The GMO labeling debate continued: It’s about the ‘benchmark’

I was amazed by the response to my previous post – and I will try address some of the main points.

I found three main themes repeating through the comments. First, it is clear that there are many people who are concerned about the side effects of GMOs and don’t trust biotech companies that produce them and the governments that regulate them. These people should vote for the proposition to label GMOs. This is a democracy, after all. I suspect that there are others that may be slightly concerned about GMOs or are indifferent, but they are not aware of the environmental and socio-economic benefits of GMOs and the likely negative implication of the labeling requirement. This is the group that I hope to convince.

Second, do we need labeling in principle? Of course… the public has a right to know. But the key question is the ‘benchmark’ for requiring labeling. Should it be based on findings of modern science or on other criteria? My grandmother would have liked that ‘kosher’ would be the base line for labeling and anything else should be labeled ‘non-kosher’ or even another term with a slightly negative slant. Others may like ‘halal’, ‘organic’ or ‘pesticide-free’ to be their benchmark, and everything else would need to have a label. However, non-kosher is the current norm (or benchmark) and we have labeling for ‘kosher’, ‘halal’, ‘organic’, etc., So I would vote against the labeling of GMOs because in my assessment, the social and environmental cost of having it as the baseline (norm) would greatly outweigh the benefits. The big debate is what would be the role of GMOs and other molecular biological techniques in our food future. I think that as long as we have a good regulatory system and sound safety rules are met, they should define the baseline. Labeling GMOs has the potential to marginalize it and reduce the investment in research, development and introduction of new products and slow the advancement of the frontier of knowledge.

A third theme among the responses is the stereotyping. My motivation for taking this a pro-GMO position was questioned, which is part of a tendency of some to view proponents of GMO as people motivated by money while proponents of organic farming are idealists. The reality is more complex. Many pursue a career in science to make the world a better place and find GMOs to be a vital tool for the greater good. Conversely, organic farming can be a lucrative business, especially in California. Another stereotype is that people that care about the environment should be against GMOs. Again, that is simplistic. Personally, I envision a transition for a more diversified farming systems, less reliance on chemicals and smaller environment footprint relying on a range of modern tools of science, including GMOs.

The issue that we face is not freedom of choice, we are all for it. Rather we have to decide what will be the benchmark for labeling requirements. I am convinced that the cost of requiring labeling GMOs to society and the environment will outweigh the benefits and therefore am against it.

 

To have a better understanding of the impact of GMOs, I recommend the following literature: NRC (National Research Council) Report “Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the U.S.,” as well as the survey by Matin Qaim, “The economics of genetically modified crops.” Annual Review of Resource Economics 1(1), which can be found at Articles in Choices Magazine:

• Theme Overview: Genetically Engineered Crops and U.S. Agricultural Sustainability

• Environmental Opportunities and Challenges of Genetically-Engineered Crops

• The Economic Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops

• Social Equity and the Genetically Engineered Crops Controversy

• Can Genetically Engineered and Organic Crops Coexist?

• What Drives Academic Bioscientists: Money or Values?

Why labeling of GMOs is actually bad for people and the environment

On November 6th, California voters will be asked to vote on a proposition about labeling of genetically modified (GM) products. On the surface this seems quite reasonable: people should have information about what they consume. In my view, labeling requirements are appropriate when there is undisputed scientific evidence that a food component is damaging, which, for example, is the reason for warning labels on cigarettes. But with GMOs this is not the case. For example, a recent NRC report states that GMOs are as safe if not more safe than conventional food which is also consistent with most of the published research.

Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat are already modified as they have been generated through techniques such as selective breeding and hybridization of crops among others. The discovery of DNA and advances in modern molecular biology allow us to develop more refined and precise crop breeding techniques where we slightly modify existing varieties by adding a specific trait. Obviously, genetic engineering is in its infancy, and has already led to major developments in medicine. Even though it has been underutilized in agriculture, existing GMOs have had significant impact. The most popular traits address pest control (Bt varieties) and tolerance to herbicides (Round-up ready varieties). These traits have been adopted with corn and soybeans in the US, Brazil, and Argentina among others and also in cotton in India, China, and some developing countries. Studies show that GM varieties of cotton and corn in developing countries increased in per acre yield by more than 50%, and GMOs contributed significantly to the more than doubling of the production of soybeans.

The importance of GMOs has to be viewed within a global context. Population and income growth have led to increased demand for food and especially meat. Meat production is feed intensive. This and the introduction of biofuel has resulted in increased prices of agricultural commodities. When food becomes scarce (and expensive), it is the global poor that suffers most. Our calculations suggest that the magnitude of the impact of GMOs on reducing food commodity prices was the same or even bigger than biofuels had on increases of these prices (15-30% reduction in the price of corn and soybeans overall). Furthermore, the prices of cotton did not rise with the prices of other commodities in 2008 due to increased supply from the adoption of GMOs. If African nations and Europe would have adopted GMOs, current prices of food would have decreased significantly, and much of the suffering associated with the food shortages could have been avoided. Thus even in its early stages GMOs have made significant contributions to reducing food shortages and saving lives.

Adoption of GMOs is not only good for food commodity prices and the well being of the poor, it is also good for the environment. Adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties enabled transition to minimal tillage techniques, which reduced the GHG effect of agriculture equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars annually. GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land. There is evidence that by replacing toxic chemicals in India and China, adoption of GMOs directly saved many lives. Reduction of exposure to pesticides and the resulting health effects has been a major cause for adoption in the US.

But what about Monsanto? This company has a monopoly on crucial patents and has made a lot of money from GMOs. This is undisputed. However, studies show that the economic gain from GMOs was divided between consumers, farmers, and seed manufacturers without anyone gaining the lion’s share. Apple also makes a lot of money and no one complains. Of course there is room for increasing access to intellectual property, especially products that are of value to the poor, but labeling GMOs is not the optimal way to achieve this goal.

Now, what about emergence of resistance to GMOs? This is an unavoidable consequence because of evolution. This means that we need to have continuous research in the life sciences to find solutions for potential problems. I believe sustainability is different than Nirvana; we cannot find final solutions that do not give rise to new problems. GMO is a technology that allows us to better adapt to new diseases and climate change. Genetic tools will improve our adaptive capacities to climate change.

The public is divided among individuals who believe that GMOs are bad, others who think they are valuable, and many who are basically indifferent. The last group may not see the damage of requiring labeling of GMOs since they do not see the big loss. However, labels make a difference. A labeling requirement creates a stigma effect that will reduce the demand for GM products and may reduce investment in new GM traits. The net effect will be to slow the development of agricultural biotechnology, and this in turn may negatively affect health, the economy, and the environment. It is actually counter-productive to the many environmental and social goals that we cherish. Therefore, labeling of GMOs will be a step in the wrong direction.