Most Americans routinely eat genetically modified food and probably don't even realize it. They have a right to know, but government also has a duty to fully inform, not merely to alarm.
That was the conundrum at the heart of a ballot initiative Californians rejected earlier this month. Proposition 37 would have required labels on all genetically modified food. That would have been a lot of labels. The Sacramento Bee says "almost anything that's not organic and comes in a box, a bag or a can probably has some genetically engineered content."
There are important considerations as the debate now moves to Washington, D.C., and whether there should be federally mandated labeling. While more information and disclosure is always good, the California question became simplistic in pitting organic farmers against Big Agriculture with the implicit assumption that genetically modified food is, at best, suspect. The facts do not bear this out. As a comprehensive overview in Scientific American put it: "There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat."
Using genetic engineering, scientists can splice genes into plants that may protect them against insects, allow them to grow better or to withstand drought. In fact, an estimated 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop is genetically engineered now. And that crop, while diminished by this year's severe drought, fared far better than less sophisticated corn that withered in the last major drought in 1988.
More knowledge — and more complete information — is the best path forward. If food is to be labeled, it should be labeled in enough detail so consumers will know exactly what genetic modifications have occurred. Then they could research and decide for themselves. Unfortunately, California's Prop 37 would have required only a basic label that reads "partially produced with genetic engineering." That would have been enough to scare but not enough information to guide an informed consumer's choice.
Organics certainly have their place, though "organic" is no synonym for "always pure." And so do genetically modified foods, though the spectrum is so broad that it is wrongheaded to believe that, even if they are safe now, that they will always and in all cases be so in the future.
Scientific American points out that "each new plant variety (whether it is developed through genetic engineering or conventional approaches of genetic modiﬁcation) carries a risk of unintended consequences. Whereas each new genetically engineered crop variety is assessed on a case-by-case basis by three governmental agencies, conventional crops are not regulated by these agencies. Still, to date, compounds with harmful effects on humans or animals have been documented only in foods developed through conventional breeding approaches."
In other words, the only credibly documented problems to date have come from conventionally developed strains of a plant, not genetically modified ones. That may be counterintuitive, but it's the whole truth. That's something this debate could use more of going forward.