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October 26, 2012

Labeling of genetically modified food being considered

Kokomo — To the American Medical Association, genetically modified food is normal, it’s safe, it’s no cause for alarm.

To organic food companies and distributors, those products are called “Frankenfood” and “pharmacorn” and “toxic” and, in a word, “dangerous.”

And to the discerning consumer, it’s just confusing.

The issue of whether genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption has come to a head in recent months, with many groups pushing for mandated labeling of genetically modified food products. On November 6, California will vote on Proposition 37, which would mandate the labeling of genetically engineered food — a discussion that has other states considering whether they’ll follow suit.

The very nature of the language “genetically modified” food is a misnomer, Purdue agronomy professor Bob Nielsen said. Farmers have been “genetically modifying” crops for thousands of years to improve disease resistance and make them more durable against drought or pests. A better term for what people are concerned about, he said, is “transgenic” organisms, which come about when scientists isolate a trait from one species and transfer it into the DNA of another species. Whereas in the past a favorable trait of a plant in the past could only be bred with another plant in that species, transgenes can be transferred from one species to another.

“They may discover a gene in a palm tree that would be great for disease resistance in corn,” Nielsen said. “Now we’re able to move it from a whole different species, whereas in the old days, we could only work within the natural genetic variability.”

Nielsen said that the general scientific consensus has been that GM foods — which constitute most of the corn and soybeans grown in this country — are safe for human consumption.

“AMA policy supports the FDA’s science-based approach to special product labeling, recognizing that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods,” said AMA board member Patrice Harris in an emailed statement. “We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”

But groups fearing otherwise wonder: if they’re safe, why not just label them?

“Our main issue is labeling,” said Joan Johnson at the Sunspot Natural Market in Kokomo. “Our customers, any customers, anywhere, deserve to know what they’re eating.”

But many specialists believe that labeling genetically modified foods would inherently imply that they’re harmful in some way.

“Most consumers have a negative response to process-based genetic modification,” said Jill McCluskey, professor at Washington State University’s School of Economic Sciences. “If there was mandatory labeling, I’m pretty positive that consumers would view it as a negative.”

McCluskey believes mandatory labeling may increase food prices.

“The mandatory labeling imposes costs on everyone, even the people who don’t care [whether GM products are labeled],” she said. “I think food will become more expensive because you’ll have to identify non-GM from GM products.”

Corinne Alexander, agricultural economics professor at Purdue University, said whatever happens on election day will have nationwide implications.

“California is such a large market, if they pass [Prop. 37] it will probably de facto become a nationwide policy,” she said.

Labeling proponents says GM food can be harmful to human health. One study by Purdue University Professor Don Huber has shown evidence that products genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready” can cause spontaneous abortions in animals. Pro-labeling groups also say the GM products can cause allergies and sickness in humans.

“People are getting sick from their food,” said Jennifer Pitcher, community outreach coordinator at Sunspot Natural Market. “They’re unstable. They’re considered safe because there really haven’t been comprehensive studies to prove otherwise. In a test tube, all is well and good, but once it’s out and growing its unstable.”

But some experts wonder why genetic modification is being singled out for labeling, while the use of pesticides, hormones or antibiotics are not.

McClusky said that consumers have the power of “consumer sovereignty” when deciding what is or isn’t safe.

“Consumers might not agree with scientific experts,” she said. “If the consumers don’t want to pay for [genetically modified food products], then they wont be in the market.”

For now, customers can seek out foods with a “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal, that indicates that the product containing less than 0.9 percent GM; the same requirement that is enforced in the European Union, and attempts to account for the “crop contamination” that can occur when GM and non-GM genes comingle in the environment.

Nielsen said the loss of using transgenes would put a damper on scientific advancement.

“Would it shut down agriculture as we know it? No, we’ve survived all these years with more classical breeding,” Nielsen said. “We just wouldn’t make as much progress.”

Megan Graham is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. She can be reached by 765-454-8570 or by email at megan.graham@kokomotribune.com.

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