The crossfire on whether or not to require mandatory labeling of GMOs has become so heated and partisan that it's hard to discern the facts from rhetoric. The latest volley was last week's Slate essay that challenged labeling proponents' lack of substantive proof that GMOs are unsafe or unhealthy. Author William Saletan raises many valid points, but equally fails to address the hyperbole and enormous gaps between the promise and actual performance of agricultural biotechnology. But beyond this imbalance, he entirely misses the fact that there is a long history of government-enacted labeling disclosures that have nothing to do with safety concerns. There are no unique risks associated with orange juice "from concentrate" compared to fresh juice, or from "wild caught" vs. farmed fish, but both require labeling so that consumers can choose. Most content on food labels is government mandated, marketing oriented, or intended to inform consumers about information that people just want to know.
And that is the fact that trumps all the others. Despite years of heated and often exaggerated rhetoric on both sides of the GMO labeling debate, poll after poll reveals that the public's skepticism has remained unchanged and that people just want to know. The latest Mellman polls show the same results as polls taken three years ago -- nine in every 10 of Americans want labels on foods containing GMOs so they can make up their own minds. Here are the three reasons why this choice makes sense:
Inadequate Scientific Research:
There have been essentially no studies by the government or independent researchers designed to assess the long-term public health impacts of growing and consuming GMO crops. FDA approvals are essentially based on studies conducted by industry. GMO technology developers design and conduct all of the studies carried out on their own inventions, interpret the results (almost always finding "no new or novel risk"), and report their conclusion to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of a "voluntary consultation." The FDA then performs a cursory appraisal of the submitted data, and rarely asks for additional information. It does not verify the data's reliability, nor attempt to independently confirm the conclusions drawn from it by the companies. This is why the FDA is always careful to say, in closing out a "voluntary consultation" that "you [the company] have concluded..."
The lack of credible, independent research on GMO safety, performance, and economics is the root cause of lingering controversies over GMO crops like papaya and golden rice, as well as confusion over whether Integrated Pest Management, organic systems, or GMOs are the best way to deal with pests.
In order for us to be able to trust the science, both the public and private sectors need to invest more heavily in the work and careers of independent scientists willing to develop and apply improved tools to monitor the impacts of GMO technology and alternatives. Until then, skepticism will not diminish, in spite of the propaganda.
Drastically increased herbicide use despite claims to the contrary:
While proponents promised that GMO crops would reduce pesticide use, they have, in fact, locked farmers into unilateral, chemical and toxin-based pest management systems that are bad for farmers, the environment, and consumers. However, the use of herbicides, a category of pesticides that kill weeds, has explosively increased, according to USDA survey data. Where GMO soybeans and cotton are grown in 2015, overall per acre herbicide plus insecticide use will be close to double the level in 1996 at the dawn of the GMO era.
Since the mid-1990s, when biotech companies introduced genetically engineered crops that are not adversely impacted by the herbicide glyphosate, its use has increased 16-fold to the point where the USGS has found glyphosate in 60-100 percent of Iowa rainwater. Over-use of this formerly effective weed control has led to the rapid spread of over a dozen serious glyphosate-resistant weeds, so now farmers must now spray three, four, or five herbicides. This includes older products with greater potential to cause damage. Farmers also now apply herbicides throughout the growing season instead of a single application at the beginning with greater potential to damage the soil, harm wildlife, and increase collateral damage, particularly among those living in farming areas and drinking water with multiple herbicide residues in it.
Thanks in large part to to GMO crop technology, glyphosate is now by far the most heavily used pesticide in history, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Glyphosate is now showing-up in the drinking water, air and breast milk of mothers in areas where these herbicides are in concentrated use. Most people on the planet are exposed to glyphosate on a near-daily basis. And this past spring, the world's most respected cancer research group -- the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic."
So to summarize, regardless of whether GMOs are ultimately found to be safe to eat, the WHO IARC findings raise serious questions about whether they are safe to grow. As resistance continues to escalate due to over-use, farmers will have no choice but to continue increasing their use of these toxic herbicides. This is surely material to us all.
It's Simply Our Right to Know
Responsible advocates are not demanding mandatory GMO labeling because they are unsafe; we are demanding labeling because people want, and have a right to know how our foods are grown. Just Label It and other responsible labeling proponents have never argued that science has proven GMOs to be unsafe, although we have and will continue to make the case for more in-depth, independent science using state-of-the-art methods to be as sure as possible that they are safe. But while scientific questions persist over the safety of today's GMO crops, the now sharply upward trajectory in the amount of herbicide needed to bring most GMO crops to harvest on every continent on which GMO, herbicide-tolerant crops have been planted, is deeply worrisome.
People have dozens of valid reasons for wanting to know whether their food is from genetically engineered crops. Some are grounded in religious or ethical views. Others reflect concern over the long-term consequences of corporate control over both seeds and the food supply. Yet others legitimately believe that there has been inadequate independent testing of GMOs for health and safety.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that facts and rhetoric will continue to be debated for years to come. In the interim, mandatory labeling of GMO foods will give consumers another option to steer clear of uncertainty and support farming systems and technology more closely aligned with personal values and concerns. This Thursday, Congress will vote on H.R. 1599 the so-called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (colloquially called the "DARK Act" for Denying Americans the Right to Know), which deceptively purports to support federal labeling disclosures. But in fact, this bill would effectively block any hopes of American joining the other 64 nations around the world who have instituted mandatory GMO labeling. This bill needs to be stopped so that all interested parties - food companies, farmers, regulators and consumers can sit down at a table and forge a mutually acceptable and responsible mandatory labeling protocol free of hyperbole and judgment that simply allows consumers to vote in the marketplace for the kind of food system we want.
Please contact your congressperson and tell them to stop the DARK Act and vote against H.R. 1599.