Consumers Want GMO Labels, Not Barcodes

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Consumers Want GMO Labels, Not Barcodes

On Wednesday last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack once again floated the idea of consumers using barcodes to identify foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as an alternative to requiring food manufacturers to put a label on products that contain GMOs.

Referring to the ongoing debate over GMO labeling laws, Vilsack, according to the Associated Press, told the House during a hearing on agriculture spending: “We could solve that issue in a heartbeat.”

Solve the issue for whom? Tot-Toting Moms with busy schedules who would need to take the added step of scanning every item in the grocery store, instead of just glancing at the label? Older people who struggle as it is to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies?

Or how about for those people who can’t afford—or don’t want to own—expensive smartphones? (Vilsack suggested retailers could provide a scanner for consumers who don’t have smartphones—again, not exactly convenient for busy shoppers, or older people who already feel overwhelmed by the latest techno gadgets).

This isn’t the first time Vilsack has pushed the barcode scheme. Earlier this year, Vilsack’s comments in Europe on how “barcodes” might be a trade-friendly alternative to the European Union’s mandatory labeling of GMOs helped inspire 50,000 protestors to take to the streets in Berlin on January 19, chanting, “We are fed up.”

And last July, according to Agweek, Vilsack told attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival that the “‘challenge’ in the GMO labeling debate is that food labels have either provided people nutritional information about products or warned them about possible allergies.” 

The assumption here is that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) can’t require labeling of GMOs because the labels wouldn’t provide nutritional information or warn of a potential health risk, such as allergies—therefore the FDA has no authority to require the labels. 

This reasoning harkens back to the FDA’s 1992 decision that GE foods are “substantially equivalent” to foods that have not been genetically engineered (a fact the industry promotes, even though the corporations that make the seeds used to grow GE foods own patents on those seeds).
 
How did the FDA arrive at the conclusion that GMO foods are “substantially equivalent” and therefore “generally recognized as safe?” Not through valid testing or sound science. In a recent op-ed on Truthout, Alex James reports on how the FDA has never formally safety tested GE crops for human consumption: 

This was quietly mentioned in December 2014, during a testimony given by Michael Landa, former director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition with the FDA, before the House Subcommittee on Health.

His testimony drew attention to a fact often overlooked in the ongoing debate around GE food safety: The FDA has exempted developers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from premarket reviews of their products, which would normally result in a formal assessment and either a rejection or approval of their safety for human consumption.

 Vilsack blindly supports the FDA’s flawed decision, despite mounting evidence that GMOs are linked to health issues. As reported by the Associated Press:  

Vilsack has been supportive of genetically modified crops, saying at the hearing that there is “no question in my mind” that they are safe.

Vilsack’s cronies in the biotech and junk food industry have enlisted the help of the media to create that same level of blind, unquestioning support among consumers. A perfect example of industry’s manipulation of the media is the cover story in this month’s issue of the National Geographic Magazine. In the article, titled “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”  author Joel Achenbach, writes: 

We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok—and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood.

GMOs are safe because, “as the experts point out” there’s “no evidence” that they aren’t? 

We don’t know which “experts” Achenbach consulted—biotech industry “experts” maybe? But we do know that it’s patently false that there’s “no evidence” to suggest GMOs may cause health problems in humans. In fact, there’s so much evidence we couldn’t possibly cite it all here.

Let’s start with Vilsack’s own comment about the FDA not being able to require labeling because GMOs aren’t in the category of foods that may cause allergies.

In his March 2012 testimony before the American Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health, Michael Hansen, Ph.D, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, presented scientific evidence suggesting that at least some genetically engineered foods do contain allergens. Hansen wrote: 

In 2001, the report of a Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) Expert Consultation on Allergenicity of Foods Derived from Biotechnology, held at WHO headquarters in Rome, laid out a detailed protocol (a decision tree) for evaluating the allergenicity of GE foods. None of the GE crops, including GE corn, on the market in the U.S. have been assessed using such a protocol.

Allergies may be the least of the problems GMOs cause when it comes to human health. Responding to the National Geographic piece, US Right to Know pointed out that not only is there no legitimacy to the pro-GMO camp’s claim regarding a “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe, but: 

A comprehensive review of peer-reviewed GMO animal feeding studies found roughly an equal number of research groups raising concerns about genetically engineered foods and those suggesting GMOs were as safe and nutritious as conventional foods. The review also found that most studies finding GMOs foods the same as conventional foods were performed by biotechnology companies or their associates.

How does the biotech industry get away with articles like the one in the National Geographic?
 
Timothy A. Wise, of the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University, explains it this way:

What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to do exactly what National Geographic has knowingly or unknowingly done: paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.

As for “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe, Wise says this:

The consensus on the safety of GM food is perfectly clear: there is no consensus. That’s what the independent peer-reviewed literature says. And that’s what the National Geographic’s beautiful exhibit on its food series, in its Washington headquarters, says: the “long-term health and ecological consequences are unknown.” And that is an accurate statement of the consensus, or the lack of it.

The paid shills for the petroleum industry undermined a growing consensus on climate change that was inconvenient for industry, backed by a well-funded PR campaign sowing doubt about that scientific consensus. In this case, the biotechnology industry and its allies are declaring a consensus where there is none in order to silence their critics.

The debate is over what level of precaution we should apply before allowing the large-scale commercialization of this new technology. And anyone stating that there is a scientific consensus on GM safety is coming down squarely against precaution. Reasonable people disagree, and that does not make them “science doubters.”

Clearly, Vilsack comes down “squarely against precaution.” Which means, in his mind, consumers should settle for some techno-scheme involving barcodes, instead of demanding laws requiring food manufacturers to provide reasonable information for reasonable people.

Our solution? Tell Secretary Vilsack: We don’t want no stinkin’ barcodes. Consumers want mandatory labeling of GMOs.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, former communications director for Common Dreams, is now the associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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