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Will labeling really solve the ‘GMO problem’? It’s not so simple

After a bleak beginning to 2013, the anti-GMO lobby got encouraging news last week, when Whole Foods Market announced that by 2018, it will require all products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such.

“While we are encouraged by the many mandatory labeling initiatives, we are committed to moving forward with our own GMO transparency plan now,” Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb, announced March 8.

The announcement comes on the heels of a series of disappointments for those against the use of GMOs, or at least in favor of labeling:

On Nov. 7, California voters narrowly defeated Proposition 37, a California ballot initiative to require labeling of GMO-infused food state-wide.

On January 3, Mark Lynas — the British activist who virtually created the anti-GMO movement — publicly apologized, declaring that GMOs are safe, he was wrong, and “The GM Debate is over.”

And locally, Colorado lawmakers on Feb. 21 voted down a bill that would have required labeling of genetically engineered food.

Enter Whole Foods with its bold and certain-to-be trend-setting proclamation, and the Twittersphere is abuzz with hope that shoppers — at least those with the deep pockets to shop at Whole Paycheck — might finally “know what’s in their food.”

But what do the words “contains genetically modified ingredients” really mean?

As UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen eloquently points out, the catchall phrase could mean it was genetically altered for a variety of reasons, including A: to resist insects or herbicides; B) to make it richer in certain nutrients, like Vitamin A; or C) to yield more (so that vast swaths of land don’t need to be disturbed for production.)

“If you’re worried that the GMOs you’re eating might kill you, then you should want to know what specific modification your food contains,” blogs Eisen.

I for one am vehemently opposed to reason A for a variety of health and environmental reasons, but B and C — well, I haven’t made my mind up yet. And a simple “Contains GMOs” label equally demonizes all three.

Another unintended consequence of labeling could be the punishment of small, grass-roots companies and farmers whose products end up “containing GMOs” accidentally, through pollen drift, stowaway GM seeds on delivery trucks, or other means of contamination.

For the record, even if you buy Organic, or Certified Non-GMO products, chances are good there are traces of GMOs in there anyway: In 2007, Straus Family Creamery discovered that 6 percent of the organic corn feed it was dishing up for its cattle was contaminated with GMOs. That same year, Nevada Soy Products, a producer of organic soybean oil had to shut down for a month after discovering organic soybeans it had received were as much as 20 percent contaminated.

“ ‘GMO-free’ is not a legally or scientifically defensible claim,” Megan Thompson, executive director of the Non-GMO Project once told me, noting that even products containing its label can contain trace amounts of GMOs (less than 1 percent).

For smaller companies to have to prove they are “free-enough” of GMOs to grace the shelves at Whole Foods, they will have to test rigorously, all the way down to the seed. Or affix the Scarlett “GMO” letters.

Prices will go up. And good, honest companies that cannot afford to test and certify will go away.

All that said, and this may surprise you now — I am a really big fan of Whole Foods’ new labeling initiative. I just hope that whatever “Contains GMOs” labels it comes up with can somehow address the subtle questions “How so?” and “To what Degree.” And that any accompanying educational campaign avoids breathless, scientifically-unfounded assertions that all things GMO are evil.

There are so many quirks to work out, it seems premature to unleash a blanket labeling law across the state or even the nation quite yet.

For now, as Whole Foods tests the murky waters, let’s watch and learn.

Lisa Marshall is a freelance journalist who writes about health, medical science, and sustainable living. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.

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