EU’s GM labeling raises questions

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The European Union Parliament voted last week to require the labeling of genetically modified food products. The new rule requires any food or food products with more than 1 percent of genetically modified organisms sold in the European Union to carry a label. The parliament rejected a proposal to label meat and milk from animals fed feed derived from GM crops.

Both the sale or cultivation of GM crops have been blocked in the EU since 1999. Because of that ban, one estimate says U.S. corn growers have been denied access to markets worth about $200 million a year – while soybean growers have still been able to sell a GM variety previously approved that is worth about $1.5 billion in European markets. About 75 percent of the world’s GM crops are grown in the United States.

No doubt the recent debate abroad will spark similar discussions on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps rightfully so.

Why is agriculture so stubbornly refusing to even discuss labeling?

“Mandatory labeling has the potential to mislead consumers into believing that products of biotechnology are either ‘different’ from conventional foods or present a risk – even though FDA and other regulatory agencies have determined that the food is safe.” (National Corn Growers Association).

Labeling is a “slap in the face to American agriculture.” (American Farm Bureau Federation)

Yet U.S. consumer focus group studies conducted by the FDA in 2000 discovered most participants expressed great surprise that food biotechnology has become so pervasive in the U.S. food supply. Even among participants who considered themselves well-informed about biotechnology, many registered amazement.

“The typical reaction of participants was not one of great concern about the immediate health and safety effects of unknowingly eating bioengineered foods, but rather outrage that such a change in the food supply could happen without them knowing about it,” reported the FDA.

“They were mainly disturbed by the lack of public information and public input to a major development in the quality of their food supply. This information about prevalence served to reinforce the most negative and cynical views some participants held about food biotechnology. Some participants saw this as evidence of a conspiracy to keep consumers in the dark, that is, the rationale for not informing the public must be that there is something to hide.”

What do we have to hide? Nothing. What are we gaining with this line in the sand? More mistrust.

No, there is no scientific justification for labeling. Labeling might suggest health risks that don’t exist. And I agree consumer interest alone is not enough to justify mandatory labeling.

But I also agree with the American Medical Association’s comments that “consumer curiosity may be a very compelling reason for manufacturers, processors, and distributors to voluntarily provide truthful, nonmisleading information that the consumer – for whatever reasons – is interested in knowing about the food he or she purchases. Such appears to be the case for GM foods.”

Many issues in biotechnology are surrounded by uncertainty, points out Paul B. Thompson, a distinguished professor at Purdue University who specializes in the ethics of biotechnology.

Many people wonder if they can trust the decision-makers or the university researchers, he adds. “They wonder if politicians and researchers keep their best interests in mind. It is certainly a matter of trust.

“It’s also a matter of how people communicate, because the way we communicate an issue can promote or decrease trust.”

It’s difficult for consumers to separate “biotechnology” from “genetically modified.” There are significant benefits to be gained through biotechnology – a new genetically engineered corn resistant to corn rootworm could cut insecticide use as much as 14 million pounds a year, and “nutraceuticals” or foods that will have real health benefits, are just a biotech generation away.

To be a trustworthy, Thompson says, “a person must consider the interests of the public before his own and thoughtfully consider all sides of the issues. He needs to listen to and address people’s concerns.”

Agriculture has not done that.

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