A recent perspective published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) argues that the United States government should change its position and require labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. Entitled ‘GMOs, Herbicides and Public Health’, the article points out that sharp increases have taken place in the amounts and numbers of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops and that still further increases – the largest in a generation – are scheduled to occur in the next few years. With GM crops now being the agricultural products most heavily treated with herbicides, the authors state they believe that the time has come to thoroughly reconsider all aspects of the safety of plant biotechnology.
A common argument used by manufacturers and regulators to support the supposed safety of GM crops is that there is nothing new about genetic rearrangements in seeds. Essentially, as the argument goes, if a GM food is deemed to be “substantially equivalent” to its traditional counterparts it can be treated in the same way and assumed to be safe.
As the NEJM article authors describe, however, such thinking ignores the reality that GM crops are being subjected to increasingly large amounts and numbers of herbicides. Given that glyphosate, the herbicide most widely used on GM crops, is now classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a “probable human carcinogen” and that another commonly used herbicide, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a component of the Agent Orange defoliant used in the Vietnam War, has been classified as a “possible human carcinogen”, there are clearly grounds for both consumers and regulators alike to be concerned.
The NEJM article also makes the valid point that GM labeling delivers a variety of benefits. For example, it is essential for tracking the emergence of novel food allergies and assessing the effects of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops. Moreover, it respects the wishes of the growing number of consumers who insist they have a right to know what foods they are buying and how they were produced.
Ultimately, of course, it is the fact that genetically modified seeds can be patented – because, unlike regular seeds, they are created in laboratories and do not exist in nature – that makes them a highly attractive investment proposition to the biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical companies who produce them. Patents on genetically modified seeds, and the multi-billion dollar potential profits and market control that may result from them, act as powerful incentives for manufacturers to find ways of forcing such foods onto consumers’ dinner plates, regardless of the possible dangers to human health.
Only time will tell whether the United States Food and Drug Administration heeds the growing calls for GM foods to be labeled. The longer it refuses to do so, however, the louder and stronger the arguments will become that its officials are putting the interests of GMO manufacturers first and those of consumers a very distant second.