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Why Congress is having a food fight over GMO labeling

Here’s a plain fact for people to chew through: GMO labels won’t tell you what you want to know, not about pesticides or toxins.
Genetically-modified seed corn. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)
Genetically-modified seed corn.

There’s a food fight exploding in Congress.

The House of Representatives passed a hotly contested bill last week that would block states from requiring labels identifying food made with genetically modified ingredients. Now a similar bill is expected in the Senate, where North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven is currently looking for a co-sponsor.

The measure would preempt a GMO labeling movement that has already helped establish laws in Maine and Connecticut. In Vermont, the first to pass such a law, the labels are scheduled to appear by next summer. And the Congressional effort to block these measures has lit a flame beneath culinary crusaders.

But here’s a plain fact for people to chew through: GMO labels won’t tell you what you want to know, not about pesticides or toxins. There’s also no good evidence — none, zero, zilch — that GMO foods are a health risk. The closer one looks, in fact, the more this GMO labeling push looks like a marketing gimmick — a happy face sticker slapped over genuine concerns that could be better addressed in other ways.   

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What all of this reflects, of course, is the fact that most Americans are afraid of food that’s been genetically tweaked, perhaps because it does feel like a cosmic power, a tool as powerful as it is unnerving.

The vast majority of people support labeling GMO foods, according to a recent poll by The New York Times. It’s no wonder when a solid 57% of people believe GMO foods are “generally unsafe,” as a Pew Research Center study found last year.

In response to similar ideas nationwide, Chipotle recently announced that it would no longer sell foods made with GMOs, a decision they’re touting in window signs and in the pages of every media outlet that will interview them. Trader Joe's has done the same.

Whole Foods, meanwhile, now promises full GMO transparency by 2018, and a voluntary labeling movement has already caught on. In the past five years, companies have registered nearly 30,000 food products with the Non-GMO Project, an independent certification group.

Sales of such foods tripled last year — with major companies like General Mills and the makers of Similac baby formula joining the non-GMO movement. Rocker Neil Young has even added his voice to choir

But hold on a second: Is any of this necessary? Let’s break it down in parts, starting with safety. More than a trillion meals made with GMOs have been eaten in this country in the last two decades — and all without incident. There have been thousands of studies of these foods, none turning up a clear and present danger.

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That’s why virtually every mainstream science organization is satisfied: The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, and the FDA. All have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat.

As a scientific consensus, “GMOs are safe” is right up there with “climate change is real and humans are a driving cause.” And the thing is, science is science. You either believe in its power, or you don’t.

Folks on the left can deny the science of GMOs all they want. But they expose themselves as genuine hypocrites when they criticize folks on the right for denying the science of climate change. There is no in-between here.

So why don’t more people believe the science on GMOs? Neal Carter is the founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the inventor of a new FDA approved apple that’s been genetically modified not to go brown when it’s sliced. He thinks the problem is a basic lack of knowledge of the process.

“We’ve been breeding plants and selecting plants for a long time, 10,000 years, as long as humans have been walking the face of the earth,” he told msnbc. “What genetic engineering has done is help is make the process much more precise.”

The question of pesticides — their use and their safety — is more complicated. Bio-engineered agriculture took off about three decades ago because farmers were looking for a new weapon against bugs and weeds. Both are considered pests. And GMOs could help farmers conquer both.

The details vary from plant to plant, but the outcomes were consistent. With the right genes, crops could produce an enzyme that killed bugs, and survive a pesticide shower that killed weeds. The result was more productive fields, requiring less water and fewer carbon emissions, while still feeding the same number of people.

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Now here’s the complicated part, as Slate’s William Saletan recently reported: While bug-resistant GMOs have led to lower use of insecticides, herbicide-tolerant GMOs have led to higher use of weedkillers. The upshot might be slightly more pesticides overall, or slightly less. But it’s certainly not a tidal wave of new toxic chemicals.  

You wouldn’t want to put weedkiller on your food as a condiment, but experts agree that it’s relatively benign. But more importantly, weed killers aren’t limited to GMOs alone.

Lots of non-GMO foods are also soaked in pesticides, Saletan found. That means all those labels that say "non-GMO" can lull people into buying a more dangerous product, albeit with a clearer conscience.  

“The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you,” Saletan concludes. “They’re using you.”