GMO labels: No heartburn, but what’s the use?
I like to know what it’s in my food, except for the calories.
And the grams of fat.
And the milligrams of salt.
I’d just as soon stay ignorant of all the stuff that’s wreaking havoc on my circulatory system.
Guilt, I’ve noticed, is not what you’d call a flavor-enhancer.
During the modern era of processed food — let’s say the past 100 years or so — the industry was content in the main to tinker with our meals by tossing in all sorts of ingredients supposed to make food taste better or last longer or gleam in a gastronomically fetching way.
The chemists have been hard at it on such vexing matters as breakfast cereal that goes soggy too fast, bringing to bear their beakers and their vials and, especially, their syllables.
Never mind what’s going on in your intestines (and if you’ve watched a colonoscopy you don’t want to know) — your tongue is your most endangered organ should you try to pronounce the list of additives in a typical package.
You’d sooner master Swahili than memorize a single row at the grocery store.
But over the past couple decades the food industry — and most notably Monsanto, the gargantuan purveyor of pesticides, seeds and, I presume, plenty of other products — has ceased to be satisfied with dressing up food and has gotten to fiddling around with its very genes.
This is hardly a new idea, of course.
Our desire for sweeter strawberries, or for lettuce that doesn’t wilt before it leaves the field, dates back centuries. And even traditional techniques such as cross-breeding of plants could fairly be described as “genetic engineering” because, well, genes are involved.
The more modern iteration is different in that it’s much more discriminating. Rather than, say, combining two types of fruit with similar genetics, a process that might transfer thousands of genes, today’s engineers sometimes add just a handful of genes to a seed — and in some cases those transplanted genes come not from another plant, but from an animal.
The basic idea, though, is pretty much as it has always been: To overhaul the DNA of staple crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans so they’ll produce more food per acre and resist more vigorously the insects, diseases and other pathogens that can ruin food before it ever reaches your plate.
(Which is important if you’re starving.)
The advent of what’s known as GMO technology — genetically modified organisms — has given rise to an opposition which, though occasionally annoying in its hyperbole, has demonstrated a fine turn of phrase.
“Frankenfoods” is the general term for these laboratory creations — a pithy and alliterative way to brand as malevolent a business which only a tiny minority of us actually understands at the molecular level, where the real action is.
(A tiny minority which does not, I readily admit, include me.)
The fear that GMO foods could give us a sort of cellular-level stomachache, one that not even the magical elixir Pepto Bismol can soothe, has spawned a campaign to require labels on these products.
A local example is House Bill 2532 in the Oregon Legislature. The bill calls for packages of GMO foods to have a “prominent statement” explaining that there is genetically altered material inside.
I don’t have any heartburn over this legislation, although I’d appreciate it if lawmakers would, just this once, forego their affinity for euphemism and call a “warning label” a “warning label.”
I doubt, though, whether this bill, and others like it, would do much to advance the public good.
I’m skeptical because I don’t see how a GMO label tells consumers what they really want to know. Which, of course, is whether this food, in addition to going right to my hips, is also going right to my genes, so to speak.
Reputable scientists who have answered that question are about as unanimous in their conclusions as are their counterparts who study climate change, or the efficacy and safety of vaccinations.
Put simply, there’s no credible evidence showing GMO food is any more likely to harm you than is any other food, including products bearing that coveted “organic” label.
(Unfortunately, that triple-cheese-and-extra-pepperoni pizza is no less likely to elevate your cholesterol, regardless of its GMO content.)
I recently listened to a podcast called “Point of Inquiry.” This program is produced by the Center for Inquiry, an organization which, to use its own words, is dedicated to “promoting science, reason, and secular values in public policy and at the grass roots.”
This is no capitalist lapdog, in other words — the outfit isn’t reluctant in the least to lambaste corporations that, for instance, dismiss global warming as malarkey.
The guest on this episode, which was recorded earlier this year, is Mark Lynas, a British journalist and author. Lynas used to have something of a beef with GMO food.
He admits that during the 1990s he not only wrote articles excoriating GMO as a nefarious scheme masterminded by Monsanto, he also got his hands dirty.
Literally dirty — Lynas uprooted GMO crop test plots.
Except Lynas recognized that he had become a hypocrite. Much like the climate change deniers he routinely castigated, he had made conclusions on a complex subject based on emotion rather than on science.
And when Lynas applied the same intellectual standards to the GMO controversy that he had with regard to climate change, he came to an uncomfortable conclusion: Much of what he not only believed to be true about GMO food, but had proclaimed to be true in his published writings, either was outright false or else it was wholly unproven.
Lynas’ epiphany hardly is the final word on the matter, of course.
In the wake of his public mea culpa on Jan. 3, critics have accused him of capitulating to Monsanto.
I can’t judge such claims; I’ve never met the man. Nor do I work for Monsanto.
But I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the topic and it seems to me that the gist of Lynas’ argument is sound: There is no scientific basis for the claim that GMO food is going to turn us into a race of mutants within a few generations.
What the future holds no one can say, of course, which brings me back to my ambivalence about food-labeling legislation such as Oregon’s HB 2532.
It goes against my grain to oppose efforts to give people more information about something as vital as what goes down their throats.
I wonder, though, whether the most widespread effect of GMO labels would be to discourage people from eating healthy foods. This is a legitimate concern, too, because by some estimates, more than 60 percent of processed food in our stores — some of which, despite being “processed,” is nutritious — contains GMO ingredients.
I doubt we’d be better off, by and large, if we replaced GMO whole wheat bread with genetically pure but nutritionally bereft jelly beans.
The term “genetically modified” doesn’t exactly whet the appetite, after all.
I’d rather not muck about with my genes, and I suspect most of us are equally protective.
Trouble is, there’s hardly spare room on the average food package to include a label that informs consumers rather than needlessly scaring them. Such a label might read something like: “Contains genetically modified ingredients, but don’t worry about that because it’s not what it sounds like.”
Where, then, would the marketers wedge in their wondrous puffery, their “100% natural!” and “Family Size!” and “New, Improved Flavor!”?
Jayson Jacoby is editor