The Straight Poop on GMO Labeling

During June, two items hit the news involving unsavory (to some) food options.

The first was a letter to the Record-Bee from a local organic grower taking me to task for my column, “Something Fishy This Way Comes.” The grower accused me of being against “choice.” She contended, if genetically modified (GM) food is not labeled, how can people choose not to eat it?

The second was a story about Japanese scientists developing a technique to make food from poop. You can imagine that a number of news outlets, including Fox News, were all over this story like stink on…well…you know what. According to the reports, human excrement is supposedly packed with protein and carbohydrates. All the Japanese scientists need do is combine poop with a “reaction enhancer,” then put it in a “magical machine…and artificial steak comes out the other end.”[i] Okaaaay, that sounds really appetizing.

Even though the second story is actually just a resilient urban legend,[ii] let’s run a thought experiment and pretend it is true. (“Thought experiment” sounds so much brainier than daydreaming, doesn’t it?). Let’s pretend a fast food chain has entered into an agreement with the nearby community sewage treatment plant to harness the culinary potential of its solid waste. Our (of course) fictitious fast food chain uses the magical Japanese machine and voila, s**t sandwiches, turd tacos, s**t burritos and even s**t on a stick.

Should the fast food’s products be labeled to say that they came directly out of someone’s colon? The argument to require labeling says yes. It goes something like this: We do not want to eat that stuff, and we have a representative government, so our government (federal, state, or local) should require such unappetizing food to be labeled for what it is.

You might think you want the source to be labeled, but I don’t think you do.

But, you may be saying, without labeling we might eat s**t! That’s true, but if you do not properly prepare organic produce, you also might eat s**it. According to the conservative think tank Center for Global Food Issues, using 1999 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, while only one percent of the United States food supply is organic, it accounts for eight percent of food related disease in the U.S. primarily due to a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (O157:H7)”[iii] found in cow excrement which may be used as organic fertilizer.

At present, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires labeling for specific reasons. If a food is significantly different than its name, the food’s name must be changed to describe the difference. If it has a significantly different nutritional property from its counterpart, its label must reflect the difference.[iv] And, if a food has a potential safety issue, there must be a statement on the label describing the issue; such as if a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label.[v]

The inconvenient truth is that GM products are as safe as any other food products; whether poop meat would be we might never know. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and food agencies in the United States and Europe say GM foods currently on the market pose no health risk.

The reasons for a government to require special labeling should be for safety issues, not lifestyle choices. In areas of simple choice, it is not the government’s responsibility to require labeling of the provenance of a food’s origin.

Let’s be clear: the eating of GM food is not a safety issue. GM food falls into the same category as Jewish Kosher or Moslem Sharia law food: that is, that labeling is important to the followers of that ethic. Producers of non-GM, just as producers of Kosher or Sharia food, are free to label their food as such. But, if you really feel that you want to avoid GM, you can eat organic food exclusively.

The call for labeling implies that GM food should be avoided because the food is “unnatural.” This is the “ick” factor that happens with new technology; a 1969 Harris poll found a majority of Americans believed in vitro fertilization (“test tube babies”) was “against God’s will.” In less than a decade, those against had dropped to 28 percent with 60 percent pro-IVF.[vi] Because beliefs evolve, the FDA requires labels on food to safeguard our health, not our beliefs. That is the straight poop.

Here is the bottom line: you are free to follow your beliefs; that is your choice.

 


[i] Japanese Scientists Create Meat From Poop – FoxNews.com. http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/06/17/japanese-scientists-create-meat-from-poop/ (accessed July 17, 2011)

[ii] It appears to be one of those urban legends that crop up from time to time that sound crazy and, given our accelerating pace of technological advance, plausible at the same time. See: The mystery of the Japanese “poop burger” story. http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/06/23/japan_feces_meat_viral (accessed July 17, 2011)

[v] Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether … (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm

 

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Run for your lives! It’s lunchtime at Dr. Strangefood’s

One evening, during the drearily sodden summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his friends read Fantasmagoriana, (a French translation of a German book of ghost stories—they were intellectuals after all) in his Villa Diodati in Switzerland (they were rich intellectuals). Afterward, Byron suggested they all write a horror story. Everyone did except Mary, the wife of his friend, Percy. She kept demurring, saying she had not yet thought of anything suitable. Then one night they discussed the rumor that Erasmus Darwin had electrically “galvanized” a piece of a worm; an electric current had made the vermicello twitch. Mary Shelley began writing a moral cautionary tale of what happens when arrogant science meddles with nature: “Frankenstein.”

In 1816, the Industrial Revolution had just begun. Dizzying technological advancements such as the spinning jenny displaced workers from their livelihoods. Angry bands of men, calling themselves Luddites, smashed machines, murdered industrialists, and fought with the military.

Today we are experiencing the biotech revolution. The human genome [e.g., all the genes that make up an organism’s DNA]  has been mapped. Genes from one species are being placed into other species. Genetically modified E. coli bacteria now produce much of our insulin and GE yeast produce vaccines for us. About one-half of the acres planted in the United Stated are with genetically modified crops that resist insects or herbicides. The result is less soil erosion (the primary reason for tilling is weed control) and pesticide usage; one estimate puts the amount of pesticide (active ingredients only) not used at more than 100,000 tons and climbing.

Just as the Industrial Revolution triggered riots, so has today’s biotech revolution: vandals have uprooted genetically engineered (GE) crops and burned research facilities. Recently, Marie Mason, who said she was acting on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front, was sentenced to 22 years for torching the Michigan State University’s Agriculture building. She told the judge, “I meant to inspire thought and compassion, not fear.”

That humans have been altering the genetic structures of their food for 10,000 years gets lost in the shouting. As an example, the wheat we use for bread came about from the crossing of at least three different species of wild grasses from two different genera. This new food had new proteins and chemicals that were never, ever part of the food supply before. One European Union report put genetic engineering this way, “(A) genome is not a static entity but a dynamic structure continuously refining its gene pool. So, for a scientist in genetics, the act of splicing to generate a transgenic organism is a modest step when compared to the genomic changes induced by all the ‘crosses’ and breeding events used in agriculture and husbandry.”

Consider this: natural breeding involves the random mixing of tens of thousands of genes (genes are recipes for proteins) from two parent plants, resulting in entirely new proteins and other plant chemicals never before part of the food supply, but anti-GE advocates find this practice totally natural.

Now, instead of breeding and crossbreeding, and then breeding again to breed out unwanted traits, agronomists can now select and place a single trait into a plant.

GM products are as safe as any other food products. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and food agencies in the United States and Europe say GM foods currently on the market pose no health risk. The WHO says on their website, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption” of GM foods.

“[T]he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” says Stewart Brand, leading environmentalist who authored The Whole Earth Catalog. “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defense of a bizarre idea of what is ‘natural’…we make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.”

“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted,” writes Pamela Ronald, Professor of plant pathology at University of California, Davis. “GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.” Two-thirds of the processed food in our nation’s food system is GE.

Pamela Ronald has been slurred ‘a shill for industry’ in a recent letter to the Lake County Record-Bee’s editor. I suspect the writer had no idea that Professor Ronald is married to a certified organic gardener. Together they have written a book called “Tomorrow’s Table.” She has developed rice that can withstand two weeks of inundation, which will help poor farmers in Asia survive the monsoons. By the way, note the use of the term “poor farmers”: about ninety percent of farmers growing biotech crops are small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries, the majority of them in China.

It’s not Frankenfood; it’s just food, like we have been eating for thousands of generations, and it holds the promise to feed those most in need. “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods,” says Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya, “but can we please eat first?”

Nearly 200 years after fabulist Mary Shelley raised Romantic objections to science, some have labeled GM food as “Frankenfood.” Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations hold that we are playing god and meddling with forces that we cannot possibly understand. Yet, historically, predictions often end up quite wide of the mark.

About two hundred years ago, Britain’s Quarterly Review howled about “[L]ocomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches!” Some physicians predicted that the incredibly high speeds (nearly 20 miles per hour) would cause psychological harm. Others predicted that passing trains would cause pregnant mares to spontaneously abort. “We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour,” the Review admonished.” Worries about new technology have often proven to be overblown.

Let’s eat, and not confuse the product with the process.

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Letter to Lake County Record-Bee

Here’s a letter to the editor of the Lake County Record-Bee:

I noted in the article, “GE crops hot topic at Board of Supervisors,” Lake County’s BOS were in “consensus in support of drafting letters to state legislators and federal regulators indicating Lake County’s support of requiring the identification of GE [Genetically Engineered] ingredients on food labels.”

Such a call implies that GE food should be avoided because the food is “unnatural.” Then let’s toss in traditional selection breeding methods using chemical or radiation mutagenesis whereby hundreds of the foods we consume were developed. Is irradiating species to produce mutations safer than the selection and insertion of a specific trait? If one points out that we know that they are because we have been eating them, the same can be said then for GE crops.

“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.” – Pamela Ronald, Professor of plant pathology at University of California, Davis.

We humans have been modifying our food supply for 10,000 years. “Except for wild game, wild mushrooms, wild berries and fish and shellfish, virtually all the food in European and American diets is already derived from genetically modified organisms,” notes biologist Henry Miller, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Yogurt, beer, tofu, and bread, for example, are made with microorganisms that have been painstakingly modified and optimized over many years or even centuries.”

To be scientifically correct, the BOS should amend their letter to support requiring the identification of all food as genetically modified with the exception of wild game, wild mushrooms, and wild berries.

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