While both supporters and opponents of Proposition 105 have centered their campaigns on the question of whether labeling genetically modified food would impose unnecessary burdens on consumers, regulators, and farmers, little attention has been paid to the motivation behind the measure.
CU News Corps analyzed the “Colorado Right to Know Act” — which would become law if Proposition 105 is approved by voters next month — and found several claims that are at odds with the scientific consensus on the health, safety, and environmental impact of genetically modified food.
The act states, “Labeling of genetically modified food is intended to provide consumers with the opportunity to make an informed choice of the products they consume and to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.”
This statement implies that genetically modified foods pose a threat to the public’s health, but the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization have all concluded that genetically modified foods are safe to eat. In fact, the National Academies of Sciences found, “No adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
Pamela Ronald, a geneticist at the University of California-Davis, agrees that the act does not accurately portray the state of the science on genetic engineering.
“Virtually everything we eat has been genetically altered using some method,” she said in an interview with CU News Corps. “National academies around the world have concluded that the process of genetic engineering produces no unique risks compared to conventional methods of modification and that the crops currently on the market are safe to eat.”
Genetic engineering is similar to selective breeding, a conventional method of genetic alteration in which plants with desirable traits, such as sweetness or disease resistance, are selectively bred so that their offspring are more likely to possess such traits. This method has been used by humans for centuries, and is responsible for much of the agricultural abundance we enjoy today.
According to Ronald, there are two key differences between selective breeding and genetic engineering. First, selective breeding mixes large sets of genes while genetic engineering typically inserts one or a few selected genes. Second, while selective breeding only allows gene transfer between closely related species, genetic engineering can introduce any gene into a plant. These two differences are advantageous because they allow for increased precision and variety.
The act also claims, “The long term health, safety and environmental consequences of growing and consuming genetically modified food are not yet fully researched and are not yet well understood by science.”
While the technology is still relatively new, it is not true that genetically engineered foods have not been thoroughly researched. A review by Italian researchers found 1,783 studies published between 2002 and 2012 on genetically modified foods, concluding, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.”
Another statement in the act reads, “U.S. federal law does not provide for the regulation on the safety and labeling of genetically modified food.”
In fact, three separate federal agencies regulate genetically modified foods on a case-by-case basis before they are approved for human consumption.
While the state of the science is clear on the health and safety of genetically modified food, the picture is a bit murkier when it comes to the environmental effects. The implementation of herbicide-resistant corn has resulted in the increased use of herbicides, which environmentalists argue is speeding up the development of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” But other genetically modified foods have yielded environmental benefits.
For example, much of the corn and cotton grown in the United States has been genetically modified to include a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that produces a protein that acts as a natural insecticide.
“The benefits of many of these crops are significant,” said Ronald. “The planting of Bt crops has reduced the use of sprayed insecticides tenfold over the last 15 years.”
These three statements help to paint a clearer picture of the motivation behind efforts to label genetically modified food. Reports claiming that these foods are unhealthy, unsafe, and bad for the environment have been widely circulated among the American public, but are not backed by thorough scientific analysis.
While there is still much to learn about genetically modified food, the Colorado Right to Know Act clearly distorts current scientific understanding of their health, safety, and environmental impacts.
Photo used with permission from Chris Goodwin at desrowvisuals.com