The GMO controversy currently in public discussion may be more about trust than health. Some GMOs are good GMOs and have greatly improved the health of many people around the globe. Iodized salt is an example; it greatly reduced the goiter epidemic in the US during the 1920s and still provides significant health benefits in third world countries. Scientists are currently working on modifying rice to include Vitamin A, a vitamin deficiency common in many poor countries that causes many debilitating diseases.
Critics of GMOs claim that GMOs can cause potentially toxic or allergenic reactions, alter the nutritional value of food, taint the genetics of natural varieties of the same crop, impose toxic impact on other living things, concentrate food power in the hands of few large companies and marginalize small farmers. The Bt toxin used in GMO corn is an example of a GMO run amok.
The poster child for the anti-GMO movement is Monsanto. Monsanto’s patented genes are estimated to be in roughly 95% of all soybeans and 80% of all corn grown in the U.S. Monsanto has not helped its public image by financially destroying small farmers by suing those who try to avoid payment of huge license fees to Monsanto for seed. And Monsanto and other BigCo’s are now trying to get a law passed in Brazil that would allow them to sell “suicide seeds” to farmers – genetically modified seeds that farmers could only once and have to buy them over and over again.
Because of these concerns, at least 26 countries (including Switzerland, Australia, Austria, China, India, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico and Russia) all include total or partial bans on GMOs and less severe restrictions exist in about 60 other countries. Can all of these countries be wrong and Monsanto be right?
As American consumers learned longed ago from Big Tobacco, BigCo is quite capable of lying to consumers and secretly modifying its product to make it even more addictive, no matter the cost in human life and wellness. While our government eventually made the public aware of the danger of smoking and made tobacco companies include warning labels on its products, it took decades to do so. How many people died or suffered serious illness during this period? Today, the Great Recession is “Exhibit A” of the government’s inability to stand up to BigCo and protect American consumers.
Given our lack of trust in BigCo and lack of confidence in government oversight, GMO labeling is the minimum we should require. If consumers know what products are genetically modified and how, we can each make our own decision on whether to consume the product or not. Of course, labeling is not the end-all to protection since labels can easily omit accurate information or present it in a misleading way. Even with labeling we will need strong consumer organizations to monitor label accuracy.