GMOs: tolerable or pressing health risk?

I-522 rivals say there is no evidence of health risks

bshannon@theolympian.comSeptember 22, 2013 

A ballot proposal to require labels on food products containing genetically modified ingredients would seem to be all about public health and science. But voters won’t hear proponents saying much about that in the political campaign that is just heating up over Initiative 522, the food-labeling measure on Washington’s statewide Nov. 5 ballot.

The reason: the science around genetically engineered foods is complex, with little clear scientific evidence that genetically engineered crops cause harm, yet too little research to guarantee safety.

The text of the initiative makes reference to the potential for “adverse health … consequences,” but the campaign supporting I-522 is steering away from talking about the science.

Yes on I-522 leaders argue the real issue is consumers want the kind of labeling their measure will deliver. They say it’s just like other labeling for farm-raised fish, the origin of meat products or the use of food coloring.

“Our campaign is not saying there is a specific health concern or not. We say this provides information so that you as a shopper can do more research … or you can make a grocery shopping decision for yourself,” Yes on I-522 spokeswoman Elizabeth Larter said.

Early polling shows I-522 is winning. But the No on 522 campaign is making headway. Its well-funded campaign already has collected $11.1 million — or more than twice what proponents’ various political committees have raised

No on 522 says the lack of scientific proof helps make its case that labeling is misleading and not worth the cost to farmers and consumers.

“They may not be arguing (health issues), but it’s all in the initiative,” No on 522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber says of her rivals. “They delivered their (voter) signatures in an ambulance. … They can’t have it both ways.”

No on 522 is endorsed by most of the state’s major agriculture groups, but the money is coming from six out-of-state donors, including Monsanto, the agricultural seed and fertilizer giant that has donated $4.8 million, DuPont Pioneer with $3.2 million and the Grocery Manufacturers Association with $2.2 million.

Larter’s group, which is backed by organic food and consumer groups, says this is the same food industry that warned in the past against other labeling, and those cost warnings proved false.

But a recent editorial in Scientific American Magazine backed up the No on 522 argument, casting doubt on any human health threats and criticizing labeling campaigns nationally.

“Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO (genetically modified organism) labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health,” the editorial declared. “The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods.”

Food labeling advocates point out 64 countries have labeling laws. In the United States, voters narrowly rejected a ballot measure in California, but advocates passed bills in Connecticut and Maine that eventually might require labels on foods made from GMOs.

Two scientists at the University of Washington say the scientific proof of harm is not yet there.

Professor Toby Bradshaw, who chairs the biology department at UW and taught a graduate class last spring that examined I-522, is a strong critic of the labeling proposal.

“The science that exists on this suggests that the foods in the human food supply that are genetically engineered are perfectly safe for humans,” Bradshaw said. “There is no evidence of harm.”

Bradshaw said that as a scientist he normally favors more information. But he thinks the kind of information to be included on the labels misses the mark – because they won’t tell what genetically modified ingredients might be present. The labeling proposal also has exemptions – such as for alcohol and food sold in restaurants, which I-522 backers say they adopted because they are similar to exemptions already in law for other food labeling.

Professor Michael Rosenfeld, a pathologist in the UW’s School of Public Health who has taught on the science behind GMOs, said that while there is no clear evidence of health risks, genetically engineered foods are not in the clear.

The credible reports of problems have been around the introductions of allergens, “but this is very rare and impacted very few people. So I think the jury’s out. The question is who is going to fund hard-core research on this,” he said.

Professor Chuck Benbrook, an agricultural economist at Washington State University, said that after doing 25 years’ work to develop, test and regulate genetically-engineered crops, he agrees there is no clear proof of health threats. But he said the vast majority of research has focused on the nutrient composition of crops and not the impacts on humans.

“There has, in fact, not been detailed food safety research on any of today’s major GE commodities,” Benbrook said, specifically noting there are few studies in long term laboratory tests that look at “changes in reproductive development, immune system health, the rate of cancer, various blood problems, etc.”

He thinks there is “a solid case to make for labeling emerging GE foods that will be consumed in fresh or close to fresh form.” But he also said more research by government scientists who are independent from commercial interests and financing is needed.

I-522 was filed as an initiative to the Legislature last year, but lawmakers declined to act on it, so it is going to the ballot.

Despite inaction, lawmakers did ask the Washington State Academy of Sciences to produce a report on the impacts of the measure – including potential costs if the measure is passed into law.

The report is about two weeks away from being finished, according to Robert C. Bates, executive director for the academy. The academy has six experts looking at the Legislature’s questions and has vetted the panelists to guard against conflicts of interest. The team is looking at definitions of GMOs, nutritional and food safety issues, policy and trade implications, costs to farmers and consumers, and questions about regulating the labeling in Washington.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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