Genetic Engineering 26


1995 Watterson. Dist. by Universal Press Syndicate. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

On either score, then, the risk of bioengineering to the environment seems to be very slight. Indeed, in some cases it lessens the serious environmental damage produced by cultivation and agricultural pesticides.

Should We Label Genetically Modified Foods?

While there seems little tangible risk in the genetic modification of crops, public assurance that these risks are being carefully assessed is important. Few issues manage to raise the temperature of discussions about plant genetic engineering more than labelling of genetically modified (GM) crops. Agricultural producers have argued that there are no demonstrable risks, so that a GM label can only have the function of scaring off wary consumers. Consumer advocates respond that consumers have every right to make that decision, and to the information necessary to make it.

In considering this matter, it is important to separate two quite different issues, the need for a label, and the right of the public to have one. Every serious scientific investigation of the risks of GM foods has concluded that they are safeindeed, in the case of soybeans and many other crops modified to improve cultivation, the foods themselves are not altered in any detectable way, and no nutritional test could distinguish them from “organic” varieties. So there seems to be little if any health need for a GM label for genetically engineered foods.

The right of the public to know what it is eating is a very different issue. There is widespread fear of genetic manipulation in Europe, because it is unfamiliar. People there don’t trust their regulatory agencies as we do here, because their agencies have a poor track record of protecting them. When they look at genetically modified foods, they are haunted by past experiences of regulatory ineptitude. In England they remember British regulators’ failure to protect consumers from meat infected with mad cow disease.

It does no good whatsoever to tell a fearful European that there is no evidence to warrant fear, no trace of data supporting danger from GM crops. A European consumer will simply respond that the harm is not yet evident, that we don’t know enough to see the danger lurking around the corner. “Slow down,” the European consumers say. “Give research a chance to look around all the corners. Lets be sure.” No one can argue against caution, but it is difficult to image what else researchers can look intosafety has been explored very thoroughly. The fear remains, though, for the simple reason that no amount of information can remove it. Like a child scared of a monster under the bed, looking under the bed again doesn’t helpthe monster still might be there next time. And that means we are going to have to have GM labels, for people have every right to be informed about something they fear.

What should these labels be like? A label that only says “GM FOOD” simply acts as a brandlike a POISON label, it shouts a warning to the public of lurking danger. Why not instead have a GM label that provides information to the consumer, that tells the customer what regulators know about that product?

(for Bt corn ): The production of this food was made more efficient by the addition of genes that made plants resistant to pests so that less pesticides were required to grow the crop.

(for Roundup-ready soybeans) : Genes have been added to this crop to render it resistant to herbicidesthis reduces soil erosion by lessening the need for weed-removing cultivation.

(for high beta-carotene rice): Genes have been added to this food to enhance its beta-carotene content and so combat vitamin A deficiency.

GM food labels that in each instance actually tell consumers what has been done to the gene-modified crop would go a long way towards hastening public acceptance of gene technology in the kitchen.

Genetic engineering affords great opportunities for progress in medicine and food production, although many are concerned about possible risks. On balance, the risks appear slight, and the potential benefits substantial.

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