Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced legislation earlier last week that would give the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) sole authority for GMO labeling. According to Pompeo, the purpose of the bill, called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 (H.R. 4432), is to establish “once and for all, a federal standard for labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients that would keep prices low, enhance consumer choice, and ensure that information that reaches customers is accurate and does not mislead.”
Anti-GMO activists immediately attempted to blunt support for the legislation. Elizabeth Kucinich, policy director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), called the legislation a “Trojan Horse of a bill” meant to “muddy Congressional waters and keep consumers in the dark.”
Similarly, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) dubbed the legislation the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know” (or DARK) Act, noting that the “bill is identical to a legislative proposal floated earlier this year by the food industry’s main trade and lobbying arm, the Grocery Manufacturers Association.” “If the DARK Act becomes law, a veil of secrecy will cloak ingredients, leaving consumers with no way to know what’s in their food,” said EWG’s Scott Faber. “Consumers in 64 countries, including Saudi Arabia and China, have the right to know their food contains GMOs. Why shouldn’t Americans have the same right?”
The introduction of H.R. 4432 comes just as Vermont looks to mandate GMO labeling in the coming weeks. So far this year, 67 GMO labeling bills have been introduced in 25 states. Connecticut was the first to approve legislation requiring labels on foods with GMOs in 2003, and Maine passed similar legislation earlier this year.
H.R. 4432 would essentially nullify those efforts. While the measure would not eliminate the possibility of mandatory GMO labeling – the FDA could choose to implement a mandatory labeling regime on its own – it significantly reduces the prospect of that occurring. And for good reason. Mandatory GMO labeling laws are a terrible idea. These laws, and the anti-GMO movement in general, play on fears in the public, the same kind of emotionally charged fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.
Having a label of “genetically modified” tells consumers one thing, and one thing only: that a gene was inserted into or removed from a plant. Such a label does not, however, give any useful information to consumers, such as what the gene codes for, whether it was added to or removed from the plant, or what the effect of the gene is. A plant could be given the code to produce pesticides, a protein to resist herbicides, or a precursor to vitamin A. These are vastly different applications of GM technology, and have vastly different effects on food quality, safety, and environmental impacts. But a GMO labeling law would treat all application of GM technology in the same manner, a false equivalence.
That wouldn’t necessarily matter, however, if the scientific evidence suggested that GMOs are unsafe for human consumption. But it doesn’t. Credible research demonstrating the potential dangers of GMOs is not only sparse, it is also inconsistent. Rather, the research surrounding GM food is “quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.
In 2013, for example, Italian scientists conducted a meta analysis of 1,783 research papers, reviews, relevant opinions, and reports published between 2002 and 2012. Their conclusion: “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
In fact, every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has reviewed the research about GMOs and openly declared crop biotechnology and the foods currently available for sale to be safe. This list includes the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine (U.K.), the European Commission, and the World Health Organization, among others.
Simply put, the assertion that consumers are taking a “leap of faith” in concluding that they face no harm from consuming foods made with genetically modified ingredients is false.
Although careful testing of GMO food for safety should continue, mandating GM food labels is highly likely to mislead and falsely alarm consumers given the actual scientific data. Legislation aimed at mandating GMO labeling, therefore, amount to nothing more than dishonest and intentionally misleading propaganda, which undermines scientific thought and rational policy discourse, and risks making the GM policy landscape as contentious and as untethered from reality as the climate change “debate.”
More alarming, however, is that by working with visceral reactions rather than actual data, we run the distinct risk of missing the research that needs to be done to address legitimate concerns about GM crops. For example, the success of some GM crops – like Bt corn – can create perverse incentives to grow one type of plant exclusively. And just like with antibiotics, overuse of pest-resistant crops can lead to the creation of “superpests.”
“Overcoming junk science and allowing a truly informed public debate on both the risks and benefits of GMO crops and foods require supporting legitimate research into GMO safety and providing the results to the public in a transparent manner,” molecular biologist Alan McHughen wrote last year. “Until this occurs, the junk scientists will continue to solicit donations by invoking the Big Bad GMO in order to strike fear into the hearts of the unsuspecting populace.”
Better oversight and more research are needed with regard to GMOs. But mandatory labeling laws provide neither. The FDA should maintain its role as America’s foremost food safety authority, and when ingredients are proven to impact consumer health, they should use their authority to label foods with those ingredients. But when the data proves otherwise, as it does with GMOs, we should follow the science and stop the fear-mongering.