TCS Daily


Biotech Boogeyman

By Dean Kleckner - October 31, 2002 12:00 AM

There's an initiative on the ballot in Oregon this fall that deserves to be labeled scary - and not just for the people of Oregon.

Measure 27 would require any product containing at least one genetically modified ingredient to carry an ominous label: "Genetically Engineered." As a state law, it would only affect food sold in Oregon. Its backers, however, have grander ambitions. They want to stigmatize healthy genetically modified foods everywhere by making them sound like freakish inventions. But the facts resist caricature. If you ate corn flakes this morning, put cheese on your burger at lunch or popped open a soda, you almost certainly consumed a product that was derived from bioengineering.

Each year, American farmers cultivate millions of acres of crops that have been genetically modified. This is typically done to help plants resist insects or reduce reliance on chemical sprays to control weeds. A popular version of biotech corn, for instance, imports a natural toxin from bacteria that is harmless to humans but deadly to corn borers. The result is increased yields for farmers and a healthier product for consumers. About a third of all corn grown in our country has been bioengineered.

We've been eating this stuff for years, and there's not a shred of scientific evidence showing that biotech foods are anything but perfectly safe to eat. The Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate GM foods - and each has endorsed them as fit for the market. The American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization have signed off as well.

Genetic engineering, standing alone, is not a material fact that demands a special label. The FDA itself said so on Oct. 4 in a remarkable letter to the governor of Oregon. The agency does not normally weigh in on state ballot initiatives, let alone object to them. But Measure 27 is so sweeping that deputy commissioner Lester Crawford felt compelled to declare, "mandatory labeling . . . does not promote the public health." That's because the labels would be almost meaningless, except as propaganda. The majority of our processed food - 70% of it - contains at least one component that has been genetically engineered. Oregon's department of agriculture estimates that half-a-million food items now sold in grocery stores or served in restaurants would have to carry the identification.

The initiative's provisions resemble a Russian matryoshka doll more than a responsible rule meant to inform consumers. A cake mix containing no GM ingredients would have to carry the label if the chicken that produced the egg white in the mix had ever eaten feed derived from biotechnology.

Oregonians have plenty of reasons for rejecting Measure 27, from the higher food bills and limited choice they'll face in grocery stores to the many millions in tax dollars it will cost to build a new bureaucracy of inspectors.

They are free to enact foolish laws, of course. But there's a problem for the rest of us: The passage of Measure 27 would embolden anti-biotech activists in other states with the initiative process, notably California. Before long, a chunk of the country could live in jurisdictions that require labeling. In such an environment, food companies could decide that keeping the label off their packages is more important than defending sound science. This has already happened on a small scale. Two years ago, capitulating to the likes of Greenpeace, Frito Lay told its suppliers not to use GM corn.

Instead of demonizing healthy products, the backers of Measure 27 should focus on positive efforts to increase consumer choice. Last week, the Department of Agriculture introduced federal labeling standards for organic food. People who want to steer clear of biotechnology can simply refer to these.

The fruits of agricultural biotechnology represent one of the most promising advances science offers us. By boosting yield, biotech crops have improved margins for small family farmers who take advantage of them. They reduce the pressure to turn wilderness into farmland and provide hope that we can keep up with the nutritional demands of a hungry and growing world.

Perhaps the voters of Oregon will turn their backs on all this. The rest of us can't afford to.

A version of the article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

 

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