Commentary: We’re getting warmer

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No — not global warming. It’s industry that’s getting closer to a strategy on biotech labeling that might finally begin to defuse the fear and loathing anti-GMOs activists are so good at stoking.

A coalition of food-industry businesses and NGOs has announced they are advocating for federal policy that would require labeling of biotech ingredients.

What? Really?

No, not really.

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CSAF), which represents 29 food processing companies, agricultural trade groups — including the U.S. Beet Sugar Alliance and the National Association of Wheat Growers — and non-profit advocacy groups, made it clear that the GMO labeling for which they’re advocating must be linked to a health or nutrition issues.

Why? Because the Food and Drug Administration should require labeling only when impacts health, safety or nutritional risks.

The coalition is also arguing that FDA should define the term “natural” to establish a consistent legal framework for food and beverage labeling, which frankly is a far better use of its resources than a campaign to “demand GMO labeling,” but then qualify it in the fine print with the “but only when it affects health or nutrition.”

Nobody blames industry organizations for being frustrated by the slew of state ballot measures that have (so far unsuccessfully) attempted to impose mandatory GMO labeling on the food industry. It would be costly, cumbersome and counterproductive.

When any industry is forced to “do the right thing,” there’s no traction to be gained by spinning the outcome as something industry wanted all along.

Worse, the coalition’s policy points are as ineffective as their half-hearted attempt to pretend they’re in favor of GMO labeling. Disagree? Let’s examine the CSAF’s talking points:

  • “Many of the most influential regulatory agencies and organizations, including the Food & Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, Health Canada, USDA and National Academy of Sciences, have found genetically modified food ingredients safe, and there are no negative health effects associated with their use.”

Like most of the Coalition’s messaging, this one’s close, but problematic. First of all, most Americans don’t know and don’t care when someone invokes the World Health Organization or Health Canada. More importantly, GMO skeptics — not the fervent opponents, but the confused majority — don’t consider USDA or FDA or the AMA to be impartial, objective agencies that only have the public good on their agendas. Rattling off an alphabet soup of agencies has very limited persuasive power.

Incidentally? “No negative health effects associated with their use?” Don’t be ridiculous. The use of even relatively benign pesticides, like Round-up, is the single biggest consequence of biotechnology applications to date and has very distinct and very unpleasant ecological and health effects.

  • “GM technology adds desirable traits from nature, without introducing anything unnatural or using chemicals, so that food is more plentiful.”

Okay, that statement is like a guy who fires off a dozen rounds at a shooting range, hits the bull’s-eye with one of them and then starts pretending he’s a sharpshooter.

Yes, genetic engineering does “add traits from Nature” — technically. But c’mon. That’s the easiest argument to squash. All that activists have to do is point out that biotech projects have used fish genes in tomatoes, or other examples, and that talking point vaporizes.

Second, is “desirable” really an accurate description of how biotechnology has been deployed? Not to consumers. Hate to be a downer, but when “desirable traits” involve production efficiencies, or stronger sales of agricultural inputs, most people don’t consider that to be anything desirable for them.

Finally, don’t even mention the word chemicals. What is wrong with the Coalition’s copywriters? The “overuse” of chemical pesticides is the single most powerful argument the anti-GMO forces have mobilized to date. It’s the one talking point that even consumers who wouldn’t know recombinant DNA from recreational drug use understand: “chemicals” are bad. That’s what most people believe. Don’t even try to reverse those beliefs, and for sure, don’t trigger those misguided sentiments by actually using the c-word.

  • GM technology helps reduce the price of crops used for food, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets, by as much as 15 percent to 30 percent.”

Really? Says who? I mean, when was the last time food prices went down by double digits? Other than those mark-downs of ground beef with tomorrow’s expiration date on the package, that is.

Selling consumers on the notion that genetic engineering lowers food prices would be a fantastic talking point — if it were true. But it’s not. Any marginal efficiency realized from utilizing GE crops goes to straight to the agribusiness companies involved in the food distribution/processing/marketing infrastructure, not to consumers.

Nobody who pushes a shopping cart through a supermarket anywhere in North American is going to be swayed by some ad hoc coalition trying to tell them, “Food costs less thanks to biotechnology!”

That’s a non-starter, to be generous.

No matter how much spin or how many talking points this or any other group of organizations tries to create, there is one clear and compelling path to sanity with regard to biotechnology: A voluntary, comprehensive labeling program that addresses people’s concerns head-on.

When packages of the staple food products all of us regularly purchase are labeled as “Enhanced with genetically engineered ingredients,” that’s when people will start connecting biotech with food safety.

That can only happen as a result of people’s own food preparation and consumption experience, not by rolling out talking points that miss the mark even more often than they hit home.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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