The American Medical Association resolved this week that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”
The association has long-held that nothing about the process of recombinant DNA makes genetically engineered (GE) crop plants inherently more dangerous to the environment or to human health than the traditional crop plants that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human purposes for millennia. It is a view shared by the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the European Commission, and countless other national science academies and non-governmental organizations.
And yet Californians will consider on their November ballots a law that mandates cigarette-like labeling of food derived from GE plants. Proponents claim to promote opportunities for consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat. But to build support for the measure, they have played on consumer fears about a promising technology that is nevertheless prone to “Frankenfoods” demagoguery. If successful, they may well imperil the ability of Californians, and consumers around the world, to choose a technology that scientists contend could end hunger and malnutrition, lift hundreds of millions from poverty, and reduce the environmental impact of feeding an evermore populous world.
“Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat.” That was the conclusion of a 2003 inquiry by the International Council for Science, an NGO representing the national science academies of 140 countries, including the U.S. It is a finding repeatedly made by the U.S. National Research Council. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. EPA all regulate the use of genetically engineered plants in the U.S. according to a philosophy endorsed by the scientific community that the content and characteristics of plants and foods should govern their regulatory scrutiny, not the process by which they are made.
Voluntary certified organic labels already allow consumers to avoid GE foods. Given the dramatic fissure between scientific opinion and public perception—only one in four consumers thinks GE foods are “basically safe”—a mandatory labeling regime is likely only to cripple crop science by reducing market share and revenues to GE food producers.
More devastating than the label itself, could be the cost of avoiding the label on non-GE foods that may nevertheless contain trace amounts of GE material. In the U.S., the highest-grade corn can contain as much as 2% foreign material, like crop residues. In Europe, a food product can contain as much as 0.9% genetically engineered material and avoid a GE label. But the California law would impose a nearly twice as stringent purity standard, tolerating only 0.5% GE content in non-GE food.