Farm Press Blog

Mandatory GMO food labeling implies risks where there are none


Such labels would not only put groundless fears ahead of science — promoting ignorance and hysteria among consumers — they would also be unconstitutional. The requirement would constitute a punitive tax on a superior technology.

This offering comes under the heading of “Wish I had written that.”

In a recent issue of Forbes, Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko wrote a very discerning piece on GMO labeling, under the headline “Labeling Of Biotech Foods Is Unnecessary And Unconstitutional.”

Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University‘s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They wrote:

Should the government require that labels on cans of marinara sauce contain information about whether the tomatoes in it were hand- or machine-picked? No way! Ridiculous and irrelevant, you’d say. Right on all counts. But that label makes as little sense as the demands of food activist and Forbes contributor Michelle Maisto.

Maisto’s latest Forbes article calls for compulsory, government-mandated labels to indicate foods that have been genetically improved.

Yet the foods that Maisto wants to target are those manipulated with the most modern and precise gene-splicing techniques — and only those techniques. Such labels would not only put groundless fears ahead of science — promoting ignorance and hysteria among consumers — they would also be unconstitutional.

Product labeling that conveys essential information is important, but mandatory labeling of gene-spliced foods is a bad idea. First, it implies risks for which there is no evidence. Second, it flies in the face of worldwide scientific consensus about the appropriate basis of regulation, which focuses palpable risks, not the use of certain techniques. Third, it would push the costs of product development into the stratosphere. Finally, the requirement would constitute a punitive tax on a superior technology.

Let’s begin with her (Maisto’s) assertion that there’s “a lot of debate about whether or not it’s safe to eat GM [genetically modified] foods.” In the parlance of Maisto and other radical food activists, “GM” refers to products that come from plants, animals or microorganisms crafted with sophisticated gene-splicing techniques, in which genes are moved around precisely and predictably. Without any scientific basis, the term implies that gene-splicing is a meaningful “category” and that its use somehow gives rise to products the risks of which are higher or more uncertain than other techniques for genetic modification. However, a broad and decades-long scientific consensus holds that modern techniques of genetic modification are an extension, or refinement – that is, an improvement – on the kinds of genetic modification that have long been used to enhance plants, microorganisms, and animals for food.

One has to wonder whether Maisto knows that with the exception of wild game, wild berries, wild mushrooms and fish and shellfish, all the plant- and animal-derived foods in our diets – even the overpriced organic stuff at Whole Foods – have resulted from genetic modification that employs techniques that are far less precise and predictable than the ones that concern her.

Likewise, is she aware that every major scientific and public health organization that has studied gene-splicing – from the American Medical Association to the National Academy of Sciences and dozens more – has concluded that gene-spliced foods are at least as safe, and probably safer, than conventional ones?

The safety record of gene-spliced plants and foods derived from them is extraordinary. After the cultivation of more than 3 billion acres (cumulatively) of gene-spliced crops worldwide and the consumption of more than 3 trillion servings of food and food ingredients from such crops by inhabitants of North America alone, there has not been a single ecosystem disrupted or a single confirmed adverse reaction.

What are the advantages of gene-spliced crops? Every year, farmers planting gene-spliced varieties spray millions fewer gallons of chemical pesticides and prevent less erosion of topsoil. In addition, many gene-spliced varieties are less susceptible to mold infection and have lower levels of fungal toxins, making them safer for consumers and livestock.

Now let’s get to the labeling issue.

Maisto complains that “food can be tinkered with at the DNA level and no one is obligated to say so.” True, but irrelevant. For one thing, with the exceptions mentioned above, all the foods in our diet have been altered “at the DNA level” – because that’s how changes in organisms occur.

When plant breeders cross a tangerine with a grapefruit to get a tangelo or construct a variety of potato resistant to viruses, the genetic changes are mediated by alterations in the DNA.

There are good reasons that such “tinkering at the DNA level” need not be revealed on labels. Federal regulation requires that food labels be truthful and not misleading and prohibits label statements that could be misunderstood, even if they are strictly accurate.

For example, although a “cholesterol-free” label on a certain variety or batch of fresh spinach would be accurate, it transgresses the FDA’s rules because it could be interpreted as implying that spinach usually contains cholesterol, which it does not.

Following long-standing precedents in food regulation, the FDA requires labeling only to indicate that a new food raises questions of safety, nutrition or proper usage. But instead of educating or serving a legitimate consumers’ “need to know” certain information, mandatory labels on gene-spliced food would imply a warning.

The FDA’s approach to labeling has been upheld both directly and indirectly by various federal court decisions that have consistently struck down mandatory labeling not supported by data. In the early 1990s, a group of Wisconsin consumers sued the FDA, arguing that the agency’s decision not to require the labeling of dairy products from cows treated with a gene-spliced protein called bovine somatotropin, or bST, allowed those products to be labeled in a false and misleading manner. (In other words, the plaintiffs wanted the same sort of mandatory labeling advocated by Maisto.)

However, because the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any material difference between milk from treated and untreated cows the federal court agreed with the FDA, finding that “it would be misbranding to label the product as different, even if consumers misperceived the product as different.”

In another federal case several food associations and companies challenged a Vermont statute that required labeling to identify milk from cows treated with gene-spliced bST.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a labeling mandate grounded in consumer perception rather than in a product’s measurable characteristics raises serious constitutional concerns. Namely, it violates commercial free speech.

The court found both the labeling statute and companion regulations unconstitutional because they forced producers to make involuntary statements when there was no material reason to do so.

What’s more, consumers don’t need a mandatory “GM” label: The First Amendment protects the right of food purveyors to sell non-gene-spliced products and to advertise that fact to consumers by means of labeling. (This would be similar to the way that halal and kosher products are offered to consumers.)

Discuss this Blog Entry 14

Jay Byrne (not verified)
on Dec 28, 2011

Kudos to Farm Press, Miller and Conko for amplifying this important issue. Existing food labeling regulations date back to the late 1800's and are founded in consumer protection - not special interest demands to know. Abraham Lincoln appointed the first chemist of the United States in part to address the growing abuses of snake oil salesmen in making misleading claims about their own and their competitors products.

To bend today to the wishes of advocacy groups and niche product marketers seeking to create food fears around product distinctions that have no relationship to ingredients, nutrition or safety would be to take a giant leap backwards with regards to these consumer protections. Today's snake oil salesmen are using false and misleading absence claims such as pesticide-free or hormone-free on food labels and want to add "GMO-free" to their marketing arsenal.

These claims have no relationship to the quality, nutrition or safety of our food. They are used only to create fear-based markets for higher-priced products that are otherwise the same food as their un-labeled counterparts. Endorsing such labeling via regulations abandons the foundation of consumer protection against snake oil salesmen and others who seek to profit by creating fears around the foods we eat.

Petty Vendetta (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

The risks go way beyond the immediate and the individual. The risks are systemic. We should ask ourselves "why does our food need to be modified?" Is it so Monsanto can continue to sell and distribute glyphosate and poison the planet, or is it so Monsanto can continue to litigate every small farm in America out of existence?

Groundless fears?

Genetic modification is radically different from natural breeding and has been proven in clinical tests to create widespread, unpredictable changes in those who consume them.

Ridiculous and irrelevant??

Let's look at the risks. Much in the way we are now facing resistant forms of bacteria in response to our irresponsible use of antibiotics, so too are we now experiencing Roundup resistant mutant species of weeds invading our croplands.

Allowing this to continue is irresponsible, and dangerous. People have a right to know what's in the food they buy.

Jan (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

Thank you for this accurate and articulate response to the propaganda piece above. The truth is that GMO technology is not the most modern and viable agricultural technology available today. In fact it is downright outmoded. Small farmers across this country are now raising millions of pounds of food on small farms/ greenhouses--some in the cities in the middle of the winter!--using what are truly modern, sustainable and organic methods. GMOs exist for two reasons: to make money for the bio-tech companies and to ultimately control farmers and through them the world's food supply. Everyone should take a close look at what Monsanto did to India--and how India is fighting back to reclaim its food independence. Anyway, thanks again!

Jan (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

I think we the people are getting wise to who the "snake oil salesmen" really are: Monsanto and the other bio-techs. Unfortunately these snake oil salesmen control the govt. in this country: the courts, the congress, the media. We are getting force-fed their snake oil poisons--GMOs-- whether we like it our not. How ironic to say that labeling "promotes ignorance!" Typical double-speak of big brother types. Labeling is of course giving information so that people can make up their own minds--quite the opposite of "promoting ignorance." Doesn't much matter anymore--a little investigation reveals that GMOs do pose health risks, are failing to do anything they promised, including higher crop yields, and are not successful at banishing weeds--in fact the use of bio-tech crops and pesticides is creating/ promoting resistant weeds and resistant insects that need more and more poisons to be controlled. Can't fool Mother Nature. Should stop trying. Love, Peace and Health keep breaking out all over the world. Blessings. And take a look at some of the more modern and viable organic techniques that are being used by small farmers across this country. Truly amazing results are found, on a few acres in the middle of cities and in winter-time using organic and sustainable techniques! There is no need to centralize control of the food supply in the hands of a few or to keep poisoning the earth and its creatures! Blessings to all!

LisaR (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

Look at it another way, you have the right to know what you are eating. Being genetically modified is one of the attributes of a product that people are not allowed to know about, and why not? I know if I am eating a tomato, and I can even pick by variety (Roma, or some artisinal versions), but I can't know if my food was made from corn or soybeans that were genetically modified unless I buy Organic.

Why am I not allowed to know what I am eating? This is not about risk, it is about knowledge nad consumer choice. Saying that peopel can label voluntarily is a false choice. If people don't know they can't make a choice. You can buy free range, antibiotic free, vegeterian free eggs or milk from cows that were not treated with growth hormone but you can't buy non GMO without going Organic. Why do I have to make that choice to be sure? If I choose to support genetically modified food, I can buy it. A lot of people in fact will buy it if it is cheaper.

Separately, I disagree with your point htat labeleing = harm or risk. All products have a label with a name and an ingredient statement. I feel this is simply one more piece of information that lets people know what they are eating.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

Go ahead and continue eating the GM food Harry Cline and why your at it, feed GM foods to your children. Just make sure those freaky Franken seeds stay out of my organic garden!

Why should Monsanto be able to sue the small organic farmer when it is their fields that have been contaminated by Monsanto Franken seeds through cross pollination? Monsanto is on its way down.

As goes California, so goes the Nation!

AMI (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

So, how much did Monsanto pay to have this article written? Never mind. They probably own this domain. This domain WHOIS search comes up with a "corporate identity protection". If the owner of this domain is really something to do with farms, why do they hide their identity. I would bet my bottom dollar this domain is owned by Monsanto, Cargill, or one of the other agriculture multinations corporations.

St. McDuck (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

There was no risk with asbestos, until there was.
There was no risk with smoking, until there was.

GMO foods will be labeled in the United States of America. Ignorance is not bliss.

myurbanfarm (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

Do you know what you ate over the holidays? Any GMOs? Without labels, you’d never know. Tune into the Diane Rehm Show on NPR on Tuesday, January 3 at 11am and learn more about the Just Label It campaign to get the FDA to require labels for genetically engineered foods.

Please listen in.

myurbanfarm (not verified)
on Dec 29, 2011

Do you know what you ate over the holidays? Any GMOs? Without labels, you’d never know. Tune into the Diane Rehm Show on NPR on Tuesday, January 3 at 11am and learn more about the Just Label It campaign to get the FDA to require labels for genetically engineered foods.

Please listen in and help to shape your opinion.

cowboyrich (not verified)
on Dec 30, 2011

I'm kind of on the fence with GM. I can see the science as being beneficial, but at the same time, I can see GM going in an unethical direction. For example, when GM companies create a variety of plum trees that is resistant to PPV virus, I see this as great! But when I see GM crops that produce their own pesticides (such as BT), I begin to wonder where's the line in the sand?

BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a pesticide used in the organic community (so i'm not arguing whether safe or not) but ever since GM has introduced BT producing corn, BT resistant pests have been spotted. I know that if you spray every once in a while, the critters die and don't have a chance to evolve, but if I sprayed daily, some may survive and evolve to become resistant to my spray. That is essentially what BT producing GM corn does. BT is a constant in the field and very quickly, surviving pests become resistant. This is a bad thing to happen when you have people who want organic food, because now in order to kill the BT resistant bugs, u have to spray a much more potent spray.

GM is great in a lot of cases. But when u threaten the ability of farmers to raise crops without use of chemicals, you tiptoe across an invisible line of ethics. But no one knows where this line is, which is why everyone fights over labeling. Should labeling be mandated, GM companies worry that no one will buy their products. Should GM be allowed to expand on the modification of DNA unchecked, farming may become impossible for little people who wish to save seeds and use less pesticides.

LoveYourFood (not verified)
on Dec 30, 2011

The original article had it right - Labelling should not be required. Forcing products to have GMO lables implies a general safety problem with GMOs which does not exist, in spite of the 'suspicions' of the above writers. The food safety issues raised are speculative and based only upon an aversion to GMOs, not a genuine evidence-based concern. Also, What exactly is a GMO? The 12-grain organic bread that I bought yesterday should be labelled as containing a GMO. Why? it contains triticale. Triticale never existed before plant breeders crossed wheat and rye in the 1950s! Two separate species-Now THAT's a GMO! - if you don't think so, try measuring the genetic differences between triticale and wheat vs. that between a Roundup-resistant wheat and non GM-wheat - they are far greater in the former case. All corn is a GMO, since Indians first bred the first corn from native teosinte, a totally different beast. Freedom of choice - that already exists - one can label organic or non-GMO products already. There are enough genuine food safety concerns (try salmonella on alfalfa sprouts, listeria on canteloupes) - why raise one that isn't?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 30, 2011

Interesting how Monsanto mouthpieces like Henry Miller use the first amendment as a tool to NOT communicate and twist it into a right to withhold information. Monsanto knows full well that its markets are in danger if labeling is enforced. Nearly 500,000 have voiced their design to enforce labeling to the FDA since October. Now there's some first amendment voices! If Monsanto stands by its "corporate personhood," it has just been out voted!

skippy (not verified)
on Feb 13, 2012

And you could make this same argument for other things that are already labeled in food: salt, hydrogenated fats, food dyes, corn sugar, etc. Let the consumer know and decide for themselves.

Why not? I think the bottom lne is this. People are increasingly choosing organic and healthier foods as a trend. If bioengineered foods are labled, the consumer won't take them. The industry knows this and is against labeling. The industry isn't stupid.

There’s an informative report on the latest GMO developments and the California GMO labeling initiative for interested readers at our local Humboldt Sentinel website. The increase of engineered food crops on U.S. and global farms in the past year-- and the new biotechnology developments on the horizon-- may surprise some:


Thank you for your kind consideration in this regard,

skippy massey
(Humboldt County, California)

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