As voters prepare to submit their ballots, two Washington State University scientists joined a Foley Institute panel Monday to discuss ethics, science, politics of food and Initiative 522 – the proposal to determine labeling regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Washington state.
Impact on organic agriculture
The simplest way to think about genetic engineering (GE) is “cutting and pasting” DNA, said Michael Neff, associate professor and director of the molecular plant sciences graduate program.
“We are talking about plants that have a piece of DNA from that plant or another plant or organism that has been inserted into that plant’s genome,” he said. “Basically it is crops that have been developed to express new traits through the process we call genetic engineering.”
Neff described the scientific processes involved in GE and concluded with a brief illustration of its potential for organic production. Papaya, he said, has no resistance to a particular ringspot virus, and there is no other plant that scientists can breed with papaya to make it resistant.
However, Hawaii grows papaya organically by surrounding it with GE crops. This prevents insects from carrying the virus into the middle.
Neff said he hopes discussion of organic and GE working together will stay on the table.
Pros: Advancing consumer knowledge, science
“One of the major arguments (for I-522) is that consumers have a basic right to know,” said Chuck Benbrook, research professor and program leader at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Labeling GMO foods is part of having an efficient marketplace and response to consumer demands.”
Another pro, he said, is the need to advance the science of risk assessment of GE food.
In 2013, the first GE vegetable, a variety of sweet corn, was introduced into the market in several U.S. states and Canada. Some supporters, Benbrook said, feel labeling will instigate research on incidences of food allergies or potential health risks associated with GE.
Another argument for passage of I-522, he said, is that such state approval will accelerate establishing a federal labeling scheme. Distaste for such a scheme makes this an argument also used by opponents of I-522, he said.
Mixed history of labeling
Philosophies and regulations of food labeling since the 1990s was discussed by Paul Thompson, the W.K. Kellogg chair and professor of agriculture, food and community ethics at Michigan State University. While a food product’s location of origin is required on labels, other descriptions, like “kosher,” are not mandatory, he said.
Mandatory labeling could imply a health risk that isn’t supported by scientific evidence, he said: “Our food system is full of all kinds of claims that relate to various cultural values but don’t have anything to do with health.”
No policies require products made with GMOs to be labeled. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic program, however, does prohibit use of GE and cloning, he said.
Cons: Flawed language, confusing labels
Flawed language in the initiative and misleading GMO labels were discussed by Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms & Forests.
“I-522 would require a GE label on the front of a package whether there is any genetic material in the package or not,” she said.
For example, a bag of sugar made from genetically modified sugar beets would have to have a label saying “made with genetically engineered ingredients,” though on the nutritional label and through the refining process there would be zero protein, or zero genetic content, in the final product.
And a block of cheese that was made with a genetically modified enzyme, she said, would not require labeling under I-522.