Give Consumers Choice on Genetically Altered Food

By Picone, Cox, Jackson, Van Tasselin Feature Articles - September 11, 2000

Christopher Picone (soil ecologist), Stan Cox (plant geneticist), Wes Jackson (plant geneticist), and David Van Tassel (plant biologist) are Ph.D. scientists at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. An earlier version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed piece in the Kansas City Star, Sept. 11, 2000.

Wes Jackson, Christopher Picone, David Van Tassel and Stan Cox (clockwise from top left)

Wes Jackson, Christopher Picone, David Van Tassel and Stan Cox (clockwise from top left)

As a consumer, do you believe that foods should be labeled if they contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients? Congress is debating bills to require the labeling of such foods. But in this space Stan Ahlerich, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, recently argued that such labeling was "unfounded" and "cumbersome." As agricultural scientists, we disagree. About 80-90 percent of US consumers believe GE foods should be labeled, but few people know they are already eating them. Over 60-70 percent of food in a grocery store contains components from GE crops. Labeling GE foods would provide consumers with critical information and choices, and not simply "confuse and mislead." It is insulting to argue that consumers are not sufficiently intelligent to understand a food label. Consumers should be able to choose whether their food has GE components for several reasons. First, genetically engineered crops have not been properly tested by the FDA, EPA and USDA. Instead, these agencies have relied on the results from safety tests done by the agro-biotech industries themselves, such as Monsanto. Recall that these same industries once told us that PCBs were also safe. Second, science has demonstrated health risks from some GE crops. GE soybeans have induced allergic reactions in people who have never been allergic to soy. Potatoes inserted with snowdrop lectin genes impaired the immune systems of lab rats and reduced the weight of some organs. Third, consumers may wish to avoid GE foods due to their ecological risks. For example, "Bt crops" have genes — from the bacterium Bacillius thuringiensis — which produce an insecticide throughout the plant. Such crops have been shown to kill beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybugs, as well as Monarch butterflies. Although the agro-chemical companies say the Bt toxin breaks down rapidly in the soil, recent studies have shown that the toxin accumulates in the soil and remains active at least 234 days. This result was completely unexpected. Other GE crops can harm beneficial soil fungi — another unexpected result. Fourth, contrary to Mr. Ahlerich's assertions, genetic engineering is not simply a faster version of traditional breeding. Cross-breeding two, closely-related plant species is fundamentally different from inserting the genes of petunias, fish, bacteria and viruses into grain crops. In contrast to the traditional goals of plant breeding, the main goal of today's genetic engineering is not to provide healthier, more ecological agriculture, nor increase yields, nor "feed a hungry world." Rather, the main goal is to tighten the corporate noose that already strangles small farmers. Most GE research and patents are directed at herbicide resistance, so farmers must buy the herbicide produced by the seed company. Use of some GE crops has been shown to increase use of chemical pesticides, without increased yield. Due to lower profits, the Corn Growers Association recently stated their opposition to GE corn. More science, and less corporate rhetoric, will show that today's GE crops are simply not necessary. In the meantime, consumers have the right to choose whether or not to eat them.