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March 14, 2013 at 6:12 AM

GMO labeling: criticism and a response

A writer on the West Seattle Blog takes me to task for my column on Initiative 522, which would require mandatory labeling of food from plants that had been genetically engineered.

He writes: ” The writer is hostile to the idea of GMO-food labeling, but I think it’s a useful read, because it reminds me of how weak the argument against I-522 really is. What it amounts to is this: GMO labeling is a hassle for the food industry.”

That is not my argument.

I wrote a column about a hearing at the Legislature on GMO labeling and made some judgments about the arguments I heard. There were people at the hearing from the food industry – James Curry from the Northwest Food Processors, Holly Chisa from the Northwest Grocers Association, and others—who argued that GMO labeling would be a hassle for their industry. I didn’t make that argument.

My argument was that if government is going to force producers to disclose a certain thing on food labels, it ought to have a good reason, probably a health reason. That’s why producers have to have a list of ingredients, calories and vitamins. I think it’s good that those things are on labels (and they should be on all food labels, including some, like beer, that are exempt.)

The West Seattle blogger continues:

“When people wanted organic food labeling, we didn’t have to prove that organic food was somehow better or safer than non-organic food. All we had to do was say that we wanted to know how food is produced so we could make our own decision about what to buy.”

That was a voluntary label. The idea was, “A lot of people are interested in process X, so if you follow process X, then you can use this label.” That’s fine. I’m not against that. If a producer wants to say “No GMOs” on his label, or “USDA Organic” (which implies the same thing), that’s O.K. as long as it’s true.

I-502 is a mandatory label, a warning label. I think the standard for imposing a warning label should be higher than for creating a voluntary label. If the matter is important to human health, I am like the West Seattle blogger: I don’t care if it’s a hassle for the food industry. Impose it. But have a reason stronger than merely, “I want it.”

My critic continues:

“Consider country-of-origin labeling … If I choose not to buy clothes that come from a certain country, that is entirely my business; I don’t have to justify it to anyone.”

Mandatory GMO labeling is more like country-of-origin labeling. I do look at country-of-origin labels on food: this week I have been eating blueberries from Chile. It’s useful if you want to avoid food from countries you think do not have high standards. I find the information interesting, but it doesn’t tell me much.

My critic sums up: “Bottom line: As a consumer, I have an absolute right to know how the food I buy is produced and what it’s made of.”

I go along with the “what it’s made of,” because you may need to know because of an allergy, diabetes, a diet, religious strictures, etc. But I have never assumed I had an “absolute right” to know how a thing was produced. And in practice, I have never had such a right.

What do I know about the blueberries? They’re from Chile. There is the name of an importer. The box says to wash the berries, so I do. I don’t know whether the blueberries were grown with chemical fertilizer or raw cow manure, or whether they were sprayed with Roundup or some other chemical. I don’t know whether the workers who picked them washed their hands, or were in a union or were migrants from Bolivia. I see blueberries. They look nice. Blueberries are said to be good for health. They taste good, I eat them, and I am happy.

What does it mean to say, “I have an absolute right to know how the food I buy is produced”? What does “right to know” mean? To know what, and to what level of detail? Chile, yes. But what province? What farm? What bush?

There are different varieties of blueberries. Do I have a right to know the variety? The box doesn’t say, and I never thought of it until now. I assume the blueberry bushes are the product of plant breeding, but there is no label saying, “THIS FOOD A PRODUCT OF PLANT BREEDING.” Why not? Well, we are used to plant breeding. We don’t worry about it.

Old-fashioned breeding can be powerful. The original corn was the size of a man’s thumb. Original turkeys could fly; the ones Americans eat at Thanksgiving can’t. And consider pets. A wiener dog is a genetically modified wolf. Imagine if the lowly dachshund had been created with genetic engineering: it would be persecuted as a “frankenhund.”

Let’s be reasonable about this. I want my blueberries to be blueberries, not made of colored tofu or crusted with melamine. I want them to be clean, and not smeared with pesticide or goat manure. I want them not to be moldy (which some of them are). Do I need to be notified of any and all genetic engineering (but not plant breeding)? Maybe… but I am not convinced of it.




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The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.

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