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Public Affairs

Biotech Labeling: Another Solution in Search of a Problem

Gene Grabowski

For decades, Americans have been safely consuming genetically modified foods – cereals, salad dressings, snack foods, and soft drinks. In fact, more than 80 percent of the processed foods we eat contain biotech ingredients. That’s because the two main U.S. crops used in food today, corn and soybeans, have long been enhanced through biotechnology to resist drought, weed-killing herbicides, and plant-destroying insects. In fact, biotechnology has saved farmers and consumers in the U.S. and around the world billions of dollars and prevented the starvation of millions in Asia and Africa.

Activist groups, however, have proven to be more persistent than any pests biotech crops may encounter. Once again this year, they are pushing to force government to label biotech foods on store shelves. The issue is on the California ballot in November. Activists frustrated by the federal government’s refusal to require biotech labeling are rooting for a state mandate. If mandatory labeling passes in California, they believe it can pass in other states such as Massachusetts and New York – circumventing the long-standing findings of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that biotech foods are safe and need not be labeled.

Even the U.S. State Department, battling European resistance to genetically modified crops, has declared that labeling biotech foods is alarmist. “If you label something there’s an implication there’s something wrong with it,” said Jose Fernandez, the State Department’s assistant secretary for economic, energy, and business affairs, in a 2011 speech establishing the Obama Administration’s opposition to biotech labeling. Even so, activist groups Just Label It and California Right to Know are asserting that consumers have a right to be informed about the products they consume. Never mind that the labeling would communicate (both overtly and subliminally) that there are health risks associated with genetically modified foods. Never mind the fact that no such risks are known.

In 2009, after two decades of pressure from pro-labeling groups, the FDA ruled definitively that biotech foods shouldn’t be labeled because there is no nutritional difference between foods that are genetically modified and those that aren’t. Government food and agriculture experts in every administration since Jimmy Carter’s have argued that labels become confusing for people who might bypass healthy affordable options because of a label they don’t fully understand. "The public gets bogged down on whether [crops are] genetically engineered or not. We think that's a distraction," said Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis. "The consumer needs to know: Is it safe to eat?” In the case of biotech foods, the answer to Professor Ronald’s question is a resounding “yes.”

No foods in history have been more studied, tested, and analyzed than those that are genetically engineered. Scientists continue to assert the safety of such foods. Results from a December 2011 study show no health hazards at all from consuming genetically modified foods like corn, soybeans, rice, or potatoes. All this notwithstanding, at least seven other states have considered biotech labeling measures similar to the one on California’s November ballot. All seven rejected them. If California voters consider the evidence, they will reject this labeling initiative as well.

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