Why we shouldn't label GMOs
First, what I am not going to do here. I won't be talking about how the GM food on the market is shown to be safe. I won't be talking about how there is nothing inherently wrong about GM tech. I won't be talking about the efficacy of GM tech in agriculture. I am going to assume the scientific consensuses on these matters are the assessments of my readers as well. I also won't address clearly fallacious arguments like "It has popular support" for obvious reasons. This post is to my fellow skeptics and science-minded folk who support GMOs as a technology but believe the US government should require people to label them.
I will do my best to fairly lay out the arguments, and respond to them. Please comment if you feel I misrepresented any of the common arguments.
Argument #1 - Labeling gives consumers information; information is a good thing
Consumers should have all reasonably relevant information printed on food labels. There hasn't been much controversy around this argument since Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The key word here, though, is 'reasonable.' It is far too simple to say consumers should be given information, that we don't want to hide information, etc. We still have to argue why each data set is important.
The data sets of caloric intake, sugar, sodium, fat levels are reasonable data sets. They speak directly to the effects on a person's diet. We also require vitamin levels, serving amounts, etc. I am a proponent of this information being mandatory.
We don't, however, mandate labeling of how the food was made. This kind of information has a few forms. First, the seemingly more important kind: where it was farmed, how far it was shipped, who grew it, etc,. There is no widespread call to have all this information included. There are also seemingly unimportant forms of information: silly trivia really, like the name of the farmer, the color shirt was he wearing, his opinions on Star Wars Episode I. The latter is all information that we don't want labeled. Of course, it's information, but who could care? I only bring it up to stifle the meme "information is a good thing." Such an argument is far too simple and really doesn't explain what we want. We want relevant information labeled.
So the argument cannot be won here; we have to move on to the question of whether food made with GM is reasonably and relevantly different to a consumer.
Argument #2 - There is a relevant difference for the consumer between a GM plant and a non-GM one
Let's say you buy a product that uses sugar from GM beets. This is what that sugar looks like:
And this is what sugar looks like that was grown "Organic".
What that's you say? You can't tell the difference? Don't stress- that is because they are the exact same. So if we are to require companies to label products that use GM sugar, what are we labeling? Surely there is no information gained here on the product. There is no way to tell the source of the sugar. There are many similar examples.
Corn is a fantastic crop with many uses and is grow in mass quantity in the the United States. Since it's a major calorie source, and there are so many demands placed on it, many farmers have turned to modern science to increase output. This has lead to high levels of adaption of GM Corn. This corn has has been modified to contain Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), a protein that protects against insects. The same protein is used in "Organic" farming as well. GM corn simply inserts the protein into the corn, so that there is less need for spraying pesticides, tilling soil, etc.
So, after harvesting, is there a relevant difference between BT corn and the "Organic" corn? No. The BT protein at levels present in the corn is digested in humans like any other non-toxic protein. It's always important to recall that nothing is "toxic"- amounts of things are toxic, and what is harmful to once branch of life isn't always harmful to another.
Corn and sugar beets are the two most popular GM crops on the market, and there is no compelling information given to the consumer if they are forced to be labeled. It is unwieldy to break down all GM crops on the market here, but these make up the majority of the market share. If there is another crop you feel addresses argument #2 well that I missed, feel free to comment..
Important to note: If there does come a day when a specific GM crop contains a health risk, say an allergen, we can label that allergen. That would still not be a case for labeling other GM products.
Argument #3 - Consumers who are environmentally conscious may wish to purchase food of one method or the other
While it would be nice to have an objective and verifiable suitability rating on the food we eat, we don't have such a tool at this time. What is best for the environment is hard to suss out, aside from the obvious things, like limiting carbon emissions. Our ecosystems are dynamic, and while we understand them at the micro level rather well, it can be harder to say if eating chicken from your local farmer is better then eating it from a large scale farmer in another state. The answers are not always intuitive, and vary from state to state. That does not mean we can't know, but the idea that saying that something that is GM or "Organic" is inherently better or worse is flawed. In most cases GM food appears to be better by using less water, and producing more calories per acre more reliably.
If we were to enact a new series of laws mandating that we label the methodology of farming, which ones would we label? This would require a new system of standards and practices, and a new series of labels and jargon. And with these new labels, there would be no promise of clarity gained to the consumer. We already have this problem with advertising names like "Organic". According to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey of over one thousand adults, 81% believe that "Organic" means grown without pesticides. So how effective or meaningful are labels going to be that refer to agricultural methods most are not familiar with? I suspect, optimistically, not very effective.
If a private company wishes to list these methods on its packages, that is its right. And consumers who demand "natural irrigation" grown apples or "No-Burn Rice" may seek out such products. However, I suspect a new series of labels and jargon is unlikely to makes the environmental choice clear to the majority of consumers. If we want more environmentally friendly agriculture, I propose this is best done by direct federal regulation, not labeling to motivate consumer-based selection.
There are potential problems with labeling even if my retorts here are insufficient, but my main concern is that it promotes fear. The most novel trait of humanity has always been our ability to render our environment to best suit our needs. As the centuries pass this has lead us to live longer, live happier, and live freer to pursue new interests. The principal concerns of animals are to procreate and obtain calories, and we have created a system where only around 1.5% of people produce our food, freeing up minds to build all manner of wonderful things, and have the time to enjoy them. Labeling GM food creates a stigma against the application of this progress when it comes to our agriculture. This is regressive, and as far as I can tell, based largely on fear.
Our desire to reshape the world has caused regrettable upheaval before. The great plains of North America no longer host the bounty of wildlife and splendor they once did, our oceans are loosing PH and losing fish, our planet is warming due to our clumsy leap forward in the industrial revolution. So when I say that wanting to label GM products is based on fear and ignorance, I am not mocking its supporters. There has been reason to fear before. Technology is our great power, and with it we have earned our greatest feats and failures. But, we have tested this technology. We have a bureaucracy, however slow, that regulates it. We have a consensus of Scientific opinion on its safety and its efficacy in agriculture, and we have no reason to assume harm a priori.
Caution is a useful trait, until it holds you back.
(All dissent is welcomed. While I care deeply about Science and try to represent arguments and facts the best I can, I am not a biologist yet. Thank you for any comments. )