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We label orange juice, but why not genetically modified food?

By Craig Holdrege
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Monday, Oct. 21, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --When you buy reconstituted orange juice at the supermarket, the label tells you it is "from concentrate." For this you can thank the Food and Drug Administration, with its mandate to promote "honest and fair dealing with consumers."

Part of the idea is to ensure that foods are truthfully labeled so producers cannot deceive consumers. Labels must include information about amounts, contents, additives such as vitamins and preservatives, and processing methods ("from concentrate").

So why is your bag of corn chips containing genetically modified corn silent about this fact? Because the FDA has ruled that consumers shouldn't care about the difference between genetically engineered and traditionally bred plants - this despite the remarkable amount of novel manipulation to which GM corn has been subjected.

Not everyone thinks the FDA alone should determine the status of GM food labeling. In November Oregon voters will go to the ballot box and vote on Measure 27, which would require mandatory labeling of GM food. But this is an issue all of us, not only Oregonians, should consider.

To produce GM corn, scientists begin by isolating genes from an assortment of viruses, bacteria and plants. They biochemically unite these genes to make a wholly novel construct. It contains at least five different genes from these different sources. The construct is multiplied and then applied as a coating to gold or tungsten dust, which is then shot into embryonic plants.

During this process the construct is often broken up into fragments, some of which are incorporated in the chromosomes of a few of the plants. (When the DNA enters the plant, "engineering" stops and the scientists can only establish after the fact what the plant has done with their intrusion.) Some of these plants may be altered as envisioned by the scientists and become the breeding stock for GM crops.

Most of the GM corn on the market today produces a protein toxin, Bt, which kills caterpillars, and also a protein that makes the plant resistant to an antibiotic (for testing). So every cell of every kernel of GM corn contains an array of novel genes and novel proteins. This makes it, in substance and in function, without a doubt different from any kernel of corn that has ever existed before on earth.

Why would we want to know that our orange juice was formulated by addingwater to concentrate, but not want to know about radical processing that alters the food crop, adds antibiotic and insecticidal factors to our diet, and poses wholly unknown risks to the environment? The FDA's mandate to protect and deal honestly with consumers includes the obligation to regulate food labels "to ensure that they are truthful." But the truth, in the case of GM food, appears to have a low priority.

As one FDA scientist opined, "Consumers have a right to know -- but not to know everything." This is a strange statement coming from a representative of "one of the nation's oldest and most respected consumer protection agencies," as the FDA describes itself. The FDA has gone to great lengths to "prove" that there is no difference between GM food and food from traditionally bred crops. And if there is no difference, there is no reason to label.

This is compelling logic, as long as you leave out most of the facts.

What has driven the FDA to treat GM foods so differently from orange juice? Dan Glickman, President Clinton's secretary of agriculture, gave perhaps the most succinct and upfront explanation while reflecting back on his time at the agency: "Regulators even viewed themselves as cheerleaders for biotechnology. It was viewed as science marching forward, and anyone who wasn't marching forward was a Luddite." In the name of authoritative "science-based" policy - which it is not - the government locked arms with the biotechnology industry to prevent at all costs the labeling of GM foods.

Not all countries have eliminated the transparency that a label can provide. In the European Union, consumer information is a right. As David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection, has stated, "Labels that cover all GM-derived products ensure that our consumers are able to choose a GM product or a non-GM product. Our consumers are demanding this. They are entitled to choice and full information."

Were the FDA taking its consumer protection mandate seriously, it would shift its commitment from the biotech industry back to informing consumers about food. And that1s something we consumers should demand.

Craig Holdrege, biologist, educator and director of The Nature Institute in Ghent, N.Y., is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He is the author of "Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context."