Note: This post is part of a short series on issues around GMO labeling. See the intro post for more information.
So here I’m going to be sometimes silly and sometimes perfectly earnest and list some labels I think would be at least as informative as proposed GMO labels — and sometimes just as misleading!
“This product contains genes”
Most food products contain genes. Exceptions include inorganic flavorings (e.g. salt), highly purified substances (e.g. corn or canola oil) and additives like food colorings. Such a label would be extremely informative, given that it appears around half of consumers don’t realize their food contains genes.
“May contain insect parts”
Did you know many foods contain bits of insects? There are in fact legal limits for many foods that set the allowed amount of “foreign” matter (including insects) allowed in that product. Chocolate, for example, can contain up to 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams. This is, incidentally, one reason food irradiation is used extensively with spices: irradiating spices tends to kill any harmful micro-organisms that might be hosted on the “insect filth”.
“Fluoridated water used in production”
Manufacturers using municipal water supplies are probably using fluoridated water. Some people think fluoridation is dangerous, though, and might want it labeled even if the final product doesn’t really have much added fluoride. I include this one because I find the California initiative’s exemption on products derived from animals who are fed genetically engineered ingredients laughable.
“This heirloom variety has not been tested for safety”
A major criticism of GE food products is that they aren’t specifically tested for safety. While there are many feeding trials with animals and other ways of judging safety (including specific allergen testing), regulators generally approve them on the basis that they are materially similar to an existing food. For example, a new GM (e.g. Bt trait) corn variety is tested to show it has a similar nutritional profile as the non-GM corn it was derived from, as well as testing for unexpected allergens.
But it turns out that no food safety testing is done on new crop varieties made via “conventional” methods. Heirloom tomatoes (which aren’t all centuries old varieties, despite the name) are thus not tested for safety. A farmer could cross a couple tomato varieties he has right now and sell it next season. Of course, we allow this because it’s assumed that the offspring won’t be materially different than the parent crops when traditional breeding methods are used. But that is exactly the reasoning behind how proposed GM foods are assessed1.
“May contain fecal coliforms”
So this one is pretty much true for any meat or raw vegetable. That’s why they tell you to cook your meat to the right temperature and wash all your veggies. Putting this on a label would be absolutely true, but is absolutely unnecessary to an informed consumer.
“This organic product grown with pesticides”
Very misleading, but strictly true. Most organic growers do actually use pesticides but they use a different list than conventional growers. Many are relatively low impact, but others are not. “Organic” doesn’t necessarily mean safe for the environment.
“Grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers”
For the overwhelming majority of food on the market this is true, so it would be pretty much useless as a label. But it’s definitely true! And about as informative as a “contains genetically engineered ingredients” on a product that contains corn or soy.
“Grown using methods that expose farm workers to poison”
Similar to the above, this is noting a major problem with many applied pesticides: many are broad-spectrum, affect humans and farm workers are the ones who are hurt, not consumers who are expose to near infinitesimal amounts. The adoption of GM Bt cotton in China likely reduced worker exposure to dangerous pesticides.
You probably get the idea. In case it wasn’t clear, none of the above labels are necessary for the health or safety of the consumer and I don’t actually suggest such vague and useless labels. I do think it interesting to note what we don’t label because usually we let regulators decide what is actually necessary for consumers to make safe and healthy choices.
To complicate matters, some herbicide-resistance traits have been introduced into crop lines via transgenic methods (Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans for example) and via more traditional methods (the Clearfield trait for resistance to imidazoline bred into corn, soy, sunflowers, canola and more). The latter is treated like any other conventional (not genetically engineered) crop is and doesn’t undergo the same testing as the former.