Should We Label GE Foods?
I have some very heated arguments in my brain. It's disconcerting, sure, but medication doesn't help, so I just have to roll with it.
The biggest argument in my brain these days is about genetically engineered (GE) foods and how dangerous they are.
Are they dangerous?
Do GE ingredients pose a health risk to the people who eat them?
Or are GE crops safe and a crucial tool in modern agriculture's tool chest? They might be. I'm open to considering it.
Now you'd think an organic foods partisan like me would be knee-jerk against genetic engineering, but the fact is, I like to read the science behind food and have new ideas proven to me. I actually like being proven wrong.
But what makes the GE foods debate go and on (and on!) in my stupid brain is that I haven't read a credible, knock-out punch argument from either the pro-GE or the anti-GE camps regarding the health safety of engineered foods.
Yes, evidence exists showing that increased use of Monsanto's pesticide Roundup with accompanying Roundup Ready GE crops is creating "superweeds." The pesticide wipes out weak weeds, allowing the strongest to survive and breed.
And as for human health, yes, there are studies showing that GE foods may cause allergic reactions, infertility, cancer, and immune disorders. But so often these studies are conducted by non-profits with an axe to grind or use very small test-groups. We need population-wide epidemiological studies on GE foods, and those cost money.
But if it's our food, why are credible studies about the safety of GE food so hard to come by?
Because biotech companies designing and manufacturing GE seeds (like Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) place proprietary blinds around their products. Paranoid that rivals will steal their patented genes, these companies are hesitant to turn their newly minted, recombined genes over to fellow scientists for rigorous peer review – and when they do, it's often years after they've already been approved.
This is what sets up the never-ending debate in my skull.
With corporate veils drawn around newly invented plant genes, proponents can argue that "GE foods have not been proven unsafe," that "GE wheat hasn't been proven to cause cancer," or that "It hasn't been proved that GE foods cause allergic reactions."
Well, that's roughly true. It probably hasn't been proven.
But if new genes have only been tested by the company that created them, how can I trust that GE foods are truly safe? Where's the accountability? With a revolving door of Monsanto officials and biotech proponents holding posts in the FDA and USDA, how can I be sure that industry profit isn't outweighing public safety?
I can't. Indeed, I assume profit usually trumps safety in the traditional food industry. If biotech companies won't let other scientists see their findings, then I have to assume there's something to hide.
If you're like me, naturally skeptical, and if science and industry won't do their part to instill confidence in us, then we consumers have to take action in the grocery store. The cash register has to be the place where citizens demand choice and transparency when it comes to our foods.
Right now, Americans only have a couple options if they want to avoid GE foods in their groceries, the USDA Organic label being the most credible. All certified organic farmers have to source non-GE seeds for their organic crops or they lose their USDA certification. So if you are concerned about eating GE crops, go organic.
There's also The Non-GMO Project Verified Seal, which is less frequently seen, but a good label for tracking down GE-free foods in my opinion. You can learn more about that label at The Non-GMO Project's terrific website.
But those are just two labels. What about the rest of your grocery list? What if you can't purchase certain items as organic? Does that mean every other item in the grocery store is genetically engineered?
It's close. Corn ingredients are 88% likely to come from genetically engineered seed, and 90% of all soybeans in the U.S. are GE, too. Ninety-five percent of all sugar beets and 90% of canola seeds are GE, as well (find more info here). Those are four of the most common food ingredients in the U.S. food system, and they are predominantly grown from biotech seeds.
In short, GE food is very hard to avoid and there's practically no way to learn this in most grocery aisles. Worse, there's no way to know if genetically engineered ingredients are in the food I'm purchasing.
Why? Because food companies believe the term "genetic engineering" on packaging will kill their sales. As a result, genetically engineered food is never labeled as such. Ever.
This is the opposite of what I want. I like the WYSIWIG approach to shopping – What You See Is What You Get—and without thorough information on food packaging, I have no idea what I'm seeing or what I'm getting.
Now, even though the food industry doesn't want me to know if I'm buying GE food, I still have an open mind. I'm open to the idea that genetic engineering could be used to speed up the hybridization process that homo sapiens have used for 7,000 years. But I'm not yet convinced that all of the currently approved GE crops—such as corn inserted with a bacterial gene to withstand heavy doses of pesticides—and those on the horizon are just as safe as those created through traditional breeding processes, such as hybridization.
Without that proof, companies selling genetically engineered foods seem to be saying, "Just trust me."
To which I have to say, please, Just Label It.
More Info on GE Foods