Why I support labeling genetically modified food products

This blog presents the viewpoint of the author, not necessarily the members of Grow Food Amherst nor the GFA Steering Committee (which voted unanimously on April 15, 2014 to support the bill requiring GMO products to be labeled in Massachusetts).  GFA asks you to contact your legislators to ask them to support the Right to Know Legislation.  I write about why I am personally in favor of this legislation below.   Warning: if you are looking for “bumper sticker” solutions don’t bother reading further…. its complicated!

John M. Gerber

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Many of the advocates of labeling genetically modified products cite potential health and environmental risks as the reasons for labeling GMO products.  Personally, I’m not convinced by these arguments.  I believe there are cases where genetic modification has value, such with cotton where the incorporation of a gene to use the Bacillus thuringeinsis protein to ward off bollworms has reduced insecticide use in growing of cotton.  In other cases, genetic modification has increased the use of herbicides such as for glyphosate resistant soybeans and corn.  I’d like to know that we can continue to use this technology to produce low cost insulin for diabetics for example, and hopefully someday to clean up toxic waste spills with modified microorganisms.  I believe there are appropriate uses for GMO products.  And I think they should be labeled as a product created through genetic modification.  This makes me unpopular with both sides of this very divisive issue.

GMO-TomatoFrankly, I’m not attracted by the “Chicken Little” cry that the sky is falling whenever GMO’s are discussed.  Nor am I convinced by graphic images of tomatoes being shot up with a syringe (although I’m not above incorporating such images into my blog posts for a little color).  As a technique, genetic modification is not evil or immoral – in my opinion.  Nevertheless I do understand and respect the viewpoint that incorporating genes from one species of higher (complex) organisms into another is bit of “playing God” and something that would not happen in the world without human intervention.  I’m much more comfortable when genetic modification happens at the microbial level (bacteria pretty much share genes indiscriminately in nature – they are promiscuous little creatures).

There are indeed many shrill voices ranting about the evils of GMO’s.  It seems to me that many who are the most vocal don’t seem to be very well informed about the science of genetic modification.  We are told that consumers have a right to know “what is in their food” and that “food additives” should all be labeled.  This oft repeated claim suggests that the claimant thinks that a GMO is an ingredient rather than a process.

To help inform the local public, Grow Food Amherst sponsored an educational forum featuring UMass Professor Elizabeth Vierling who tried to help Amherst residents learn more about the science of genetic modification.  Dr. Vierling has expressed her own opinion on labeling in a thoughtful editorial in the local paper. I’d encourage you to read the article.

There are also some pretty smart people who have specific concerns about the widespread adoption of GMO crops and livestock.  Among the concerns are:

gmo-23-638 I think these concerns need to be evaluated by independent (non-industry funded) science panels and debated in a public forum. I don’t believe there is adequate regulatory control or review of products created through genetic modification.  At present, I do not trust that either industry or government scientific panels can be objective.  There is simply too much money involved in politics and government today to trust the agencies that are meant to protect the public interest.

While the criticisms listed above should be discussed, they are not my primary concern……

So why Label? 

frankMy primary motivation for supporting the labeling law is to make sure that consumers have the information needed to support either a world in which multi-national corporations own patents which allow them to control the food supply – or one in which there is more balance in power and control of food.  I’ve been told by some of my “organic advocate” friends that this reason is boring – a real yawner!  They would rather talk about “frankenfoods”!  Sorry…. until, I see scientific evidence to change my mind, I remain more concerned about the erosion of the economic vitality of local communities and social justice than potential health or environmental threats from GMO’s.

I believe in giving citizens the opportunity to choose the kind of world we want to live in and “vote with their dollar”.  Every time we purchase food produced through genetic modification, we “say yes” to an industry that is controlled by multi-nationals more interested in profit than community.  I’d prefer to invest in the wisdom of my neighborhood farmer and her ability to manage her farm using ecological principles than in a technology for which the return on investment goes to a corporation. We have a choice when it comes to food.  We can buy local…..

On the other hand, since there are few alternatives in clothing manufacturing today I support the use of GMO cotton as a means of reducing insecticide use.  If my Boston Red Sox tee shirt (go Sox) was labeled “made with GMO cotton”…. well, I’m (mostly) okay with that.  I don’t like it, but frankly I don’t see many reasonable alternatives.

gmotomatoOn the other hand, if I have a choice between a genetically modified fresh tomato and one that was not, I’m choosing to buy the non-GMO tomato.  It seems that most consumers would agree with me on this, as the transgenic tomato (FlavrSavr) which had a long shelf-life was not very popular when it was available in the market.  Again…. the point is that I want enough information to make a choice.  We need labeling to be able to choose.

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So…. if you have read this far, perhaps you are open to another viewpoint?  This will require some thinking……  that said, I can’t help myself… here is a possible bumper sticker that expresses the next section of this blog;

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us…

Marshal McLuhan

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Continuing…..

While I was drawing up the courage to begin to express my thoughts on this subject, I read Derrick Jensen’s new book “The Myth of Human Supremacy.”  While I don’t agree with all of Jensen’s thinking, his chapter on “authoritarian technologies” will be used here to help explain my own perspective.  Jensen reminds us of an idea first expressed by Louis Mumford (historian, philosopher, literary critic and all around genius) that technologies emerge from and reinforce certain ways of thinking.  Jensen writes…

“Technologies emerge from and then give rise to certain social forms…. which can be democratic or they can be authoritarian.” 

He claimed that you could determine which social form (way of thinking) was supported by the technology by asking the simple questions “does the technology require a large-scale hierarchical structure?  Does it reinforce this structure?  Does it lend itself to the monopolization of the technology, and therefore to control of those who fabricate the technology over those who use it?”

I can say that I have a personal preference for technologies, products and practices that emerge from and reinforce egalitarian and democratic social forms.  I’m on record (lots of blog posts here) in support of local farmers and local farmers markets as a means of building community and resilience.  Genetic modification on the other hand surely requires a large-scale hierarchical structure, and has resulted in the monopolization (wide-spread adoption) of the technology.  Frankly, this scares the hell out of me……

biotechcrops

So, yes…. I think we need the option of making a choice.  I’d like to be able to choose to purchase a Red Sox tee shirt with the label “made from GMO cotton”…. and I’d like to be able to choose to buy a tomato for my salad that was not genetically modified.  I prefer to support technologies in which the return on investment in the practice or technology went to farmers rather than corporations.  Labeling food products manufactured with plants or animals that have been genetically modified (that is incorporating genes from one species into another species) is much like Country of Origin labels.  It will allow us to choose how we want to spend our money.

But that’s just me……

How about you?  I’d love to hear what you think about this issue.  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below!


Comments

Why I support labeling genetically modified food products — 2 Comments

  1. Pretty much how I feel. GMOs are not the Great Satan they are sometimes cast as. There are benefits to the technology, as you point out nicely. But people should have the right to know what they are eating. It matters not *why* they are choosing to eat one or the other, what matters is the ability to choose.

  2. Since you asked…please see my recent blog about specifically the recent kerfuffle over the federal GMO labeling legislation that Congress has now passed: http://www.organic-revolutionary.com/#!The-GMO-labeling-fight-and-Brexit/c1q8z/5777ccce0cf2bcae6e461fc2

    This may be a bit off the topic of the relative merits of GMO adoption, but resonates with the need to have a more informed and nuanced debate than many activists seem to be willing to muster.

    Thanks John!

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