Dear Legislator, About that GMO Labeling bill…

MA_counties_map
Massachusetts and surrounding states. Vermont recently passed an unrestricted bill on GMO labeling. Source: FamilySearch.org

Like a number of other states, GMO labeling in Massachusetts has been inching along for a while. Recently it came to the surface, which has prompted me to write to state politicians with some thoughts on the bill and the issues. After sending a first letter expressing disappointment at support for this bill, one thoughtful reply from a politician that I respect very much arrived in my box. I don’t feel I’m at liberty to reproduce the text, but it was a reasonable explanation of this legislator’s position.

To summarize, this legislator explained that the bill as they saw it was a nothing more than right to know what’s in the tofu we buy, and that although they are not opposed to genetically modified crops per se, they got a lot of calls about this bill. Clearly this person has been following the issue for a while, citing reports from over a decade ago, as well as more recent local media treatment of the issue. Their perspective has been mostly influenced by certain activist groups, it appears. They noted that this bill is about transparency, and not anti-science in intent. And this person expressed dismay that scientists aren’t conversing with policy makers. It ended with a plea for scientists to speak out on the underlying science more.

I have crafted a reply to that response with more details. I’m posting this letter below, with light edits for clarification. I hope I captured enough of the directions of the legislator’s position that it will make sense without the full text, but if not, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to clarify anything.

===================================================

Hello [Legislator]–thanks for the reply. I’ll add a few more things below, with a bunch of supporting links. I’m sure you are swamped with many tasks, I don’t need a reply. But I wanted to just provide a bit more detail on my thoughts.

Best regards,

Mary

++++++++++++++++++

I understand that you support H3996 because you believe it is a labeling requirement, and my comments below will be based on the text as I saw it in the MA Legislatures web site as of June 5, 2014. It is possible that this bill will change, or that my understanding does not match yours. Or if that is not the version I should see, let me know. But I will attempt to explain my understanding of it, and of the possible consequences, based on that text.

tofu-ingredients
This tofu label specifies the identity of specific ingredients. Although it is a non-GMO product, this ingredient-specific approach would be more useful than current proposed GMO labeling laws. Credit: MEM

The tofu example you offer is actually an excellent illustration of the effectiveness of the current system. If [local grocer] tofu at 99¢ is clearly labeled that it is “made with GMO soybeans” as you note, that’s actually more information than H3996 will provide. As I read the bill, the product packages in MA will be labeled with the phrase “Produced with Genetic Engineering”. It doesn’t specify which ingredient is GMO. And as you also note, Nasoya’s “organically grown” tofu soybeans ($1.99) label also provide you with more than H3996 will offer. The “organically grown” label is federally protected language and means that GMOs would be excluded from this product. Unfortunately many people don’t understand the labeling systems we already have, this confusion is something I see quite often.

In the case of the single ingredient in tofu that might be clear what is “produced with genetic engineering”. But let’s examine another label. Let’s pick Cheddar Whole Grain Goldfish® as an example. (This example is obtained on June 5, 2014 from this site. This may change in the future, of course.)

Current ingredient label:
“MADE WITH SMILES AND WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, UNBLEACHED ENRICHED WHEAT FLOUR (FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], FOLIC ACID), CHEDDAR CHEESE (CULTURED MILK, SALT, ENZYMES, ANNATTO), VEGETABLE OILS (CANOLA, SUNFLOWER AND/OR SOYBEAN), CONTAINS 2 PERCENT OR LESS OF: SALT, AUTOLYZED YEAST, YEAST, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA, MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE), PAPRIKA, SPICES, DEHYDRATED ONIONS.”

As I understand it, this package would probably now likely carry the “Produced with Genetic Engineering” label, due to canola or soybean oils or possibly the vitamins. However, because the specific item will not be designated, this may lead consumers to mistakenly conclude that the wheat is GMO. There is no commercial GMO wheat. I do not believe consumers benefit from this misleading label. Further, since oils are refined and have neither DNA or protein that differs from conventional oils, the production by GMO methods offers no useful ingredient information either.

It is also possible that the food producer will switch to only sunflower oil to avoid this label. The irony of this, however, is that most sunflower oil comes from herbicide-tolerant sunflowers which are cultivated with an herbicide that has created more “superweeds” than the one that Roundup Ready soybeans employ. (This is what happened when Chipotle labeled their products and moved away from soybean oil.) Or food producers may opt for herbicide-tolerant canola which is not GMO. But since so many people are already convinced that all canola is GMO, they may then challenge this product for presumed mislabeling. This could hurt grocers and bodegas, unfortunately, with nuisance legal action, if I’m reading the legislation’s implementation process and penalties properly.

Of course, scientists are continually bemused by the fact that cloned enzymes from GMOs used in cheese production are exempt from these labels. But we’ll leave that aside for now.

I am sure that you have had “hundreds of requests” from our neighbors asking you to support this bill. And I expect that some of these same folks are ones who assured me that vaccines cause autism at the CDC vaccination event I attended in Somerville some years back.

However, passionate but misinformed mobs are not necessarily the best basis for policy making. As I noted in my first letter, fear makes terrible policy—a good example of this is the fear of terrorism that has led to the over-reach of the surveillance state we find ourselves in today. There are downstream consequences to bad policy.

I am glad that you are aware that GMO crops “can increase productivity, reduce pesticide use, and provide other advantages” as you note. This enables the 99¢ GMO tofu to be a better value for families who can’t afford foods that cost twice as much, and is also therefore better for food security. It would be unfortunate if manufacturers altered their use as an unintended side-effect of the label change requirements. When Cheerios went GMO free to placate consumer fears, the nutrition dropped and so did the package size.

GLP-Science-and-GMOs
Source: Genetic Literacy Project

It’s great that you have been reading about these products for so long. There’s a lot of work that has been done in the decade since the activist report you cite from 2001, and the ongoing work has been reviewed by official scientific societies and food agencies around the world. I’m sure you are aware they conclude these foods are safe, as summarized in this handy infographic. However, I disagree that the activist groups are “centrist” on this topic. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been particularly misleading on this front, and they are not respected by the majority of plant and agricultural scientists that I know because of this.

The Boston Review pieces you saw were informative, in some cases . The work by Pamela Ronald is outstanding, Nina Fedoroff is clearly a leader on this issue, and Jennie Schmidt’s insights from both her nutrition credentials and farming experience are excellent, and were among my favorites. Other contributions, however, varied. Margaret Mellon claims to take the “middle ground” with the Union of Concerned Scientists, but as I have noted this is not a perception that scientists in the field share. In fact, years ago I personally called Mellon to explain that I was ending my UCS membership specifically because of their misleading plant science stances. I have also had to publicly upbraid Jack Heinemann for disinformation in a report that he participated in. Claims and evidence are not the same thing. And in science, unlike the media sites, false balance is not something we encourage.

It is not just a concern I have that the labeling requirements “arise from irrational fear, or from even less worthy motives”. I have the evidence for this. I’ve been collecting the statements from food activists that illustrate this. I am also aware that some grocery merchants aim to cater to the well-heeled fearful. Unfortunately as I noted before, the consequences of labeling may, in fact, lead to more expenses all along the food chain. And I do not believe this improves food security for my neighbors who can’t afford to shop at those retailers.

I definitely agree with you that “scientists do not contact or seek out legislators” enough. However, unlike paid activists, this work that is not part of their remit. They often can’t afford the time and do not get salary for showing up in legislator’s offices. Scientists are doing science—they run research labs, they are constantly grant writing, they teach students, and have additional duties as well. Their supervisors and colleagues do not always appreciate or value involvement in political activity. It is not rewarded in salary or valued by granting agencies.  This certainly also puts scientists at a disadvantage to activists in this arena. Further, activists may also have had legislative training, media training, and media access that the average researcher won’t have had.

To summarize, I remain disappointed in the MA legislature for their apparent support for this poorly-designed legislation that is likely to misinform consumers, potentially increase costs, and which may have unintended consequences on manufacturing and retail interests as well. Perhaps there is time to improve it, or better yet seek out scientific input on a better strategy. Personally, I believe a system like Kosher is the best way to manage this philosophical issue. But I know other science folks who could support labels if they were implemented in an evidence-based manner, rather than one founded on passions.

Thank you for offering to continue the dialog on this. I am also open to your further questions on any of these issues. If I don’t know an answer, I have a solid network of scientists and farmers who may have additional insights. I’d be happy to connect you to any of them. And of course I continue to support you on all the other issues where we share common ground—which I think is roughly 95%. But I needed to express how misguided this particular bill is.

Follow Mary Mangan:
Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.