Genetically Modified Organisms

In Support of Labeling Food Containing Products from Genetically Modified Organisms.
Please choose your food...

Today's controversy surrounding food made from genetically altered organisms appears to be one of this new technology – bad technology controversies accompanying major lifestyle changes. The controversy is nicely split between a scientific view and a public view. While scientists deem genetically modified food safe, the public, particularly in Europe, will not eat it. Americans are hardly aware of the issue and don't know that many grocery store items already contain products from genetically modified organisms. The low awareness of Americans can mostly be attributed to lack of information. It is likely that Americans would react similarly to GMO food as Europeans already do. The industry thus is interested in not having to label its products. A GMO label would be a kiss of death for any product in Europe and likely stir sentiments in America too. A case in point is the recent ‘mix up’ of genetically modified corn (AT corn) not approved for human consumption in taco shells and the like. The contaminated food was immediately retracted. Labeling is akin to informing the customer of a product he or she does not want. 

Foes of ‘gene food’ press hard for a labeling in the hope that consumers will shun those products. In a rare case of embracing capitalist principles, consumer advocates and environmentalists are convinced that labeling would eliminate GMO food by relying on consumers fear and subsequent lack of demand. Such a market force is much more convincing (think shareholder value) than intellectual debates.

The controversy surrounding labeling or not, and the safety of GMO products, however, has a deeper root than simple consumer protection. The resistance can partly be explained by decades of industry public relation disasters through stalling and late admissions of dangers and accidents harming the environment. The biotechnology industry is feeling the full force of previous public outcries leading to environmentalism and consumer safety and protection. Hundreds of grassroots organizations are well organized and can tap into (human) resources stemming from anti nuclear power strategies in the 60s and 70s. Acid rain, smog, heavy metal pollution, nuclear power plant meltdowns and near melt-downs, oil spills and global warming, or animal testing are all part of the greater scenario. Anti globalization protests around the world (sic!) against corporate greed and arrogance are fueling many of these sentiments against technological innovations. 

Safety must come first. Ironically, the biotechnology industry has done and is doing an excellent job in this respect, yet the thought of manipulating the very hereditary substance of plants and animals  - our food  -  is hard to swallow for most people. It is no surprise that genetic manipulation is accepted in the biomedical field but not when it comes to food. This separation into good and evil is particularly strong in Europe. 

What works for pills does not necessarily work for food. This is obviously not a rational argument, but can be understood by everyone. What we put in our mouth is rather important to all of us and we hardly connect on a rational level to food, even when counting calories, mineral dietary allowances, or deciding whether to eat more unsaturated than saturated fats. 

Manipulating genetic material also requires important reasons to do so. GMO techniques are rarely used to change the quality of food, although this is a major argument of the industry, but mostly to improve conditions for growing, harvesting, processing, and storing/transport of food. Genetic modification is used to decrease costs and increase revenues. Subsequently, GMO food is eaten by millions of healthy people unlike pills that are (or should be) taken rarely and temporarily and only when we are sick. The question is if such modification are justified to introduce potential risks for consumers and the environment. 

The agricultural industry can show that the GMO food on grocery shelves is safe to eat. Despite of these overwhelming evidence, people are shunning the products, if they know about these modifications. Despite of this resistance I would suggest that labeling is necessary and fair to give the consumer appropriate information. I would also suggest that given the many benefits of gentechnology that labeling will soon turn into a quality mark eventually helping to sell these products once consumers are convinced of their safety and quality. The industry can only win in the long term. This is about establishing trust and being open and accessible.

The current debate about danger and labeling of so called ‘Frankenstein foods’ strikes an interesting resemblance to a labeling dispute that happened over a century ago. Then, the British in order to protect their national market from German goods, forced German manufacturer to label their products as 'Made in Germany', a label that mutated itself into a 'trademark' because those products often were superior to their British counterparts. 


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