WASHINGTON — Traditionally, the government has mandated labeling standards to warn consumers of potential hazards, such as smoking’s link to cancer and lung disease, and a high-fat diet’s link to numerous medical problems.
Requiring the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods, on the other hand, is a solution in search of a problem.
Advocates of GM labeling cling to the naive fiction that genetically modified foods are foreign and untested — unnatural products of wild-eyed scientists. The reality is that most of what we eat has been scientifically improved in some way.
In fact, the labeling question was vigorously debated in the 1990s and it was determined that labeling of new GM products would be required only if the foods themselves posed a safety concern, not because they differed from more conventional products produced in the usual manner.
The first GM products were introduced in the United States around 1994; and by 1999, approximately 60 percent of all produce found in the typical grocery store was grown using GM seeds.
Today, 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries grow GM crops. And numerous studies continue to confirm the safety of such products.
U.S. regulators should not adopt costly labeling requirements just to satisfy scientific illiterates — or to show their solidarity with the heavy-handed regulators in Western Europe, who “manage” their agricultural policies as effectively as they manage their economies.
The European Union, to its discredit, has effectively placed a stranglehold on genetically modified and bio-fortified foods. But it’s paid a high price for its restrictive policies, reducing potential agricultural output by an estimated 440 million to 900 million Euros annually.
The EU also has chosen to forgo two other benefits of GM crops: the fact that less chemical pesticides and less mechanical cultivation are needed in their production — both of which have significant environmental benefits.
The United States, meanwhile, has reaped a windfall from Europe’s phobic myopia, as leading European companies, such as Syngenta and BASF, have shifted their GM research centers here.
In terms of health and safety, many people seem to have blinders on when it comes to food, assuming that conventionally produced foods by definition are wholesome and safe, while genomic varieties require extreme oversight.
Yet, virtually all of the food safety problems we have encountered in recent years can be traced to conventional farming, including unsafe feed practices for poultry, salmonella in eggs, dioxin-tainted beef, Listeria-infected yogurt and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (or mad cow disease), which continues to affect trade in cattle, sheep and goats and cost the lives of more than 150 people in the United Kingdom alone.
In fact, even the European Commission, following an independent review, concluded that, based on all available evidence, there is, as of today, no scientific research associating GMOs “with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”
Simply put, all agriculture is based on the creation of new and improved varieties. Whether they are developed through genetic engineering or otherwise, we rely on hybrids for our daily bread. New plant and animal varieties happen in nature as well — within and across species — without human intervention.
Medical treatment of bacterial infections with antibiotics, by contrast, directly interferes with nature. Do opponents of genetically modified products reject modern medicine as well?
GM labeling is a solution in search of a non-existent problem. It would be far better policy for companies to label the minority of products that appeal to anti-GM consumers than to try to implement mandatory GM labeling.
And by the way, for the conscientious consumer concerned with such matters, that is what they already do. Whole Foods, for example, has all but made an industry out of the practice.
• Finston, a former executive director of the American BioIndustry Alliance.