We Label Orange Juice, Why Not Genetically Modified Food?

<< back

By: Craig Holdrege
When you buy reconstituted orange juice at the supermarket, the label tells you it is “from concentrate.” For this you can thank the Food and Drug Administration, with its mandate to promote “honest and fair dealing with consumers.”

Part of the idea is to ensure that foods are truthfully labeled so producers cannot deceive consumers.  Labels must include information about amounts, contents, additives (such as vitamins and preservatives), and processing methods (e.g., “from concentrate”).

So why is your bag of corn chips label containing genetically modified (GM) corn silent about this fact? Because the FDA has ruled that consumers shouldn’t care about the difference between genetically engineered and traditionally bred plants -- this despite the remarkable amount of novel manipulation to which GM corn has been subjected.

To produce GM corn, scientists begin by isolating genes from an assortment of viruses, bacteria and plants. They biochemically unite at least five different genes to make a wholly novel construct. The construct is then multiplied, applied as a coating to gold or tungsten dust, and then shot into embryonic plants.

Often the construct is broken up into fragments, some of which are incorporated in the chromosomes of a few of the plants. When the DNA enters the plant, this engineering stops and the scientists can establish only after the fact what the plant has done with their intrusion.  

Most of the GM corn on the market today produces a protein toxin, Bt, that kills caterpillars, and also a protein that makes the plant resistant to an antibiotic (the embryonic plants are grown in a medium with antibiotics and only those that produce the resistance protein survive; in this way scientists discover which plants have actually taken up and express the foreign genes). Every cell of every kernel of GM corn contains an array of novel genes and novel proteins making it, in substance and in function, without a doubt different from any kernel of corn that has ever existed before on earth.

Why would we want to know that our orange juice was formulated by adding water to concentrate, but not want to know about radical processing that alters the food crop, adds antibiotic and insecticidal factors to our diet, and poses wholly unknown risks to the environment?

As one FDA scientist opined during a panel discussion I participated in at the New York City Bar Association in January 2002, “Consumers have a right to know -- but not to know everything.” This is a strange statement coming from a representative of “one of the nation’s oldest and most respected consumer protection agencies,” as the FDA describes itself on its website.  The FDA has gone to great lengths to prove that there is no difference between GM food and food from traditionally bred crops. And if there is no difference, the agency believes apparently, then there is no reason to label.

This is compelling logic, as long as you leave out most of the facts.

What has driven the FDA to treat GM foods so differently from orange juice? Dan Glickman, President Clinton’s secretary of Agriculture, gave perhaps the most succinct and upfront explanation while reflecting on his time at the agency: “Regulators even viewed themselves as cheerleaders for biotechnology. It was viewed as science marching forward, and anyone who wasn’t marching forward was a Luddite.” In the name of authoritative “science-based” policy --which to many it is not -- the government locked arms with the biotechnology industry to prevent at all costs the labeling of GM foods.

Not all countries have closed the window into a food’s story that a label can provide. In the European Union, consumer information remains a right. As David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection, has stated, “Labels that cover all GM-derived products ensure that our consumers are able to choose a GM product or a non-GM product. Our consumers are demanding this. They are entitled to choice and full information.”

Were the FDA taking its consumer protection mandate seriously, it would shift its commitment from the biotech industry back to informing consumers about food. And that’s something we consumers need to demand.                             

Craig Holdrege is a biologist, educator and director of The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York (www.natureinstitute.org). He is the author of Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context and editor of the recently published, The Dynamic Heart and Circulation.

<< back

Dynamic Content Management by ContentTrakker