Today’s supermarkets in many ways are something out of a 1960s science fiction story. Bar code scanners and payment via cell phone (not to mention the cell phone itself) are just two things that would have seemed a bit far out back when I was watching the original Star Trek. But that’s nothing compared with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), those agricultural products that arise when genes are transferred between species. GMO corn and soy, for example, contain a gene from a bacterium that makes the plant resistant to herbicides. The idea of taking a gene from a soil bacterium and transferring it into a corn plant seems so routine now, it’s hard to remember how mind-blowing it was not too long ago.
All of the available evidence (which is considerable but by no means exhaustive at this point) suggests that the products of this genetic engineering themselves pose no harm to human health. That’s good news. But it’s more complicated than that. There remain important ethical and ecological issues. And, as discussed in a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, there are potential indirect health issues that have not been previously considered. For instance, the “Roundup-ready” GMO corn and soy (which make up the vast majority of those products in the US today) allow farmers to use large amounts of the herbicide glyphosate, which has now been shown to be a likely carcinogen.
At the very least, people should be able to choose whether they want to purchase a product that contains GMOs. For myself, I choose not to because I don’t want to support the use of toxic herbicides, or the corporate agriculture system. Others may doubt the evidence of the safety of the products themselves (which for the record I don’t), or may simply be squeamish about moving genes between species. The idea that consumers should be allowed to choose – and need to be informed to be able to do so – is behind the move by several states to require labeling of products that contain GMOs. 64 other countries already do so, including the entire European Union and Brazil, a country with a substantial GMO-based agricultural sector. The US Congress, however, recently passed a law proscribing a federal requirement for such labeling, and also prohibiting state or local governments from enacting any such requirement. This prohibition has been pushed by Big Ag, using the argument that they shouldn’t be required to label products that are shown to be safe.
That’s beside the point. We label the fiber content of clothing – no one is claiming cotton or silk are unsafe. It’s just that I should know what a shirt is made of so I can decide which one I want. If something is unsafe we shouldn’t be labeling it, we should be removing it from the shelves. Labeling isn’t about safety, it’s about consumer choice.
During those 1960s Star Trek episodes, in the New York area, I frequently saw commercials for Syms, a men’s clothing store. Sy Syms, touting his low prices, would say “An educated consumer is our best customer.” That concept wasn’t too far out then, and it shouldn’t be today. I wish Monsanto and its subsidiary, the House of Representatives, saw it that way.