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October 11, 2013 at 6:01 AM

Science, GMOs and Initiative 522

Donna Grethen / Tribune Content Agency

Donna Grethen / Tribune Content Agency

Seattle geneticist Max Moehs is uneasy about Washington’s Initiative 522, which would require labeling of foods with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.

On its face, Initiative 522 is a labeling law so that people know what’s in their food. But GE is not an ingredient. It is a process. “Labeling a crop ‘genetically engineered’ is like labeling it, ‘Grown on Irrigated Land,’ ” Moehs says. Or for organic food, labeling it, “Grown in Manure.”

“What’s important is what’s in the plant, not how it was created,” Moehs says.

Of course Moehs (pronounced “mays”), 51, is an interested party. He the principal scientist at the Seattle labs of Arcadia Biosciences, based in Davis, Calif. Moehs has just won a $2-million grant from the National Institutes of Health. It is his second such grant to develop a strain of low-gluten wheat. His partner on this grant is Karl Sestak, associate professor of microbiology at Tulane University in New Orleans; the partner on his previous grant was Diter von Wettstein of Washington State University.

Gluten is the protein in flour that traps the bubbles of air that make bread dough rise. About 1 percent of the population has celiac disease and can’t eat gluten and another 6 percent can eat restricted amounts of it. Moehs is aiming to create a strain of wheat with 80 to 90 percent less gluten so that some of the people now restricted to flour from rice, potatoes, sorghum, millet, quinoa, etc., will be able to eat wheat.

Moehs’ current work uses tilling, a process in which seeds are irradiated or soaked in mutagenic chemicals. This isn’t technically genetic engineering because it does not cross the species barrier, but Moehs says, “To my way of thinking the whole definition of ‘genetic engineering’ is not scientifically rigorous.”

It’s definitely messing with nature. That’s what bioscience does, and it’s what plant breeders have been doing for a very long time—and so far, to humanity’s benefit.

Initiative 522 doesn’t prohibit research. It’s a labeling law. It  requires that certain food products be labeled as containing GE ingredients. The Initiative 522 campaign denies that these labels would be warnings because they are not as blunt and scary as the warnings on cigarettes. But they would not be in small type on the side of the box in the list of ingredients, either. They would be on the front of the box, alone, in larger type.

The 522 campaign says its measure is not anti-GM; it is about choice. This is disingenuous. The backers want you to choose not to buy GM foods. And if you oppose their label, they accuse you of being against choice.

Try this hypothetical. Imagine a ballot measure mandating that organic food grown in manure be labeled, “This product was made from plants grown in animal waste.” Imagine that this had to be on the front of the box.  No doubt the organic food producers would call such a proposal prejudicial and unfair, and they would be right. What would the measure’s supporters say? “What are you trying to hide? You want to keep the public in the dark? Don’t people have the right to make an informed choice about their food?”

That’s what I’m hearing now.

Choice is good. But labels mandated by law should be useful to protect the public health. And they should be fair. Probably they should not be devised by one part of an industry against another.

And that’s what Initiative 522 looks and feels like. It’s PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods against the Grocery Manufacturers Association. It’s Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps against Bayer Crop Science. And to scientists like Moehs, who work on products that could benefit people, it also feels like an attack on their work.

“I’m a geneticist,” Moehs says. “From my viewpoint, this is a golden age of science.”

It’s not just low-gluten wheat. It’s the promise of “golden rice,” naturally fortified with beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which prevents vitamin-deficiency blindness. It’s the promise of a bruise-resistant Idaho potato and a British Columbia apple that when sliced doesn’t turn brown. It’s the promise of a farmed salmon that grows twice as fast and can be sold for less money per pound, allowing more people the health benefits of eating fish.

All those products should be tested for safety–and, to my understanding,  have been and are being tested. When the anti-GMO activists say, “How do you KNOW these things are safe?” the truthful answer is that you don’t until you test. But you don’t know with a plant modified by traditional breeding either.

A final thing. The anti-GMO campaign is one more example of Washington’s progressive politics ignoring its deep economic interests. Take the World Trade Organization protests of 1999. We have a more obvious stake in international trade than any other state, and in 1999 we had the largest demonstration against the trading system in U.S. history. Another example is health insurance reform. We are a center for biotechnology, which means Seattle has a huge stake in fancy and expensive medicine. And our congressman, Jim McDermott, is Congress’s most well-known champion of government single-payer medical insurance, which would be kryptonite to that industry.

And now this. Is progressive Seattle really going to support a measure that is implicitly an attack on one of the scientific disciplines for which the city is famous?

Comments | Topics: ge, genetically modified organism, gmo

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