Oct. 23--I have had many conversations lately about genetically modified foods, not surprising under the circumstances. Not all, but most have been pleasant exchanges among people with differing opinions. The discussion usually doesn't lead to debate over whether food derived from genetically engineered plants is good or bad, dangerous or safe. It's more often about who sells the stuff.
Friends, acquaintances, intelligent people I admire, tell me I am mistaken. I am wrong to oppose labeling GM foods and wrong to oppose Initiative 522 that would require it. The primary reason, they say, is I should fear corporate behemoths intending to dominate American agriculture for profit and greed. Monsanto, the international food sciences and chemical giant, which markets widely used genetically modified seed for corn, soy and other crops, is the perfect suspect. I must loath Monsanto. The sign wavers and protesters in butterfly suits and crop-ripping vandals have a legitimate point. If Monsanto is opposed to GMO food labels, and it is in a big way, then any sensitive and sensible person should support them.
Well, it's hard to argue with that. I'm not going to defend Monsanto, or its corporate history. You can't win there. To the best of my recollection I've never had any contact with Monsanto and it certainly hasn't offered to put me on the payroll or slipped me bucks under the table. Maybe they sent me an email press release or two -- I used to be the farm writer here -- but they didn't sway me since I can't remember them. Actually, bribes have been constantly non-existent in my career. A phone company lobbyist once offered to take me to a fancy golf course to talk telecommunications bills, but I turned him down (discussing legislation while golfing is not my idea of fun. If you are me, golf is never fun). So much for my career as a corporate shill.
If bad guys sell seed to farmers, shouldn't I want large, conspicuous, front-facing labels on the products that originate with that transaction? "Partially produced by genetic engineering" becomes code -- brought to you by the people we strongly dislike.
Since when did we start labeling food based on corporate policy? Food labels supply a vague list of ingredients and some nutritional information. They don't say anything about plant breeding or agricultural practices or what brand of herbicide the farmer used, because beyond ideology that doesn't make any difference in what goes in your mouth. Your partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or lecithin might be processed from oil seed with different and perhaps oddly manipulated genome, but that doesn't matter. The strands of protein floating around in the seed's cell nucleus aren't the issue, because none are likely to affect you. And you don't label food if the seed company once sold nasty chemicals to the Defense Department. You don't label food because the wrong company sold herbicide to farmers in Iowa. You don't label food if you want people to buy your product and not their's.
I happened across a policy statement from the American Phytopathological Society on this issue. Never heard of them? These are plant pathologists, the studiers of plant disease. They are scientists, but they have a stake here. "APS has long opposed regulating food, feed and fiber products based solely on the particular technology that was used to create the varieties/cultivars. Thus, APS advocates regulating on the basis of the products derived and not the breeding process. Gene transfer to achieve disease resistance, as well as nutrition, color and taste, have a long history in plant hybridization and cytogenetics. These techniques are considered conventional in breeding even though they constitute gene mobilization from both species and genera to recipient plants. Currently there are several efforts to require labeling for products derived from plants produced using molecular genetic manipulation. ... To date, no documented and reproducible studies have shown harm to human or animal health associated with GM crops ... Thus, labeling foods as GM would be considered arbitrary and capricious and would be confusing to consumers. Further, such labeling could reduce the availability and use of biotechnology for the management of plant diseases."
Those pesky scientists, they actually like technological progress. They don't want to scare people away from it for no reason beyond politics and brand loyalty. Imagine. Maybe they don't hate Monsanto enough.
Tracy Warner's column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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