GMO Labeling Fables

Efforts to scare people about genetic modifications are light on science so far.

The Secretary of State's office on Thursday received signatures for an initiative that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled. Not a bad idea, on the face of it. The more consumers know about what they're buying, the better, right?

Unfortunately, there's not much consumer education going on in the nascent I-522 campaign, which doesn't even seem to understand what GMOs are.

Here's the definition on the campaign website: "GMO foods, also known as genetically engineered foods, are created by taking DNA from one species and forcing it into other unrelated species—mixing plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes in combinations that cannot occur in nature and are experimental."

Talking to SW, initiative sponsor Chris McManus, an advertising executive and vegan from Tacoma, elaborates: "To put it in brass tacks, GMOs are something that you don't see in nature: bluejays mating with mockingbirds, dogs mating with cats."

It's a description obviously designed to play into fears that GMOs are some kind of Frankenstein science, a notion that once prompted a group of foolish young environmental activists to firebomb the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.

The fact is, though, that GMOs aren't necessarily the result of mixing DNA from "unrelated" species. Gülhan Ünlü, a professor at the School of Food Science operated jointly by Washington State University and the University of Idaho, explains that genetic modification could involve combining desirable traits from different varieties of the same species.

Take wheat, she says. One variety might withstand extreme temperatures or carry a natural resistance to insects. Another might yield a big harvest. You can insert the gene responsible for one trait into the DNA of a strain that has proved valuable for other reasons. This is commonly done by traditional crossbreeding, but it could also be done by genetic engineering.

"Well, you know, I'm not a scientist," McManus responds. "I work in media. Those kinds of questions I'll have to defer to later in the campaign." But, to delve into the issue further than McManus apparently has, even some GMOs that sound scary might not be.

Ünlü works in the area of genetically modified microbes, some of which are used for food production. An enzyme called rennet, for instance, is used to make many kinds of cheeses. The problem with natural rennet is that it comes from the stomach of a baby cow. That makes obtaining it difficult, not to mention objectionable to those concerned with animal welfare. So years ago, Ünlü explains, scientists began to produce rennet in the laboratory by cloning the enzyme in a bacteria—E. coli, to be precise. Obviously, nothing is more dangerous for human consumption than some varieties of E. coli, but Ünlü insists this variety is perfectly safe. In fact, most cheese is now made from rennet cloned in this way. Ünlü calls this procedure a "wonderful" use of genetic-modification technology that not only responds to animal-rights concerns, but also allows for cheap mass production of an important enzyme.

And that's the thing about genetic modification. The technology is not inherently bad or good. It's all in how you use it. Is it sometimes used in problematic ways? Absolutely. Most famously, agribusiness often creates herbicide-resistant crops through genetic modification, and there is some evidence that this has led to greater use of herbicides in farming.

The public should know more about the pros and cons of genetic engineering, given how ubiquitous it has become. However, what people need to know—the precise way the technology has been used in a given food and any relevant concerns—can't really fit on a label.

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