By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: Across the country, consumer confusion is the norm regarding our food as various political groups attempt to force mandatory GMO-labeling. In Arizona, an initiative effort has been launched to convince voters to mandate labeling. Proponents claim a right-to-know. In reality, it’s a right-to-misinform.

Before I dive into this position, let me fully disclose my background. I come from a third-generation Arizona cotton, wheat and alfalfa family farm where since the late 1990s we grew biotech (genetically modified) cotton, commonly known as BT cotton. Dad’s side of the family has farmed in Arizona since just prior to statehood; observing agriculture’s technology transformation. My parents fully understood the science and the benefits of growing cotton that had been modified, hence the reason for moving to an improved seed variety. Later, I and three brothers partnered with mom and dad in farming. We grew biotech cotton until retiring from farming in 2005.

For me, eight issues exist as to why identifying food products with a GMO label is not about right-to-know but about the right-to-misinform.

  1. All plants and animals and ultimately foods are from genetically modified organisms. If we’re going to go down this labeling road, then every food product must be slapped with a GMO label … I mean everything. The history of genetically modifying crops, specifically food crops, has been going on for thousands of years beginning with our first moments of deliberately cultivating food. Anthropology tells us humans began crop domestication as far back as 11,000 years ago and from the beginning they used selective breeding to carry the best plants over into the next generation. This is a type of genetic modification. History then reveals that the 1700s was a breakthrough period for farmers and scientists to cross-breed plants within the same species, for example crossing a drought-resistant variety of a plant type with another. In the 1940s and 1950s breeders and researchers sought out additional means to introduce genetic variations into the gene pool of plants. By the 1980s researchers developed the more precise and controllable methods of genetic engineering, specifically transgenic (a genetic trait from one variety of species inserted into another) to create plants with desirable traits such as insect, herbicide and disease resistance. By the 1990s, the first transgenic plants were introduced to the marketplace. So, to label something non-GMO when the crop or animal’s byproducts are derived from plants and animals that have been modified over the centuries is simply inaccurate. Every product on the market is composed of ingredients that have their origins in improved genetic modification. Granted, the more precise method of “transgenic modification” might instill concern for lack of understanding, but this method is well documented in terms of safety than all the previous methods mentioned. If this issue is about informing the public so they can make better decisions, then let’s inform; not deceive with the idea that modification only exists in the lab and is done by a few big, evil organizations.

  1. Stamping food products with a “GMO” label implies a danger when none exists – After nearly 2,000 global, scientific, peer reviewed studies (studies that have to be repeatable and documented and challenged by other scientists) and the requirement that any biotech crop or medicine to be introduced to the market must go through years of testing, zero evidence exists that genetically modified foodstuffs are harmful in any way and plenty of scientific evidence that they are not harmful. Biotech crops have been on the market for nearly two decades and no ill effects have been detected, nor can they be legitimately linked back to any specific illnesses (though certain groups try). They do not harm the environment, cause cancer, or make people fat (any more than other foods do). In fact, biotech crops have been proven to significantly benefit the environment through reduced chemical applications and other impacts (another article for the future).

Putting a government-sanctioned label “warning” that a food contains genetically engineered material implies otherwise. It’s perfectly logical to assume if something is required to be disclosed; there must be an important reason why. There must be a danger.

Remember the premise of right-to-know is that we have an obligation to inform if we could be exposed to at-risk substances. With all the years of testing, all the rigorous vetting of a biotech product before it comes to market, and global studies have not found that a toxic/at-risk environment even exists within the context of GMO products, why do activists groups insist not enough testing has taken place? Creating a sense of an impending hazard through use of a right-to-know law is a disgraceful abuse of people’s fears.

Finally, GMO’s are not considered additives by the Food & Drug Administration. While an end product may be derived from GMO’s, the reality is that it’s a process, not an ingredient.

  1. Regulation Comes at a Cost – There is always a cost to regulating. Always. And because of the cost of regulation, regulations that do absolutely nothing worthwhile should not be tolerated, especially when no proof of harm even exists. Yes, regulations are often necessary, but all regulations end up costing Americans money because enforcement is required. All regulations place some burden on producers and increase costs to consumers. Since GMO-produced foods are effectively identical to non-GMO foods, there’s no reason to force labeling and incur the expenses on both the enforcement side and for the producers and consumers. And, in this case we’re paying for someone else’s political agenda.

  1. It challenges the supply chain to comply, which for small companies may be prohibitive – Imagine a complicated supply chain, certainly one depending on a variety of suppliers (which is the obvious case with food companies). Let’s imagine we produce bread. We buy our flour from a wholesaler who buys it from a flour mill who buys the wheat on the commodity market, which comes from a multitude of wheat farms. We might get our sugar, yeast and other ingredients from a variety of different sources. The minute we must comply with new GMO-labeling requirements, especially if we’re a small company, our level of supply chain management sophistication must increase at least tenfold. Certainly those large organizations with sophisticated supply chain management processes can probably fulfill the requirements, with added costs. But don’t use the excuse of Cheerios or Grape Nuts, food cereal brands that have announced they’ll label their product with the non-GMO label. In the case of General Mills’ Cheerios, the main ingredient in original Cheerios is whole grain oats, from a non-GMO food crop. They have not changed their formula either. They simply made some changes in sourcing and in their plants, for example, to separate cane sugar from beet sugar. According to their website, they “use just a small amount of corn starch in cooking, and just one gram of sugar per serving for taste.” So they were able to “change how we source and handle ingredients to ensure that the corn starch for original Cheerios comes only from non-GMO corn, and our sugar is only non-GMO pure cane sugar.” This is General Mills, a big company, with the resources and wherewithal to adjust its supply chain.

Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding and genetics who leads a Cornell University program to help farmers and the public understand plant breeding and genetic engineering, says General Mills’ recent move to eliminate genetically modified organisms from its Cheerios cereal might please GMO-shy consumers, but it won't alter the iconic cereal’s make up one bit. “Corn starch and sugar are highly refined products, so they contain no DNA (which is what is introduced into a genetically engineered organism) and no protein (which is what the new DNA would produce in a genetically engineered organism). Because of that, corn starch and sugar from a non-genetically engineered corn variety are nutritionally and chemically identical to corn starch or sugar from a genetically engineered variety.”

Smith adds, “This means that the new version of Cheerios that is being made without use of genetically engineered varieties will be nutritionally and chemically identical to the previous version. So it will not offer anything new to consumers – other than to give them the option to buy a product that does not support planting more acres to genetically engineered crop varieties.”

To which I say, Cheers to Cheerios! The market drove this; not some crazy mandated regulation.

  1. It’s nearly unenforceable - How do you know if an end product contains GMO ingredients? It’s not easy. One way would be to audit the entire supply chain and attempt to trace all ingredients back to their source. For example, the product of sugar beets is sugar. If you try to test the sugar from non-GMO sugar beets and GMO sugar beets, you’d be unable to detect which is which and as stated earlier contain no DNA. The core contents from either food crop are identical. The inspecting process would have to move further up the supply chain to knowing exactly what farmer used which seed. Ultimately, taxpayers would be required to foot the bill or the food producers would need to be required to pay for verification or record keeping.Genetic testing can be done. However, testing modified genes using expensive genetic sequencing is time consuming and costly. The cost and time for these tests has improved, but testing all samples of foods would still be extremely costly. Worse, these tests won’t even work on all foodstuffs. If the genetic material has been denatured, as would be the case if the food is cooked or processed in other ways (note sugar example earlier), it might be downright impossible to conduct genetic testing.

Perhaps the proponents of right-to-know understand this and know that a mandated labeling market would drive the big companies completely away from any GMO-derived products. It will also push the small companies out of the market.

  1. You can still have your GMO-free food without labeling – If you see “USDA Certified Organic,” you’ve just found your non-GMO label. The United States and Canada do not allow manufacturers to label something 100% organic if that food product was derived from genetically modified  crops or been fed genetically modified feed. You may find that organic food is more expensive than conventional, but especially if it’s USDA Certified Organic you’ll avoid biotech crops.

  1. Consumers have access to plenty of information; therefore our ability to know is profound. Though we live in an age where we have easy access to volumes of valuable information, ironically we’re operating in the most profound culture of alarmism ever. Not much needs to be said here. If we take the time to find balanced and science-based information, we’ll not be fearful of the foods we eat. The basic label to identify GMOs does not inform; it instills fear. The famous French scientist Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”

  1. The pass along cost to the consumer is a valid concern. Various studies are putting added cost of food with mandatory labeling at anywhere from $450 to $800 more per family of four if a mandated non-GMO labeling program is implemented. Some of our right-to-know groups wave this off as a minor cost to protect the food system. It’s not minor for families on a fixed income or for low-income households stretching their dollars from paycheck to paycheck. The right-to-know requirement is a burden on families and on business. How about a scintilla of true risk posed before we create a financial and regulatory burden for a “problem” that really doesn’t exist!

What About Right-to-Know?

While the right-to-know position feels almost inarguable we need to peel away at this position and confront the reality that no constitutionally enshrined right-to-know exists. Yes, a right-to-know is considered a kind of legal standard. But, right-to-know is not measured as a fundamental right, like the right to vote, or free speech or even the right to bear arms.

Right-to-know emerges to make us aware of hazards - which begs the question, are genetically modified substances hazard worthy? Historically, the concept of right-to-know was advanced in the context of workplace and community environmental law: The legal principle that an individual has the right to know the chemicals - any at-risk substances - he or she could potentially be exposed to in their daily living in a workplace or community setting.

And, the notion of right-to-know is embodied in federal law in the United States as well as in various state statutes. Imagine you work for a company that uses some potentially at-risk substances in its manufacturing process. Such toxic substances must be disclosed to you since you’re at risk for exposure in the workplace. On the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the core governmental body overseeing right-to-know laws.

If the concept of right-to-know is based on protecting us from something “toxic” or that puts us “at-risk” then codifying the concept of right-to-know for food products derived from genetically modified crops infers such products are toxic or puts us seriously at risk even while the science and everything else says otherwise (more on this later).  So something is amiss.

On the other hand, if it is true GMO-derived food products are hazard free, even the most innocuously-worded “GMO label” will instill undue concern, at the least deep-seated worry about the foods we’re consuming. No real information is being provided. When my multivitamin label tells me I’m getting 30 mg of Vitamin C and it represents 50% of daily value, that’s information. A label that says “contains ingredients derived from GMO products,” I’m only confused.

When I read quotes like the following, I’m even more convinced that it’s not about the right-to-know, but about the right-to-misinform:

  • “The burning question for us all then becomes how-and how quickly-can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming?  The first step is to change our labeling laws…” Organic Consumers Association 08/02/12
  • “We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” Center for Food Safety
  • “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this.” 

I believe the quotes expose an ulterior agenda. If successful, you and I – the food consuming public – could miss out on healthier, abundant and affordable food. To force a market out of fear eventually diminishes the value of the product(s) benefiting from such alarmist tactics.

Whether organic or conventional; small or large, America’s agriculture industry is the best in the world and should be celebrated. Biotech crops serve as another valuable tool in a farmer’s toolkit for not only his farming practices but for you and me.

Pro right-to-know activists are easily and successfully hiding behind the right-to-know legal standard. But it’s a deception that will strangle us in a world of misinformation. The reality is they want to have the right to misinform.