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Column: Valid Concerns About Genetically Altered Food Justify Labeling

Richmond, Vt.

The Vermont House voted earlier this month to approve H112, a bill that requires the labeling of foods sold in Vermont that have been produced using genetic engineering technology. The 99-42 vote came after weeks of wide-ranging committee testimony by legal experts, scientists, farmers, state and federal officials, and diverse industry and public interest organizations. The committees reviewed legal briefs, scientific studies and federal regulations.

Legislators concluded that because the risks posed by genetically engineered foods to human health and the environment are poorly understood and poorly regulated that the state “should require food produced with genetic engineering to be labeled.”

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and Bloomberg View columnist, comes to a different conclusion in an op-ed published in the May 14 Valley News (“Don’t Mandate Labels for Foods with Gene-Altered Ingredients”). Sunstein believes that mandatory labeling is unwise because it would “mislead and alarm” consumers about the safety of genetically engineered foods and cause “economic damage.” He accepts the conclusions of those “official organizations” who say that genetically engineered foods are as safe as any other foods. “Unless science can identify a legitimate concern about risks to health or the environment, the argument for compulsory (genetically modified) labels rests on weak foundations,” Sunstein writes.

Apparently, he is unaware of the facts and the growing number of international scientific studies that raised such legitimate concerns among Vermont lawmakers.

Just one example: About 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. has been genetically engineered to produce its own insecticidal toxin (Bt toxin). These toxins are found in every bite of hundreds of foods on our market shelves that contain ingredients derived from corn. And yet, in field and laboratory studies, Bt toxins have been shown to be allergenic. (The Food and Drug Administration and EPA approved Bt corn in 1996 without adequate health and environmental safety testing.) In 2011, researchers in Quebec found Bt toxins in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women tested and in 80 percent of fetal cord blood. “Given the potential toxicity of these environmental pollutants and the fragility of the fetus, more studies are needed,” the researchers concluded.

And just last month, in another peer-reviewed paper, Brazilian researchers reported that the Bt toxin is toxic to bone marrow and blood of laboratory mice, and that “taking into account the increased risk of human and animal exposures to significant levels of these toxins, especially through diet ... further studies are required ... before concluding that (Bt toxins) are safe for mammals.”

So, is there scientific uncertainty and reason for “legitimate concern” about the safety of Bt corn and foods that are made from it? You bet. And you don’t have to be a scientist to connect the dots. There are many other examples in the scientific literature — more of them all the time — that raise serious questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods and the adequacy of government regulation of related health and environmental risks.

And it turns out that even some of the “official organizations” that Sunstein states are firmly convinced of the safety of genetically engineered foods now seem to be not so sure. In June 2012, the American Medical Association, after reviewing recent studies concerning the safety of genetically engineered foods, called for mandatory FDA premarket safety assessments of such foods “as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public.” (Most people don’t realize that the FDA does not conduct such tests, but instead relies on voluntary reporting of tests and studies conducted or funded by the companies that develop and sell the foods.) The AMA also urged the FDA “to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”

In a 2004 report on the safety of genetically engineered foods, the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine called for “a significant research effort ... to develop new methods and dietary survey tools to detect health changes in the population that could result from genetic modification and, specifically, genetic engineering of food.” To date, these new methods have not been adopted, but, as a number of scientists have pointed out, labeling genetically engineered foods would greatly assist epidemiologists in detecting subtle health effects in the population.

The case for requiring labeling is strong and getting stronger all the time. This is evident to those who make the effort to objectively examine the facts. That’s what Vermont House members did and, we hope, the state Senate will do when the bill is considered there next year. Sunstein and others who uncritically oppose genetically engineered labeling owe it to the public to do the same.

Dave Rogers is policy adviser with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. NOFA is a member of the Vermont Right To Know GMOs coalition (vtrighttoknow.org) with Rural Vermont, VPIRG and Cedar Circle Farm.