Jul 09 2018

USDA Tries to Implement Terrible GMO Labeling Law

The USDA just ended their public comment period on their proposed execution of the terrible Federal GMO labeling law passed in 2016. The public comments reflect the mess this law is, and why it is a bad idea.

The law simply states that the USDA will develop rules for mandatory labeling of bioengineered food. Here is the relevant definition in the law:

‘‘In this subtitle:
‘‘(1) BIOENGINEERING.—The term ‘bioengineering’, and any similar term, as determined by the Secretary, with respect to a food, refers to a food—
‘‘(A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and
‘‘(B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.

The first criterion – in vitro recombinant DNA techniques – is at least fairly specific. However, it does not distinguish cisgenic (from a closely related species) from transgenic (from a distant species). This does not technically include gene silencing, because no new material is being sliced in. Therefore by this definition “GMO” cultivars produced through gene silencing do not need to be labeled ad BE (bioengineered).

Perhaps because this first criterion is not specific to transgenic alterations, the second criterion was added – not obtained through breeding or found in nature. The “found in nature”, however, is very problematic. This is because transgenic gene transfer does occur in nature, – so called horizontal gene transfer. In fact, recently a sweet potato variety was found to have a naturally-occurring transgene from a soil bacteria.

To skirt this, in their proposed regulation the USDA chooses to define “found in nature” as actually (and not just potentially) found in nature. They suggest to apply current patent law, as things found in nature cannot be patented. They are being generous, but I guess their job is to make this law work.

Also at issue is whether to consider highly refined products as BE. Sugar from BE sugar beets, for example, are so refined that it is indistinguishable from sugar from other sources. The sugar itself does not contain BE DNA or RNA and so should not be considered BE. This is reasonable, and in fact is the only scientifically defensible position. Of course, anti-GMO activists are pushing to count as BE anything derived from a BE source.

The law itself already states that animals who consume BE food cannot be considered BE, so this is not up for discussion.

But nothing the USDA can do will fix the inherent problems with the law – it sets up a false dichotomy (BE vs no BE) and then mandates that food producers label their products as if this will give useful information to the public. This is destined, however, to sow only controversy and confusion.

What do people really want to know about their food? They want to know that it is safe to eat. The BE label will give them precisely zero information about this. All GMOs currently on the market have been demonstrated to be both safe and essentially equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts. Further, foods which are not BE (to use the new term invented by the USDA) may be harmful. They may contain allergens, contaminants, or naturally-occurring toxins.

The USDA has already essentially gone through a process to determine that foods derived from GMOs are safe, and so providing a label which allegedly gives the consumer information about safety does not make any sense.

Some consumers might want to know that their food was produced in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Again they will not be informed by a BE label. Genetic engineering is simply one of many tools that can be used to modify plants to give them desirable properties as food crops. Environmental impacts depend, rather, not on the origin of the crops, but on how they are used and overall farming practices. Non-GMO foods can be farmed in a harmful way, and GMO foods can be farmed in a sustainable way. Boiling all this down to one designation misinforms the public.

Consumers may want to know that their food is “natural.” This is just substituting one misleading false dichotomy for another. Almost nothing we eat is as it occurred in nature prior to our tinkering. There is a continuum of techniques used, and drawing an arbitrary line somewhere makes no logical or scientific sense.

For example, there are thousands of crops on the market that are the product of mutation breeding – using chemicals or radiation to promote mutations, and then using a lot of trial and error to find the fortuitous mutations. Many neutral or potentially problematic mutations are going to occur along the way as well. But using radioactivity to produce mutant crops is not considered genetic engineering and is also acceptable as organic (another false dichotomy). Why is that? That’s a good question.

Consumers also express an interest in knowing that their food purchases are not supporting BigAg. Well, good luck with that. The BE label will not help them there either. Specifically people have been told to be offended by the fact that seeds can be patented, and farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year rather than replant their saved seeds. (Farmers don’t seem to mind, though.)

Well, for about a century prior to the first GMO coming on market, most crops were hybrid varieties. Hybrids varieties can be patented, and their seeds cannot be replanted because the hybrid traits do not breed true. So for 100 years prior to GMOs farmers were buying their patented hybrid seeds every year – about 95% of American agriculture used hybrid seeds. The introduction of GMOs changed nothing, but suddenly we are supposed to be concerned about patenting seeds.

The fact is that not all BE crops are patented (some are off patent and others are open source), and many (most) non-BE crops are or were patented.

So again, the BE label will give consumers zero information about the business ramifications of their food purchase.

If the label gives consumers no actual information that they want, what is the purpose of mandatory labeling? That is quite clear – the purpose is to create a false dichotomy, an artificial category of food that can be demonized. Consumers are then handed a list of false fears and concerns, and they are all attached to the demonized category. The push for labeling is to help with this demonization.

The apparent purpose of all of this is to promote a competing brand, organic. It is also tied up with the green environmental movement, but I think they were just very willing (and gullible) recruits for what is really just one brand demonizing their competitor.

I have still yet to hear a legitimate reason for the mandatory labeling, and how it will in any way help consumers. This is actually an anti-consumer law, foisted on the public by competing industry interests. Big industry actually loves it, because they can charge a premium for a fake health halo conveniently manufactured for them. Food producers love to put labels on their products that suggest they are safe and have wholesome qualities, and that reassure consumers not to actually think about the complexities of agriculture and food manufacturing.


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