Apr 20 2018

Update on Mandatory GMO Labeling

A recent commentary in RealClear Science makes a simple but important point – it is difficult for the government to properly regulate what it does not understand. That observation can apply to many things, as we recently saw with the questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The display was quite embarrassing, leading to countless parodies of the aged congress critters asking clueless questions of the young tech giant. This called back to mind the infamous comment by Senator Ted Stevens who described the internet as a “series of tubes.” While serious, this was part of important testimony regarding net neutrality.

The broader issue here is – how can our elected leaders hope to regulate cutting edge science and technology that they don’t understand? This is not limited to internet technology, but also to things like genetic engineering, CRISPR, cloning, stem cells and other biotech. How about artificial intelligence and robotics, or issues related to our energy infrastructure and climate change?

More and more, scientific literacy is a critical virtue we should demand of our politicians. Yet questions about important scientific topics hardly rate during elections.

Just one such important topic is the regulation of genetically modified organisms – GMOs. In 2016 Vermont was the first state to pass a law requiring labeling of foods that contain GMOs. The prompted a federal law, signed by Obama, that supercedes the state law. The federal law also requires labeling, but is less strict, allowing for scannable codes or telephone numbers that consumers can call to get more information. The USDAs guidelines on this law are due this summer.

I am strongly against mandatory GMO labeling for several reasons, but the primary reason is that the very concept of “GMO” is vague and imprecise. You cannot regulate something that you cannot define. You can, of course, simply make up an operational definition (like the USDA did for “organic”) but if there is no real scientific meaning behind that definition, what exactly are you regulating?

The current working definition of genetic modification is, “rearranging, eliminating, or introducing genes in order to get a desired trait.” Of course, by that definition all hybrids are GMOs. When you crossbreed two varieties you are introducing new genes. What about mutation breeding, the use of radiation or chemicals to create mutations in the hope that the occasional mutation will be beneficial. Why isn’t that genetic modification?

In March the USDA announced it would not include organisms modified through CRISPR technology as GMO. While I am happy about that – how can they possibly square that decision with their working definition? CRISPR is a technique for editing genes.

There is also the issue of what counts as an organism. Is purified sucrose from genetically modified sugar beets a genetically modified organism?  It’s just sucrose, chemically identical to sucrose from any other source. So there cannot possibly be any legitimate health concern for consumers (there will always be illegitimate ones). Some will argue that they want to know how foods are sourced because they don’t want to support GMO technology. But what technology is that, exactly? And of course, this leads to the more basic question – why? (More on that below)

Interestingly, even the stricter Vermont law exempted cheese from having to be labeled as GMO. There is a practical reason for this – the vast majority of cheese is made using rennet (an enzyme) that comes from genetically modified yeast. World cheese production would collapse if this were not the case. The second most common source of rennet is from the stomach lining of calves. Slaughtering baby cows is the more “natural” source, which creates a bit of a dilemma for the anti-GMO appeal to nature type. There is plant-derived rennet, but it is not as effective and there is only the tiny fraction necessary to fill world cheese demand.

This complexity is not nitpicking, it gets at the core of the problems with the very concept of “GMO” and therefore any attempt to regulate them. The term is essentially arbitrary, without a clear scientific meaning. It has largely been promoted by the organic lobby as a way of demonizing their competition, and marketing their brand through pseudoscientific fearmongering. Fear of GMOs are based almost entirely in scientific illiteracy.

For example, most Americans, unfortunately, don’t even really understand what DNA is. A 2016 survey famously found that 80% of Americans favor mandatory labeling of all food that contains DNA. Many people also harbor essentialist pre-Darwinian concepts of DNA. They think that a “fish gene” is an actual thing, and that it is essentially different than a plant gene. Vertebrates and plants share about 60% of their genes. Genes are just genes, they are not fundamentally different between different kingdoms of life.

Most people are also unaware of the fact that genes are swapped between species, even different kingdoms, all the time. Horizontal gene transfer happens in nature – so the core claim of the anti-GMO crowd that moving genes across kingdoms is “unnatural” is not only meaningless, it is factually incorrect.

The bottom line is that “GMO” is a false dichotomy without any real scientific meaning. It is used as a marketing ploy only, and we should not fall for it. This does not mean that biotechnology does not need to be regulated. It does. All biotech should be appropriately regulated, based on the true risks of the technology and its applications. Introducing new varieties onto the market should have some standard of evidence for safety, and those standards can vary based on the method of creation. Personally I think mutation farming should have at least as high a standard as any other method of genetic manipulation (it currently doesn’t).

But at present there is no scientific reason to suspect and no evidence to support the concern that there are any specific risks to health from any of the biotech methods currently considered “genetic modification.” We still should evaluate each new organism by itself, and all the current GMOs approved and on the market are perfectly safe.

What about the other factors, such as patenting life and Big Agro controlling our seeds? These concerns are all misplaced, attached to the vague category of GMO inappropriately. First, almost all seeds currently used by farmers cannot be replanted. The vast majority of current crops feeding the world are hybrids. Hybrid traits do not breed through, and so you cannot replant hybrid seeds. Farmers (at least in developed countries) haven’t been saving their seeds for a century. It is more cost and labor effective to just buy new seeds each year. This was true long before the first GMO was introduced to the market.

You can also patent hybrid seeds, or even cultivated varieties. Patents are not unique to GMOs, and not all GMOs are patented.

Technologies considered GMO also having nothing directly to do with pesticides or farming practices. Some specific applications of GM technology alter how we use certain pesticides, but that has nothing to do with the technology. Other applications, like golden rice, have nothing to do with pesticides. In any case – the real issue here is best farming practices. GMOs can be another very powerful tool in optimizing farming practices. However, the organic lobby has successfully equated GMOs and pesticides in the minds of the public.

All of these issues are tangential to GMO technology. Blaming GMOs is misplaced, and passing laws to arbitrarily label them will be counterproductive. It is pure pseudoscience, and we need elected officials capable of understanding the scientific issues sufficiently to make rational regulations.


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