GMO Labels Won’t Make Your Food Safer
You will soon see the words “partially genetically engineered” in small print on many food packages. Activist groups have spent millions of dollars fighting this tiny text, and food companies have spent millions fighting. And none of these efforts had anything to do with your health.
You will be forgiven for thinking that this is so. Whether we want to or not, we pay attention to labels, and they affect how we think food is good for health . Food marketers have exploited this instinct for years, imposing vitamins and fiber platitudes on every box of chocolate-frozen sugar bombs.
Now it is the turn of the anti-GMO activists. Vermont is the first state to require labeling for food made from genetically modified crops, and the law is due to go into effect on July 1 this year. Food companies tried to close it, but they failed . Companies like General Mills and Mars will now label their products across the country because it’s easier than trying to figure out at a factory what packages will end up in Vermont. Politically, it’s a touching story: grassroots groups triumph over Big Food. Only problem: GMO labels are stupid .
Both the labeling and anti-labeling movements are a colossal waste of money, since GMOs are not all good and not all bad. For example, some GMO crops use more pesticides than conventional crops, while others actually use less. If you are worried about pesticides, GMOs are a red herring. The anti-GMO conversation points are almost all misconceptions: all real problems are on the GMO / non-GMO border.
Labeling advocate groups know GMOs do not pose a major health threat
Since the first genetically modified crop was approved in 1994 , the technology has faced fierce opposition from people who wave their hands vaguely due to unknown health risks that may possibly be discovered sometime in the future. These risks were never realized .
To be very, very clear: genetically modified foods do not pose a serious risk to human health. Critics complain that testing has not been enough, but there have been thousands of studies , including long-term studies , that have looked for and failed to find any evidence that GMO foods are more dangerous than their non-GMO counterparts. The safety of GMOs is politically but not scientifically controversial.
[Negative beliefs about GMOs] grab our attention, they are easily processed and remembered and thus have a better chance of being transmitted and popular even if they are not true. As such, many people oppose GMOs in part because it makes sense that they might pose a threat.
People who oppose GMOs cannot make clear arguments against the harvest because they have nothing to do. Instead, they rode a wave of fear, almost devoid of information.
Where there are obvious dangers, no one dances around them. Cigarette warning labels do not say “partially derived from tobacco,” and health risks are not casually mentioned in efforts to control smoking. They immediately come out and say , “Smoking causes cancer, heart attacks and serious lung disease.”
Compare that to what GMO labeling groups have to offer. Almost all of them do not rely on arguments like “Europe is labeling them”. They usually say there weren’t enough tests — technically correct, depending on how you define “enough”.
Even when labeling groups try to cite scientific evidence, health risks are ignored. For example, a group called Label GMOs states that “we see enough independent data to suggest possible health risks,” but they do not mention what those risks are. Want to dig further? Like this. They cite a petition that cites “significant scientific evidence,” as well as a link to a 2009 American Academy of Environmental Medicine press release. The link does not work. If you plug it into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, that document will link to the (also extinct) position paper that finally discusses the factual research , in the sense that its authors were able to delve deeper into six studies done in mice and rats with obscure results. , if present, value.
And that was the most valid argument I have found. The Just Label It campaign is one of the loudest groups out there, but there is no information on health risks on their front page. And they don’t have a Why tag on them ? Page , but this is a reference to a talk from TED Chairman Gary Hirschberg . In it, he directly admits:
While safety is an important issue, it is not really the reason why these ingredients and products need to be labeled.
The real reason, he says, is that people have a “right to know” and that more testing is needed.
Hirschberg does mentionone study that found an insecticidal toxin in Bt corn was found in the blood of pregnant women. Sounds scary, right? But remember that this toxin is found both in GMOs and in the extremely harmless natural spores of bacteria, which are also used as pesticides in organic foods . Avoiding GMO-labeled foods will not help you avoid this toxin.
GMO labels don’t really tell you anything good.
Concerns like Hirschberg’s about pesticides demonstrate why GMO labeling is useless. He won’t even do what the label campaigners want . As we mentioned earlier, what people don’t like about GMOs is not related to GMO issues . Here’s what labeling won’t help with:
- This will not help you avoid using pesticides . Both the Bt insecticidal toxin and Roundup’s herbicidal chemical, glyphosate , are used in both GMO and non-GMO crops.
- It will not kill superweeds as this environmental issue is also not related to GMOs . ( By the way , non-GMO sunflower oil is another major maker of superweeds )
- This will not prevent unpredictable mutations in the DNA of crops , because mutational breeding does more DNA damage than any “GMO” technology , and no one calls it.
- This will not prevent allergies or make allergy tracking easier . GMOs are already being tested for similarity to common allergens before they can be approved. If you do have an allergic reaction to an unusual protein in a particular culture, the label “partially genetically engineered” will not help you track down which ingredient is to blame.
So, if GMO labeling doesn’t help you, the consumer, make better choices – who does it help?
It helps people who have struggled with perceived risks feel better. And it helps brands like the 700 Just Label It campaign partners who sell non-GMO products.
Some food companies’ fight against GMO labeling also uses you as an irritant: they say that you will be afraid to buy completely safe products because of the GMO labeling. And both sides argue that “consumer confusion” will result in them not getting their way – whatever it is – on this issue. Nice try, but the problem is that consumers are already confused. Both sides must stop treating GMOs as good or bad.
We, as consumers, do too. The No GMO sign shouldn’t make us feel good; it’s just another marketing gimmick with no real health benefits. And what is “partially genetically engineered” shouldn’t scare us away.