Read The Fine Print

Read The Fine Print

Conko Op-Ed In Tech Central Station
November 04, 2002

Picture yourself in a grocery store. You've heard a little bit about genetically engineered or "GE" food, but you're not quite sure what to make of it all. Safe or not, you want to be able to choose for your family and yourself. So, how can you know which products to buy? Today Oregonians will vote on a ballot initiative that purports to supply that information. But before you check one of the boxes on your ballot, you may want to ask what kind of information you'll be getting, and whether or not there's a better way to make purchasing decisions. If what you want is a choice between GE and non-GE foods, Measure 27 will actually make choosing more difficult.

The measure requires special labels on any food items produced, sold, or distributed in Oregon, if they contain or are derived from what the initiative calls "genetically engineered" material. That may seem like just the right bit of information consumers need. But look again. The labeling initiative was written so broadly that it actually requires many non-genetically engineered foods to be labeled as though they were. Measure 27 defines the term, "genetically engineered" to mean anything that is "produced or altered with techniques that change the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means or in a manner not possible under natural conditions or processes." But, not all breeding techniques that are "unnatural" involve genetic engineering. Even today, plant breeders at Oregon State University are breeding a new wheat variety for Oregon farmers with a high-tech method that uses chemicals to add new traits to plants. This variety's new trait makes controlling weeds easier and will help farmers adopt sustainable practices that reduce soil erosion. It will be a boon for Oregon farmers and better for the environment. Yet, even though genetic engineering played absolutely no part in how it was produced, Measure 27 will actually mislead consumers into believing the wheat, and anything made from it, is "genetically engineered." Conventional methods, like the ones used in the OSU wheat, are so commonplace that practically every variety of wheat, rice, tomato, potato, beans and countless other crops grown in the United Sates today have been altered with them. Indeed, only three crops—corn, cotton, and soybeans—make up almost all of the genetically engineered plants grown in the United States. But farmers would be hard pressed to find any crop varieties that have not been altered with one or another of the techniques that the initiative text defines as genetically engineered. Because Measure 27 calls some of the most common breeding techniques genetic engineering, consumers won't be able to tell any better than they already can whether a product is really GE. Of course, if you're the kind of person who would just as soon shy away from any of the high-tech methods breeders use to produce better crops and livestock, Measure 27 won't help you make that choice either. Some high-tech breeding methods—including in vitro fertilization and tissue culture—are specifically exempted from the labeling mandate, even though they, too, are totally "unnatural" and can only take place under careful scientific controls in a laboratory environment. So, if consumers are really concerned about the safety of novel technologies, why make exceptions for in vitro fertilization and tissue culture? And if giving consumers a choice between GE and non-GE foods is the goal, why include so many things that are not genetically engineered? The answer to these questions certainly has nothing to do with safety. Dozens of scientific bodies, including the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization, have found genetic engineering to be at least as safe as, and probably safer than other breeding methods. Instead, the reason for this confusion is that different consumers just want to know different things. But when we rely on one-size-fits-all government rules, the result in cases like this is usually a compromise that satisfies no one. So, how can consumers exercise real choice between GE and non-GE? The answer is simpler than you might think. Right under our noses, food packagers and groceries are already voluntarily labeling products as "GE-free" or "organic." Because they must compete for the loyalty of shoppers, food companies long ago responded to consumer demand for non-GE products. And they did so in ways that are better at providing real consumer choice than Measure 27.