Is GMO labeling a he-said, she-said debate?
Is GMO Labeling A He-Said, She-Said Debate?
Forbes, 19 December 2011
I was recently surprised to discover, along with other Forbes readers, that my fellow contributor Henry Miller had written an op-ed strongly disagreeing with an opinion I’d blogged about.
I'd written that I believe genetically modified (GM) foods should be labeled, so that consumers have a choice about whether or not, or how often, we'd like to eat them just as we have a choice between organic or not. I didn't delve into the matter of whether GM foods are safe, wanting to keep to the topic of labeling, and for this reason I used surely some of the gentlest language ever employed when discussing Monsanto, the world’s largest provider of GM seeds and by far the biggest muscle behind the movement preventing the labeling of GM foods. (In its fiscal year 2011, it muscled in nearly $12 billion in net sales.)
While I blog from the point of view of being a mom making choices for my family, Miller writes under his credentials as an academic and former scientist. So I was surprised he’d bothered to respond to my post, and surprised, too, that even with the help of co-writer Gregory Conko his logic was muddied to the point of making Monsanto seem a modern-day Gregor Mendel and me a “radical food activist.” (A label, to be honest, I rather enjoyed it’s a nice balance to being called “Doris Day” by The New York Times.)
I was less surprised, however, once I realized that at least one Monsanto executive sits on the board of the Hoover Institution, where Miller is a Fellow. Though since Miller was the founding director of the FDA office dedicated to GM issues, where he was known for his speedy approvals, surely he’s acquainted with a number of Monsanto folks.
My surprise abated, too, as I discovered the long list of topics on which Miller and I disagree. He, for example, believes restrictions on the use of the chemical BPA in things like baby bottles and plastic containers are nonsense, that DDT should make a comeback, and that people who suggest caution regarding the pesticide Alar, synthetic chemicals and even leaky breast implants are “fear profiteers,” while I feel quite the opposite. He’s also been linked to a big-tobacco-funded assault on what he likes to call “junk science.” (Maybe Miller’s editorializing should come with a warning label.)
These differences aren’t reducible to mom vs. scientist, or even Left- vs. Right-leaning politics. GMOs are the cover story topic of this month’s issue of “The American Conservative,” in which Joel Salatin writes, “In 2010, some 67 scientific studies, from different parts of the world, impugned transgenic modification.”
One of Salatin’s central arguments is that, “A culture that views animals and plants as inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated ”¦ will view its citizens the same way. And other cultures the same way.”
I doubt I can write anything that might shift Mr. Miller’s opinions, which he’s certainly entitled to and has his reasons for. But since the premise of this blog is to share information with readers as I encounter it, following some recent reading, three of Miller’s assertions seem particularly worth addressing.
To start with a small one: Miller writes that the FDA “requires labeling only to indicate that a new food raises questions of safety, nutrition or proper usage.” But this doesn’t really hold up, since products throughout supermarkets are labeled as “organic,” “irradiated” or even “made from concentrate.”
Miller also calls the safety record of GMO foods “extraordinary,” writing that there hasn’t “been a single ecosystem disrupted or a single confirmed adverse reaction.” Which, of course, is ridiculous to say short of being omnipresent, he can hardly be aware of all changes occurring in all ecosystems. Additionally, it’s just not true, as the beginnings of such changes are occurring.
In addition to GM crops being found growing in the wild, calling into question their potential long-term effects on wildlife in those ecosystems, genes from GM crops, as The Guardian reported in 2005, have “transferred into local wild plants, creating a form of herbicide-resistant ‘superweed’.” These superweeds at least one of which, pigweed, can grow three inches in a day are causing farmers to use even more herbicide (though Miller asserts that farmers planting GM seeds "spray millions fewer gallons of chemical pesticides").
Fast Company reported that herbicide resistance has grown beyond what weed scientists have ever seen before and is leading to the development of alternative chemical solutions one of which, an expert told The New York Times, is expected to be responsible for a "large-scale problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of trees, if not more."
Dr. Ron Epstein, at San Francisco State University, warned as early as 1996 in a research paper that genetically engineered organisms released into the environment “can disrupt the functioning of ecosystems, reduce biological diversity, alter the composition of species, and even threaten the extinction of various species and change climactic patterns. In addition, genetic engineering can aid in the creation of new pathogens against which the biosphere cannot develop natural defense systems.”
As for “adverse reactions” in humans, that, too, is hard to prove or know particularly since sufficient testing of GM foods wasn’t completed when the first GM food, StarLink corn from Aventis, entered the food supply in a major way.
As Marion Nestle describes in her fascinating “Safe Foods: The Politics of Food Safety,” the EPA approved StarLink corn in 1998, but only for use as animal feed, since testing wasn’t sufficient and a “key protein in StarLink corn appeared similar to other proteins known to cause allergic reactions.”
In 2000, however, the StarLink corn was found in Taco Bell taco shells, leading to a recall of 2.5 million boxes and recalls of 298 Mission Foods products. But it hardly stopped there. The farmers who’d bought the StarLink seeds filed a class-action suit, saying they’d never been told that the corn was for animal feed only they hadn’t been separating it at all. Subsequently, Japan found 28,000 tons of StarLink corn in its food supply, the Canadian government spent $1 million trying to keep it out of theirs, and two years later Australia still found StarLink corn in one-third of its test food samples.
Following the taco shell discovery, the EPA asked its Scientific Advisory Panel to advise it regarding the “allergenicity of the StarLink protein,” Nestle writes. The panel ultimately responded that they were “uncomfortable with the available data.” Not a perfect recommendation for a product that had so weaseled its way into the global food supply that Aventis asked the EPA to set a “tolerance” limit for StarLink that was higher than zero, since it was impossible to get rid of it completely.
With GM foods both so prolific and unlabeled, it’s impossible to know what health trends might be tied to them.
A small aside: If corn can’t be contained, imagine how quickly genetically engineered fish could slip into natural waterways. Before a Senate hearing on the topic last week, Dr. George Leonard, the Aquaculture Program Director at the Ocean Conservancy, testified that his organization “cannot yet conclude that the introduction of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption the AquAdvantage farmed salmon is safe for the environment. ”¦ What is at stake is no less than the future of fish, natural ecosystems, and our seafood supply.”
Finally, Miller writes that labeling GM foods would “put groundless fears ahead of science promoting ignorance and hysteria among consumers.”
Beyond being completely condescending to all Americans, this point is backward: We are currently being kept ignorant about what we’re eating. It’s ignorance that I’m arguing against.
The “groundless fears” comment is also particularly rich coming from Miller, who in a separate article about Europe’s food-poisoning outbreak wrote, in regard to spinach, that “processor labels such as ‘triple washed’ and ‘ready to eat’ must be tempered with skepticism.”
I have plenty of skepticism, and it grows with each “life enhancing” product later found to be the opposite and each “upstanding” company disappointingly revealed to be the reverse. Vioxx, for example, one of the world’s best-selling pharmaceuticals making an annual $2.5 billion for Merck, which called it a “miracle drug,” according to CBS News was later pulled from shelves after being found to double the risk of heart attacks and strokes in users.
Johnson & Johnson, a company that has spent the moon making its brand synonymous with babies and families and wholesomeness, was recently found to have known carcinogens in its baby shampoo.
And PCBs, once celebrated as wonder chemicals, were discovered to be toxic and today have so permeated the environment that they’re even found in the cord blood of newborns. The Washington Post has reported that Monsanto, which was one of the largest producers of PCBs, knew as early as the 1930s that PCBs were dangerous, though the American public didn’t begin to become aware of it until at least the late 1960s.
For these reasons and more I stand by the statement that I’d like to know when I’m eating or buying GMOs, or feeding them to my small child. Dr. Leonard, in his Senate Committee testimony, wrote that our nation’s seafood future “shouldn’t be left to individual private companies or the FDA alone,” though Henry Miller would have us trust the health of our families and the environment to the latter.
I’m grateful that Miller responded to my blog post, extending the discussion of GMOs and their labeling. More public dialogue and greater awareness are the only ways that the future of all food won’t be decided by well-financed companies and a dubious government agency.
Whatever Miller’s feelings about my position, as a parent it’s my moral and even legal responsibility to exercise caution and skepticism and when in doubt to err toward good sense. When small, vulnerable lives are at the heart of a matter, to do anything less would be criminal.