Image courtesy of Rodale
On Friday, I had the privilege of attending a fascinating debate right in my own backyard: the Georgetown University campus. The debate was organized by FoodPolicy.Us, a multimedia platform designed to foster a broad based dialogue about our food system. The organization’s public events cover a wide range of topics through a variety of structures, including panels, lectures, teach-ins, dinner series, and pop-up restaurant gatherings.
This particular debate was on the subject of GMO Labeling. The moderator, Tim Beach, is a Professor Geography and Geoscience at Georgetown, and the university’s director of the program in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA). He has been awarded more fellowships and honors than can be counted, and it was a pleasure to hear his insightful lines of inquiry. The two panelists were Dr. Cathleen Enright, Executive Vice President of Food and Agriculture at Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotechnology corporation and an leader in genetic food engineering, and Scott Faber, a lawyer who is working as Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group (EWA). Dr. Enright was presenting the argument against mandatory labeling, while Mr. Faber was advocating the pro-labeling position. Both argued their positions exceptionally well, and managed to be civil in spite of the emotionally charged topic.
Though the panel was titled “GMO Labeling: The Changing Political Landscape,” the debate was not about labeling so much as it was the issue of mandatory labeling. Dr. Enright made clear that she supports the right of companies to opt into labeling privately; as you’ve no doubt heard, starting in 2018, Whole Foods will require all products with GMO ingredients that are sold in their stores to be labeled. Dr. Enright made clear that she thinks this is the company’s prerogative, and that she also supports organizations like the non-GMO project. The issue at hand was whether or not all food manufacturers should be required by law to label GMO products–the same issue that was at stake in the defeated Prop 37 bill in California this fall.
As the debate got started, Dr. Enright articulated BIO’s major opposition to mandatory labeling. It is this: in this country, mandatory labeling is typically reserved for foods (or products) that have a proven health risk. We’re told that milk is pasteurized because unpasteurized milk contains more microorganisms than raw milk and is, according to the CDC, 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness than unpasteurized milk. We see labels on Sweet N’ Low because saccharin has been shown, in concert with cyclamate, to cause bladder cancer in laboratory rats (though its safety for humans is the subject of some debate). Trans fats are now being labeled because of their implication in heart disease. When a food is labeled by law, she argued, it is because it poses a known hazard. Since there is no hard evidence that genetically engineered foods pose a health threat–and a lot of peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that they are safe–Dr. Enright’s position is that mandatory labeling of GMO’s will frighten and alienate consumers and possibly interrupt the food chain needlessly.
Mr. Faber countered this argument by saying that health risks are actually not the only grounds for mandatory labeling. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938 holds that products cannot be labeled deceptively; they cannot be labeled as one thing and really be another. Mr. Faber’s argument is that consumers today who purchase “corn” expect it to be the corn they know and recognize from their whole lifetimes; they do not expect it to be corn that produces a protein that kills insects, a foodstuff that has entered our food chain only within the last twenty years. Consumers don’t expect salmon to actually be salmon that grows twice as fast as non-GMO salmon. Genetically modified foods should be labeled, he alleges, because what they really are and what consumers believe them to be are two different things.
It was a great debate for many reasons: the complex issues at stake, the well argued positions on both sides, the uber-smart student questions at the end, and the fact that the two panelists were able to argue amicably. What fascinated me most was that health risks were largely left out of the debate; indeed, the two scientists and Mr. Faber all conceded that no health risks from GMO foods are known, and that the goal of labeling should not be to alarm consumers about health. As someone who comes from a holistic background and spends my time writing about food and healing, I hear a great deal of the anti-GMO argument, and it is usually from the health perspective (though I’ve naturally heard anti-corporate and environmental arguments, too). It was interesting to witness a debate focused not on whether or not GMOs are really the hidden causes of obesity or autism, but rather, the legal grounds for making consumers aware of them.
Of course, the debate did ultimately delve into health, environment, and the broader virtues (or lack thereof) of GMO crops. Dr. Enright’s principle argument in favor of GMOs is that they have the capacity to resist harsh weather and other conditions that might jeopardize crops. For this reason, they may be what is necessary to feed the world’s ever growing population. Organic and small scale farming, for all of its virtues and appeal, may not be powerful enough to fight off malnutrition and starvation on other continents. Is the anti-GMO position a luxury that only financially secure people in first world countries can afford? Is it privileged?
No direct counter to this position was offered, but Mr. Faber raised another difficult question in response: what about Roundup resistant “superweeds,” which are growing in response to foods that have been engineered to be resistant to roundup? Is there an environmental cost to GMOs that might outweigh their potential benefits?
Beneath all of this, too, was an argument about how genetic engineering fits into the broader scheme of human agriculture. Dr. Enright pointed out that genetic modification is simply the latest step in a process that began with Mendel’s crossing of pea plants; human beings have always created “novel organisms” through the agricultural process, and in fact GMO production is more carefully monitored than other methods, like chemical sprays, have been. Mr. Faber argued that, because GMO foods are relatively recent (they have been a major part of our food supply for twenty years or so), and because so little evidence exists about their longterm impact, they are and should be regarded as new entities, even if food production is essentially timeless.
I tend to buy non-GMO foods, in part because of where I shop (often my farmers market, often Whole Foods, where a lot of stuff is GMO-free), in part because most GMO ingredients end up in heavily processed food, which I don’t eat a lot of, in part because I share many peoples’ visceral discomfort with the idea of genetic engineering, and largely because I have concerns about the corporate monopolies involved in GMO production. It’s not a hard and fast stance; if tofu is the only vegan option at a restaurant, I’ll get tofu, even if it isn’t GMO free. This is all part of the balance I strike as a conscious consumer who is also determined to live flexibly in the real world (fortunately, it’s more than easy to purchase GMO-free tofu and tempeh for my own kitchen!).
This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t have questions about corporate monopolies, or GMO food safety. Though health may not have been the focus of the panel, it was on my mind. Sifting through the evidence we have about GMOs is no easy task. The majority of peer-reviewed evidence out there points to the safety of GMOs, but there have also been some studies that call potential hazards into question. (Marion Nestle lead me to this report, which is illuminating; the now famous French study led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, which linked GMOs to tumor development in rats, has been widely critiqued for its complications and incomplete data, and it does not seem to me to be a reliable resource.) On both sides of the debate, it is hard to find impartial research. Many studies supporting the safety of GMO foods have been funded by those who are developing them, which makes consumers understandably hesitant. On the flip side, a lot of the criticisms of GMO foods are from people who are expressly opposed to them, and some are not rooted in hard science or experimental data.
As someone who is considering a career in gastroenterology, I’m curious about the alleged possibility of a connection between GMO foods and intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome results when tight junctions, which help to maintain a barrier in the gut, are disrupted, and unwanted particles or proteins pass into the bloodstream. It is a somewhat new and only partially understood phenomenon (indeed, it is only just now being recognized within the medical community), but it appears to be presenting more frequently. A host of issues could be to blame for it (including any of the many suboptimal foods that are common in the standard American diet), but the fact that the condition has been on the rise since GMOs were introduced into our food supply is a hot topic in GI health circles. We don’t have research to substantiate such a claim, and we may find that leaky gut has nothing to do with GMOs at all. But the question is, until we have more longterm evidence of GMO safety, is the fact that there might be a connection enough to make us steer clear?
But because food policy/production is not my area of expertise, I welcomed this debate as a change to become more conscious and informed. I certainly left the panel with more information, if not more clarity, than I had before. This was the first time I’d given hard thought to questions of access and privilege in the realm of GMO production. What about global hunger, and the fact that GMOs may be the most effective choice in combating it? Then again, if GMO foods are one day proven to be unsafe, will that mean they have been disproportionately supplied to people who have already been made vulnerable by famine? Can GMO technology exist without enabling corporate monopolies of the food chain? How much research and how much time is necessary to establish their safety? If we set a precedent by making GMO labeling mandatory, don’t we have the responsibility to be consistent, and label other potentially harmful entities, too? What about livestock that has been fed tremendous amounts of antibiotics, for instance?
Again, no answers. But important questions to consider.
As I left the debate, I gave some thought to the issue of consumer demand, which was really only touched upon. I think it’s important to point out that there’s a legal precedent for labeling (the 1938 bill that Mr. Faber mentioned). But as a lot of commenters have noted, what about the fact that repeated polling demonstrates that consumers want to know whether or not their food contains GMOs? Doesn’t this carry some weight, too? Surely, consumers’ interests deserve to be balanced with the considerations of food suppliers. They are, after all, the very people whom food manufacturers are selling to.
I know you’re used to strong opinions from me, but this debate actually left me with more questions than answers. I’m eager to hear what you all think! Experience has shown me that you guys know a lot more about food production and agriculture than I do, so I’m eager for your feedback. What do you think about mandatory labeling? The language of Prop 37? GMOs in general–and specifically, how they fit into the demands of a growing population? This is a hot topic, I know, so let’s engage respectfully.
Big thank you to FoodPolicy.US for having me at the panel. And for the Sticky Fingers cookies that I first devoured, then transported back to the library, where hungry post-bacc students were waiting gratefully.