’t be safe.”

If GM foods are not labeled, I think it would lead to more difficulties. Rumors would fly about what companies use GM ingedients, what products they’re in, and so on. Also, if people don’t know for sure what unlabeled products contain GM ingredients they might avoid anything not labeled “organic.” That’s not in the non-organic food industry’s best interests.

I think most consumers would ignore GM labels. Those that are very concerned about genetic engineering have every right to be informed what foods contain GM ingredients. Heck, given that genetic engineering is supposed to give us improved food products, some people might even seek them out.

I think that’s inevitable if companies are required to label GM food, I think they’ll want to put a positive spin on it. If the cornflakes box says, “X Brand Corn Flakes are made with corn that was genetically modified to be resistant to root worms so that the farmerst that grew the corn use fewer pesticides,” or if the applesauce jar reads, “These genetically-modified apples have more vitamins and minerals,” then maybe people would begin to see the broad-reaching benefits of genetic engineering.

Not in America, We would be better off labeling foods that aren’t genetically engineered than engineered ones. Though I do remember an article where some companys were trying to make it illegal to label “genetic free” food as such.

Previous centuries of genetic engineering (hybridization) performed upon our foodstuffs is completely dissimilar from the genetic modification that is occuring today.

Modern genetic modification involves the insertion of gene segments that normally would not ever be found in the original plant or animal. The lack of comprehensive testing mandates clear and obvious labeling of these products.

Until a lack of detrimental effect is scientifically proven, the hasty introduction of these foods should be avoided. Current agricultural methods are quite capable of feeding the world’s population without resorting to unproven and potentially dangerous modifications.

The “Starlight” modified corn fiasco should serve as an excellent example of the impact of ill thought out introductions of modified plant forms into our environment. Any money saved by the farmers involved pales in comparison to the profound waste of edible foods due to the contamination that happened.

Rest assured that there are sterling examples of valuable genetic modifications. The “Golden Rice” strain may one day save large segments of the world’s population from vitamin B defeciency. This seems to be the exception rather than the rule, so far.

Labeling of modified foods should not be driven by public hysteria, but instead by sound scientific reasoning and proper testing protocol.

OP: IMO, labeling such food would only cause unnecessary panic. I mean, many people might think “If they have to point it out, it can’t be safe.”

I just finished a nice bottle of caffeine-free diet soda, on the label of which are emblazoned the cryptic words “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine”. Now I’m sure that there are many people who don’t realize that this warning is relevant only to people with a certain fairly rare medical condition, and who find it quite alarming. But the soda companies don’t seem to have keeled over from the “unnecessary panic” that this labeling may have caused.

If we’re going to defend the free market and consumer choice and all those good things, then for heaven’s sake let’s stand up for the principle of informed consumer choice. If some people want to avoid biotech innovations that turn out to be perfectly safe and benign (and as Zenster notes, we really don’t yet have all the evidence we need to draw that conclusion definitively about such a radical innovation as GM foods), and other people want to make a fortune by providing goods that cater to their timidity, then so what? It’s a free country, right? Hell, half of the existing commercial marketplace makes its living from the premise that the stuff that the other half is trying to sell you is really bad for you. Why is unnecessary consumer paranoia suddenly unacceptable when it comes to genetically modified foods?

As Podkayne points out, the things that cause large-scale, commercially disruptive panics tend to be sudden negative revelations about practices that have been going on unnoticed for a long time (Alar on apples, E coli outbreaks at Jack in the Box). Technical innovations that get lots of ongoing attention and monitoring are less likely to cause consumer panic. No need for corporate Big Brothers undertaking to decide what we the public do and do not need to know, IMHO.

I believe that we have a superfluous negative in there somewhere.

To expand, the public’s current concern it completely justified. The prior use of questionable material and ingredients in food packaging and foodstuffs by agribusiness justifies a rather skeptical stance upon the public’s part.

We need a strict and rigorous testing protocol before any genetically modified foods are brought to market unlabeled. Absent that, labeling is the order of the day. I fail to see how anything but pure marketing greed would dictate otherwise.

Zenster: *I believe that we have a superfluous negative in there somewhere. *

Nah, not really, although it was a little tongue-in-cheek, and I think you’re probably right that current levels of consumer concern about GM foods are more common-sense than paranoid. I was just pointing out that we usually accept even “unnecessary” levels of consumer concern about various real and imagined dangers (radon! lead! fat! cholesterol! asbestos! electricity! flammable nightwear!) as a simple fact of life that helps keep the economy going. So why, when we’re talking about GM foods, should we suddenly think of consumer concern as a pathological state of panic that we need Big Brother to save us from by limiting our access to scary information? I agree with you that the most likely explanation for this inconsistency is sheer marketing greed on the part of companies who don’t want to see “unnecessary panic” driving customers away from their products.

Let me pop in here.

First, disclosure. I work for a certain large multi-national with major investments in genetically modified crops. In fact, my work deals precisely with the same. Because the employer frowns on comment on our research and so forth (Intellectual Property issues), I’m going to just give some general thoughts as an industry insider. I’ll stay out of this in large part bec. its not entirely approp. for me to comment too much.

Firstly, the (American) industry opposition to labelling and regulation is relatively new – and was not the position of most operators in the field. Rather, as a recent New York Times article (Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle, NYTIMES, : January 25, 2001) indicates (correctly), the impetus came from Monsanto’s new chief in the early 1990s.

Please do read the article. I give it two thumbs up for largely reflecting what I have witnessed as an insider (although again, do note I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who’s been in competition with Monsanto. Obviously this colors my perspective so I’m not claiming neutrality here)

This broke with other players, and prior Monsanto policy, requesting regulation and working with consumer and other groups to build consensus. It also broke with a relatively go slow approach. It was a huge mistake, on all fronts. Believe me, from our perspective, we’ve been cursing Monstanto’s strong-arm, full-speed-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedos approach for several years. Even when we followed along so as not to be shut out of the market.

Secondly, the characterization that there is a lack of comprehensive testing is wrong. However, at the same time, no one can anticipate every problem. Outside regulatory frameworks and verificatin, rolled back in the mid-1990s need to be reinstituted to restore confidence.

Thirdly, largely speaking the panic is overblown. There are serious policy concerns, e.g. regarding resistance management programs for B.t. products but this does not automatically make genetic modification bad. Nor do most modifications remotely pose a danger to 95% of the population. The remaining 5% of course can not be ignored, but reasonable not over-reaction is required. Rather, a more moderate and balanced approach is needed. There are immense rewards from the development of this technology, and in responsible hands. Careful, concerned players in the industry support reasonable, scientifically-based regulation so as to restore confidence, and yes, double-check us. As I said, we all try hard to check out avenues, etc. but in this field its good to have someone say, “wait, what about this!?”

So, I think Podkayne’s position is correct here.

Not quite cheese-making now is it?

Speaking as a consumer, I say, “Yes, I want those labels on there”.

Granted, 10,000 years of the Agrarian Revolution have also involved a certain amount of genetic manipulation of the plants and animals, but I don’t recall seeing any archaeological evidence for domestic animals with fluorescent jellyfish genes being developed, say, in the Hallstatt Culture.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with “We used to think…but now we know…” scientific factoids, I want to know whether my kids are eating taco shells made with GM corn. Maybe in 10 years we’ll see a factoid on the news, “We used to think that GM corn didn’t hurt anybody, but now we know…” and I want to feel good that my kids aren’t involved.

Erm… Starlink modified corn, yeah, I knew that…

Collounsbury, what a superb article. I have specifically quoted it again in this post so that more people might read it. So many of your comments are spot on about the hazards and immense potential benefits of this fledgling technology.

The corporate hubris of Monsanto’s public relations fiasco is only matched by the self-regulatory disaster of our national nuclear power generation program. Since the military only knew how to build nuclear bombs, our government in its haste to harness the atom, allowed an unprecedented degree of self-regulatory freedom to companies like General Electric and Westinghouse in the construction and operation of huge nuclear power generating facilities.

The result? Catastrophic mismanagement (can you say Silkwood?) of what could have been a significant solution to our nation’s energy needs. If you think otherwise, please examine the French nuclear power program, their record is an outstanding example of what can be done with this relatively clean energy source.

As rolling blackouts continue to sweep across California with repercussions for the entire nation, we should take note. A page should be taken from this lesson as we regard the millions of dollars of waste resultant from the Starlink agricultural disaster. Sadly, agribusiness cannot be trusted with self-regulation any more than the nuclear power industry could in its time.

What’s worse, there may be significant advances in agricultural productivity and pest control that have huge benefits for the environment and the public’s safety (reduced pesticide use). All of these futuristic babies may well be thrown out with the bathwater if agribusiness does not rein in its pursuit of profit and instead focus on actual benefit to the public, the ultimate consumer. That Monsanto and others have lost sight of this critical fact does not bode well for the public or for scientific progress.

Well, it’s hard to say.

The food business has a long history of corruption and pushing things through congress that benefit them, only to discover an ‘oops!’ later on.

First, we have been eating genetically modified foods for years, called hybrids, though they were created naturally. Now, if we produce, say, a better tomato, one which will produce bigger fruits on less fertilizer, not be prone to all of the pain in the butt problems, resistant to heat, pesky nematodes, cracking, and quickly rotting after ripening (most tomatoes are picked green, gas ripened to make them red, so they will not turn into mush within a day or two of reaching the consumers), it would be great. Imagine buying tomatoes that will not turn to pulp in your refrigerator for at least a week.

But, will we pay more? Farmers now have to struggle to make it against encroaching mega-farming corporations buying up farms, seed companies making limited life seed to prevent them from saving harvested seed to cut back on next years costs and the rising costs of power and synthetic fertilizer. So, they grow these E-Z-Grow tomatoes, cheaper to produce. Will they charge us more for them as ‘specialty’ items (like the yellow and orange ‘green’ peppers in the super market), or will the buyers jack up the prices before selling them to the dealers?

Historically, anything new coming out commands high prices. (Look at the drug companies: Viagra costs 4 cents pill to make. They sell it for $10 a tablet.) Remember Brockiliflower? A blend of broccoli and cauliflower? It was tasty, nutritious, interesting and too expensive for most people to buy. No stores around me carry it.

If we get vegetables like green peppers (one of the most costly in local markets), that grow bigger, easier, are more nourishing, last longer, are resistant to those damnable little worms that eat up the stalks and kill the plants, that would be great. But, would the government or food business regulate the amount of peppers marketed to keep the prices high?

You think cow milk is as costly as it is in the stores? How about cheese? Both are spin-offs from the beef industry and you pay more per pound for a good cheese than for a porter house steak. Plus, the ever present government regulation of farmers crops to make sure that we don’t get too much of any good thing hitting the market which might drive the prices down.

I’m not worried about the genetically altered food affecting us. Our stomachs destroy food products right down to their molecular structures. We have discovered genetic manipulation and there is no way that anyone is ever going to stop it now, so we might as well get it right.

BTW, there is a brand of commonly bought beef stew on the market and has been for years. It has no real meat chunks in it. The meat is textured Soya fibers, flavored to imitate beef. It doesn’t say it on the can. No one cares and they’ve been eating it for over 20 years.

here are some of the other links on this OP.
linkety links

Okay, for the record, I’d like to state I’m all for GM food. I love technology, and I love food; it’s the year 2001- where the hell are my food pills?

Also, I own a farm- I’m not a farmer, I just inherited it. Much of my family farms. GM foods are bad as far as they are concerned- seeds which produce plants which don’t produce seeds mean that within a few years, the you owe your soul to the company that produces the seeds. This is a bad thing- but I’m still for GM foods, as I feel that for humanity they’re good.

However- my mother-in-law, whom I love dearly, is deathly allergic to peaunuts and all peanut-derived substances. It’s hard enough for her to eat anything new, as things like peanut oil are in just about everything. How difficult will it be when we have lots of GM foods? Will x-brand rice clearly say it contains a few genes from peanut plants?

Probably not.

Collounsbury said:

I agree completely.

A few times when this topic has come up before, I’ve referred people to a recent book, Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods, by Alan McHughen. Unfortunately, I could not link directly to my review of that book, but now that review has been reprinted in a new 'zine called “E-This.” You can find that review here: Genetically Modified Foods – Are They Dangerous?

Having just read through this article myself, I am not ashamed to give it yet another plug. Quite a fascinating read!

Remember, the “millions of dollars of waste” didn’t result from the “contamination” of the human food supply by a GM product which is known to be unfit for human consumption; rather, a GM product found its way into the human supply which was not known to be not harmful; so, adopting a “better safe than sorry” approach, we decided to spend millions rooting out a product which hadn’t been approved for human use. To quote this page from the Australia New Zealand Food Authority: