February 15, 2011, 9:00 PM
By MARK BITTMAN
Mark Bittman on food and all things related.
If you want to avoid sugar, aspartame, trans-fats, MSG, or just about anything else, you read the label. If you want to avoid G.M.O.’s — genetically modified organisms — you’re out of luck. They’re not listed. You could, until now, simply buy organic foods, which by law can’t contain more than 5 percent G.M.O.’s. Now, however, even that may not work.
In the last three weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved three new kinds of genetically engineered (G.E.) foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol), and sugar beets. And the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of a super-fast-growing salmon — the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last — may not be far behind.
It’s unlikely that these products’ potential benefits could possibly outweigh their potential for harm. But even more unbelievable is that the F.D.A.and the U.S.D.A. will not require any of these products, or foods containing them, to be labeled as genetically engineered, because they don’t want to “suggest or imply” that these foods are “different.” (Labels with half-truths about health benefits appear to be O.K., but that’s another story.)
They are arguably different, but more important, people are leery of them. Nearly an entire continent — it’s called Europe — is so wary that G.E. crops are barely grown there and there are strict bans on imports (that policy is in danger). Furthermore, most foods containing more than 0.9 percent G.M.O.’s must be labeled.
G.E. products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources; they may be more profitable to farmers. But many of these claims are in dispute, and advances in conventional agriculture, some as simple as drip irrigation, may achieve these same goals more simply. Certainly conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers, and most of the worlds’ farmers are poor. (The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops, and it’s entirely possible that what’s needed to feed the world’s hungry is not new technology but a better distribution system and a reduction of waste.)
To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.) But there has been cross-breeding of natural crops and species with those that have been genetically engineered, and when ethanol corn cross-pollinates feed corn, the results could degrade the feed corn; when G.E. alfalfa cross-pollinates organic alfalfa, that alfalfa is no longer organic; if a G.E. salmon egg is fertilized by a wild salmon, or a transgenic fish escapes into the wild and breeds with a wild fish … it’s not clear what will happen.
This last scenario is impossible, say the creators of the G.E. salmon — a biotech company called AquaBounty — whose interest in approval makes their judgment all but useless. (One Fish and Wildlife Service scientist wrote in material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, “Maybe they should watch ‘Jurassic Park.’ “)
But the testing process is suspect: the F.D.A. relied on data submitted by AquaBounty (that data is for fish raised in Prince Edward Island, even though the company plans to raise the fish in Panama, which is possibly illegal).
Also curious is that the salmon is being categorized as a “new animal drug” which means that the advisory committee in charge of evaluating it is composed mostly of veterinarians and animal scientists, instead of, say, fish ecologists or experts in food safety. Not surprisingly, the biotech industry has spent over half a billion dollars on G.M.O. lobbyists in the last decade, and Michael Taylor, the F.D.A. deputy commissioner for foods, was once vice president for public policy at Monsanto. Numerous groups of consumers, farmers, environmental advocates, scientists, supporters of organic food and now even congressmen — last week, a bill was introduced to ban G.E. salmon — believe that the approval process demonstrated a bias towards the industry.
Cross-breeding is guaranteed with alfalfa and likely with corn. (The U.S.D.A. claims to be figuring out ways to avoid this happening, but by then the damage may already be done.) And the organic dairy industry is going to suffer immediate and frightening losses when G.E. alfalfa is widely grown, since many dairy cows eat dried alfalfa (hay), and the contamination of organic alfalfa means the milk of animals fed with that hay can no longer be called organic. Likewise, when feed corn is contaminated by G.E. ethanol corn, the products produced from it won’t be organic. (On the one hand, U.S.D.A. joins the F.D.A. in not seeing G.E. foods as materially different; on the other it limits the amount found in organic foods. Hello? Guys? Could you at least pretend to be consistent?)
The subject is unquestionably complex. Few people outside of scientists working in the field — self included — understand much of anything about gene altering. Still, an older ABC poll found that a majority of Americans believe that G.M.O.’s are unsafe, even more say they’re less likely to buy them, and a more recent CBS/NYT poll found a whopping 87 percent — you don’t see a poll number like that too often — wants them labeled.
In the long run, genetic engineering may prove to be useful. Or not. The science is adolescent at best; not even its strongest advocates can guarantee that there aren’t hidden dangers. So consumers are understandably cautious, and whether that’s justified or paranoid, it would seem we have a right to know as much as Europeans do.
Even more than questionable approvals, it’s the unwillingness to label these products as such — even the G.E. salmon will be sold without distinction — that is demeaning and undemocratic, and the real reason is clear: producers and producer-friendly agencies correctly suspect that consumers will steer clear of G.E. products if they can identify them. Which may make them unprofitable. Where is the free market when we need it?
A majority of our food already contains G.M.O.’s, and there’s little reason to think more isn’t on the way. It seems our “regulators” are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.
- Bittman: Why Aren’t G.M.O. Foods Labeled? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Frankenfood and the FDA (pochp.wordpress.com)
- Why Farmers Are Worried About GE Alfalfa Deregulation (news.change.org)
- Why Farmers Need Consumers to Oppose GMOs (news.change.org)
- Paula Crossfield: GM and Organic Co-Existence: Why We Really Just Can’t Get Along (huffingtonpost.com)
- Experts: Contamination from GM alfalfa certain (seattletimes.nwsource.com)