Thursday, January 8, 2015

Which one of these things should we label?

If you've followed this blog since it's inception, you'll know that my stance about labeling GMOs has changed and evolved with time. At first, I was indifferent towards labeling: if people want GMOs labeled, just label it and get it over with. What's the big deal? Then I read several papers that looked into customer risk perceptions regarding labels and learned why food producers probably wouldn't want to label their products. I read articles written by farmers, highlighting the high cost that they'd have to bear in terms of equipment to sort GMO from non-GMO products (here's a great example of one such article). I realized that a label that simply says "May Contain GMOs" is not informative enough (see last section in my article here). But what has really convinced me that labeling GMOs would be a messy legislative exercise is my perception that I probably wouldn't be able to find two people to give me the same answer on what should be labeled.

For example, should milk from a cow fed GMO grain be labeled? What if the cow received a vaccine produced through genetic engineering? What about yogurt made with a bacteria that's been engineered? Should a transgenic ear of corn be labeled? What about a cisgenic ear of corn (i.e has a gene from a related species that it could be bred with)? What about high fructose corn syrup from GMO corn?

To highlight what this last point is all about, I have to point you to my previous article where I outline that a transgenic organism is a species that has had a gene(s) introduced from another species with which it could not breed. That gene produces a protein which performs a specific function. For our example about high fructose corn syrup made from transgenic corn, let's imagine that it's from Bt-corn. The corn's genome now has a piece of DNA that has been introduced, and this piece of DNA produces a protein that is toxic to specific insects. The corn has two things that identify it as a transgenic organism (GMO): the insecticidal-protein and the gene that codes for it.

In the case of high fructose corn syrup, the process of making the syrup removes all proteins and degrades DNA. So it's virtually indistinguishable from high fructose corn syrup made from non-GMO corn. The same goes for sugar extracted from a GMO beet: refined sugar doesn't have the transgene or the transgenic protein. So if the "thing" that makes it a GMO isn't there, is it still a GMO? Does it need to be labeled?

Sort of sounds like one of those if-a-tree-falls-in-a forest-and-no-one's-there,-does-it-make-a-sound philosophical questions.

Except that there's nothing philosophical about it. The Non-GMO project, an organization that offers a voluntary label for food manufacturers who want to certify their products as non-GMO, states that if there's not enough DNA in a product to determine if it's a GMO, then you have to look at the supply chain and test products that are upstream (see 2.6.1.1.4 of the link). To be clear: the Non-GMO project considers refined sugar from a GM beet to be different than sugar from a regular beet, even though there's no chemical difference between the two. The Non-GMO project also requires cows to be given non-GMO feed in order for dairy products to earn their label. However, Ben & Jerry's, who is leading the way in all things non-GMO doesn't consider their milk to be a GMO despite the fact that they use GMO feed for their dairy cows.
 
Determining which things should be labeled gets even messier when you look at the proposed legislation. In states where there have been ballot measures for GMO labeling, the exemptions are very strange: alcoholic beverages would have been exempt in Vermont, Colorado and California; Colorado's proposed ballot measure specifically states that chewing gum would be exempt; in Vermont, you don't need to label if the amount of GM material makes up less than 0.9% of the total weight of processed food, but in California the cutoff is at 0.5%. Some how GMOs are more GMOish in California so the state can't handle as much of it... Perhaps the GMOs have more Monsantonization...

I genuinely feel that the best solution is that individuals who are concerned about GMOs purchase organic goods (which already exclude GMOs and well as GMO feed) or purchase items voluntarily certified as Non-GMO. It makes WAY more sense than to create a mandatory GMO label and then try to decide what to slap it on.

On a different note, I've been reading "Tomorrow's Table" about organic farming and genetics. Fantastic read thus far. Maybe I'll write a book summary/review next time.

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