GMO Initiative Ads Show Real-Life Label, But Bewilder More Than Explain

Continuing to heat up after millions of dollars were poured into the fight over GMO labeling Initiative 522, both sides released TV ads this week. One thing is now illuminated. Thanks to a mock-up shown in the ads for the yes campaign, we finally get a chance to see what a label would look like.

In the yes ads, a smiling shopper holds up a corn flakes box whose front is adorned, in fairly large type, with the words “partially produced with genetic engineering.” What’s notable about that is the label’s prominent placement on the front of the package, which is required by the initiative.

In many countries that mandate GMO labeling, like the U.K. and Australia, the information about genetic engineering is just one item on the ingredient panel found on the side of packaging.

Trucy Bialic, the public affairs director of PCC Natural Markets and one of the authors of I-522, says that federal regulations make it impossible to mandate an addition to ingredient panels without changing the law at the national level.

Whatever the reason, the effect would be to call a lot more attention to the GMO label here.

Unfortunately, the ads help explain little else about a topic that is enormously complicated and delves deeply into science. The ads of the no campaign are especially bewildering, and somewhat misleading, but they also raise interesting questions.

One of the biggest puzzles is a statement in a no ad by Ken Eikenberry, former state attorney general, that I-522 “would require some foods to be labeled as genetically engineered even if they’re not.”

On the face of it, this seems like a ludicrous claim. Asked to explain, no campaign spokesperson Dana Bieber cites the example of canola oil that would have to be labeled. The oil would, in fact, be made from genetically modified plants—and that’s really what GMO labeling advocates want to know. Bieber’s point, nevertheless, is that the processing would remove the genetic-engineering component, rendering the oil no different than oil made from a non genetically-engineered plant.

SW called upon plant biologist James Moyer, who is the director of the Agricultural Research Center at Washington State University, to find out whether this makes any sense. His surprising answer, in short, is yes. Genetic engineering entails the insertion of new DNA into a plant. That genetic material creates a protein that expresses a specific trait, say resistance to a herbicide, Moyer elaborates.

Canola that is made into oil is purified, he continues, so that the protein created by genetic engineering is no longer present. In sum, he says, “genetic modification has no impact whatsoever on the oil.”

GMO skeptic Chuck Benbrook, an agricultural economist who heads a food safety and research program for WSU, doesn’t buy it, saying that there hasn’t been enough independent research on the matter. Yet, he also hedges his bets, saying that there are many reasons to oppose genetic engineering besides plant biology, including the way seeds are patented and distributed.

The debate raises the question of what GMO labeling is really for: Is it to help people keep GMO out of their bodies (in which case the anti-labeling folks have a point), or it it to enable people to withhold their support from the biotech industry?

Either way, most people probably won’t follow the logic behind Eikenberry’s claim. But if they do, they would then be mystified by the next thing Eikenberry says, repeated in other ads from the no campaign, which is that the initiative contains “special exemptions” for many foods. A picture comes on the screen with a variety of products, including meat, chicken, eggs and meat.

Actually, the initiative does not exempt such items. Genetically-modified meat, for instance, would have to be labeled, as Bieber allows. What it does exempt is genetically-engineered seed that is given to animals. So labels are not required for meat and dairy products that are made from animals fed such seed.

That’s “misleading” to consumers, Bieber argues, because such products would contain traces of the genetically-modified goods.

True? SW asked Moyer. On this score, he says no. The seed would be “degraded and excreted” by the animals.

Elizabeth Larter, spokesperson for the yes campaign, asserts that the opposite side is trying to have it both ways with its contradictory arguments about oil and meat. And indeed that’s true. But the debate does illustrate how tricky it can become even to identify what is a genetically-modified product and what isn’t.

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