The scientific evidence on genetically engineered food, which has been around for two decades, indicates that it is as safe for human consumption as any other food. A California bill that would require the labeling of bioengineered food — whose DNA has been modified in the laboratory to introduce certain traits — caters to a scare campaign that is not based on solid evidence.
If a consumer has personal concerns about genetically modified food, there are other ways to avoid it. Trader Joe’s, for example, has announced that food sold under its label contains no genetically engineered ingredients. There are apps and Internet sites to inform consumers about other foods. And companies that do not bioengineer their foods are certainly free to say so on their labels. But the science does not support mandatory labeling.
State Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) has said that her bill doesn’t make judgments about whether genetically engineered food is inherently good or bad but merely informs consumers. Yet the wording says otherwise. It’s full of negative declarations about such food, with no mention of the positives. “United States government scientists have stated that the artificial insertion of genetic material into plants via genetic engineering can increase the levels of known toxicants or allergens in foods and create new toxicants or allergens with consequent health concerns,” the bill says. It doesn’t note that hundreds of studies, many by independent scientists who took no industry money, have found no credible evidence that bioengineered food has actually done any of those things, or is dangerous in any way to human health. Reviews by the American Medical Assn., the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences have all concluded that genetically engineered food appears to be as safe as any other.
That’s not to say there are no downsides. Studies have raised legitimate concerns, for instance, that bioengineered crops designed to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, more commonly known by the Monsanto brand name Roundup, encourage farmers to overuse it, fostering the growth of resistant weeds. The AMA, though it has said that genetically engineered food should not be labeled, has also called on the federal government to require more safety testing before new bioengineered products can be marketed.
These issues are worth consideration, but labeling would not resolve either one. Most farms use pesticides, including some more dangerous than glyphosate, but their products don’t have to be labeled accordingly. Labeling requirements should have logical consistency; the campaign to label genetically engineered foods doesn’t.
SB 1381 would require conspicuous yet imprecise labels notifying consumers that the food contains some genetically engineered ingredients, without making it clear what the engineering was meant to accomplish. Food companies are developing products for reasons other than to make pesticide use easy, such as building resistance into crops, like oranges, that are threatened by disease, or creating non-allergenic forms of some grains. But the labels wouldn’t give these details. They would serve mainly to frighten grocery shoppers by implying that there is something wrong with the food, without making them better informed. And the labels would be so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless; it’s widely estimated that 70% to 80% of the packaged food in conventional supermarkets contains genetically engineered ingredients.
There are more worrisome agricultural practices that do affect human health, especially the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. “There is strong evidence that some antibiotic resistance in bacteria is caused by antibiotic use in food animals,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Yet no one has been campaigning for labels on meat that comes from antibiotic-treated livestock. As with bioengineered food, this is best dealt with by appropriate safety regulations, not labels.
There’s a limit to what manufacturers can tell consumers about their food — labels can’t enumerate every possible or perceived concern. Labeling laws should set a priority on providing information that significantly affects consumer health. They should be based on facts, not fear.