Reasonable path to GMO food labels

Second to gun control, the debate over whether to require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered crops is the most controversial and polarizing policy issue to confront the legislature this session.

On one side of the issue are the advocates for labeling, often guilty of overstating the alleged dangers of crops that have had their DNA re-engineered to make them grow faster, larger, become more resistant to drought and pests, and protected from weed-killing herbicides. Permeating the anti-genetic engineering movement is a belief system that anything "natural" is good, anything benefitting from science-based human enhancement bad.

On the other side of the debate are powerful corporate interests reluctant to acknowledge the potential risks of this new technology and possible adverse effects on health and the environment. Risk assessments are required for genetic engineering (GE) product approval (also known as GMOs - genetically modified organisms). But this data is almost exclusively provided by corporations seeking approval. Biotech companies, in the stated interest of protecting patent rights, maintain strict control over independent research on their products.

Caught between these extremes - anti-biotech pseudo-science coming from one camp, biotech industry public relations campaigns from the other - are legislators, most ill equipped to understand the technology.

Genetic engineering is increasing food production and reducing crop loss. It could play a critical role in feeding a growing world population. To simply reject it as not natural could prove to be a fatal calculation for millions. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that, so far, scientists know of no inherent, generic harms associated with GE organisms.

On the other hand, any new technology has risks. The construction and defense industry long considered asbestos to be an efficient, harmless insulator. Changing the basic DNA of a food plant raises the potential of creating new food allergens or interfering with the effectiveness of antibiotics, for example. The technology is too new to know all risks.

Congress should require more independent research into the use of products containing GE-modified crops and eliminate the use of patent claims to inhibit research. Lawmakers should also require more thorough and rigorous evaluations before approving new GE products. But given the power of biotech corporate lobbyists, and the support of industrial food producers who benefit financially due to GE crops, Congress has been reluctant to regulate.

Into this void has come the movement at the state level to require labeling. Many in the biotech industry contend that forcing products to carry the conspicuous label, "Produced with Genetic Engineering," is the equivalent of an undeserved scarlet letter. Such labeling, they argue, would carry the impression that there is something harmful in the product, when there is no scientific basis to reach that conclusion.

Advocates for labeling say it is one more tool to inform consumers, much as labels now list calories, fat content and nutritional information.

We come down on the side of labeling. It has been widely introduced in Europe and the industry continues to thrive. The food industry would be free to make the case for products using GE ingredients. Some consumers contend there are better alternatives to genetic engineering and would avoid GE food if given the chance. These alternatives include agroecological farm management, which seeks to better match growing environments to a crop's natural traits. Also traditional crop breeding, which enhances a plant's preferred traits through the reproductive process.

But in the absence of federal action, there are problems with a state going the labeling route alone, particularly a small state. Having food companies produce specific labeling for products destined for Connecticut would certainly increase product costs. Some foods may become unavailable. The consumer pool must be bigger to make labeling practical.

The House has passed a labeling bill that addresses this problem. It would take effect only after five states, with an aggregate population of 25 million, adopt labeling. Two of the trigger states must "border Connecticut or are New York and New Jersey."

Labeling proponents say the requirement - tougher than the Senate trigger of three states in the region approving labeling - is too difficult.

We disagree. With a Connecticut law in hand, the labeling movement should be able to win support in other states.

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