Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The case against labeling GMOs

I've been boning back up on the world of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) lately, in preparation for my journey into the figurative belly of the beast next week. I did an interview with Venue magazine in Bristol last week regarding Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and we had a hearty chat about GMOs. I had actually forgotten that the UK is the seat of GMO opposition, what with Prince Charles leading the charge against them and all.

In that vein, I've been talking to some people involved with GMO production over the past couple of weeks. My chat with Dr. Adrian Dubock, one of the scientists overseeing the Golden Rice Project, went up on CBC about a week ago while my conversation with John Buchanan, director of R&D for AquaBounty - the company that's behind the genetically modified salmon currently under review by the FDA - was posted yesterday.

Both stories drew a good portion of ignorant comments from Luddites and dummies alike, but they also got some intelligent questions and discussions going, particularly the salmon story. In yesterday's Q&A, a number of readers said they had no issue with genetically modified fish, but felt they should be labelled as such so that "the market" could decide their fate.

On the surface of it, that's not a terrible suggestion. After all, if there really is nothing wrong with such fish, they should be able to stand on their own merits. Letting consumers vote with their wallets is ultimately the fundamental underpinning of living in a free-market, democratic country.

But realistically, there are significant problems with the idea, largely because people are easily manipulated and misled. Allowing the market to decide GMOs' fate is exactly what happened in Europe. Such foods there had to be labelled as such, and they sold poorly - not because there was anything wrong with them, but because people like Prince Charles raised hell about them. With no science backing him up, Charles actually had the audacity to proclaim that GMOs were a giant environmental disaster waiting to happen. The media, of course, lapped it up.

How is science supposed to fight that? Once your technology is tarred like that, there's no coming back, which is why GMO makers are so opposed to labeling their foods. Doing so puts an easy target on them for critics to fear-monger over.

The deeper problem though, really comes down to one question: why should producers be forced to label foods as containing GMOs? That's a completely arbitrary and unrealistic line to draw, especially if health authorities rule them to be safe. If GMOs are to be labelled, why not standard crops that are similarly created with the aid of technology? Almost all of the crops we've been eating for decades have been formulated by cross-germinating different strains and seeds - should bread be labelled for using alien strains of wheat? Should fruit be labelled for the ethylene gas used in the ripening process? The point is, it's hard to single out one single type of food technology for identification without looking awfully hypocritical.

But wait: isn't there something special about genetic engineering, and shouldn't it warrant special attention? Well, not really. I'm no scientist but Frankenstein fears aside, there really isn't much to worry about if you really step back and think about it from a logical perspective. As one reader of the salmon Q&A smartly asked:

Since splicing genes is only a matter of replacing proteins in one order with the same proteins in another, my question is, therefore: If you already know the chemical outcomes of both genetic sequences (and both are not regarded as harmful) where can the health problems come from?

In other words: if eating Fish A isn't harmful and eating Fish B isn't harmful, how can putting them together be harmful? Or, wouldn't eating a genetically modified fish be about as harmful as eating Fish A, then Fish B - or rather, not dangerous at all?

Just as with my gripes over Wi-Fi the , this is another situation that really gets my goat. GMOs are another technology where the fears have way overshadowed the potential benefits.


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