Thoughts on the California GMO labeling initiative

I’m guest blogging over at the Just Farmers blog today about California’s GMO labeling initiative. It’s an issue that I’m solidly on the fence about, and I’ve tried to present both sides fairly. I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think! I’ll be featuring farmer Mike Haley’s perspective on the issue next week. Here’s a teaser from the post:

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California’s GMO Labeling Initiative – A Consumer’s Perspective

At an Earth Day festival in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, a GMO labeling activist grabbed my arm and told me that labeling GMOs was ‘a matter of life and death.’  A few months and a lot of signatures later, the initiative met the requirements to be voted on this November.

As a Californian and an environmentally concerned citizen, I’ve been following the developing dialogue on GMOs with interest. I’ve seen a growing divide between public’s perception of genetic engineering and the scientific community’s. And while I share concerns over the long term effects of genetic engineering, I really don’t like the reactionary rhetoric being used to promote labeling. In other words, I’m a fence-sitter.  Instead of taking a stance, I’ve been talking to people: scientists, farmers, environmentalists, parents, science teachers. I’m no closer to making a decision, but I’ve been able to look at the major arguments of each side.

As far as I can tell, the argument in favor of labeling is based on:

  • Desire to make and promote transparent, educated choices. As consumers, we want more information about our food so we can make responsible choices for our own health and that of the environment.
  • Concern about the long term effects of GMOs on human and environmental safety.  The safety testing and information on GMOs is not readily accessible to consumers, and the info that is available tends to be from activists who emphasize risks.

Keep reading at Just Farmers

Photo credit: MillionsAgainstMonsanto

21 responses to this post.

  1. I really appreciate your writing this and I hope you write more on the subject! I’ve been accused of doublespeak and worse when I’ve tried to express that I don’t have a firm opinion on mandatory labeling so it is really nice to know that others feel this way.

    I’m a scientist with a pretty good understanding genetic engineering and the potential safety concerns of various farming and food production methods. There are a lot of things I’d like to know about my food – the treatment of farm workers is much more significant ethically, in my opinion, than whether a food is “natural” or not, especially considering that farming itself isn’t natural no matter how you do it and most food crops and animals bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors. This label won’t tell me anything about farm workers. I have concerns with large corporations pushing out the smaller ones, but this label isn’t going to help with that either. The label also won’t tell me about pesticide usage, runoff controls, on farm biodiversity, and so many other things – like whether a product has ingredients made from animals!

    I just keep coming back to the thought that while I want to know all of these things, I don’t know if it makes sense for me to try to force this information out. There is a difference between want to know and right to know. There are certainly some things that should be mandatory like ingredient lists and nutritional information, based on past problems with food adulteration. Allergens should have mandatory labels for hopefully obvious reasons. Everything else is really marketing and personal preference. It just makes more sense to me for labels that aren’t based on safety or health to be voluntary, with the rBST label being a great example.

    With rBST, farmers can choose to use this technology or not even though they might get lower milk yields without it, packagers can choose whether they want to separate out non-rBST milk and whether they want to label, and consumers get to choose whether they want to pay a little more for this option. A mandatory label puts the onus not on the people who want to make choices but on those who don’t care, which makes me really uncomfortable. I fear that it will result in pushing even more small companies out of the market. The potential for unintended consequences seems very high with mandatory labels, with little benefit.

    Still, I go back to wanting to know more about my food and everything else I buy. A voluntary label seems to meet my needs pretty well and I can vote with my dollars. I’m open to other arguments for labels but I just have a hard time seeing the benefit of mandatory over voluntary.

    And of course, I can’t support a campaign that uses bad science and sometimes outright lies to promote their cause. One has to wonder what their true goals are if they are willing to lie to get it.

    Reply

    • Hi Anastasia,

      I think the fence is a good place to be if we don’t have enough information or find both arguments compelling. I’d rather be on the fence than leap to conclusions, which is probably why I’m such a crappy activist!

      I agree that a lot of really significant things are lost in this debate over GMO labeling and the fear-filled speculation of possible impacts on human health. I’m more interested in the environmental impact of specific farming methods and pesticide use, and it does seem a little weird to make this into an ethical argument when issues like farm worker rights are much more clearly about disenfranchisement. (I might be willing to support a fair trade label for US-produced food — unlike finding out what crops are GM, info about worker safety is hard to come by!) However, I certainly don’t oppose people’s access to information about what they are consuming. I’ll be interested to see what kind of spin both sides come up with closer to November, then do my best to vote in accordance with the information I have.

      Reply

  2. Posted by EcoCatLady on 07/05/2012 at 20:58

    Hmmm… well, I think I’m with the hubs on this one. A big warning label saying that the product contains GMO’s doesn’t really tell me very much, but listing the ingredients as BTcorn or GMO soybeans would give me much more useful information. Frankly, as a person with food allergies, I find it totally ridiculous that companies don’t have to list every ingredient anyhow… can’t tell you how frustrating it is that virtually all labels say things like “spices,” “herbs” or “natural flavorings” – which means they’re off limits for me. Grrrrrr…

    But, as long as I’m complaining… the thing that really bothers me about the GMO issue is the fact that the companies producing these things seem to want to have it both ways as far as their products being “substantially different” from the non GMO varieties. When it comes to farmers whose fields have been infected with GMO crops – they’ll sue their pants off for patent infringement, but when it comes to telling consumers what’s in the food they eat, they want to claim that there is no substantial difference between genetically modified and regular varieties. So which is it? It can’t be both! Seems to me that if it’s different enough to get a patent and sue farmers for patent infringement, then it’s different enough to list separately on the ingredient list. Just my (perhaps not so humble) opinion!

    Reply

    • Hi Cat,

      I’d also be much more supportive of labeling the individual ingredients. After all, I might not be concerned about transgenic papayas, but I might want to boycott Bt corn because I’m interested in boycotting Monsanto products, for example.

      The fact that so much biotech is owned by large corporations accounts for a lot of the doublespeak you perceive in the different/ not different debate. They’re in the business of making money, so they exploit the difference when it suits them. However, if you look at studies about nutritional comparison between GM/ not GM or allergenicity studies or anything purely science-y, you can get a better feel for how different (or not) the GM versions are from the non GM (keeping mind, of course, that growing even the same non GM crop in a different environment can sharply affect nutrition and other factors). I’ve only read the studies for the papaya, but the differences — a little more of one vitamin, a little less of one — seem to be negligible.

      Reply

  3. I appreciate that while couching their propaganda in nonpropaganda terms, at least the biotech posse on this site discloses their bias- Anastasia @geneticmaize.
    It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

    Upton Sinclair (1878 – 1968)
    Label GMOs!

    Reply

    • Hello Dogcgtor,

      I’m interested in hearing your reasons to label GMOs. I appreciate Anastasia’s perspective on labeling that comes from her background as a plant scientist, but I’m open to hearing yours as well.

      Reply

      • Posted by dogctor on 07/10/2012 at 11:55

        My reasons for needing labeling are multiple. As a citizen of a democratic society I have a fundamental right to know what I am putting into my body. Food is very personal and the state of wellness is priceless. Furthermore, parents have an obligation and a duty to protect the bodies of their children from environmental harm. We are responsible for our own and our family’s health–corporations like Monsanto, Dow etc never have been and never will be.
        If you look up the vision the original biochemists had regarding genetic engineering, (Asilomar Conference) http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1980/berg-article.html you will note they were concerned about “containment” of genetically modified organisms, and were advocating caution.
        All caution and indeed the precautionary principle was tossed into the wind, when GMO foods were force- fed to people and animals. In the meantime the medical world we are challenged by dozens (if not hundreds) of chronic idiopathic (those no one knows the cause of) diseases. In my world as an animal doctor, I see inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatic disease, and hepatopathies (liver conditions) we don’t know the etiology of. Since the gut is immunologically active, since the liver is essentially a filter for the gut, and since the triad of these organs are intimately related to the food one ingests, I need to see a clinical trial comparing the nuclear structure and expression of proteins in animals (and their progeny) eating GMOs as well as a proteomic “fingerprint” of these organs to see if there is differential expression of proteins. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proteomics. Until multigeneration feeding trials are competed by unbiased researcher, having learned about all the holes in the regulatory system, and having read the science– I, as a veterinarian, can’t look my clients in the eyes and tell them categoricaly that GMOs are not contributors to these common diseases, which cause a great deal of suffering. Animals are sentinels- the canaries in the goldmine. If I, as a veterinarian, don’t know that GMOs are not causing chronic diseases, how can medical doctors? GMOs should be labeled in order to introduce traceablility and be able to create an environment in which pre-market (as the AMA suggested) as well as post-market analysis can be carried out.

        Reply

        • Hi Dogctor,

          Would you support a labeling measure that labeled the individual GM ingredients rather than putting a label on front? I certainly don’t oppose knowing more about your food, but I don’t like the scare factor of the label on front, which has previously been reserved for substances that we have excellent proof cause harm.

          As a pet owner, I am actually more cautious about the cat’s health than I am about my own. I appreciate your work in keeping animals healthy!

          Reply

          • Hi Jennifer.

            If the label stated the following in the ingredient list:
            genetically modified corn, genetically modified soy, genetically modified sugar beets; beef fed on genetically modified corn, milk from a cow fed genetically modified alfalfa, yogurt from livestock fed genetically modified corn and genetically modified alfalfa, etc– I would have no problem with it… it would be the truth. Truth in labeling is the goal, not scare tactics.

          • Hi Dogctor,

            What about when the proteins have been denatured so that the resulting substance (e.g. canola oil made from GM rapeseed) is molecularly identical to the non GM version? Are there any indications that animal products from animals fed on GM feed are significantly different in nutrition or chemical composition than the ones that weren’t? As far as I know, no country that has labeling requires animals that were fed GM feed to be labeled. I expect labeling to tell me something significant about what I’m eating — whether it contains a specific allergen, how much saturated fat, or (I wish) what kinds of pesticides were used and in what quantity. If it’s indistinguishable on a molecular level, I question how much this is actually an example of ‘truth in labeling.’

          • Posted by dogctor on 07/29/2012 at 13:09

            Ooops, forgive me…I almost forgot. If you read Malatesta’s studies (see Kevin’s blog), you will note that there is an example of hepatocytes (liver cells) which might look indistinguishable using the common serum biochemical tests, when comparing animals raised non GMOs and non-GMO soy–If we use (ALT, AST, GGT, etc) and yet on a nuclear level show differential splicing. When followed through to second generation, he believes the nuclear changes observed initialy lead to increases in metabolic rates and further on, accelereated sensescence. So, it depends on which molecules we are talking about–according to him the expression of proteins in liver cells of second generation soy ingesters is different, but his studies are being disputed– not convincingly enough for me yet. Is that true of second generation cats who eat second generation GMO eating rats? Who knows….Pandoras box of questions with few answers I can find.

  4. Gosh, I could go on & on about why I am against GMO seeds/bioengineering & why I support labeling for weeks, possibly months. I won’t though & instead put forth a couple of points to consider.

    1-The goal of Monsanto et al is to CONTROL the entire food supply. He who controls the food supply, controls the people & the world.

    2-There is no way to prevent cross pollination between GMO & non-GMO crops. Pollination takes place through the wind, bees & birds, primarily.

    3-Monsanto successfully fought labeling rBGH in dairy products. Why? They feared people wouldn’t buy dairy laced with rBGH. That would hurt their profits, which is their only concern. After the introduction of rBGH & the overabundance of milk on the market, prices dropped drastically. The number of smaller family owned farms in America after that declined dramatically.

    4-The GMO seeds are patented. Monsanto “created” their GMO seeds, therefore the patent. “It’s ALIVE!” They are playing god with our food supply, our planet & the health of all living things on the planet.

    Humans cannot control Nature. We’re in the boat we’re in now because humans refuse to accept that fact & continue to try to exert their control over it. We are only succeeding in killing Nature, not controlling it.

    Finally, check out Bill Moyers interview with Vandana Shiva on his latest show during the last 30 minutes: http://billmoyers.com/segment/vandana-shiva-on-the-problem-with-genetically-modified-seeds/

    Reply

    • Hey EcoCatWoman,

      I’m fairly neutral on biotech in general and Monsanto in particular. I think the Supreme Court’s ruling that genes could be patented was really problematic and don’t care for the way biotech is concentrated the hands of a few major corporations, and can understand why voting for labeling would seem like striking back against a monopolistic food industry with major transparency issues. I also support mandating third party testing for new crops.

      To address a few of your points, I believe there are actually very good ways of minimizing gene flow. Timing is important in segregating, and so is choosing crops with heavy pollen that self-pollinate, such as papaya and wheat. Crop diversification is another. This is a presentation from UC Berkeley plant researcher Peggy Lemaux on the subject. http://ucbiotech.org/resources/presentations/new_talks/coexistencePB170.pdf

      Biotech is a tool, and in our present situation in which we and our existing plants and animals have to adapt very quickly to climate change, it could be a valuable one. I’m not opposed to labeling, but I hope to see more of our future decisions based on evidence rather than scare tactics.

      Reply

      • Posted by dogctor on 07/29/2012 at 13:01

        Hi Jennifer.
        As a scientist one is taught to Always questions assumptions.

        You are asking good questions:

        As far as I know, no country that has labeling requires animals that were fed GM feed to be labeled. I expect labeling to tell me something significant about what I’m eating — whether it contains a specific allergen, how much saturated fat, or (I wish) what kinds of pesticides were used and in what quantity. If it’s indistinguishable on a molecular level, I question how much this is actually an example of ‘truth in labeling.’
        Agreed. My patients (cats) becoming widely accepted and no longer very controversial are obligate carnivoire. So from my perspective, I need to know about meat.
        1. How do we know that the proteins are denatured such that they are not allergenic? Do we know what the allergenic epitopes are? Do we know if they are broadly allergenic or allergenic to some individuals because of genetic polymorphisms. What is the nature of “denaturation”? I don’t know–haven’t seen any studies.
        Can you point me to any?
        Thanks
        Thank you.

        Reply

        • Hi Dogctor,

          I consulted some biologists on Twitter and have a few links that might be helpful to you. First is a summary of European methods to test oils and other soy products for GM soy content: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/ingredients_additives/34.ingredients_additives_soybeans.html GMO The site (not pro GMO) claims that the refining process destroys soy DNA and protein to the extent that it’s not possible to tell oil from GM soy from non-GM. A different study on allergenicity of refined oils (peanut oil in this study) suggests that very little protein remains after going through the refining process. http://www.bmj.com/content/314/7087/1084.abstract . The biologists also told me that further cooking would destroy even more proteins.

          I have one journal article about the allergenicity and nutritional testing performed on the GM papaya. I would think that the papaya would present more risk of allergenicity since it is eaten raw, although of course it’s not highly relevant to dogs and cats. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to send it to you (I think it may be behind a paygate otherwise). I would think that each GM crop has different allergenicity concerns and hesitate to generalize about all of them.

          Reply

          • Posted by dogctor on 07/29/2012 at 22:03

            Thanks for trying Jennifer. Sorry to tell you: the first link is totally inadequate to give me any assurance of safety for my patients.

            >>> Toxicological assessments on test animals are not explicitly required for the approval of a new food in the EU or the US. Independent experts have decided that in some cases, chemical analyses of the food’s makeup are enough to indicate that the new GMO is substantially equivalent to its traditional counterpart. Feeding tests are only requested in cases of doubt.

            Nonetheless, the results of animal tests are routinely presented to the European safety assessment authorities. In recent years, biotech companies have tested their transgenic products (maize, soy, tomato) before introducing them to the market on several different animals over the course of up to 90 days. Negative effects have not yet been observed.

            GMO critics claim that feeding studies with authorised GMOs have revealed negative health effects. Such claims have not been based on peer-reviewed, scientifically accepted evaluations. If reliable, scientific studies were to indicate any type of health risk, the respective GMO would not receive authorisation. <<<
            Have your biologists friends look up all the articles on Pub Med written by Serallini.

            What I need to see to be satisfied on behalf of my cat patients–are studies, including the actual data and the statistical work. 90 day trial on a rat are totally inadequate, even if findings in a rat translated to a cat🙂
            I need them to be double blinded cross over studies (like the one on peanut oil) on several hundred cats–say two hundred cats eating a diet containing GMOs and two hundred –same diet ,,minus GMOs; which consist of a urinalysis, routine blood work including liver (albumin, triglycerides, ALT, Alk phos, AST, GGT, bile acids, glucose, BUN ,globulins), pancreas (lipase, amylase, TLI, fPLI), kidneys ( urinalysis, BUN, creatinine, electrolytes, phosphorus, calcium) and intestinal ( folate and cobalamin levels) to start; followed by biopsies –which include routine histopathology, histopath with electron microscopy, histochemistry and proteomics on the above organs –to be satisfied that they are safe. The number of cats needs to be statistically relevant given that millions are eating the stuff. Understand, I've had the experience of basing decisions on drug data consisting of a hundred animals, which when used on millions lead to severe side effects in less than 1%. And yet, I have to be able to recognize that <1%, to be in a position to help them–because I did see them.
            Statistics matter a whole LOT!
            Given the billions of dollars the industry earns, the experiments would cost a pittance in comparison to earnings and profits. I would like to see the data in JAVMA and or the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

            But since clinical feeding trials are not even in the planning stages, I endorse GMO labeling (if not for the cats) for people.

          • Hello Dogctor,

            I think your requests for animal-specific tests are reasonable, and I agree that the lack of third party testing in the deregulation process in the US creates at least some potential issues. I support a more stringent third party review system. However, that’s not something labeling would fix.

            I’ve looked at some of Seralini’s studies as well as criticism of his methodology and findings. I am not convinced of his objectivity and am reserving judgment for more robust, repeatable experiments conducted in conditions that his peers agree are appropriate.

            I think it’s wonderful you care so much about the welfare of the animals you treat. My cat eats a grain-free diet (no corn, GM or otherwise!) and I hope she’ll have a long and healthy life, although she had some health issues before we rescued her that may well affect her health.

  5. Posted by dogctor on 07/29/2012 at 22:38

    As far as allergies to foods go ….. The current ‘state-of-the-science’ utilizes a weight of evidence approach, as outlined by the Codex Alimentarius commission (Alinorm 03/34 A), recognizing no single endpoint is predictive of the allergenic potential of a novel protein.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19425225

    If you accept that genetic engineering of plants only changes a single defined protein in the plant and that protein doesn’t act as an epitope, you might be OK with the current allergy testing of GE foods. I believe there is No way to know what the genomic changes in the entire plant genome are…. genes are not modular, the sequences flanking the inserted DNA are not published. I don’t know if anyone publishes how many copies of transgenic DNA are inserted….
    and so in the absence of doubled blinded cross over clinical feeding trials, don’t have any reason to believe that new allergenic epitopes are not created by the process of genetic engineering itself.
    In case you want to see what an epitope looks like… cool image: http://www.rit.edu/cos/sms/acm/research/epitope.php

    Thanks for trying!

    Reply

    • Hi Dogctor,

      Am I mistaken in thinking that novel proteins are not unique to GMOs? When the kiwi fruit was first introduced, a number of people in a population that had not previously encountered the kiwi experienced allergic reactions. Do you think all new foods (or at least new to a population) should go through the rigorous standard you are requesting of GMOs? And should they be labeled because their allergenicity has not been fully studied?

      I’ve also been reading on different types of plant breeding techniques that seem, to me, to cause more drastic and less targeted changes to the plant genome, such as mutation breeding and chemically induced polyploidy. Would you want to label those as well? I am personally far more comfortable with, say, a cisgenic plant that contains a gene taken from another plant in the same species than something that is the result of mutation breeding.

      Reply

      • Posted by dogctor on 07/31/2012 at 12:03

        Hi Jennifer. I don’t know anything about kiwi fruit.
        The general principles of food allergies important to understand are:
        1. there has to be exposure to a protein for a subject to become sensitized in the first place. No one can be allergic to anything without having first been sensitized and having created antibodies to the proteins, locally or systemically.
        2. There are No accurate tests for food allergies available clinically . Detecting food allergies is a time consuming process of elimination and controlled limited ingredient diets; and is thus very challenging to perform in real life.
        3. The more information available to consumer, the higher the likely-hood of detecting allergens.
        4. I don’t agree that Agrobactereum/ gene gun/ carbide whisker technology is precise.
        I might be a tad more comfortable with cisgenic than transgenic, but I am uncomfortable with either so long as the science process is not transparent and is corporate (in contrast to third party -independent researcher with no conflicts of interest) controlled, and so long as there are no clinical food trials.

        Reply

  6. Posted by dogctor on 07/31/2012 at 12:11

    >>>I think it’s wonderful you care so much about the welfare of the animals you treat. My cat eats a grain-free diet (no corn, GM or otherwise!) and I hope she’ll have a long and healthy life, although she had some health issues before we rescued her that may well affect her health.<<>>Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

    I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

    I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.<<<

    Reply

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