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Posted on September 22, 2015 at 6:09 AM

I have previously written about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), concluded that their consumption is safe and that labelling them is not a good idea. I am writing about them again and you might wonder why nothing has changed really. The scientific evidence of their safety remains strong and more accumulated experience of consumption by both humans and domestic animal supports this conclusion. Nothing has really changed. There remains an entrenched opposition to the use of genetically modified organisms. This opposition remains opposed to their consumption despite being unable to find scientific evidence to support their claims. Some have even resorted to making up scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful. There has been an ongoing movement to require that foods which contain GMO derived ingredients be labelled as such defended by the always compelling “people have a right to know” argument. So why am I writing about GMOs again. It is because prominent bioethicist Arthur Caplan has now indicated his support for labelling products containing GMO derived ingredients. 

 His argument is not based on safety. He believes GMO foods should be labelled because “ It is clear that some consumers want to know what they are eating and have a right to know what is in their food.” I strongly disagree. Not really about the right to know what is in their food. I disagree because labelling food because it is GMO derived is completely inconsistent with current practice and to bring that current practice up to the standards aspired for GMO food is more or less impossible.

First what does GMO food labelling apply to and what does it require to actually implement. Does GMO food include only actual GMO organisms or does it include non-genetically modified livestock that has been fed GMO corn or soybeans? Most people would consider genetic modification to include insertion or deletion of genes to constitute genetic modification. But there are other procedures which have long been common agricultural practices which constitute genetic modification but nobody seems concerned about labelling. Normal cells contain two copies of all genes and are identified as diploid. Cells can be modified to have more copies of their genes. Plants in which cells contain three copies of their genes are identified as triploid and those with four copies are identified as tetraploid. Triploid and tetraploid plants are often larger and more vigorous than diploid and these qualities are desirable in agriculture. It has long been agricultural practice to create triploid and tetraploid plants. This is done by treatment with colchicine, a highly toxic chemical which has been used in low doses to treat gout.  This is a genetic modification. Should consumers be provided labels for genetic modification due to treatment with colchicine? They have not been to date.  Another way that desirable qualities in crops have been achieved has been selection of plants with the most desirable qualities for propagation. Sometimes these desirable qualities are due to mutations of the plants. However, desirable mutations are infrequent and so hard to select for. Agriculture has long used radiation (yes I did say radiation) to increase the mutation rate and increase the likelihood of a desirable mutation which can then be selected for. This is a genetic modification. Should consumers be provided with labels identifying genetic modification due to radiation exposure? They have not been to date.

There are many other candidates for labelling because someone might want to know. We do not label crops grown with pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilizers. We instead reserve the term “organic” for these products. I would rather like to know when I have crops which have been fertilized with animal excrement. However I do know that I could largely avoid these by avoiding products labelled organic. Proposed GMO labelling requires segregation of GMO and non-GMO crops, a highly impractical process.

The reasonable alternative for those desiring non-GMO products is to label these for those who aspire to obtain them. This is how organic food is identified and even how kosher food is identified. These systems have worked and they should inform the process for labelling in the ongoing debate.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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