As one of roughly a dozen Ph.D. scientists serving in state legislatures, I make a point of following policy issues with a scientific component, particularly when they concern my field of specialization, DNA replication and recombination.
One such issue is whether to require food produced from crops grown from seeds that have been genetically modified to be labeled as such. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are usually created by transferring genetic material from one organism to another using techniques that go beyond the usual plant or animal breeding.
Some states have passed laws requiring GMO labeling but stipulating that they won't take effect until neighboring states pass similar laws. Vermont's GMO law, which is scheduled to take effect in July and has no neighboring-state trigger, has drawn the most attention, prompting a coordinated effort to federally preempt and prohibit mandatory labeling before it goes into effect. So far, attempts by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to mediate the issue have not succeeded.
Labeling advocates say their opponents are all simply in the pocket of big agriculture, while anti-labeling activists call their opponents uninformed reactionaries. Both sides are vilifying each other, but both are overlooking an important argument.
First, I'll concede one point to the anti-labeling crowd that my pro-labeling friends won't like. It's been shown that the GMO end products that people eat haven't been negatively affected with the use of GMO technology -- they taste the same and have the same relative nutritional value. But we need to look beyond that to the health and environmental impacts of raising animals or crops under these circumstances.
Take the issue of using rBST (recombinant bovine somatotrophin) or rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) to treat cows and increase milk production by 10 to 15 percent. Increasing cows' milk production in this way has led to serious problems with the animals' health, including udder infections and lameness. That requires a greater use of antibiotics, which has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes.
Minnesota passed a law in 1994 allowing rBST-free labels for dairy products but with a stipulation that the labels state "no difference." The milk in my fridge reads, "Our farmers pledge NO Artificial Growth Hormones" followed by the line, "No significant difference has been shown in milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST and non rBST treated cows." Despite this assurance, significant numbers of Minnesota consumers have shown a preference for the non-GMO product.
The problem of "Roundup Ready" crops -- those genetically modified to be resistant to the popular Monsanto-produced herbicide -- is more difficult. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, for example, has approved genetically engineered varieties of barley, canola, corn, potatoes, soybeans, squash, sugar beets, sweet corn, tomatoes and wheat. During the approval process for Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto claimed that it was highly unlikely that weeds would develop resistance to the herbicide. This was proven wrong by a gene that evolved after exposure to Roundup, necessitating ever-increasing applications of Roundup and other powerful herbicides for weed control. In addition, the use of Roundup Ready crops eliminates milkweed -- and thus Monarch butterflies -- from treated fields.
These are some of the reasons why GMO labeling seems to me, as a scientist, to be a reasonable response to consumers' health and environmental concerns. And it's hard to make the case that labeling would be some kind of significant threat to the food industry, given that 64 countries already mandate it and continue to thrive.
Indeed, industry opposition is far from universal. The Campbell Soup Co., for example, now supports mandatory national labeling, with its CEO saying that it is time for the food market to adapt to consumer demand. Since the majority of the nation's corn and soybeans are now genetically modified and get made into popular processed foods, in the interest of honest disclosure Campbell proposes to add the label "Partially produced with genetic engineering."
It is already federal law that anything labeled "organic" must be GMO-free. Letting consumers know what foods they buy contain GMOs isn't too much to ask. To explain the agriculture industry's opposition to labeling, I find Upton Sinclair's words based on his exposure of unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry informative. In 1906's The Jungle, he wrote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on not understanding it."